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The lights dim and the music blares, as Sonia S. Dara ’12 struts out onto the catwalk in a flashing black and gold outfit, opening Eleganza 2009 with a bang. She is one of the many models, professional and amateur, that make up Harvard’s fast-growing fashion scene.
High fashion modeling has become an increasingly popular activity on Harvard’s campus in the last few years, with several new shows on the fashion calendar, including Haute, Identities, and Project East. These new performances, as well as more established fashion shows such as Eleganza, have attracted to the runways professional models like Dara and Erinn V. Westbrook ’10.
Harvard is known for producing intellectuals and political activists, but few models. Fashionistas on campus strut a careful catwalk by balancing their books and their bookings.
HIGH FASHION, HIGH INTELLECT
Westbrook is the tenth in her family to attend Harvard, but first to pursue a modeling career. After being approached by a booking editor from Seventeen magazine to attend an modeling open call, she began shooting spreads for Seventeen Magazine the summer after her senior year in high school.
Westbrook says that photo shoots at Seventeen are a world apart from the nightly study sessions of Harvard.
“You get spoiled to death. They have catered meals for you. The last shoot I did, the person who did my hair did the hair of the cast of Gossip Girl,” she said. “They were talking to me like [actress on Gossip Girl] Blake Lively is a friend of theirs.”
Her parents, however, had always stressed academics and leadership, she said. Both Harvard Law School graduates, her mother is a practicing lawyer in St. Louis who also does public interest work, and her father is a CEO at a company he started.
“It’s actually really funny. In high school, my parents were constantly approached by agencies to get me into teen modeling or child modeling,” she said. “My parents said that modeling was something I could explore once I got into college.”
Likewise, Dara, who is represented by Elite Model Management in New York City, balances a blossoming modeling career with the demands of school. According to her mother, Poornima Dara, good grades were a prerequisite for her daughter to model in high school.
“We’re the first set of South Asian parents to encourage their child to do modeling,” Poornima Dara said. “We encouraged her because she showed us that she can multitask, model and get a 4.0 GPA. If she weren’t able to multitask, we wouldn’t have encouraged her.”
Dara said her parents have always been supportive of her aspirations, and her mother moved with her to New York City the summer before her senior year in high school to support her aspirations.
“The biggest kicker is that it’s kind of an unorthodox career for an Indian,” Dara said, adding that many of her acquaintances back home wondered if she went into modeling because she was doing poorly in school.
In actuality, Dara says excelled at school, studying for her Advanced Placement tests while modeling with Elite. “They’d call me ‘the AP kid’ because I was the only one taking AP’s and a lot of the other girls got their GED’s,” she said of her time in New York.
Zavier J. Catoe ’12, a Harvard cheerleader who began modeling professionally last fall, said his experience has been all about fighting misconceptions.
“It’s interesting because I’m kind of doing some of the sterotypical dumb things, [so] my roommates like to joke about it a lot,” he said. “Cheerleaders are dumb. Models aren’t that smart at all. It’s kind of like breaking stereotype.”
Catoe pointed out that in addition to his other activities, he is spending a lot of time learning Italian and Spanish as well as exploring an interest in philosophy.
CRAMMING ON THE CATWALK
Hailing from a family of such academically-focused high achievers, Westbrook had no illusions about the rigorous academic requirements of Harvard.
“I think Harvard is an academic haven. It’s a nest of intellectuals. Here you have to be an academic person.” she said.
At the same time, Westbrook is a current top 10 finalist for the next season of the show ‘America’s Next Top Model’ in New York City.
To balance her Seventeen photo shoots and ANTM auditions with school work, Westbrook says that she has developed an incentive system for herself.
“As long as I’m not missing something huge, like a midterm or a huge deadline, I’m okay with it. If there is a case where I’ll miss a paper, I’ll get it done beforehand and then I’ll reward myself,” she said.
Dara, too, realized that coming to Harvard as a model would not be an easy path.
She said that the demanding academics and busy extracurricular life usually put professional modeling careers to a halt.
“I was set up for a really promising career in modeling,” she said. At age 15, Dara was discovered by Elite Model Management in Atlanta while participating in the Actors, Models & Talent Competition. Through Elite in Atlanta, Dara was connected to Elite in New York.
Her modeling bookings began taking off the summer before senior year, when she was slotted for a photoshoot for V magazine alongside some of the top models at Elite New York, including Alessandra Ambrosio and Coco Rocha.
Catoe’s arrival at Harvard gave him his start in modeling. Though he had always been interested in modeling back home in Virginia, “there weren’t many opportunities where I was from,” he said.
Catoe began modeling by chance in October 2008 when he was discovered in Copley by an agent who invited him to do a test shoot.
However, for him, modeling is “definitely like another extracurricular” which he balances alongside cheerleading and dorm crew.
Sometimes, his schedule can be hectic attempting to balance cheering at games and his modeling career.
“I remember one Saturday at the end of the first semester, I had to leave for New York City at five in the morning, shoot at 11, and take the three o’clock bus back,” he said.
BEYOND THE RUNWAY
At Harvard, Dara has had to put her modeling career on hold to focus on freshman life.
She is actively involved in the Undergraduate Council, the South Asian Association, Project East, Eleganza, Cultural Rhythms, and Ghungroo. She has also been recently elected the secretary of the Hasty Pudding Club.
“My roommates joke that the only time I go back to my room is to sleep. Otherwise, I’m either at Lamont or at my extracurriculars,” she said.
Dara has chosen to pursue a career in medicine, concentrating in Human Evolution Biology, while keeping her modeling options open.
“A lot of people say I’d be great in the marketing industry, because that’s essentially what modeling is—marketing yourself,” she said. “But the changes in the economy made me re-evaluate some things, and unless something remarkable happens, I think I’ll go into orthodontistry.”
Dara said that she had always been interested in Operation Smile, a children’s charity treating dedicated to treating facial deformities.
Westbrook, who is an English and American Literature and Languages concentrator, says she is considering both fashion and law after college.
“I like fashion journalism. I think it’s currently a major interest of mine. But I’m also studying for the LSATs. [Going into law] is something I could see myself doing,” she said.
Academics, both Dara and Westbrook agreed, is their primary focus.
“I would call modeling a secondary interest,” Westbrook said.
But Westbrook is also quick to defend modeling as not just an empty pursuit, but a challenging vocation.
“I think a lot of times people think it’s a vacant-headed career choice where you’re just this empty-minded robot who stands in front of a camera,” she said. “I’d like to see all these people get in front of the camera and come up with 100 different poses.”
—Staff writer Manning Ding can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Staff writer Jessie J. Jiang can be reached at email@example.com.
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