The color of money

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May 14, 2002 // UPDATED 1:20 pm - April 30, 2007
By: Ellen Nigon
Ellen Nigon

Downtown's Vision Model Management is breaking down white-only modeling taboos

Modeling is an industry that's supposed to be filled with pretty prima donnas and brain-dead

beauties with self-centered agents. Everyone's lovely, rich and shallow. Right?

Running a modeling agency doesn't leap to the fore when thinking about good career choices for social activists. But that's exactly what activists Nathan Yungerberg and Teqendama Sj Zea (commonly known as John) do.

"We came at this industry from a different angle," Zea said. "For us it's not just about beauty. The agency is here to represent who we are as a society."

Vision Model Management, 27 N. 4th St., is a modeling agency that's changing the faces of modeling -- from exclusively white faces to those of all races. Today, Yungerberg, 30, and Zea, 27, represent 70 adult models and 30 children. The duo also provides models to big names like Marshall Field's and Aveda and they send models to jobs all over the world.

Kelli Mcgushim is the director of shows and production for Aveda Corporation. She uses Vision for its wide range of models. "I think what we like most about them is that they can offer some real diversity. It's not one look," Mcgushim said. "It's very diverse in terms of the looks and in terms of the different ethnic backgrounds that the agency showcases."

And it seems that among the highest praises for a modeling agency -- especially one in Minnesota -- is that they have New-York-quality models.

"They have a niche where they really do a terrific job of finding New-York-quality talent," said Bob Medcraft, production manager for A Band Apart Harder Fuller Films. "We almost always end up with their talent because they do a really good job of finding interesting looking people."

The same praise comes from Brad Bone, fashion, photography, talent and project coordinator for Marshall Field's. "All of Vision's people are New York Style -- edgy, cool, hip," Bone said.

So how do Yungerberg and Zea find this talent? "A lot of times we scout like we're looking through National Geographic," Zea said.

A mirror with no reflection Said Zea, "When you see yourself in advertising that gives you esteem. When you don't see yourself in advertising that enhances the idea that you are nothing."

Zea comes from a mixed Afro-Colombian heritage and Yungerberg is mixed black, white and Native American. Both grew up without a reflection of themselves in mainstream media.

"Growing up, I didn't think I was attractive," Yungerberg said. "We've got so many models we come across who have the same issues. They think they're not beautiful."

Contrary to his early feelings of unattractiveness, Yungerberg spent time modeling as a young adult. That experience, too, helped him decide his chosen field. "Being a model of color and only being used as a token was frustrating," Yungerberg said.

Zea explained, "We're kind of tired of it always being the same type of advertising and imaging fed to us, which is really glorifying this Euro-centric idea of beauty. That imaging is keeping a specific sect of the global society where they want to be. We want to challenge that."

Now, they help the next generation transcend tokenism. Seventeen-year-old model and African American Tiara Glover said Vision's multi-cultural philosophy has definitely helped her career. "I used to work with other agencies and wouldn't get as many calls as I do here because the clients can come here and find more variety," Glover said.

Part of Glover's satisfaction with Vision is that Yungerberg and Zea put a lot of effort into making their models sellable. "We're not a school, but we train our models for free," Zea said. "We have a Rolodex of clients world-wide. If you want to be a real model, this is the agency for you."

Different experiences of racism Looking at Yungerberg and Zea, one would guess that they grew up somewhere exotic, perhaps somewhere glamorous. Zea wears his hair in long dreadlocks. Both are impeccably dressed in fashions that look decidedly un-Minnesotan - bell-bottoms, designer cowboy boots, big beaded necklaces. However, Yungerberg was raised in La Crosse, Wisconsin and Zea grew up in the suburb of Forest Lake.

In these places, each man began to form his worldview. Although both grew up in small towns, in multi-cultural families, their experiences were very different.

Yungerberg grew up shielded from direct racism. Zea, though living in a town geographically close to large and liberal Minneapolis, said that Forest Lake was like the segregated 1960s.

He did experience racism. "In Forest Lake, when it came summertime I would rarely leave my yard because I was scared to go out there away from my home and have to face whatever was happening," Zea said. "I'm walking in the hallway and there's two kids on either side of me taunting me and calling me names. From the minute I left my yard to get on that school bus for the first time it was something I had to deal with until I graduated."

Zea credits those experiences with making him they way he is today. "Maybe that whole experience made me too steadfast or too unafraid to say what I feel," he said.

$1,000 and a dream When Zea was still a teenager and Yungerberg in his early 20s the two began working together in Minneapolis. Yungerberg was a commercial photographer and Zea assisted him. Together they pieced together their collective dream of starting a different kind of modeling agency. "When we started working together, we'd stay up at night and brainstorm," Yungerberg said. "We broke down everything to the finest detail."

So, six years ago, they took out a loan for $1,000 and built their business. And as if creating a thriving business from nothing before the age of 30 weren't a feat in itself, they're furthered their social message.

"Just the simple fact that being human and the many diverse aspects of humanity are beautiful. We see that change with our advertising. It's not about being blonde and blue it's being jet black with braids. It's about being Asian," Zea said.

"We found out very quickly that not many businesses have a focus on diversity," Yungerberg said. "The bottom line is money."

According to Yungerberg, a modeling agency is the perfect tool to promote change in the way we view ourselves as well as how others view us.

"We are the ones who bring in the new models. If white people are the bookers and they don't let people of color in, how are they going to make a change?" Yungerberg asked.

"The media is the number one tool of what shapes people's perceptions," Yungerberg said.

While traveling through Southeast Asia, Yungerberg saw this reality firsthand. "People there couldn't believe I was from the U.S. [because of his skin color]," he said. "They don't see people like me in the U.S. media."

But the media perception of a white United States is beginning to change, one advertisement at a time.