On YouTube, a new star is born

Supermodel Kate Upton’s rapid rise is a testimony to social media’s marketing power, says Guy Trebay.

Kate Upton at the Lincoln Center after a ribbon cutting ceremony kicking-off Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in New York.  nyt

There was a time, not long ago, when the surest path to modelling 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 claim to fame was ad campaigns for Guess jeans and Beach Bunny Swimwear.

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

Unlike the many anonymous beauties now on view at New York Fashion Week – women seldom identified by more than one name (Agata, Hanaa, Frida, Joan) – Kate Upton, just 19 and an unlikely blending of the come-hither 1950s pinup looks and legs that would do a point guard proud, 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 more than 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 worldwide. (Sofia Vergara, from the ABC sitcom “Modern Family,” is No. 1.)

Less than a year after Upton – then a curvaceous, rambunctious unknown – posted a video of herself at a Los Angeles Clippers game doing the Dougie, a dance popularised in a hip-hop tune by Cali Swag District, she now finds herself in the one of the most coveted positions in the modelling business.

Joining an elite club of modelling powerhouses – brand names like Cheryl Tiegs, Tyra Banks and Heidi Klum – 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 modelling, 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 website. “If you become a YouTube star among teenagers, you have even more recognisability 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 Upton to the attention of Ivan Bart of IMG Models, the company behind the multimillion-dollar careers of women like Gisele Bundchen, Klum and Kate Moss.

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

Bart signed her anyway. And soon, to the surprise of some in the industry, 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 and with a 36-25-34 figure, Upton was a long way from the coolly robotic Eastern European beauty ideal that has dominated the catwalks for many seasons.

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 modelling 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.”

Those dubious about Upton’s crossover potential 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,” Upton for a Victoria’s Secret show, Neophitou said by telephone last week from London. Her look, said Neophitou, is “too obvious” to be featured in what has become the most widely viewed runway show in the world.
And yet, 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 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’ agent called and said ‘Can you put Kate Upton on your list?”’

Unfamiliar then with the young model, Gan searched Google and came upon the Dougie video, along with the welter of gossip items that connect 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?”’ Gan said. “And I feel like, why can’t we try to find something that’s a little bit different?

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, Upton called to mind the dumb blondes of an earlier era, women like Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe who, as we now know, were not dumb at all.

But unlike the passive beauties of the 1950s, 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.”

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