Last week, roughly 80 fashion industry types gathered on the seventh floor of a midtown office building for their monthly dinner. Before digging in, they bowed their heads and closed their eyes.
“Father, we come to you right now, and we thank you for this wonderful time, this food that was wonderfully prepared,” said Seth Whalen, a model. “Bless the hands that have prepared it, and bless the food to our bodies, strengthen us and enrich us and allow your word to just speak to us tonight, in your most precious name Lord Jesus, Amen.”
From a small stage, Mr. Whalen—26, baby-faced with a goatee, his full hair pulled back under a ball cap—explained the purpose of the group to any newcomers. “We’re a bunch of people from New York City’s fashion industry, here to seek in our God, in this crazy, crazy industry. God in fashion is a paradox in itself. So that’s what we do, and that’s who we are.”
Mr. Whalen is a “core leader” of the group, which calls itself Paradox and is the New York hub of Models for Christ, founded in 1982 by Jeff Calenberg. Only a few months into his modeling career, adrift in the debauched world of Milan’s fashion world, Mr. Calenberg—blond, fair, piercing blue eyes—said he knew that the he would wind up in the Valley of Darkness without some Christian amigos to help keep him righteous. According to the Models for Christ materials, while in Milan, Mr. Calenberg “designed and distributed a small pamphlet that presented the prestige and struggles of the fashion industry and how Jesus Christ can provide true fulfillment. Since then, Models for Christ has grown and expanded from models to photographers, agents, fashion designers …”
Mr. Calenberg said the group started with about five members and now includes more than 1,000, with regular meetings in New York, Los Angeles and Miami. He intimated that a number of famous people have come to the meetings; model and actress Rene Russo was the only one he felt comfortable revealing. About five years ago, the New York group renamed itself Paradox to appeal to a broader audience. Models for Christ has spawned other groups such as Haven, a group for Christian actors founded by Arrested Development sitcom star Tony Hale.
The room was crammed with chairs and couches. Old friends and regulars gathered into cliques. New acquaintances discussed their common faith, as well as their careers.
Joey Loomis—24, blond, blue eyed, in white, loose-fitting cotton and sandals—had made a new friend in Jo-V—African-American, clean shaven pate, in military-inspired fatigues and boots. The two men were quietly chatting.
“I know I’ve got to work hard, I can’t just let God do the work for me,” said Mr. Loomis, who is trying to turn the corner from model to actor. “You gotta just go for the gift He gave you. A lot of people try to do their will, not His. It’s all God’s plan, and I know it’s a long road.”
“Sounds like you’re on the right track,” said Jo-V, who is starting his own fashion label. Later that week the two would meet up for a “pro bono” fashion shoot on top of a church in Queens Village.
Mr. Whalen took a break from his core leader role to focus on a plate of chicken and pasta salad. He was seated with his wife, Kristen, a fashion photographer. They met two years ago at a Paradox meeting led by Mr. Whalen, and were married in July. The newlyweds were discussing what keeps them coming back.
“For me it’s more about the struggles and definitely having more things in common,” said Mr. Whalen. “Because there’s a lot of things, especially in each industry, in each career, that are specific to that industry. Like you may not go through the same problem or hard times that a model might encounter—a female model—you may not be always looked down upon or being yelled at, going from casting to casting in the city. So like, there’s different things, then there’s also emotional things and spiritual things that are being attacked …”
Mrs. Whalen, who is also a core leader, interjected: “Eating disorders and lots of self-esteem issues …”
“Your boss probably doesn’t care if you don’t fit into your 40 regular suit,” continued Mr. Whalen. “Where the girls—and even guys—have to fit into certain clothes, and if they gain weight or lose weight, it messes with their emotions and their self-esteem and who they are and their identity.”
Mr. Whalen said the group, which meets every Tuesday for prayer and discussion groups, is not intended as a place for people looking to find work or meet dates. Those people usually stick out; Mr. Whalen calls them “byproducts.”
“For us as Paradoxans,” said Mr. Whalen, “as Christians in the industry, we want be a light to the world and salt of the earth. And God’s called us to be that, all of us, and go to all the places of the world and every aspect and be the light, to allow Christ to live through us in His holy spirit, live through us and show that you can love everybody and anybody. It doesn’t mean that you agree with what they do, but you still love them. You’ve gotta look at it like a father and his son, a father and his children.”
Mr. Whalen, who has done work for Hugo Boss on the runway and has a Fila campaign coming out, took the stage to give a prayer for the victims of 9/11. Before doing so he asked everyone to put their phones on vibrate. After the prayer, he handed the stage over to his wife, who told about the upcoming curriculum: September would be dedicated to fashion industry pitfalls. In October, the group will focus on heaven and “all that we have to look forward to.”
“Some of the topics we’re going to learn about are, what happens when you die, what happens to your body, what happens in the afterlife. And we’re going to talk about final judgment, sort of a scary topic, but it’s actually not,” said Mrs. Whalen.
Marriage is on the docket for November.
The monthly dinner meeting always includes an interview with someone from the fashion industry for whom Christ has played a role. That night’s special guest was fashion photographer Brad Guice, who would be interviewed by Parker Young, an aspiring photographer and a Paradox member.
Mr. Guice, who arrived in New York in the early 80’s, had early success but became addicted to crack. He was hearing weird voices and seeing demon faces in the bricks in his apartment. Mr. Guice, who resembles Harlequin heartthrob Fabio in hair and bone structure, tried everything—in-patient, out-patient, what-have-you—to kick drugs. After many, many horrible things happened to him, he had lost hope. Then someone named Maria, who was affiliated with Models for Christ, told him about Jesus. What happened to Mr. Guice next can only be described as a miracle; he said God visited him in his apartment.
“I was standing there going, ‘Oh my gosh, now I’m insane,’” said Mr. Guice. “I was seeing God outside my bedroom, and I’m going, ‘This is going, this is crazy. I see God outside my bedroom.’”
“It’s so unreal that God showed himself to you, that all those times you tried to get clean, through different means, that the only thing that could break that bondage and for everybody …” said Parker Young. “We all have our different struggles, and only with Christ is there true freedom. And that’s what we’ve come to know, and that’s what’s brought us together, is the realness of God, and the realness of His freedom and the light that He gives and unites us as brothers and … Wow.”
At around 9:30, the meeting ended. On the elevator ride down, Carlye Naber—26, brunette, big lips, wearing a black blazer and black leggings—said that Mr. Guice’s talk had been a little too “Lifetime Movie Channelish.” She said that when she originally heard about Paradox, she had made fun of it, but that since attending a meeting five months ago, the group had become an important part of her life.
“There’s the hand-raisers and the criers, and I’m definitely not that. But there are still people I can relate to,” she said.