Let’s be honest, model interviews are not usually terribly interesting. Cheekbones, acting ambitions and frivolities aside, there is often little else to talk about. Coco Rocha, however, is exceptional in many ways. She is highly animated, warm and extraordinarily eloquent. Her refreshing admission that being able to look “happy” is a million miles away from actually being able to act, her desire to talk about anything that would help the planet, and her endearing disbelief that the famous would actually not use their name and wealth for the good of others, give her an irresistible charm and make it a delight to be in her company.
Rocha stands apart from the main fashion crowd in innumerable ways. She was the first to open up the “closed” world of fashion with her blog Oh So Coco, and her savvy use of social media has earned her seven million followers worldwide. She is a strong advocate of protecting the basic rights of very young girls exposed to the harsh realities of modelling; she has business acumen – she does all of her own accounts (and trains other models to do the same), is an avid philanthropist and has successfully negotiated the knife edge of having one of the most successful modelling careers of the last decade whilst maintaining her values as a Jehovah’s Witness. She is quite simply fascinating to talk to.
As a model, you arrive at your place of work – the set of a photo shoot – and every day you are working with a whole new set of strangers that you need to make instant friends with. And no matter how you’re feeling, you have to “turn it on” and suddenly get very intimate. How do you find that?
It’s weird! I grew up a shy girl but I had travelled a lot so it wasn’t culture shock I had a problem with, but I did have a huge problem with just starting up conversations and I still feel like I do because I’ll think, “What’s something to talk about now?” But we all have a middle ground, we’re all working in fashion so we have something to talk about; you work from there. But it’s easy to read people right off the bat – I know I’m bad at doing that. At the start of the day I think to myself, “Will I get along with all the team today or is it going to be the manicurist that I’m going to like or maybe it’s the photographer I’m going to love?” You find that one person or two people that you feel that you’re going to work well with today.
Did you develop any kind of strategies for magically “turning it on” once you get in front of the camera?
Yes, for me modelling is like a different me. It isn’t Coco the wife that stays at home and loves to just snuggle in bed and relax on the couch; this is Coco the model posing her heart out and giving you everything at that moment. But that isn’t really me naturally – I’m not a showy off-y person, I like to just have a good time with friends and family. I put it on and I pose and do what I need to do and then I turn it off and go home and have a normal life.
How did you find being a shy, young girl and having to get in front of a camera and be this really confident person?
Because my background is dance, it’s kind of like a performance for me. I did Irish dancing, I did ballet, jazz, hip hop, theatre. Irish was my main passion at the end but modelling is just a performance to me – put on some music and I’m fine. At the beginning it was really weird – it felt like I was being judged, you know, when someone said, “No I don’t like that” you take it so personally. But now it’s just like, “OK, they don’t like it, do something else.” You just get the hang of it, and I think I had it easier from having been in the performing arts. If you’re a singer, if you play guitar, whatever it is, for models that have some background like that you will notice they jump into it far quicker than someone that’s never performed – it takes them a little longer.
And how old were you when you started shooting regularly? I know you were spotted when you were 14.
When I got to work with Steven Meisel, that was probably when I kept working again and again. I was 16. I did work at 15, but it was on and off – I was in school, I would go to Asia, come back, go to school, go to New York – so I felt like I was an on-and-off model – I wasn’t doing it full time – so I would say at 16 I finally just kept going with it.
You’re very independently minded for a model. Right from early on in your career you realised that you don’t have to do everything that people tell you to do – something almost unheard of for models. What gave you that realisation and the confidence to stand by your conviction?
I grew up, and I am still, a Jehovah’s Witness. Most people think that we’re very strict with rules – we don’t have rules, but we believe in what we believe and we want to live by those beliefs. So when people tell me to do things and it goes against my belief system, my morals and my values, why should I have to do that?
I know when people do interviews with me, they say, “Well, Coco, I’ve seen photos of you in skimpy outfits, I’ve seen photos of you with a cigarette”, and yes, those were early on and those were photos where I was told, “You have to do this, there’s no ifs, ands or buts about it.” I remember thinking, “Why am I doing this? Why am I giving up my belief system just to take this photo?” and, like you said, I put my foot down pretty early on, but it wasn’t early enough for me. I needed to say, “No thank you” and just stick to it.
No one has all the answers when they’re only 16.
No, you don’t, it’s just you wish you did, now those photos are always there as a reminder. It’s not like back in the day with photos of people like Elizabeth Taylor – we can’t even find some of those pictures! Every single photo I’ve taken is on the web. There is no way of getting rid of them, there’s nothing I can do. Now I stick up for my rights and I advocate others to do the same.
Maybe you’re against fur – I’m not against fur but maybe someone else is, and they don’t want to wear fur but they’re being forced to wear it as a model – they can look at my career and say, “Well, Coco doesn’t have to do it, she just showed us that she was able to not do certain things and still have a successful career.” Young models come up to me or write me and say, “Thank you so much for what you’ve done – what you did makes me feel like I can say no when someone is making me do something that’s inappropriate.” Just hearing that makes me feel good and makes me want to stick to it. I can’t just now say, “Meh, today I’m going to take my top off.” I have to be a role model now.
Tell me about Model Alliance that you’ve become involved in.
It was founded by Sara Ziff, a model from America who made a documentary. She just took a camera around “a day in the life of her modelling”. Things were not over-produced but people were saying things, things were happening, and I think the public was surprised by this documentary.
It was an exposé?
Yeah, of modelling. She was criticised for it. It was pretty amazing that she did it, because it’s generally considered career suicide to actually do something like that. After that film she formed the Model Alliance, which is not a union but rather it’s just trying to give basic rights back to the models. After the heyday of the supermodels, there was a backlash because the industry did not want to have to deal with overly powerful girls again.
How do we get rid of that? Get rid of the personality, get rid of everything, let’s not even know the girl’s names, let’s get girls who look all alike and make them walk down that runway – and sure enough that worked, models weren’t needed any more. You could use a girl for three seasons and then get rid of her then get a new one, and you still didn’t know if it was the same person, they were so alike.
Then there is the age issue – the life of a 14-year-old model and that of a 14 year old actor are quite different. The actor gets a tutor on set, legally he can only work a few hours a day, he must eat breakfast and lunch at a certain time or the entire set gets a fine. There’s not only the tutor there for him but there’s some sort of guardian, his parents, someone has to be there.
On the other hand, the 14-year-old model doesn’t have to have breakfast, there is no one watching to see if I have breakfast, lunch or if I’m even working through the night. No one demands I have a proper place to get changed and no one enforces that I actually get paid. It doesn’t matter if I don’t get any of those things because the laws are not enforced to prevent that from happening.
Hopefully the Model Alliance will be able to prevent some of those things by reminding the industry of the basic rights that any individual should have. We are one of the few workforces in the Western world who are so frequently denied those rights and generally the response is, “You’re beautiful, shut up and take it”and I’m like, “Wow, so I shouldn’t have rights just because I have cheekbones?” It’s insane what you hear from people.
What’s been your role within Model Alliance?
We are still trying to figure out everything. I’ve had the chance to sit down with about a hundred young models and just talk about billing, contracts, self-esteem, social media, having a voice. We had the chance to just sit and blurt it all out. We older models are supposed to be the support group, so if any girl needs to, she can get a hold of us. You can write in anonymously, tell us your story – if there is something someone has done to you on set and you’re uncomfortable with it, say it out loud, say it to us and we go to work with it. If it’s sexual harassment, we want to know about it.
Is that your role on The Face? (One of Coco’s latest endeavours is a model search TV show with a difference).
Please see the latest issue of Glass for the rest of the interview.