“I’m sure lots of beautiful Kate Mosses have passed me by over the years,” said Jules Birnbaum-Watson, who has spent the last 13 years on the hunt for male models. “For a while, I’d been quietly thinking how I’d love to find the next big thing. As much as I’d love to take the credit, it was my husband—who was a major male model and has an eye for beauty—who said, ‘Oh my God, Jules, look at this girl!’ I grabbed her inside the ladies’ room.”
That girl was Elizabeth Redvers. She’s a 5-foot-9 and 1/2, kitten-eyed, pillow-lipped 15-year-old who just happened, the story goes, to be in the right Grand Central Terminal bathroom at the right time.
In our post-supermodel era—a time in which hungry would-be models struggle through reality-show challenges and corn-silk-haired gals wanly pound the pavements from agency to agency—no yarn can whip up a frisson of excitement quite like the Lana Turner–ish tale of a fresh face being plucked from obscurity.
“I saw it immediately. Immediately,” said Ms. Birnbaum-Watson, who goes by the name Birnbaum professionally and whose proper title is the director of special projects for Click Models.
Last week, just five months after that bathroom encounter, the maybe-next-big-thing was looking dewy and disconcertingly young in the Click Models penthouse offices in Chelsea. She wore only a black Victoria’s Secret lace slip; her long legs were crossed demurely. “They guide me,” she responded shyly, when asked if she’d picked her outfit herself.
“I had a very specific look in mind in how I wanted her to look today,” Ms. Birnbaum amended, exhibiting the fashion world’s most advanced understanding of the word “look.”
In 30 minutes, the model and her agent would leave for Ms. Redvers’ first visit to one of the scariest buildings in Manhattan, 4 Times Square. There, the young thing would get the once-over from booking editors at Glamour, Self, Teen Vogue and, of course, Vogue.
“Hopefully, we’ll have something big happen,” Ms. Birnbaum said. She was, interestingly enough, wearing a black slip dress almost identical to that of her charge. “Tomorrow we’ll go to Calvin Klein, then to Ralph Lauren, Galliano, Prada. The big payoff comes from working with one designer. What will work for Elizabeth will be that some designer will absolutely fall in love with her and make her their muse.” And what, we wondered, did Ms. Redvers know of these designers? Did she follow fashion?
“Not really. It’s still pretty new,” she said.
“That’s good! That’s how we like it!” said Ms. Birnbaum. Well then, what did she like to wear if she could choose?
“I just shop at the mall,” Ms. Redvers shrugged.
“Right now she’s a blank canvas, which is hard to find,” said Ms. Birnbaum. Ms. Redvers sat quietly, no doubt trying to figure out how best to emulate a blank canvas.
Elizabeth Redvers wasn’t one of those girls who spent her weekends practicing her runway walk. That day in Grand Central, she was clowning around with a couple of friends in front of the bathroom mirror. After Ms. Birnbaum approached with her pitch, one of Ms. Redvers’ friends started crying. “I think she was happy,” the girl said.
“We flipped for her,” explained Ms. Birnbaum, somewhat unnecessarily. “Look at her—how could you not? She looks like the old movie stars of the 50’s or 60’s.” With her Breck-girl hair, blue eyes and lush Lolita mouth, Ms. Redvers’ look has been compared to the ultimate Swingin’ 60’s gal, Jean Shrimpton, and to Renée Simonsen.
“For a long time, ugliness was making millions of dollars. I didn’t relate to that at all,” Ms. Birnbaum continued. But, as anyone who watches America’s Next Top Model knows, the modeling industry can’t just be about good looks. “If it was just about being beautiful, every pretty girl would have a million dollars in the bank. Being shy is O.K. in the beginning, but it can kill your career. Being a big mouth and having a bad attitude—well, that will get you booked a few times …. ” She smiled. “There are exceptions, of course—I’m sure you know who I’m talking about.
“We tend to have more success,” she continued, “with girls who aren’t necessarily dying to model—they’re just natural at it. When we say, ‘Hey, you’re going to make $1,000 tomorrow,’ they go crazy. And then when they hear they’re making $10,000 tomorrow? It’s just refreshing when they’re brand-new.
“The thing is, she didn’t want to be a model; she just wanted to be a girl living her life. And then I came in and ruined her life,” mock-screamed Ms. Birnbaum. “No, I’m kidding! Honestly, I’m going to give her a great life … something that will pay for her college education and more.”
Did Elizabeth think she’d go to college? “Definitely,” Ms. Redvers said. “I have no idea what I’d study. I’m at the point in my life … well, when I’m thinking about school, I’m thinking about what I’m going to wear. When I get to the age for college, it’s going to be so different,” she added.
“She’s a teenager,” Ms. Birnbaum sighed. “Remember what that was like?”
I guess it will be sort of weird when I go back to school, because you don’t know who is going to be your friend for what reason or what people are saying about you,” said Ms. Redvers. Her public high school in the outer suburbs of New York is a small one, and even more mind-boggling than trying to imagine looking like Ms. Redvers in high school is to think about going to high school with her.
She claims to be boyfriendless. In the winter, she competes in track, doing the high jump “because of my legs,” she said, awkwardly pointing down to her highway-like stretch of gams as if she didn’t know how they got there; in the spring, she plays lacrosse.
“Yeah … you might not be doing lacrosse. You might be doing swimming,” predicted Ms. Birnbuam, no doubt thinking of the dangers of flying balls and sticks.
A bit later, Ms. Redvers made a confession. “I’ve always felt sort of ugly,” she said.
“Elllllllllizzzzzabeth! You’ve never told me that,” Ms. Birnbaum protested.
“I’m serious,” Ms. Redvers said seriously. “We have pictures framed in my house from when I was 3, and until I was in ninth grade …. ” she trailed off. “Really! I still remember the first girl who ever told me I was pretty—I remember it so clearly, what I was wearing, where I was standing. She said, ‘Elizabeth, you’re really pretty—I don’t know why you aren’t more confident.’”
Ms. Redvers stood up. She was wearing pretty yellow Banana Republic ballet flats. “They’re a little like what Marc Jacobs did,” Ms. Birnbaum told her protégée. “Soon you’ll be able to afford Marc Jacobs. That will be a fun day, when we go shopping and buy you your first pair of Marc Jacobs shoes.” Ms. Redvers smiled agreeably. If she was nervous, she didn’t show it.
“It would be amazing if Vogue and these magazines booked me,” she said. “But if they don’t, I have a lot of time. I guess I’m not in any big rush. I guess I got enough things going on with me that it won’t be the end of the world.”
Three days later, on Aug. 1, the editors of Condé Nast reported in. “She reminded me of how I felt when I met Bridget Hall for the first time,” said Glamour’s booking director, Jennifer Berry. “There’s so many models now, it’s very rare to meet someone new and think, ‘Wow, what a gorgeous face!’ I’ve already shown her to some editors who liked her. I think she’s going to do well.”
“I’d say maybe 15 percent of the time, the reality lives up to the hype,” said Teen Vogue bookings editor Lara Bonomo. “I get so many phone calls from mothers saying that everyone thinks their daughter should model. You can be the prettiest girl in your high-school class and still not be a model. But this girl has got great potential. She’s got a little spark to her which adds something. I’m behind her.”
“She’s beautiful. I think there’s something very classy and elegant and thoroughbred-looking about her,” said Self’s bookings director, Sara Foley-Anderson. “And she does seem sweet, and that has a lot to do with it. A good personality can take you very far.”
Though fashion bible Vogue’s bookings editor, Kate Armenta, was out on jury duty, passing a different kind of judgment and therefore unavailable to comment, Ms. Birnbaum reported that the reception there had been friendly.
Since her go-sees, Ms. Redvers had already landed a beauty story for Seventeen’s November issue. “The theme is great beauty icons from the past,” said bookings editor Courtney Gadsden, “and my job was to cast girls that looked like these women. I had a picture of Brigitte Bardot up on my desk for inspiration.” Ms. Gadsden felt—as did her fellow editors—that Ms. Redvers was “the spitting image” of the great French beauty.
Ms. Redvers also found out that she’d be leaving this week for Prince Edward Island to do a photo shoot with Bruce Weber for the new Hollister campaign.
“The whole agency is beyond excited,” trilled a vindicated Jules Birnbaum.