Modelling is one of few jobs in which a 26-year-old can celebrate over 10 years at the top of her profession. When a scout discovered Coco Rocha in Vancouver, she was, by her own description, “a dorky 14-year-old who didn’t know left from right.” By 15, she had signed with her first agency; by 17, she’d landed an exclusive contract with career-making photographer Steven Meisel; and at 18, she Irish jigged her way down Jean Paul Gaultier’s runway—and onto the cover of Vogue, where she was named among the next generation of top models. Since then, she’s walked in over 300 shows and appeared on more than 100 magazine covers.
She’s also redefined modeldom for the millennial set. One of the first in her field to embrace social media, she’s made her voice as important as her supernaturally chiseled cheekbones for the benefit of almost 14 million followers, and she’s become a powerful advocate for the up-and-coming cohort of aspiring Cocos. Last year, she helped pass a New York labour law to improve working conditions for underage models. This month, she’ll add author to her résumé, with a 1,000-photo coffee table tome called Study of Pose. Even more impressively, she’s accomplished all of this on her own terms: you won’t see nudity or overt sexuality in any of her photos.
But beneath the powerhouse exterior, Rocha has always had an alluring oddball quality—a glimmer of that gawky teen, a flash of self-aware wit—that shines through in our shoot and behind-the-scenes video below at the Dream hotel in New York City. (Rocha wanted to capture the civilian encounters she’s had over the years while leaving and returning to hotel rooms, glammed up in full photo-shoot regalia.)
And so, to mark her industry-changing decade in fashion, we asked Rocha to trace her evolution from a naïve B.C. kid to a bona fide brand. Here, 10 lessons that shaped Coco Rocha.
Know Your Designers
One of my first runway jobs was opening a DKNY show. I was 18 and knew nothing about Donna Karan. But I must have done well because I was asked to open her second show—for her main line, Donna Karan—a few days later. I went to the fitting, and Donna was there, and she looked at me and said, “Mmm … Donna must love you.” She was referring to herself in the third person, but I thought, Oh, so this isn’t Donna. Donna must be her sister, who had me open the first show, therefore this must be Karan. For a year or two after, I assumed Donna and Karan were twin sisters who had two different lines. I only realized I was wrong when a friend of mine, who isn’t even in the fashion industry, told me Donna Karan is the name of one person. I’m just glad I never asked Donna about her sister Karan…
But Preserve Some Blissful Ignorance
Going into casting, you don’t know who’s going to be there, and if you don’t do your homework, you don’t always recognize the designer. During an early go-see, I did my walk and was told I could leave. On the way out, though, I noticed this pirate sitting in the corner of the room, smirking with his arms crossed. I was so enamoured with him that I called my mom and said, “There was this pirate there, and I can’t believe how fabulous he looked.” It was John Galliano. He was watching the girls from afar. I’d have been a nervous wreck had I known who he was!
Fake It Till You Make It (But Don’t Talk About It)
A lot of designers give models a little thing here and there to thank them for their work. My first was a Louis Vuitton bag that the casting director presented to me on bended knee in this very regal way, saying, “Here, Coco, I hand you a gift.” I just blurted out, “Wow, this is my first real Louis Vuitton bag!” I thought it was a reasonable thing to say—my mom was a flight attendant, and she’d bring me imitations from Asia all the time—but now I look back and think it’s probably best not to admit to having a knock-off designer bag.
Rise About The Cliques
Once you establish yourself, you start working and travelling with the same models. Most of them are in their late teens and a little on edge because they’re tired and stuck together 24-7; it’s like high school with sleepover camps. Backstage one day, an English-speaking model was hyper and bouncing around, and she accidentally bumped into an eastern European model who was not impressed and barked at her to be more professional. Then, all of a sudden, backstage turned into West Side Story, only with everyone in hair rollers and half-done makeup. The eastern European models jumped out of their chairs to defend their girl, while the English-speaking ones gathered around theirs. I’m Ukrainian-Irish, so I was on the border, smiling, with no idea what to do. Later, on the runway, the eastern European intentionally bumped into the English girl, just to have the last word, and the English one started crying. Everyone was tense for the rest of the season. We’re all good friends now, but I wish we’d had video cameras backstage.
I got my start in Taipei, where the industry is based on catalogues that require you to take 75 photos a day, sometimes twice a day. So the casting calls are essentially vogue-offs, or fights to the death, as I called them. The directors would shout out a category—sexy pose, cute pose, fairytale pose—and all the models would have a minute to show off their interpretation. So when I did my first editorial with Steven Meisel (it was a story about robots and Dutch nuns for Italian Vogue), I honestly thought that’s how you posed—you just stay in constant motion, one pose after another. I think that interested him and others, too, so it became my shtick. If I don’t do it now, people are like, “What happened? Why aren’t you moving?”
Sleep When You Can
I was in Paris for fashion week, and I was supposed to wear a gown for Balenciaga, but the night before the show it still wasn’t done. They wanted it to be perfect, so it was taking a really long time, and I kept going back to the studio for fittings well into the night. Finally, someone came out of the workroom dragging a beanbag chair and asked if I wouldn’t mind staying until the dress was ready. At that point, I was on my fourth day of fashion week and exhausted, so I just curled up and slept on a beanbag chair at Balenciaga, then walked in the show five hours later.
When Gaultier Gives You Cake, Eat It
Jean Paul doesn’t treat models like they’re just hangers. He knows the girls by name and uses the same ones over and over because he loves them. When you go for a fitting, he’ll invite you up to his atelier, where he has a table full of sweets and offers you one. This one time I was there, we went up to his rooftop at sunset and ate cake. We talked about my week and the inspiration for his latest collection—he always has some huge and fascinating story behind it. I looked forward to my stops there: I’d go to New York, London, Milan and then Paris, and I’d be tired, overworked and kind of frustrated, and then this nice, bubbly Frenchman is like, “Would you eat cake with me?”
Turn Missteps Into Money Shots
I always got so excited to do John Galliano and Dior shows. Back then, they were true performances: John would just say, “Models, go, go! Do whatever you want. Sit on people’s laps if you like.” I remember for the spring 2008 Galliano show, which was this crazy Grey Gardens–inspired concept, he had pieces on the set that we were supposed to interact with, like a carousel and a lifeguard sitting up in a chair, plus huge wind machines that blew us out onto the runway. Jessica Stam was ahead of me, posing on the carousel, and I accidentally caught up to her, so I just grabbed her and we walked hand in hand to the end of the runway and did an impromptu pose-off. When we got backstage, I could hear screeching and hollering. Everyone loved what we did—so much so that Dior put us in a campaign together that season.
Be A Good Sport
I’ll never forget shooting in the Piazza San Marco in Venice. It was early morning and we had the whole square to ourselves until multiple busloads of Asian tourists pulled up. I was inundated with hundreds of people who wanted to take photos with me. In my six-inch heels and theatrical makeup, I felt like an amusement park attraction. Another time, I shot in Times Square, but the photographer was hiding a few blocks away with a telephoto lens. I was dressed up like a little Dolce & Gabbana doll, doing ridiculous model moves with no photographer or crew in sight. People were looking at me like I had lost my mind.
Models, unlike celebrities, are expected to be blank canvases with little to no opinion on how the artists and designers adorn them. I remember at 15 being told point-blank by an agent that in order to “make it” as a model I’d have to shoot nude, even though it was against my principles. That never sat well with me. Why should I have to give up rights over my own body just to “make it”? That’s when I decided to put certain clauses into my contract. Perhaps I heard “no” more often because of it, but there are always clients who are willing to work with a confident woman who knows who she is. I like to think that my career is proof that you can stay true to yourself and make it in this industry.