To many, modelling seems like a glamorous career, and as one for which a £9,000-a-year education is not a prerequisite, accessible to all – as long as you have the right physical credentials and fit into the current aesthetic, of course.
As a role based purely on the physical, then, it is no wonder that many of us are fascinated by those whose face fits, apparently thanks to nothing more than the right combination of genes. As such there has long been mileage in the world of modelling as a medium for entertaining the masses, with a focus on the alchemy of model-scouting being of particular interest. America's Next Top Model premiered eight years ago, and is now a global mega-franchise with hugely successful British, Australian and Chinese spin-offs. And so far this year, Channel 4 viewers have been flies on the wall at London-based agency Premier in The Model Agency and witnessed eight aspiring models bulk up their portfolios with acclaimed photographer Perou in Dirty Sexy Things.
Is it any wonder, then, that brands turn to modelling competitions as a reliable way of securing interest in not only their latest product, but the campaign behind it? One such company is Swarovski Crystallized, whose nationwide hunt for brand new male and female faces culminated in an open casting in London this weekend.
Leading the charge was scout Cesar Perin, who has a reputation for finding new faces in the unlikeliest places. Earlier this year, while in a bookshop in Cambridge, Perin shouted out to a young man: "Stop! I love your face!" The teenager he stopped was 17-year-old Alexander Beck, an AS-level student who made headlines in March when he traded in his part-time job at an Essex chip shop to walk the catwalk exclusively for Prada in Milan.
Perin is philosophical about his role finding the new faces that the fashion world thrives on. "It's certainly not about looking for one sort of person," he tells me ahead of a day of scouting in Nottingham. "You can stop someone because you see a quality that they have and then as you talk to them their personality starts to show through immediately.
"It's so cute, I scouted a boy in Birmingham and his girlfriend said, 'I told you that you should be a model.' You have to explain that it isn't an easy job; they will need to deal with rejection and not take it personally. The only people who never hear 'no' are the supermodels such as Gisele [Bündchen]."
While following Perin and his assistant, Laura Mackinnon, on their search around the streets of Nottingham, it was certainly true that a variety of people were stopped. The reaction of those chosen varied between baffled amusement, with a young guy asking "Are you kidding?" to those who seemed to take it in their stride as if they had been waiting for the nod all along.
Observing Perin in action is mesmerising: upbeat by nature, every time he successfully stopped someone and explained about the competition, either using an iPhone app to apply on the spot, or for younger candidates telling them to go home and talk to their parents before applying online, he was full of excitement at the anticipation of changing someone's future.
As an industry fixated on fresh and new ideas, there is a pressure on agencies to find and sign new faces. To ensure that this demand is met, model agencies will often have their own in-house people who not only scout at specific events but are always on the look-out for someone who has star quality. Who can forget the legend of supermodel Kate Moss, who was scouted at the age of 14 in JFK airport by the founder of Storm Model Management, Sarah Doukas, or Erin O'Connor, who was spotted by Models 1 at the Clothes Show in Birmingham?
However, Perin is concerned not just with finding faces and passing them on to any old agency. As a founder of the Unsigned scouting agency, he takes a more holistic view of finding models – for him a model is not just another commodity. Instead Unsigned works with the new, often young, faces it finds – nurturing not only talent but the confidence and experience to compete with more-experienced models for high-profile bookings.
As debate rages on about the diminishing size of catwalk and editorial models, Perin is aware that many see modelling as an industry that needs some medicine. He is, however, optimistic that times are changing. "I'm hoping that there is a trend – no, in fact, not a trend, but a change – towards more-voluptuous models. There is so much diversity, it makes me so excited and I hope to reflect that. There is a noticeable shift at the moment with Marc Jacobs starting to make size 14 from next season, and the June Vogue Italia cover [featuring three plus-size models]. The spread inside was beautiful, too. If you remember Sophie Dahl when she first arrived on the scene, not only was she beautiful but she reinvigorated the industry." As such, Unsigned has teamed up with nutritionist Ian Marber to provide support for the models throughout the selection process, and address the importance of the nutritional choices they face.
Once the final applications have been received and whittled down to 12 candidates, the judging panel – led by supermodel-turned-photographer Helena Christensen, who will shoot the final campaign images – will decide on one male and one female face to star in the Swarovski Crystallized spring/summer 2012 campaign. Christensen is understandably enthused about sharing her expertise of being in front of the camera as well as behind. "Being a great model is not just about a look; it's the personality and character that someone has that is equally important," she tells me. "We're looking for someone extraordinary. The industry is changing so quickly, especially with the internet, so we want someone who reflects this. I think every model needs to be versatile, they need to be able to adapt to any type of modelling to stay successful. I'm really looking forward to creating this campaign in my role as photographer."
The final campaign image will début in the windows of the London Swarovski Crystallized store at Christmas time, as Perin tells me: "How amazing to have someone we've found shopping on the streets of Liverpool, say, to end up in a London store window. Look where they've come from and look how far they can go."