San Diego's Super Models : Agencies Have Discovered Area and Best Talent Under the Sun

It's a Tuesday evening, and Stephanie Seymour is 20 minutes late for her first dance class at the American Ballet School in Pacific Beach.

She's just had a facial, a manicure and a pedicure. There isn't a trace of makeup on her face. She's wearing a pastel floral-patterned leotard that clings to her shapely body like a coat of paint.

After bolting up the stairs to the second-floor dance studio, Seymour tells the matronly desk clerk she's too frazzled to take the class.

"Besides," she adds, "I'm too embarrassed to walk in now, with the class already under way."

So, with the promise to return another night, Seymour bounds back down the flight of stairs and jumps into her convertible Jeep, parked in the alley, for the short drive home to La Jolla.

Heading north on Mission Boulevard, Seymour almost runs a red light. Slamming on the brakes, she brushes back her auburn hair with both hands and says, with a grimace, "Boy, am I stressed out. I'm flying out of San Diego early tomorrow morning, and as usual, I have no idea where I'm going--Paris, Rome, New York, who knows?"

Such is the fast-paced, stressed-out life of a professional high-fashion model--not just any model, but the latest, and hottest, in a string of "super models" to come out of San Diego in recent years.

At 19, just four years after she became a regional winner of the Elite Agency of New York's annual "Look of the Year" contest, the Poway High School graduate is at the height of her profession, earning modeling fees of up to $10,000 a day and routinely landing on the covers of such publications as Mademoiselle, Redline, New York and Cosmopolitan.

Her china-doll features and pouting red lips command the cover of the March issue of Vogue, America's leading fashion magazine. The 5-foot, 10-inch Seymour, who grew up in Poway, was also prominently featured in the recent swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated, having suited up for the photo sessions on the beaches of Thailand with such swimsuit issue veterans as Kim Alexis and Kathy Ireland.

In press material provided by John Casablancas Model Center, the San Diego agency that first represented her, Seymour's annual income is said to exceed $500,000. Seymour puts the figure at about $250,000, but said she could have made a lot more if she hadn't taken so much time off to cool out.

"The rewards are great," she said, tiredly, "but the stress is even greater."

Two weeks ago, Seymour was munching on a hamburger in a sidewalk cafe in downtown San Diego when a sharply dressed young man approached her table and told her she should be a model.

"I told him I went to San Diego State University and was too busy with my studies," Seymour recalled. "But he persisted, saying he was an agent and that I could make a lot of money.

"Only after I told him my parents would never let me go into modeling did he finally give up. As he walked away, my friend and I both started to crack up. I mean, I looked like a pig, with a face full of chopped beef and onions coming out of my mouth. It was just so very funny."

Being approached by agents and photographers is something Seymour has grown accustomed to since moving back to San Diego last December--after three years of living in New York, the fashion capital of the world. The reason is not just because Seymour is drop-dead gorgeous, but because San Diego is considered one of the best hunting grounds for future high-fashion models--of both sexes--in the country.

"In the last few years, San Diego has earned a reputation as a premier model-development area," said Fred Sweet, owner of San Diego Model Management, the agency that first signed Seymour in 1984.

Natural Environment

"I was just up in San Francisco, at a national convention for agencies like ours that are affiliated with Elite in New York, and everyone was coming up to me and saying that San Diego is a great place . . . to scout (models)," Sweet said.

"I think it's because of the natural environment down here. People on the West Coast are generally more into health and fitness and beauty than anywhere else, and with San Diego's perfect weather, people just tend to look good."

Julie Anselmo, vice president of Elite in New York, agrees.

"We send scouts to San Diego on a regular basis," said Anselmo, whose agency represents such top models as Paulina Porizkova, Kim Alexis, Tatjana Patitz, and now Stephanie Seymour.

"Everyone's trying to find models with the natural, healthy look, and one of the best places to find them is California, and particularly San Diego."

Another international agency that regularly sends scouts to San Diego is L.A. Models of Los Angeles, whose professional roster includes frequent Vogue cover girl Tara Shannon and "Avon Lady" Sabine.

"We find more girls in San Diego than anywhere else in the United States, except for Seattle," said director Tom Hahn. "I imagine it's because of the diverse ethnic backgrounds of all the people who moved to San Diego in the 1940s and '50s. Many of their children, raised in such a healthy, recreation-oriented environment, turn out to be the typical, beautiful, all-American women we're looking for.

Good-Looking People

"In fact, the largest fashion catalogue company in the world, Otto Versand of Hamburg, Germany, has been sending at least 20 or 30 camera crews out here each winter for the last four or five years.

"They come not only because of the weather, but because they can always find plenty of good-looking people to work with."

Eight months ago, Copeland and White International Top Model Management of New York, which represents such popular models as past Vogue cover girl Janette Williams and Chuck Barend, currently featured in the Ralph Lauren Polo advertising campaign, opened a branch office in La Jolla.

"We looked at our top models and found that nine out of 10 came from San Diego," said co-owner Scott Copeland. "So we thought, 'We'd better open an office down there.' "

Copeland estimates that between 300 and 500 models from San Diego regularly pose for fashion magazines, catalogues, and advertising campaigns throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan--more than twice as many as five years ago.

Yearly earnings, he added, range from $100,000 to $500,000.

Among the most in-demand high-fashion models from San Diego County are:

- Danitza Dobbs of El Cajon, the one-time receptionist at the John Casablancas Modeling Center (the training school for San Diego Model Management) who, like Stephanie Seymour, won the "Look of the Year" regionals in 1985. A few months later, she signed with Elite New York, and has since been featured in the Italian Vogue and on the cover of Brides magazine.

- Kathryn Eickstaedt, who a couple of years ago interrupted her finance studies at San Diego State University to sign with San Diego Model Management. She has since been picked up by Elite Los Angeles and now commands modeling fees of $1,500 a day. Her regular clients include the Italian Vogue and Butterfinger.

- Chuck Berand of Encinitas, the primary model in this year's Ralph Lauren Polo advertising campaign.

- Randy Lee of Leucadia, who recently made the cover of GQ, the top men's fashion magazine in the country;

- Marie Rowe, featured in the current Giorgio Armani ad campaign.

- Suzanne LeLong of La Jolla, a veteran of countless Cover Girl cosmetics and Giorgio Armani fashion ads.

Out of all the local "super model" stars, however, there is no question that Stephanie Seymour is the brightest.

Seymour she entered the lucrative world of high-fashion modeling when she was just 14.

"I think every little girl wants to be a model, or a princess, or an Avon Lady, or a movie star," Seymour said, "and I wasn't any different. So one day in 1983 I saw an ad in Mademoiselle for the 'Look of the Year' contest, and I sent in my $15 and two photos my mother had taken, thinking, 'Wow, wouldn't it be great to win and get $200,000, plus a trip to New York.'

"Still, I never really expected that I would win."

More than six months after submitting her entry, Seymour had all but forgotten about the contest, she said. Then Elite notified her that she had been selected to compete in the regional preliminaries. Despite her young age--by then, she was 15--she placed first, and then went on to New York, where she took top honors again in the national semi-finals.

Made the Top 10

She subsequently made the Top 10 in the "Look of the Year" finals in Acapulco, Mexico. After returning to San Diego for several months of training at the John Casablancas Modeling Center, she signed with San Diego Model Management in early 1984 and landed a handful of local modeling assignments, including a swimsuit spread in San Diego Home/Garden magazine.

"We also got her a tiny picture in Cosmopolitan," said Fred Sweet. "Everyone in our agency was so excited--we knew Stephanie was good, but we had no idea she was one day going to turn into the hottest model in the United States."

By the summer of 1984, Seymour had been picked up by Elite, and the agency immediately flew her to New York, and then to Paris and Rome.

"I did some modeling for the French Vogue and the Italian Bazaar, as well as some advertising work for various European fashion designers," Seymour said. "Elite gave me a 'sweet 16' birthday party in Rome, but by the end of summer it was time to go back home and start high school.

"I couldn't get the excitement of traveling and modeling out of my head, so my parents agreed to let me move to New York and pursue my career as long as I swore I would take correspondence courses to finish high school.

"They also gave me a list of things I had to do, like phone home every day and promise not to drink, not to smoke, and not to go out at night."

Left Poway High School

After one semester at Poway High School, Seymour moved to New York in early 1985. She soon found as much work as she could handle, modeling everything from lingerie and swimsuits to sportswear and evening gowns for various high-fashion magazines, catalogues, and designers.

"I went to Paris a few times each year, and traveled to all sorts of different tropical islands," Seymour said. "But most of the time, I was in New York, getting up each day around 7 a.m. and modeling fashions for magazines like Mademoiselle, Redline, and New York.

"I guess my big break came in 1986, when Mademoiselle put me under contract and for five months, I averaged about 20 pages per issue, mostly modeling bathing suits and sportswear. That's when people really started to notice me, and that's how I was able to break into Vogue, which is every model's dream."

Three months ago, Seymour moved back to San Diego.

"Living in New York, I couldn't do anything but work, work, work," she said. "At this point, I want to get out of modeling, go back to school, enrich myself, and study hard to become an actress--a good actress, landing good roles in good movies, not bit parts in 'Vacation Part II.'

"I'm only 19, and already, I've made one dream come true. I've gotten a lot out of modeling, but now I'm ready to move on to another dream."

Aside from fulfilling her own dream of becoming a high-fashion "super model," Seymour's success is likely to help other budding San Diego models fulfill their dreams as well.

"Because of Stephanie, San Diego is getting more attention than ever from modeling agencies around the country," said San Diego Model Management's Fred Sweet. "So there are a lot more opportunities for everyone.

"Pretty soon, you'll be able to go into any home in the United States and find that Stephanie's name is instantly recognized," added Elite New York's Julie Anselmo.

"So naturally, we expect to see more agency scouts in San Diego. But through our affiliation with San Diego Model Management, we hope to keep most of the territory to ourselves."

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