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The path to success has never been easy, but it has always been clear to model-turned-agency-director Zelimir Lalusic.  Coming to the United States as a war-refugee from Sarajevo, he has turned a childhood love of being photographed into a career.  We talked to Zelimir at great lengths about his past, his agency, and what it really takes to succeed in an industry that can be tough on those who dare to dream big.

Tell us a little about your start in modeling, and your work with renowned photographer John Gress in those early days:

Growing up, family and friends would always tell my parents how cute a child I was.  But never to believe I would become a published and agency-represented model in Beverly Hills two decades later.  Modeling for me started in my own home.  People told me that I was very photogenic and I loved being in front of the camera.  I was the kid in class who demanded attention and wanted to be friends with everyone.  At home, if anyone was around, I would beg them to take pictures of me.  If a photo was not up to my expectation, I made them re-take it, till it was picture-perfect.

That led me to posting my photos on various modeling websites and surprisingly, I was contacted by photographer John Gress, who has published work in well-known publications today.  At first, I was hesitant about the opportunity because I had no experience in modeling, and because of all the scams and dangers you hear about in the modeling industry.

It took several attempts before I agreed to the shoot and next thing you know… I was at an eight-hour photo shoot with a full team of wardrobe stylist, make-up artist, models, and creative artists.  Thanks to John for believing in me and giving me the opportunity to work with his amazing team.  Since then I’ve been featured in two campaigns, appeared on the ABC 7 show Heart and Soul, featured on the cover of UstyleU Magazine, and most importantly: launched my own modeling agency, Born Models.

We’d love to know more about the male model beauty-routines.  What’s your approach to diet, exercise, grooming and more?

Male beauty-routines are just as important as female beauty-routines in the modeling industry.  There are naturally slim models, while some have to diet to maintain their body image.  I was naturally always slim, but I do workout several days a week to keep up with my physique.  Running is probably your best bet to weight loss and keeping your body in great shape.  Drinking lots of water and getting enough sleep is key to beautiful and healthy skin.  As far as diet: stay away from soda drinks and fast food, as they can contribute to poor health.  As a model, you need a healthy lifestyle and it starts with making the right decision when it comes to your body and health.

We love to ask this question (it’s very revealing):  if you could see yourself on the cover of any magazine, which would that be?

If I could be in any magazine it would be the GQ.  It’s an iconic magazine, and it would mean that I would have achieved something iconic-worthy.

In our pre-interview, you mentioned the importance of maintaining a good, clean reputation in this industry.  How have you dealt with inappropriate offers and advances?

Reputation in the industry is important to me because of my morals and faith.  There are individuals who will try to influence you to go down the wrong path and engage in activities such as sex, drugs, and drinking.  Personally, I have been offered to fly to Milan to work with top agents, and to grace the cover of GQ Magazine in exchange for becoming part of the “party-scene” and the dark side of modeling.  In another words, to sleep with people to become famous.  I refused those offers because they are not worth the price of my soul and morals.  My Faith is what keeps me grounded and helps stay on the right track in this crazy yet rewarding business.

We also talked quite a bit about the frustration and disappointment that are integral to the process of becoming a professional model.  How do you handle rejection, and what keeps you motivated to keep pushing forward with your career?

To become an agency-represented model can be a frustrating process for many aspiring models.  Most are rejected 99% of time.  Some of the top agencies don’t even take into consideration that they are tearing apart young souls who dream big.  This affects the models’ self-esteem and is a negative aspect of the business.

I have dealt with rejection just like anyone else.  I was told, “You’re not tall enough,” “You’re not what we are looking for,” “You’re not going to get anywhere.”  So instead of giving up, these rejections made me a stronger person.  They push me to work even harder and not to give up.  I trust my gut feeling and my feelings tell me to keep pushing.  Besides, in the end it’s just someone’s opinion, and nobody really has the right to stop you from living your dreams.  Believe in yourself, surround yourself with the people who believe in you, and keep pushing for success.

Tell us a little about your inspiration and motivation to create a model agency:

My own struggles as a model have inspired me to start my own modeling agency.  I feel that I was BORN to model.  It’s in my DNA; its what calms my soul and makes my heart full.  It’s art. For me, modeling is a form of self-expression.  And that is why I named it Born Models: for those who were born to model and it’s in their blood.

As mentioned in the previous question, I was rejected.  But I did not let that get in the way of my dreams.  I experienced many downfalls with agencies that would make promises if I were to pay hundreds of dollars to be signed.  There are so many aspiring models that have potential to make it in the modeling business, but they are not considered by the big agencies.  This is where I found the opportunity to discover the undiscovered models that have potential to make it in the modeling business, and potentially become the next big name in the fashion industry.

How does your agency differ from your competition?

We focus on quality over quantity.  Born Models is a boutique agency in which we want to represent hundred of models, not thousands.  Most top agencies represent so many people that their models may never book a single job.  They then get dropped from the agency and miss out on opportunities to be discovered.

At Born, we ensure each model is given the tools needed to succeed in the business, and the opportunity to be seen by major clients such as Guess, NY Fashion Week, etc.  We review each submission individually to make sure that everyone is given the opportunity to be considered by Born Models.

How do you pick models for representation?  Is there a specific set of requirements you look for, or something less-tangible?

Scouting models is probably the best part of being an agency owner.  You never know what face you will discover next.  We don’t have certain requirements, as beauty is diverse and unique in its own ways.  But we only represent male and female models in the commercial and high fashion markets.

Our models have to have the “Wow Factor.”  If you were to see them on the street, you would wonder who they are and be attached to their personality and charisma.  Big personality is a must.

What role do you play within the agency framework? 

My role in the agency is to scout models, model development, mentor, network with clients, and discover the next supermodels.

I like to inspire people to challenge themselves and grow.

What’s the most difficult or frustrating part of being an agency director?

The frustrating part of being an agent is that many models go into the business without doing any research.  Agents don’t have time to respond to silly questions like “What’s a snapshot?”

I have had several models who would call off last minute photo shoots, not show up to castings on time, or changed their mind and stop pursuing modeling.  These things are unprofessional and not tolerated by any agent.  They will get dropped from the agency and my reputation goes down the line.  Some clients will never call me back if models are not professional.  I make sure that my models know their expectations of working with Born.

How important are foreign markets to your agency, and to the modeling business in general?

Foreign markets are important to any agency.  Some of the top clients are located in Europe and Latin America, and Korea.  Models not only get to travel, but also learn about different cultures and grow as individuals.  It’s a great way to start on your portfolio and be seen by major clients that can potentially start your career.

Who or what has been your biggest agency success to date?

Our biggest success story has been Theresa Hegstrom, based out of Kansas City.  Theresa is only 17 year old and has that “girl next door” look and personality.  She’s been getting callbacks from clients in NY and LA Markets.  Most recently, she booked a role in a feature film, Paradise, in which she had the opportunity to stay on a private island in Cebu, Philippines (along with her lovely mother who supported her along the way).

Like many boutique agencies, you don’t hold open castings for new models. What gets a candidate past the email/submission phase and into your office for a live interview?

To get a callback really depends if your photos have the “WOW Factor”.  Don’t send outdated photos or low quality.  Agents want to see that you have been working on developing your portfolio and are growing as a model.

What looks and content should a new model interested in agency representation show in his or her portfolio?

To get agency representation, you don’t need to spend hundreds of dollars on a portfolio.  All you need are good snapshots or Polaroids to get you noticed by an agent. Agencies want to see your natural look and sometimes prefer regular snapshots over portfolios at initial meetings.

At Born, we don’t have any fees to be listed with our agency. We help develop our models’ portfolios by doing test shoots with photographers who are agency approved.  This allows us to see if a model who we think is a model… can actually model.

How often should a model update their print portfolios and comp cards?

Portfolios are usually updated twice a year.  But as a model, you want to try to shoot as much as possible.  It’s great to get out there and start networking with industry professionals by going to fashion shows, and anything fashion-related.

The model needs to show a diverse portfolio to be able to show the agents that they are versatile.  This will help the agent place you in the right division.  A model should have more than one comp-card if they work in different divisions.

Thousands (if not millions) of young girls every year are inspired by America’s Next Top Model to dip their toes in the modeling world.  In your opinion, how does the reality of the modeling industry compare to what’s presented on the television show?

Reality TV shows depict modeling in a positive way.  Many models think that modeling is all fun, and easy.  But it takes a lot of hard work to make it in this business.  Sometimes you have to fly off to a new country and leave your friends and family behind.  Sometimes agents advise you to change your look or body image.  You need to be able to take constructive criticism, and use that to grow as a model.

Many parents are against the idea of their sons or daughters pursuing modeling, for a variety of reasons.  What good arguments can an aspiring model make to convince friends and family to support their modeling endeavors?

Parents should be concerned about their son or daughter becoming a model, especially for minors.  People tend to prey on the new models because they know that they don’t know much about the industry.  Sometimes models are offered high paying jobs, but are asked to sleep with the with agents, photographers, etc. (aka “casting couches”).  If an offer sounds too good to be true, walk away.

But a successful modeling career can be very rewarding for the model and their family.  They can achieve fame, success, and money.  If your daughter or son has talent, as a parent you should support them and give them a chance to try.  You don’t want your children to tell you at 40 that they regret not trying.  At that point… It’s too late.

What is the single best piece of advice you can give to a new model, just starting out?

Be confident, work hard, and believe in yourself. Never take no for an answer.

Image credit: Dannie Dan-Irabor

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Interview by Jim Jurica