Fashion Gets Religion

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 …”

Fashion Gets Religion