By Irina Aleksander for The New York Times
ONE afternoon in late July, traffic stopped in Manhattan so that a small parade of models could cross the street. They entered the Coffee Shop, a restaurant in Union Square, and descended to a dimly lighted subterranean lounge with leather banquettes and Champagne buckets filled with mini cartons of coconut water. The girls, most of them around 16 years old, wore shorts and tank tops along with chunky heels and too much eye makeup.
“These are really the babies, but to me, this is the perfect group,” said Coco Rocha, the 23-year-old model, who was there to give a lesson on modeling and social media. She was wearing slim black pants, black boots and a snug white blazer over an oxford shirt buttoned to the neck. Her red hair was pulled up into a neat topknot.
“Who here has a Tumblr blog?” she asked, addressing an audience of several dozen. Ten hesitant hands sprouted. Ms. Rocha smiled. “O.K., what we’re going to talk about in class today is how important it is to brand yourself.” Ms. Rocha, who used to teach dance to 4-year-olds, stood with one foot planted firmly in front of the other, pumping her right knee in the manner of a cabaret dancer as she spoke. “You cannot be just another pretty face,” she added. “Do you know how many girls there are in New York right now?”
More than just a pretty face, Ms. Rocha is one of the few models who has become known by just her first name. At a moment when the fashion industry has increasingly marginalized models — to anonymous, size 0 waifs, a life span of three seasons (that’s a year and a half in human years), and off the magazine covers in place of celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Lady Gaga — she has emerged as the model’s liberator.
Her message is about reclaiming power in a profession that has been depleted of it. Her medium is the Web, where Ms. Rocha has acquired millions of followers across 13 social media platforms (400,000 on Twitter; 197,000 on Instagram; and 1.6 million on Google Plus, to name a few). Translating this popularity into a calculated, career-prolonging strategy, Ms. Rocha has earned spokeswoman gigs typically reserved for actresses, a secondary role as an advocate for model’s rights, and now, one of the most high-profile jobs of her career. This fall, Ms. Rocha will begin filming episodes of “The Face” on the Oxygen network (imagine “The Voice” for models), appearing alongside Naomi Campbell and Karolina Kurkova as a celebrity coach.
Long gone is the era of the supermodel, but if there was ever a hope for its return, Ms. Rocha just might be it. “Fashion is obviously cyclical and Coco is a testament that we’re getting back to that a little bit,” said Valerie Boster, the bookings editor at Vogue. “For a while we had these anonymous faces that changed every season and designers who maybe didn’t want a model to insert her own personality or label, but Coco is very different. Coco is a brand of her own, which is what accounts for her longevity.”
The Coffee Shop event, sponsored by Tumblr, provided a glimpse into the kind of advice Ms. Rocha will presumably dispense on the show. To harness the rewards of social media, she told the roomful of eager faces, a model must post original content (“I don’t care if it’s about cats, just make it the best cat Tumblr out there”); update every day (“I get tired of posting, too, but we have to think about the future”); and show clients that a model’s online following is worth something (“People pay big bucks for a Kim Kardashian to talk about something, but what about you?”).
When she began taking questions, a young girl with an Australian accent asked how Ms. Rocha was able to make it as a model despite turning down shoots she deemed too provocative. (Ms. Rocha, raised a Jehovah’s Witness, is well known for never posing nude or seminude, which includes lingerie and swimwear.)
“I’m an overzealous poser: One-two-three-four,” said Ms. Rocha, striking a pose a second, a skill that has earned her the title “queen of posing” from Tyra Banks. “I’m known for this, it’s my brand. You go home tonight and you write down, ‘What is my brand? Am I the sexy girl? Am I the sporty girl?’ You are a company and you’re going to brand yourself.”
On the morning that Oxygen announced the show’s celebrity lineup, Ms. Rocha was sitting on the porch of her Westchester home, which stands on a hill and overlooks a wild garden. Ms. Rocha and her husband, the muralist James Conran, recently sold their Gramercy Park condo for a reported $1.51 million; the couple has been renting in Hastings-on-Hudson since March to try on life in the suburbs. “It’s weird to have to drive every time you want to get food,” Ms. Rocha said, “but then again, we found all these cute little chains, like the Cheesecake Factory.”
Ms. Rocha was wearing snakeskin-print jeans, a black T-shirt and no shoes. She offered her visitor a soft drink: Coke, Diet Coke or Coke Zero. As part of an ongoing effort to balance her high-fashion work with more commercial spokeswoman roles, Ms. Rocha last year appeared in a Diet Coke campaign shot by Karl Lagerfeld.
“For so long we were told that we had to be quiet, hush-hush, that fashion had to be untouchable,” Ms. Rocha said. “In the beginning I thought maybe I shouldn’t do that or say that or take that job because it’s not high fashion enough. But when high fashion is done with you, guess what? You go back to your parents’ basement and no one ever hears from you again.”
Ms. Rocha grew up south of Vancouver in the shoreline city of Richmond, British Columbia. Her mother is an Air Canada flight attendant; her father works as a V.I.P. travel concierge in Toronto. Scouted at an Irish dance competition at age 14, Ms. Rocha, in a few short years, went from doing catalog shoots in Asia to working with the star-making photographer Steven Meisel, to dancing the jig down Jean Paul Gaultier’s runway in 2007. That year, American Vogue featured her on its cover as one of “The World’s Next Top Models,” announcing the “Coco Moment” and suggesting that the industry was ready for another supermodel.
But Linda, Christy and Naomi were illusive, glamorous creatures that levitated high above the masses. Ms. Rocha’s approach to her career is, in turn, more populist — a dismantling of the pyramid. On the Web is where she reveals the more prosaic moments of a model’s existence, responds to fans and airs grievances against the industry. “I’m a 21-year-old model, 6 inches taller and 10 sizes smaller than the average American woman,” Ms. Rocha wrote on Tumblr two years ago after reports surfaced that she had gained a few pounds. “Yet in another parallel universe I am considered ‘fat.’ ”
Her Instagram is a series of snapshots that, alongside glossy campaign images, show Ms. Rocha watching “Hoarders” in bed with the model Karlie Kloss and awaiting delayed flights atop heaps of luggage. (Unlike the supermodels, Ms. Rocha’s generation of models often fly economy and stay in three-star hotels.) More recently on Twitter, addressing a series of Photoshop injustices, Ms. Rocha wrote, “Hey, photoshop guys! Can you please be sure to count two arms and two legs on the girls you cut and paste? Thanks!! Sincerely, Models.”
And yet the fashion industry, which has generally preferred its models to be seen and not heard, has embraced Ms. Rocha’s candor. Anna Wintour invited Ms. Rocha to participate in the yearly Council of Fashion Designers of America’s Health Initiative conferences and speak about the weight and age pressures facing models. (Earlier this year, the C.F.D.A. released a new set of guidelines, urging designers and magazines to not hire models under 16; Ms. Rocha is now on the board of the Model Alliance, a nonprofit group recently formed to improve working conditions for models.) Clients, meanwhile, began to see the marketing potential of hiring a model with a built-in audience of five million. “Heading to Rome decked out in #Longchamp travel gear — One of the perks of being the campaign girl!” Ms. Rocha tweeted recently.
“I’m not interested in a new girl every season,” said the designer Zac Posen, who has booked Ms. Rocha for his runways for the last six years. “I’d rather have a girl like Coco who’s not just a hanger but a brand all by herself. In a time when the industry doesn’t promote models having voices, she’s really broken the mold.” (Because of the shooting schedule of “The Face,” Ms. Rocha will not be appearing in the shows that make up New York Fashion Week, which begins Wednesday.)
In April, Ms. Rocha became the first model to surpass one million followers on Google Plus. She has reached an additional two million fans on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. “She’s really ahead of the curve,” said Roman Young, the director of Wilhelmina Models and Ms. Rocha’s agent. “I mean, how many people think about a market for themselves in China?”
“The reason why celebrities sell covers is because they have huge followings,” Ms. Rocha said. “But models have that, too. You just had to give us a chance to speak.”
As she spoke, Mr. Conran, 31, came downstairs wearing black jeans and a teal button-up over a graphic T-shirt. It was Mr. Conran who suggested, when the couple began dating in 2009, that an amplified social media presence could prolong her career. Now, helping to manage it along with her agents, he had spent his morning updating Ms. Rocha’s many social media hubs.
“Sometimes it’s fun, but it can get mundane, too,” he said of maintaining his wife’s digital empire, a full-time job. For the last year, Mr. Conran, who has become a self-taught graphic designer and photographer, has had almost no time for his career as a mural painter. “For a while, I was trying to do both, but I was getting exhausted and irritable,” he said.
“If we weren’t together, I probably would’ve burned out and went home by now,” Ms. Rocha said. “And you’d be painting.”
Mr. Conran quickly reassumed the role of the affable husband. “I could always paint,” he said, “but Coco really only has one shot at making her career.”
The fleeting window Mr. Conran was referring to was not in regard to establishing Ms. Rocha’s modeling career — she’s already done that — but maintaining it while laying down the groundwork for what comes after, a perpetual dilemma for the aging model. Kate Moss and Erin Wasson designed clothing lines. Irina Lazareanu and Karen Elson recorded music. Iman and Miranda Kerr founded beauty lines. But a lucrative TV career has often come at the cost of a model’s standing within the fashion world; Tyra Banks and Heidi Klum are, at this point, arguably better known as media moguls than as models.
So far, Ms. Rocha has been able to walk the fraught tightrope between high fashion and commercial work rather effortlessly — simultaneously working for John Galliano, Louis Vuitton and Chanel, as well as for Ann Taylor Loft, Nordstrom and Esprit. But could she succeed in the realm of reality TV without having to forfeit her career as a high fashion model?
Ms. Rocha’s hero is Cindy Crawford, who in the late 1980s, against her agent’s advice, accepted a job as the host of MTV’s “House of Style.” The move eventually made her a household name and earned her a Pepsi campaign. Today, Ms. Crawford is best known for her namesake furniture line that is sold at Raymour & Flanigan. “I don’t know that Coco is a sign of times changing as much as she will be the changer of times,” Ms. Crawford said recently. “I mean, is it possible for designers to sell at Target?” She added, “Ten years ago everyone would say no, but now you’ve got Cavalli at H&M.”
“The Face,” which is set to be broadcast early next year, will show Ms. Rocha and her celebrity fellow mentors coaching teams of aspiring models as they compete to become “the face” of a yet-to-be-disclosed brand. Like “America’s Next Top Model,” the contestants will be taught to pose and walk the runway (the former “Top Model” judge Nigel Barker has signed on as the host); but the network insists that the challenges will be more authentic than the contrived, outlandish antics “Top Model” has become known for, all the while failing to produce any actual top models.
“I want to bring back the poise and glamour,” said Ms. Campbell, who is supervising model castings for the series. “When you’re a model, you’re an illusion. I don’t want to see fighting or any of that stuff. It spoils the fantasy. We want a girl that will really be in magazines and walk the runways in Paris, London, Milan and New York.”
Ms. Rocha’s hope for the show, at least as far as her own career is concerned, is somewhat contrary. “I think it will make Middle America know who I am,” she said over a lunch of spinach salad and grilled Cuban sandwiches. “Not that that’s the biggest goal of my life, but if there are companies deciding between a model and a celebrity, the celebrity usually wins. This could change that.”
The afternoon light was filtering into the dining room and Mr. Conran began clearing the empty plates. “I just don’t want you to turn into a fashion monster who says ‘darling’ and ‘fabulous,’ ” he teased. “No slogans, O.K.?”
Ms. Rocha shook her head.