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Model Struts Path to Stardom Not on Runway, but on YouTube

Guy Trebay|The New York Times
Tuesday, 14 Feb 2012 | 9:55 AM ET

There was a time, not long ago, when the surest path to modeling stardom was down the runway of a top designer’s show, when it would have been unthinkable to find among the industry’s top ranks a swimsuit girl whose main claims to fame were ad campaigns for Guessjeans and Beach Bunny Swimwear.

Model Kate Upton
Getty Images
Model Kate Upton

But that was before social media altered the paths to fame.

Unlike the many little-known beauties now on view atNew York Fashion Week— women seldom identified by more than one name (Agata, Hanaa, Frida, Joan) — Kate Upton, just 19 and resembling a 1950s pinup, but with the legs of a W.N.B.A. point guard, has arrived on the scene as a largely self-created Internet phenomenon.

It is not just that she has a respectable Twitter following (170,000 people at last count), or a YouTube video with over 3 million viewers, or marketing potential perhaps best measured by her rocketing from obscurity to No. 2 on a list of the world’s 99 “top” women compiled by AskMen.com, an online magazine with 15 million readers. (Sofia Vergara, of the ABC sitcom “Modern Family,” is No. 1.)

Less than a year after Ms. Upton, curvaceous and rambunctious, posted a video of herself at a Los Angeles Clippers game doing the Dougie, a dance popularized in a hip-hop tune by Cali Swag District, she finds herself in one of the most coveted positions in the modeling business.

Joining an elite club of modeling powerhouses — brand names like Cheryl Tiegs, Tyra Banks and Heidi Klum — Ms. Upton was announced Monday night on David Letterman’s show as the latest cover girl for Sports Illustrated’s annual swimsuit issue, the circulation and advertising behemoth that has long been equally the dream book of adolescent males and the bane of feminists.

In modeling, as in movies (see: “Chronicle,” the film that hit No. 1 at the box office this month after relying on social media outlets like Twitter and YouTube for its marketing), music (the band Fun. and its inescapable viral hit “We Are Young”) and most other cultural endeavors, it is increasingly clear that there is no longer a single path to success.

“We all know that social media now creates its own reality,” said Wayne Sterling, the publisher of Models.com, an industry Web site. “If you become a YouTube star among teenagers, you have even more recognizability than a TV star,” he said. “Kate Upton is the perfect example of that.”

It was soon after the Dougie video went viral that a seasoned scout, David Cunningham, brought Ms. Upton to the attention of Ivan Bart of IMG Models, the company behind the multimillion-dollar careers of women like Gisele Bündchen, Ms. Klum and Kate Moss.

“When Kate first came in, everyone at the agency thought I was crazy,” Mr. Bart, the “superagent” who heads IMG Models, said of Ms. Upton. “She wasn’t ‘fashion’ enough.”

Mr. Bart signed her anyway. And soon, to the surprise of some in the industry, Ms. Upton was being sought out for editorial sittings with people like Carine Roitfeld, the French fashion eminence known for her prophetic eye, and by Katie Grand, the influential stylist and editor of the fashion-forward British magazine Love.

Wholesomely proportioned at 5 feet 11 inches with a 36-25-34 figure, Ms. Upton was a long way from the coolly robotic Eastern European beauty ideal that has dominated the catwalks for many seasons. “Kate is bigger than fashion,” Mr. Bart said. “She’s the Jayne Mansfield of the Internet.”

Though the catwalks of New York, Paris and Milan, traditionally a pathway to magazine covers and the lavish cosmetic and fragrance advertising campaigns that are the grail of every modeling hopeful, will continue to exert influence, it is increasingly difficult for the industry to ignore the world outside the Fashion Week tents, particularly the one that is virtual.

“It’s not just enough to cast such-and-such a girl that opened Prada or Vuitton or whatever,” said Trey Laird, the creative director of Laird & Partners, the advertising agency behind brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Juicy Couture and the Gap. “It’s a huge help if a girl already has a platform and followers, and Kate Upton is a great example of that.”

Big Business of Swimwear & Kate Upton
Mark Ford, Time Inc. Sports Group president, and Kate Upton, Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover model, discuss the money behind Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition, with CNBC's Darren Rovell.

Those dubious about Ms. Upton’s crossover potential, or of any career driven toward the stony heart of fashion from the do-it-yourself fringes of the blogosphere, include Sophia Neophitou, editor of the English style bible 10 and a creative force behind the casting of the Victoria’s Secret shows.

“We would never use” Ms. Upton for a Victoria’s Secret show, Ms. Neophitou said by telephone last week from London. And, while Ms. Upton has, in fact, modeled on occasion for the company’s catalog, her look, said Ms. Neophitou, is “too obvious” to be featured in what has become the most widely viewed runway show in the world.

“She’s like a Page 3 girl,” Ms. Neophitou said, referring to the scantily clad voluptuous women featured in The Sun, a London tabloid. “She’s like a footballer’s wife, with the too-blond hair and that kind of face that anyone with enough money can go out and buy.”

And yet, Ms. Upton turns up as the hottest new face in the industry in a coming issue of V, a fashion magazine with a cult following among the cognoscenti.

“I’m relatable.”

“I wasn’t necessarily drawn to her because of her having been big online and having several million hits on YouTube,” said Stephen Gan, V’s editor in chief and creative director. “In fact, I first heard of her when we were having a party at the Boom Boom Room and Kate Moss’s agent called and said, ‘Can you put Kate Upton on your list?’ ”

Unfamiliar then with the young model, Mr. Gan searched Google and came upon the Dougie video, along with the welter of gossip items that connect Ms. Upton to celebrities like Kanye West and the New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. Tabloid readiness aside, he saw in her something a less seasoned fashion eye might overlook.

“I come from a business where the perennial question is ‘Are you beautiful in a fashion sense or in a beauty pageant sense or beautiful-girl-next-door sense?’ ” Mr. Gan said. “And I feel like, why can’t we try to find something that’s a little bit different? If you’ve ever looked at pictures of Jean Harlow up close, she had the same curves as Kate Upton, the same silhouette, and she was the definition of beauty at the time.”

Sitting last week in the Manhattan offices of IMG Models, clad in tight jeans and Christian Louboutin stilettos and with her peroxided hair piled high, Ms. Upton called to mind the dumb blondes of an earlier era, women like Ms. Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe who, as we now know, were not dumb at all.

But unlike the passive beauties of the 1950s, Ms. Upton has a coolly appraising approach to her assets. She also has a big laugh, no shortage of confidence and the habit of cracking her knuckles like a tomboy bombshell.

“For a long time, fashion has been going to celebrities,” she said. “Celebrities are on the magazine covers, and nobody wanted models. But why not have a model celebrity? Why not a girl who comes with her own following? Social media brings a personality to models. That’s how consumers today decide what to buy.”

“I studied this,” added Ms. Upton, a Michigan native who was raised in Melbourne, Fla., and who began work at 15, spending her first few years toiling in the lucrative but unglamorous salt mines of catalog modeling.

What Ms. Upton learned was that before Ms. Bündchen grew Angel wings and became Mrs. Tom Brady and a business impresario overseeing a multimillion-dollar empire built on the licensing of everything from lingerie to shower shoes, she was just another runway girl from the first wave of then-new Brazilians, a woman routinely informed she would never make it big in high fashion because her figure was too curvy and her nose was too long.

“People told me I couldn’t be fashion, that I’m just an old-fashioned body girl, only good for swimwear,” Ms. Upton said. “But I knew that I could bring back the supermodel.”

“What can I say?” she added. “I’m relatable.”

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