Wilhelmina CEO Bill Wackermann: A Q&A on 50 Years of Defining Beauty

by Brad Wete


For a model, singer or actor, signing with a management agency alone doesn't ensure that success is coming. But for 50 years now, Wilhelmina International Inc has lended their mighty helping hand to some of the biggest stars in all realms of entertainment.

Launched in 1967 by Wilhelmina Cooper, the company started with three models and today handles thousands--ranging from cover girls to influencers to pop stars and this month they're marking their huge anniversary with WILHELMINA: DEFINING BEAUTY (Rizzoli). Out now, the book is a gorgeous history lesson that features shots of those they've guided to various heights and groundbreaking accomplishments.

During a phone call, Wilhelmina CEO Bill Wackermann recalled digging up Whitney Houston's old contract while putting the coffee table book together. Back then, she was a newly signed, bright-eyed 18-year-old. We spoke about what the "It" factor is, watching his clients blow up, and the future of the agency.

Check out the Q&A below and be sure to grab a copy of the book as well.

What are the differences between today’s signees and the ones from decades ago?

I think that models in general and as individuals, whether it’s artists or celebrities, are so much more together today than they were in the past. They know so much more. They’re really educated to what they want to do. In the past—when you talk to some of the agents that have been here for a really long time or if you talk to even some models like Patty Hanson who was one of Wilhelmina's finds who went on to be an amazing supermodel, they were just kids.  I don’t think they were as sophisticated to the world. They were just here, and then all of a sudden, the next week we’re sending them on a plane to Europe and they’ve never been there before.

But today, through technology and through the Internet, people have so much more access to do their research and to understand what’s going on or what you’re asking them to do. They’re researching the photographers; they’re doing their homework. So the biggest change I see isn’t probably in the contract, but in the level of sophistication of the talent that walks through the door. An 18-year-old today knows exactly what they want. They’ve been on everyone else’s site. They’ve seen what models you have. They have their game together. And I don’t know if that could’ve been said in the ‘80s or even ‘90s.

What is the thing that is kind of consistent among all of your clients, that one key trait? A lot of times, especially in the entertainment business, that the classic term is having the “It” factor. But what is that “It?”

There are two types, I think. For a model, it’s different from an actor or musician. It may almost be the opposite, if you think about it. An actor or musician is live performance. So they have the ability to convey something through sight-drawn emotion. They can do a performance or they can act in front of the camera. A model, many times, is in still images. It’s a very different game. And it’s the subtlety of movements, not the large gestures of movements. There are some people that you would see and you’d be like, “Oh my god, she looks like a really tall girl.” But you wouldn’t think she’s the most beautiful girl in the room, yet when you see those pictures, she’s able to convey all sorts of fantasy and personality through a still image.

When you see an actor, they come in the room, they light the room up, and they’ve got that thing. Sometimes with models, because it’s behind the camera, it’s much more difficult to see in person. And you may have this really shy 19-year-old girl, but all of a sudden, she gets in front of that camera, and you see the pictures and she’s a star.

Soro Choi for Dior

Soro Choi for Dior

Can you think of anybody who kind of fits that mold?

One of our models today is a model named Sora Choi, and she’s doing everything now. She’s the face of Louis Vuitton, she’s the face of Ferragamo, she’s Dior Beauty, and she just shot American Vogue with Steven Klein. She is a chameleon. The best models are chameleons. Sometimes she looks like a tough rocker chick, sometimes she looks pretty and sweet; you almost forget it’s her. We know it's her, because we shot the campaign and we work with her, but if you're looking at the advertising, the model falls away.

In celebrity, when someone wants to do a celebrity deal, they want Shawn Mendes or they want Nicki Minaj because they are Nicki Minaj or because they're Shawn Mendes. In a model it's the exact opposite. They want you to fall away often because it is about the product and you're just the conduit to be able to create that mood or create that energy or that fantasy that someone feels that if they interact with the product it will transport them in some way. It's related, but it's not the same thing. Many times, it’s very different.

Who are some of the newer signees or clients who you are looking forward to getting out into the world?

Well we’ve got a bunch of amazing talent. I think what’s really exciting about the modeling business today, is it really is a very different day in that technology, digital, social media has changed sort of the definition of a model. When people think about a model they have the idea of this 5’11 sort of amazon. While that runway model will always exist, today I say a model is someone who can create fantasy.

That fantasy could be someone who is 5’7 that fantasy could be our model that we’re obsessed with, Barbie Ferreira, who is one of our curve models and is killing it. She’s having an amazing career, she has a show on Vice, she just shot Divorce with Sarah Jessica Parker, she's acting, she's 21 years old. Barbie redefines the rules. She is just a model and because she's curved that’s secondary. That's not the headline, that's in the body copy. She has that thing that we talked about, body positivity and opening the doors to celebrating all different types of beauty, which is something, we’re excited about. 

One month countdown @victoriassecret 💓💓💓 #VSFS #victoriassecretfashionshow 💓💓

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We have Roosmarijn de Kok, who is one the newest Victoria's Secret Angels. She’ll be walking the runway in Shanghai and she's a Dutch model. She's 22 years old. She’s beyond gorgeous and she's a great example, because she’s worked really hard. She works for Victoria’s Secret now just doing the .com business and making the transition from that to be one of the few girls that gets to walk the runway. Last year she was told no, and instead of giving up she just worked harder, hit the gym harder, committed herself. The whole organization cheered when they announced on the Victoria’s Secret Instagram that they had asked Roos to join them in Shanghai.

There are stories today that are just as inspiring about people from all around the world coming to New York or coming to LA to try and be a model and do the hard work and that's what I always urge people to do. It’s a ton of work. Do you know how many castings the girls go to on an average day? Do you know how many lines they wait in to be seen by someone for 20 seconds to go to the next one, and to turn it on every time and to be upbeat? It's like a performance. If you don't really love it and you don't really want to be in front of that camera, this isn't for you it is the modeling business and the second half of that is the business side.

What’s it like to sign these young dreamers, helping and watching them achieve their goals?

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I think that it is always the best part of the job is when you see someone achieve and get that photo shoot with someone they've been dying for or to get a celebrity to get that campaign.  To see Nyle Dimarco who is one of our male models who was the first deaf winner of Dancing With the Stars. Imagine going on Dancing With the Stars and not be able to hear the music and to win. And to see them to achieve things in their professional life and personal lives, having families and having children. It's the best part of the job.

Now two things always happen with that: one is there's a lot of two steps back before you take a step forward in the game and people have to understand that they're doing it for the long haul. And then the last part is amnesia once they get there. Everyone always gets a little bit of amnesia. I wish that I could change that at times because again that goes to the second part of my conversation is its the modeling business and the business part of it always comes into play.

With that comment that you just made, what do you think is the big common thread between people who achieve and who continue to achieve for years to come?

I will tell you that with our artists like on a daily basis, the teams that work around them humble me. Anyone who is an incredible superstar in the world cannot stay in that position without a really loyal, smart, hardworking team that everyone is rowing towards the same goals, and I’ve seen it. I've seen really dynamic incredible people, and we’re proud to be in a small way apart of those teams; we’re only a small part of those teams.

They obviously many people helping them, but in our small way we’re happy to help. The question that you asked which is what makes someone stay versus someone who just gets a campaign or gets something and disappears, I think in the most simplistic terms, it has to come down to really loving it, because it’s long. It's just like anyone who succeeds in music or acting. I mean you've been probably on a million sets. You're sitting around in a trailer for 11 hours a day to film something for 22 minutes.

If you don't love that magic and if you don't think that's a way of living, then you'll never love it. Same thing with musicians that are on the road for 300 days a year. That is just a way of life. The modeling business and our association with that world. If you're not into that way of life you probably won't be successful. And if you're an artist that doesn't really want to engage in the fashion community—which is get to know people, sit at those dinners, build relationships and friendships, understand who the photographers are and know their work too because their artists, too… You’re not the only artist there; They’re an artist as well in their right. And through that, great collaborations happen. I believe those individuals wind up staying and doing more because they really like it. They actually enjoy the creative process of it.

If you’re a talent that finds yourself seemingly not as hot as you used to be, is the solution just to work harder? Sometimes, can you just be cold because your skill isn’t “in” at the moment?

You are probably as best judge as anyone to tell that. I always think that whoever is not in is only one hit away from being back. I mean, look at Mandy Moore, This Is Us. She’s back on the cover of magazines. If you think about your career in terms of long term, I think you can get through those because everyone is going to be in and everyone's going to be out at some times. If you just keep doing the work and doing good work then it comes back around and one thing sort of leads to the other.

We love challenges and we love to work with people that we are really excited by. If the market may or may not at that moment be excited, if we’re excited, that’s everything. And if the artist is excited about what we can do together, then we’ll know that we’ll work through whatever the cycle of the market is. Fashion goes up and down and as Heidi Klum says, “Either you’re in or you’re out.” But you're only one collection from being back in and you're only one hit song from being front row again.