Tuesday, September 11, 2007

ModelsHotel.Com - How Models Make Money From Models


While interning in customer relations at Deutsche Bank in the summer of 2005, Jesper Lannung had an epiphany. "Models have wants and needs too," says the 25-year-old Mr. Lannung, who has a gap-toothed grin and occasionally models himself.

With about $100,000 and a dream of uniting professional fashion models everywhere, Mr. Lannung and his financial backer, a music-industry veteran who calls himself SuperFrank, launched a social-networking site last year called ModelsHotel.com. There, the thin and beautiful can post pictures, videos and information about themselves, find romantic matches and get deals on everything from cosmetic dentistry to clothes. Unlike other modeling-focused sites, ModelsHotel is for professional models only. No poseurs. No voyeurs. No exceptions.

"Our site is a digital velvet rope," says Mr. Lannung, who has rejected more than half of the more than 2,000 people who have attempted to register so far.

It's this promise of exclusivity that is drawing sponsors to the site. Among its high-profile marketing partners: eccentric fashion design house Heatherette, Diesel jeans and luxury jeweler Piaget.

Like other professional social-networking sites that have sprung up for people in fields ranging from medicine to advertising, ModelsHotel aims to make money by selling access to its relatively tiny target audience. While traditional ads are sparse on the site, by focusing on models, who have the potential to become walking billboards for luxury brands, the year-old start-up is trying to tap into a movement by fashion-industry marketers to use trend-setters to augment traditional advertising.

For this season's New York fashion week, Mr. Lannung joined with Heatherette, the design duo known for wild ensembles and theatrical runway antics. Models asked to audition for the label's fashion show, which will take place tomorrow evening at Gotham Hall, were given "invitation keys," business cards with five-digit codes that allow them to get beyond the ModelsHotel "lobby" home page to create a profile. A few will be granted entry to Heatherette's exclusive after-party at the night club Lotus; the party is being advertised on the site, and the first few models who respond will be added to the guest list.

"Everybody loves to have models at their parties," says Traver Rains, designer and co-founder of Heatherette, which didn't pay ModelsHotel for the plug. "We like to be associated with cool, new things," he says. Designers Zang Toi and Andrew Buckler also distributed ModelsHotel key cards at their fashion show castings.

ModelsHotel, which is now seeking $1.5 million in venture capital, signed its first fashion deal last season. In addition to paying about $10,000 for a banner ad on the site, Diesel jeans set up an audition for a fashion show during New York fashion week, and gave away $200 skinny jeans to those who showed up. For the rest of the week, long-limbed models could be seen running from appointment to appointment clad in Diesel's latest looks.

"It is good visibility for us to have these girls looking great in our jeans," says Dan Barton, vice president of communications for Diesel USA, a division of Italy's Diesel SpA. The label isn't currently advertising on ModelsHotel, though Mr. Barton says he would consider working with the site again in the future.

Models spend a lot of time in isolation, traveling from casting to casting, often in cities where they don't know anyone else. But like Shannon Rusbuldt, a 22-year-old model with Elite Models, many fear exposing themselves to unwelcome solicitations from wannabe photographers, agents and suitors. Mr. Lannung, who is represented by Ms. Rusbuldt's former agency, persuaded her to join by assuring her that his site is similar to other social networks, "but without the creepy people."

Applicants don't have to pay anything to register, but they must first be given an invitation key.

Mr. Lannung's 51-year-old partner -- Frank "SuperFrank" Copsidas, late soul singer James Brown's former manager -- says he also sees opportunities in creating micro-communities for other fashion professionals, such as stylists and photographers, who are considered influential in fashion circles. These sites could, theoretically, give users the option to open their profiles to other professional networks.

One problem such narrowly targeted sites face is that their small size can limit marketing opportunities for the sites' owners, says Samir Arora, chairman and chief executive of Glam Media Inc., a network of mainstream and niche Internet publishers that focus on fashion, beauty and design.

"The smaller and more restrictive you are, the more qualified an audience you will have," Mr. Arora says, "but you have all the problems of leverage and reach because you are so small."

But ModelsHotel has managed to attract the interest of businesses outside the fashion industry too. David Barton Gym, a chain of luxurious fitness clubs, is now offering a free trial membership to ModelsHotel subscribers. A cosmetic dentist is offering 30% off all procedures. And the producers of the recent Anne Hathaway film about Jane Austen, "Becoming Jane," posted a last-minute invitation to members for the film's New York premiere, hosted by high-end jewelry maker Piaget. A dozen models showed up.

Since many models, especially those starting out, can't support themselves by modeling alone, the site has plans to launch part-time job listings for employers who value good-looking people -- namely restaurants, retailers and nightclubs -- and would pay for the chance to get access to ModelsHotel registrants.

Weeding out impostors has been the biggest challenge for many professional-networking sites, and ModelsHotel has been no exception. Mr. Lannung personally vets each applicant -- he calls agencies and asks registrants to "name their bookers," he says -- a time-consuming process that has made it difficult for him to continue modeling. In spite of his vigilance, he admits that several impostors have sneaked through; most have been booted off the site, Mr. Lannung says.

"I had a feeling it was going to be rough to get approval," wrote one male applicant in an email plea to Mr. Lannung, after his profile was taken down. "I had to stop modeling for some personal issues but I plan to get back into it," he said, adding that his girlfriend is also a professional model.

The verdict: access denied.

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