On the street with London's model scouts

Time Out walks the streets of Camden Town with a top model scout hoping to unearth the secret of finding the next Kate

  • On the street with London's model scouts

    Stealing beauty: how London's top scouts nab tomorrow's faces

  • Sarah Leon is a professional streetwalker. Tottering across the cobbles of Camden Market in killer heels and ’60s doorstop eyelashes, she is Select Models’ top scout, exploring the capital in search of the world’s next Kate Moss or Lily Cole. And she’s not shy about it, either. She’s pulled girls out of the queue at IKEA in Croydon, nudged them awake on the tube and accosted them on shopping trips near her office in Camden. In almost every instance, each girl’s life is transformed from the apparently mundane to the frenetically glamorous world of fashion shoots, runway shows and shockingly lucrative ad campaigns.

    ‘I like offbeat faces,’ announces Sarah, scouring the crowd. ‘I like it when people think: Ugh, how can they be a model? To me that’s brilliant.’

    She knows she’s working in a controversial field. With Middle England grumbling over the use of size zero models, whispers of anorexia and front-page celebrity drug scandals, London’s modelling industry provides as much fodder for headlines as ever. Selling youth as a commodity understandably has its critics. Actively picking fresh-faced teens out of the crowd to become full-time cover stars carries immense responsibility.

    So, understandably, Sarah doesn’t take her job lightly. She knows exactly what it’s like to be stopped in the street and plonked, all of a sudden, into a different world. She was scouted herself at the age of 24 by fashion photographer Glen Luchford and, after jobs in shops and a psychiatric hospital, she had a brief flash of success as a model before being offered a job on the New Faces desk at Select by founder Chrissie Castagnetti. Thirteen years later and Sarah is still happy to walk the streets of London with a Polaroid camera and a magpie’s eye for beauty.

    Groups of unsuspecting girls drift past and Sarah fingers her camera, ready to pounce. A line of holidaying Spanish students march by, all of them incredibly attractive, but Sarah doesn’t give them a second glance. She’s looking for something else, something that could peer out from the pages of Vogue or grace the runway of a Gucci show.

    ‘We call it “the eye”,’ says Sarah trying to describe the near indefinable process of scouting. ‘Sometimes it’s not obvious who’ll be successful and who won’t.’

    We talk about British supermodel Karen Elson, who was teased as a child for her gangly frame, and the playground bullies who would call M&S’ current star Erin O’Connor ‘witch fingers’ on account of her long, slender digits. Sarah says that scouts have to look beyond these oddities, mentally editing out bad make-up or unflattering hair.

    But can it really be true that the girls teased at school for their off-centre looks, with teeth like Tic-Tacs and legs like spaghetti, are being dragged out of the shadows and into the casting rooms of the world’s top image makers? According to Sarah, it is.

    ‘It’s a hard job,’ she explains, ‘there are lots of pretty girls out there but just being pretty isn’t enough. They’ve got to be exceptional and unique. That’s what you’ve got to look for.’

    It is then, on Camden High Street, that Sarah suddenly spots someone.

    A tall, clear-skinned teenage girl is out shopping with a group of friends and, as they walk ahead, Sarah zeros in on her. The girl is immediately suspicious and looks nervously towards her friends, but Sarah is very calm and confident and the girl decides to humour her. Fifteen-year-old Briony, from Berkshire, is in the capital for a day’s shopping and affects a ‘heard-it-all-before’ air until Sarah whips out a business card with instructions for Briony’s parents to get in touch.

    I’m impressed at how quickly Sarah endears herself to this stranger in the street, and we watch as Briony rushes off to catch up with her friends, who snatch at the business card and glare back at Sarah in disbelief.

    On the way back to her office, Sarah is all smiles. She finds it hard to hide her enthusiasm, but will Briony know what she’s letting herself in for, I wonder. Isn’t modelling a somewhat isolating and lonely profession, especially for a young girl? ‘After I scout someone and they come in to see us, I give them “the talk”. I give them what I think is a very honest appraisal of what it’s like to be a model, even the controversial things. I don’t bullshit.’

    At Select she points out a wall of framed campaigns and magazine covers, a little like a proud mum’s mantelpiece. In one shot, Lithuanian model Ilona lounges next to a bottle of the new Cacharel fragrance, her red hair framing her face. She looks undeniably exquisite.

    ‘I scouted Ilona on the tube on my way to work,’ boasts Sarah, ‘she was fast asleep and I had to nudge her awake. She was a cleaner who’d been working since 5am that morning. That was a couple of years ago. She’s one of our top girls now and has an apartment in New York.’

    Sarah sets to work. She has two calls on hold but is rearranging the portfolio of Maximova, a shy 17-year-old girl who is clutching a tiny suitcase and has just flown in from an undisclosed eastern European location. Sarah’s keen to introduce her to another model, the fantastically named Ocean Moon, who is sporting an on-trend pudding-bowl hair cut, in the hope that they might become friends. It’s Sarah’s motherly instinct that surprises me the most; she’s keenly aware of her role as protector and nurturer, even if it’s underpinned by commerce. Sorting through Polaroids and making a few important notes about Briony, her recent discovery, Sarah is soon absorbed back into the busy booking floor.

    Across town in Covent Garden, Time Out meets with Independent Models’ director of scouting, Fiona Ellis, known as Ellis. An industry stalwart, Ellis has been a scout for 22 years and famously discovered Erin O’Connor skulking around ‘The Clothes Show Live’ (the industry’s primary hunting ground) in 1995. Like Sarah Leon, Ellis’ enthusiasm for the industry shows no sign of abating. ‘I love working with new talent,’ she confesses. ‘When I’m scouting, I genuinely believe that we’re giving someone a great opportunity.’

    For all Ellis’s sharp confidence, she employs a softer approach in her work. Independent’s offices look like a boutique hotel with comfy sofas, candles and smiling staff. Ellis points out that this is no accident: ‘New girls need more nurturing, more time and more attention. I suppose I’ve always been a great carer. I’m all about making someone feel safe and giving them confidence.’

    Ellis has trained a number of scouts over the years, but insists there is no formula to learn. ‘It’s a gut instinct,’ she explains. ‘You only really have a second to do it and it’s such an important decision because the minute you give that business card out, it’s a huge responsibility.’ Not all scouted girls make the grade, though with 22 years of experience, Ellis explains that she is rarely mistaken.

    ‘I scout guys too,’ she says, ‘although it’s a completely different dynamic. They’ll be really blasé in front of their mates, but they’re usually the ones who call back within half an hour,’ she laughs.

    Back outside in the tourist throng of Covent Garden, the crowds go about their business, oblivious to fact that a model scout could be scrutinising their every move. For Erin O'Connor, Ilona and perhaps Briony from Berkshire, there’s something about Sarah Leon and Ellis that makes the impossible seem possible. Seen through the eyes of a model scout, London is full of beautiful people.

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