John Casablancas obituary: Agent whose company, Elite, ushered in the era of the supermodel

He retired in 2000, saying, 'I'm leaving a business I detest' full of 'idiots and leeches'

John Casablancas was the founder of Elite Model Management, the international modelling agency that at its peak employed around 2,000 models via 35 offices worldwide.

He was the inventor of the supermodel, celebrities of the catwalk and magazine cover whose fame equalled the stars of pop music and Hollywood. Supermodels Casablancas discovered, or whose careers he boosted, included Gisele Bündchen, Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, Heidi Klum – and Linda Evangelista, who once famously said, “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day”.

Casablancas was born in Manhattan in 1942, the son of immigrants who had escaped the Spanish Civil War. He was educated in Switzerland and attended several European universities, without graduating, before working for Coca-Cola in Brazil. He moved to Paris in the late 1960s and met his second wife, Jeanette Christjansen, a model and former Miss Denmark. Inspired by her idea of creating a model agency, he founded Elite Model Management with his friend Alain Kittler.

Elite’s first major signing was Christie Brinkley, who had been spotted in Paris by the American photographer Errol Sawyer and introduced to Casablancas. “I was basically a surfer girl from California,” she said of that first meeting. “I never looked like a model”. Thirty years later, in February 2012, Brinkley was ranked third among the 20 richest models in the world.

The company opened a New York office in 1977, pitching itself directly against the local incumbent. Ford Models, which had been established in the city in 1946 by Eileen Ford, sought to see off the new kid on the block. Fierce competition ensued, with models switching back and forth between Elite and Ford, leading to what became known as the “Model Wars”. For the models the open conflict had its positive aspects, as one of their number, Beverly Johnson, noted. “Our rates have doubled and things couldn’t be better,” she said. “We used to undercut each other for plum assignments, but now the models are good friends. It’s the agencies that are at war.”

Casablancas observed candidly at the time, “Eileen Ford’s game is crystal-clear. She wants my skin. There’s so much ego and conniving in this business – anyone will do anything. But I am a warrior. I will fight. I will never sleep with both eyes closed as long as that woman is around.” Ford responded by filing a $10 million lawsuit, claiming that Elite was poaching their models.

Casablancas was proud of Elite’s success against the old guard: “It was a David-and-Goliath situation, and we came up winning. We did it by making the models celebrities. We gave them huge amounts of money, and we gave them names and personalities. We let them give interviews. Suddenly they became supermodels.”

By 1986, 15 years after its founding, Elite had 20 agencies across the world. But the rapid expansion was hitting the company financially. “We had a big head,” Casablancas’ business partner Kittler confessed. “We wanted to create agencies in Copenhagen, Brussels, London, Miami. And we lost a lot of money by going too fast.”

Casablancas loved this high-powered playboy world of money and beautiful women. As Michael Gross, author of Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, pointed out, “John ripped the hypocrisy off the modelling business. He said, ‘What we’re selling is sex, so let’s sell sex... It definitely stemmed from his personality, which was a man who loved women, lots of women.” Indeed, Casablancas spoke frankly about his preference for girls of just legal age – “child women”, as he referred to them.

The modelling world was continually overshadowed by allegations of a darker side. In 1999 an investigation by the BBC undercover reporter Donal MacIntyre into the business, including particularly Elite, sought to expose alleged drug-taking and sexual exploitation in the industry. However, by June 2001 the BBC was forced to back down in the face of a libel action from the company, and issued a jointly agreed statement conceding that “The BBC acknowledges that Elite, as an organisation, warns and seeks to protect its young teenage models, whether from sexual exploitation or other potential dangers to them (such as from illegal drugs), and that this was not reflected in the programme. In this respect, Elite was therefore unfairly portrayed.”

Casablancas sold his shares in Elite in 2000 and turned on the world which had made his fortune, saying, “I’m leaving a business I detest, I’m leaving stars who are unprepared for success and surrounded by idiots and leeches.”

A further legal case, brought by former sales director Victoria Gallegos, alleging that she had been forced to leave the company, won her $4.3 million. At the same time the supermodel was in decline, to be replaced in the public consciousness, and in the media, by an ever-growing band of “celebrity” faces. In 2004 Elite, in its then form, filed for bankruptcy protection.

Stefania Valenti, chief executive of Elite World, said in tribute: “Elite World and The Society Management are deeply saddened by Mr John Casablancas’ passing. As a man of extraordinary talent, Mr Casablancas was instrumental in formulating the global success of the Elite brand. His vision changed the model management concept, driving the careers of iconic top models.”

Casablancas died of cancer; his son Julian, from his marriage to Jeanette Christjansen, is the lead singer of the Strokes rock band.

John Casablancas, modelling agent: born Manhattan 12 December 1942; married firstly Marie Christine (marriage dissolved; one daughter), 1978 Jeanette Christjansen (marriage dissolved; one son), 1993 Aline Wermelinger (three children); died Rio de Janeiro 20 July 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: 2nd / 3rd Line IT Support Engineer - IT Managed Services

£30000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company are loo...

Recruitment Genius: Hotel Assistant Manager

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hotel in Chadderton is a p...

Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

Recruitment Genius: Production Administrator

£17000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading and fastest ...

Day In a Page

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

Aviation history is littered with grand failures

But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

Fortress Europe?

Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

Never mind what you're wearing

It's what you're reclining on that matters
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence