Turning models into superstars
A glamorous model sits in heavy traffic, desperately trying to make her flight. She’s had enough and phones her agent, demanding to be taken back to her hotel and for a helicopter to fly her from its rooftop to the airport. It’s a real scenario Chic Modelling Management founder Ursula Hufnagl experienced. As a model agent, she says, you’re on standby to fix the many needs of the country’s beautiful people. Thankfully, however, this type of situation doesn’t happen too often. “The majority of talent work with us, at times others can become a little difficult,” Hufnagl tells BW Magazine. “We always try to keep them grounded, to enjoy the moment and utilise the opportunities for further growth. Sometimes talent can believe the hype and go a little too far. “Our job is always interesting but we can make anything happen.” For the past 26 years, Australia’s top models have become global stars, walked Victoria’s Secret catwalks, graced Vogue covers across the world and landed multimillion-dollar endorsements. Their secret weapon has been Chic Modelling Management. Hufnagl founded the agency with her three co-directors: Dominique Longheon, her husband of 43 years; friend and long-time business partner Kathy Ward; and Ward’s ex-husband Peter O’Connell. They fast became industry heavyweights. Two of the first beauties on their books were ’90s “it” girl Kate Fischer and Belinda Riding, who went on to the catwalks of New York, Paris, Milan and Tokyo. They have since been the force behind faces including Catherine McNeil, Samantha Harris, Alyssa Sutherland, Chloe Maxwell, Nicole Pollard, Pania Rose, Jessica Gomes, Nicole Trunfio, Erika Heynatz, Montana Cox, Shanina Shaik, Ruby Rose, Abbey Lee Kershaw and of course, Miranda Kerr. Perhaps the reason for the agency’s longevity is Hufnagl’s own modelling background. She began modelling at the age of 19, after she was scouted by the legendary June Dally Watkins. “I travelled throughout the world, worked for Vogue and finally opened a grooming school with Dominique as the photographer, then Ursula’s The Modelling Agency,” says German-born Hufnagl. The world of modelling has monumentally changed in the 50 years Hufnagl has been involved. Keeping up with that change is behind the success of her business. Not only does this family-run business move with the times, the Chic team does things differently. They were the first in Australia to introduce an in-house publicist in Ward, have famously pulled models off the catwalk for being too skinny and have an open-door policy for budding models, unlike many other agencies which aren’t as inclusive.
“We are an Australian company, familyowned with a strong moral compass,” Hufnagl says. “We put the needs of the talent first. We have strong ethics and are prepared to make the hard decisions when required.
“An example of this was in 2008 at Fashion Week. We thought one of our models did not look healthy so we did not hesitate in cancelling her from the job. At the time we thought it was the right decision for the model, she felt otherwise and left the agency the week after. But we stand by our decision.
“I think the culture within the agency is very important and we have always believed in looking after our staff. We give them the tools required to nurture and develop their careers.”
What viewers might see as an overnight success for a model has taken many years of planning, countless strategy meetings and persistence from the tight-knit Chic team. O ne example of this is modelling superstar Miranda Kerr, who joined Chic in 2000 as a fresh faced 17-year-old. Hufnagl and Ward met Kerr when she was just 12 but decided she was too young for the cut-throat industry. Later, throughout her 12 years with the agency, Chic mentored Kerr and secured her lucrative contracts such as David Jones and Portmans. Also on the agency’s books is indigenous model Samantha Harris who was introduced to Hufnagl and Ward in 2004 after participating in the Girlfriend Model Search in Brisbane. She became a national finalist at the age of 13 and has gone on to secure numerous magazine covers and profitable endorsements with Bra’s N’ Things, Priceline and Califia Farms Almond Milk. Another familiar face to benefit from the agency’s tenacity and guidance is modelturned-actress Erika Heynatz, who signed in 1998. Under Chic’s guidance she has morphed from model to singer, to TV presenter, to successful actress and theatre darling. “Every time I have had a change in direction, they have come to the party,” Heynatz says. “TV presenting? Sure, go for it. Music business, yes! Let’s give it a go. Musical theatre, do it. We believe in you. “Even if it hasn’t been their area of expertise, they have thrown energy and resources into creating a pathway for me to explore every burning career desire. They are creative at heart and have always instilled in me that versatility is key to survival and success. I know Ursula means it when she says, ‘What do you want to do now?’ She gets great pleasure in helping her talent chase their dreams.” Heynatz’s well-rounded career is a result of Chic expanding its expertise, becoming a onestop shop for models wanting to explore all facets of the entertainment and modelling industries. Hufnagl has opened several inhouse divisions, including Scoop, the commercial division of the agency; Chic Blogger Management, an influencer, talent
We are like a second mums to a lot of girls
management and development agency; Atelier which represents leading and emerging actors and creative talent; Entrée, which specialises in food and lifestyle; and The Artist Group, which looks after the top photographers, make-up artists and stylists.
Hufnagl knows time in the spotlight can be fleeting and it’s for that reason the main focus is offering talent longevity and options in the volatile industry. And why many would argue Chic has a stranglehold on Australian talent.
“Chic’s strength is our ability to recognise and offer a wide spectrum of opportunities for both male and female talent, not only in the ‘now’ but looking to their futures,” Hufnagl says. “They can see their career doesn’t just begin and end with physical beauty but can also incorporate their skills and interests. We are with them for the long haul.
“Over the years we have launched singing, acting and presenting careers, secured art exhibitions and licensed cosmetics, homewares, fashion products and more.
“Alyssa Sutherland won a major role in the series Vikings. We signed Abbey Lee Kershaw to her first acting role in Mad Max.
“We are an agency that modernises itself by creating opportunities for our talent.”
One thing all employees at Chic agree on is the safety and wellbeing of their talent. The industry was once infamous for prescription and party drugs, predatory photographers and impossibly thin, insecure models. Hufnagl, Ward and the Chic team’s job is to ensure their “girls” don’t get caught up in the underbelly of the modelling industry.
“Girls can be signed to the agency as young as 12 and we have signed them at that age but they have to understand the next few years is like an apprenticeship,” Ward says. “They need to accept they will not be working until the time is right and that is normally not until they are between the age of 16 to 18, when they are more mature and better equipped to deal with pressures of the industry.”
Hufnagl and Ward are uncompromising when it comes to protecting and mentoring.
“I think being parents and as a company we understand the challenges these young girls face in this industry so we have always been hands-on and very protective when they are away from their family,” Ward says.
“We are like a second mums to a lot of young girls entering the industry. Over the years, we have opened up our houses to girls who need to come to Sydney for work.
“Kate Fischer stayed with Ursula for four years and I have had lots of young girls like Samantha Harris live with my family. She was only 13 at the time and I have absolutely loved watching her develop and mature into the amazing talent she is today.”
Chic co-founder Kathy Ward with one of the agency’s stars Samantha mantha Harris;Harris and, right, Miranda Kerr who was with the agency for 12 years. Main picture: Justin Lloyd.
Chic has moulded the careers of, from left, Chloe Maxwell, Nicole Trunfio and Jessica Gomes; below, co-founder Ursula Hufnagl.