Models of all genders hustle to make money in an industry that frequently subjects them to objectification, an obsession with youth and need to appease the male gaze. From outside the modeling industry (and perhaps fashion as a whole) many people see dated beauty standards affixed to unrealistic representations of lavish lifestyles. All of this—and more—guides the dramatic force of writer/director Jacob Mendel Brown’s new web series, “Model Boy.”
Brown spent time as an editor at many high profile publications—including T: New York Times Style Magazine, Vogue, V and VMAN. His access to this \ world lends an authenticity to his storytelling—and highlights the woes of fresh-faced boys adrift in today’s landscape. The success of “Model Boys” isn’t just from the humanity resonating from Brown’s three lead actors, but the entire world he depicts in six easy-to-consume episodes. We spoke with Brown about production and what’s to come.
Where did idea come from?
In one way, I think it’s sort of an obvious idea. Models are basically a group of young people having fun who theoretically don’t have to take day jobs and can get up to a lot of trouble. So the basics for a sort of typical teen/20s drama are built in. Nobody’s ever made an authentic film or TV portrayal of this world outside of Zoolander-style caricatures. And that’s a little odd because there’s a huge online audience of model- and fashion-obsessed kids. So I knew the project would stand out and find an audience.
I guess I started thinking about all this about 10 years ago when I was the editor of VMAN; I did a lot of male model booking while I was there. I also did a story for the New York Times a couple years later about these underground model boxing matches that used to happen. Somewhere along the way it just sort of clicked in my head that I should try to write a fictional narrative around all this. And here we are.
Why is this important to viewers?
The fashion world is a really good thermometer for culture and society. I don’t really know that anything to do with fashion is itself important. Models certainly are not an important topic, but anything can be a good medium through which to tell strong human stories. There’s a certain resonance to the idea of a model, and so with “Model Boy” when we sort of confound people’s expectations a little, and then also just use these characters to tell a good story, that can be important. I think some of the characters are important. Alexia, the model agent in the show, is a really powerful trans woman business owner. My friend the novelist Torrey Peters helped me write that character. She’s definitely going to be a fan favorite for all the right reasons.
And you know, a lot of not-so-nice stuff goes on in the model world, and a lot of these boys are thrown into situations they’re unprepared to handle. Society’s talking about all of this a lot right now, which is important, so if “Model Boy” can help move that conversation along, it would be really nice. I’d love to see some sort of union-like protections come about for models. Something like the guild system that actors have. A SAG for models would go along way. As the show gains traction that may be something we can help push for.
On a more meta business level, I do think there’s something important going on with independent TV production. The technology has become such that I was able to put together a fairly high production value mini-season independently. You’ve seen a lot of great comedy and dramedy come out of web series, but it’s hard with drama. I was really conscious of that with the writing and with how we approached our style of actual shooting. Because of the subject matter I was able to bring in a little bit of sponsor integration and that’s how we got the production budget. M.A.C cosmetics had been wanting to do something kind of experimental in terms of sponsor integration into narrative fictional worlds, so it was just lucky that I connected with them at the right moment.
In the age of social media importance, how did your casting work?
I worked with a great casting director (Sig de Miguel and Steven Vincent). Almost immediately we found incredible actors for the non-model roles. For the model roles it was a little scary. These are lead roles; we had to find real, trained, working actors who could help carry the show. And they also had to be real models. If you’re making a show about bodybuilders, you can’t use an actor who doesn’t have that physique. “Model Boy” is specifically about runway boys, so it’s ultra-specific. We kept getting audition tapes from recently ex-models who’d decided to bulk up to go do auditions in LA (I assume). One even offered to lose 60 pounds for the role. In the end I just went on every single model agency website, and then looked up every model’s Instagram to see if they also had an acting agent listed on their social media profile. And that’s how we found Taylor, Stanley and Phoenix.
Now that the episodes are out there, what’s your mission?
My immediate goal is just to make season two longer and have more freedom with the budget to play with locations. I’ve already got things pretty mapped out for the characters. Without giving anything away, season one ends with a handful of big unanswered questions. Some literal life and death stuff, and also some trivial but highly melodramatic stuff. So it will be fun resolving all that. I’m really curious to see if we just keep going as an independent digital production. It’s really fun doing it this way. I’ve got two great executive producers helping me, Hunter Hill and Jason Weinberg (who owns Untitled Entertainment), so whatever we do will be very smart and considered.
You can watch “Model Boy” online now.
Video and stills from Model Boy courtesy of Jacob Brown