Interview with Victoria Keon-Cohen

Sarah Hurtes
Sarah Hurtes

Victoria Keon-Cohen tells EWA all about the complexities of juggling her modeling and film careers.

The full on power-house and delightfully witty Victoria Keon-Cohen tells all to EWA on the various complexities of both the modeling and film worlds. The international Australian supermodel began her career at just 15 and has travelled all over the world to work with clients such as Versace, Dior, Levis and Replay and has shot for Vogue and British GQ. After some frustrations about gender inequality in the industry, Victoria founded the Equity Models Network, a union that supports models in the UK in much the same way as actors’ Equity. This led her to also form the Model Program to address health issues in the fashion industry and the wellbeing of models, including devising their first code of conduct. In 2006 she graduated from Central Saint Martin’s with a degree in Design and later completed courses in Producing at the NFTS and Shakespeare at LAMDA. In 2013 she co-wrote, produced and directed her first short film, “Eternal Return”, staring Heida Reed, Tom Wisdom and Jonathan Rhys Meyers, for which she won Best Director at the LA International Underground Film Festival.

Since you founded the Models Union at Equity have you seen any changes in the modeling industry?

Definitely. When we started creating the Union no one had heard of anything similar before. The idea of it was completely foreign because nobody within the business was talking about models’ issues at that point. It took us a good year to actually create a healthy discussion of how we wanted to change things. And it wasn’t about blame but rather about recognition and acknowledgement - I mean just to recognize that there were issues was a big first step. It definitely changed things in the way that it opened up the conversation. We were able to implement regulations like the Code of Conduct with Vogue or for London Fashion Week.

There’s also been the Girl Model documentary for which I organized the UK premiere which documents the supply chain of young girls in Siberia to the Japanese modeling market. Then there are the plus size models that weren’t much recognized before, whereas now people appreciate them a lot more. So yes, there has been a consistent flow of conversation that has been exposing the realities of the industry which I think has also led to a lot more respect for the fashion world itself. It is still an ongoing battle but it has definitely turned a corner. It’s becoming more about the woman rather than the model.

Have you yourself encountered bad experiences in the past?

I had a casting in Milan once and it was pouring rain outside, I was the first person to enter the reception of the casting agency only to be told that I had to wait outside so that, “us models” wouldn’t be cluttering up their reception. So we were literally all standing outside in the rain like dogs forming a queue around the building so that we weren’t cluttering up their reception, even though they obviously asked all of us to come. I mean that’s a very basic etiquette thing, but more recently I also got booked for quite a prominent client, a luxury lingerie brand, for a three day job. They hired me because they liked that I worked in film and had other interests - I do a lot of combat training which tied in with they wanted me to do. And then when I was on the job, the women who cast me introduced me to the more corporate side of the company, since the project was in support of a violence against women charity video I am currently working on. This was great because I was able to talk to them about my work. Then when the job came round again they said they wouldn’t hire me because apparently I was “soliciting” – they called it soliciting because I was talking about work outside of being a model. Yet they’re the ones who prompted the conversation and hired me because I was a model with outside experience. So I feel like they hired me for having half a brain but fired me for using it. I found it to be really diminishing because I was really proud to be working with them and then I thought – why did my passion and confidence just dissipate? It was disappointing – like “stay in your box don’t do anything else”.

Can you tell me more about your award-winning first short film “Eternal Return”?

Yeah, that was just kind of blind ambition! It was originally going to be a fashion film but then it just snowballed into something much bigger. Even though it’s a 15-minute film it was shot over four days and over six to seven locations. We had so many elements to it, like hawks and amazing period costumes – it’s a medieval dark romance. It was a huge learning curve for me.

The aesthetics are striking - luxuriously gothic. You seem to have a penchant for the gothic look…

Yes, look at my amazing gift from Jonathan Rhys Meyers [she shows me an original flint lock dueling pistol and laughs] – you should see my apartment, I have goblets and all kinds of crazy shit everywhere. I am Australian so we don’t have that kind of history that you do in Europe, such as all the beautiful old buildings you have in London. I love period films and fantasy – it’s just a world that very much interests me. With things that age naturally there is a lot of history behind them, but also for me much beauty. I find the history of the periods fascinating - to research how people lived in these times. When I was younger I loved the idea of riding a horse to school.

With a corset it might be a little uncomfortable…

Well I don’t know they seemed to manage somehow!

Do you think having been a model from such a young age has in a way better prepared you for the film industry?

It made me grow up a lot faster, and it gives you a wealth of worldly knowledge that other people probably don’t experience until they leave home. Modeling has a lot of issues, but without it I wouldn’t be living in New York, and I wouldn’t have met all the amazing people that I know. Being in these professional environments since the age of 15 gives you real exposure to these high levels of the industry. What people don’t realize is that in terms of modeling you do need to know the business side of things, being able to network, and work with a wide range of clients. There are a lot of ex-models that now produce shows because we know everything about it. Many go into these avenues, even though there’s no career bridging system. It’s mainly just a combination of luck and opportunity. That means there are also a lot of models in their late 20s who are finding it a real struggle to create a new career. When you’re starting to hit 30 it’s already late to start a career - it is, but it isn’t, because we’ve already had one!

Anything that could help facilitate this transition?

I suppose it helps if girls try to find time to study while they’re working. A lot of girls now do online courses. I have this friend who studies bio-medical sciences as she’d like to create her own skin care line. She does it online and then has to go London to pass exams where she has the opportunity to meet other circles of people.

Do you think that networks like EWA can also be helpful?

Yes, there’s definitely an inspiring angle to it - people getting involved together and being aided with communication support. A lot of the time in freelance you feel very lonely, as it’s often on a project-to-project basis. You never really know what’s happening next. So it’s nice to meet people in similar circumstances. Networks are good – it doesn’t need to be an American sorority, but people sharing their work and experiences are always beneficial. In particular when you’re working solo you can get very isolated. I spend all day by myself in a way, so I go out every night to see my friends! I mean, you can’t do anything without anyone but then you’ve got to do everything by yourself. Try to find the balance in that!

Would you like to move on to a film career?

It’s funny because I’ve been through this transitional process trying to get out of modeling and into a film career and even then it’s a problem. I was trying to look for an assisting job when I was living in LA last year – assisting a producer or a director, and this guy I was talking to who’s quite a prominent producer – he’s worked with Harvey Weinstein and Martin Scorsese - actually told me that I would never get an assisting job because “the wives would have a problem”. Going into the film industry from being a model – everyone assumes that I am an actress. Getting a job where there’s any kind of responsibility involved is difficult, even though I’ve studied. I’ve got the qualifications and right now I am only looking to assist – I just want to be around and learn.

Do you think the sexism present in the modeling world is as bad as in the film industry?

For sure. There’s only one woman who’s won an Oscar for best director in the entire industry –that’s pretty self explanatory. It’s definitely getting better though with people like Helen Mirren, Jennifer Garner or Ryan Gosling voicing their frustrations. But you know it’s interesting because basically in the fashion industry women get paid more than men, and in the film industry men get paid more than women – for the exact same jobs. So the fashion industry also discriminates against men. They could be doing the same runway shows as women and be paid less. On the other hand it’s well known that in the film industry women are paid less for doing the exact same jobs as men – Emma Watson was talking about this recently. In that sense you find yourself in opposite situations.

Are male and female models treated the same way on shoots?

There is much more criticism and pressure on women’s figures which reflects the industry. Women are much more often told to slim down than men being told to buff up or something. You know it’s like Hilary Clinton doing a speech and all you’ll hear about is what she’s wearing.

What about in the film industry – do you think female and male actors have the same body expectations?

Well yes and no. I’ve dated a few male actors, which is a big mistake – I’ll never do that again. I don’t know what was wrong with me [laughs]! They definitely have body dysmorphic issues just like anyone else, but I think probably because the film industry is much more prominent on the individual rather than for male models who are less prone to being celebrities. Prominent male models are not on the same level as prominent male actors in terms of the public eye. Though I’ve been to dinner parties where I’ve heard producer friends comment on a girl’s physical appearance and I’ve never heard them comment on a man’s. So I’d say yes there is – it also comes down to the whole sexism issue on how women get roles. They get in the door if they’re physically in the right aesthetics or if they are appealing to the producers that have desires on them. I know you also have that in the art industry – gallery owners and whatnot. There’s a whole other game there!

What are your current projects?

I am currently being commissioned to write a feature film which is exciting. It’s actually based on the fashion industry, more like a dark comedy about the modeling world. It’s good because of all the experiences at the Models Union, it’s like cherry-picking actual life stories and therefore it’s based on a collection of true events. I also have another project, which is making a collection of two minutes videos around violence against women for the Violence Against Women Charity. It’s basically to raise awareness around the whole issue and to inspire women to take control over themselves and it shows them how to protect themselves. In each video we’d like to feature women from different backgrounds, so you’d have someone from business or another from fashion and so on.

Where does all that glowing passion for positive change come from?

Asides from never really being able to have an opinion for myself in modeling, I’ve got two sisters and a really supportive father and I was also brought up by two lawyers... maybe it’s got something to do with that! I suppose the things that you have a drive for are always more effective when you write about themsomething about it.