The term “poser” has gotten a bad rap: According to most dictionaries, the word has negative connotations, and refers to a person who either pretends to be something he or she isn’t or acts in an affected manner in order to impress others. But Toronto-born, Richmond, BC-raised model Coco Rocha, who poses for a living, would likely take offence to that. Her new book, “Study of Pose” (Harper Design), is a reverential ode to what Coco does best, documenting a cool one thousand different poses, each one masterfully executed by the supermodel herself. Shot by New York-based photographer Steven Sebring, famous for his 11-year collaboration with singer-songwriter, poet, and visual artist Patti Smith, the book boasts an introduction by Jean Paul Gaultier, who helped catapult Coco to superstardom when she opened his FW 2007 Scottish Highland collection dancing a jig.
Originally discovered in 2002 at an Irish dance competition, 26-year-old Coco quickly went on to conquer international runways with her strong theatrical presence and chameleon-like, transformational abilities. With a track record of activism in the modeling world to her credit, fighting for the rights of underage models, Coco is intent on illustrating that there’s far more to the art and commerce of modeling than meets the eye. In the foreword to my book about modeling, “Strutting It: The Grit Behind the Glamour” (Tundra Books 2011), Coco wrote: “ It’s a difficult career choice, and many of the hardships are only realized when you’re actually in the thick of it.” I cozied up with Coco at Toronto’s Metropolitan Soho Hotel to talk about her artistry, the perils of the modeling world, and how impending motherhood may or may not change her.
Jeanne: What I love about your new book that it really does address your playful spirit and the fact that you are very much a performer. I don’t think that all models necessarily see themselves in that light.
Coco: No and I want people to look into our career and our industry and to think of it as that. I mean models are meant to be muses, like in film, where there are actors and actresses. We watch someone we’re inspired and intrigued by. It’s the same for a model. You should be inspired when you look at our images.
Jeanne: You were a trained dancer when you got started. We all discovered you on Jean Paul Gaultier’s runway doing a jig. That was pretty impressive. Not all models have had that kind of training. How important do you think it might be for a model?
Coco: When I work with new young models I first and foremost ask them if they have any background in dance. Half say yes, half say no, and you can definitely tell the difference. I tell young people if modeling is something you’re really passionate about, take some dance classes and check it out because you really can learn about your body in ways that you never even knew.
Jeanne: One thing that you also have to your credit, beyond your ability to express yourself corporally, is acting talent. There’s no question that you often bring out certain emotions and can communicate with people in poignant kinds of ways. Why is it that you didn’t become an actress?
Coco: If only I could remember lines! If “The Artist” had called me up to do their movie I would have said yes. I mean it’s also its own form of art. If you want to be a great actor or actress, you’re going to study in the same was as modeling. I chose modeling, to make that my passion, to work hard at it . I wanted to be very well rounded in that sphere, so many one day I will go into acting, but I would want to be well educated in that as well. I don’t want to be one of those people who just tries to do everything and is just semi-good at it all.
Jeanne: But it feels like now, that that more skills you can develop, the better you’ll be and the fuller your life will be.
Coco: I do believe in trying new and different adventures. I just guest edited the November issue of Flare magazine and tried writing and being the art director and styling and all that. It’s really a lot of fun to just see other people’s point of view in our industry, but then again I am from that old school where my parents did explain that you should be good at something, but don’t try to be good at everything. Maybe the next step is to try acting one day, though I don’t mean I’ll be perfect at it.
Jeanne: What has this career in modeling really done for you as a human being?
Coco: I came into this industry pretty much a meek, quiet, shy little person. I couldn’t stick up for myself and couldn’t stand up for myself. I think a lot of girls enter into the industry pretty meekly, but you’re usually only 14 or 15 years old, and the dorky girl in school: Boys didn’t really like you the girls made fun of you. Coming into this industry is such a whirlwind experience that I think over the years it’s given me the confidence I never knew I could build to be able to say yes and no to things that I never knew I could stand up. I still thank this industry so much for kind of giving me a character building. Sure there’s a few things you wish you could have avoided and you didn’t have to learn, but in the end that that’s life and you learn from it.
Jeanne: What was the part of the business that drove you crazy and maybe still does?
Coco: That a lot of people think of modeling as a frivolous job, in that your job is only to be in photos, so no need for you to speak or do anything but look pretty. That drives me nuts, especially if I hear new models coming in, thinking that’s what our job is. I want people to know that models are not only the faces of companies but are meant to be muses to designers and to people that look to this industry for inspiration. If you only think that we’re good for our cheekbones, you don’t feel like we’re progressing.
Jeanne: Have you ever felt that it’s kind of a fight for credibility to be taken more seriously?
Coco: For sure. The first thing you’re always fighting in the modeling world is the image that if you’re a model, you’ve got a party life and all you do is just take photos and get money for it. But actually, no! I think I’m a smart girl, I’m educated , there are educated girls out there who actually want to make a difference and they are making a difference and using this as a platform.
Jeanne: You really feel for a lot of these young girls coming into the business who aren’t being treated the way they should be treated. You have a strong sense of justice…
Coco: I think anyone knows any child should have rights. And a lot of models are under 18 . Whether they forget it or not, they are in fact children. So it frustrates me sometimes when certain people forget that they are working with kids. That’s when I need to educate some people. Two years ago, we passed a law in New York where underage models were finally considered child performers who are now protected. Why wasn’t this even in there before? It was kind of the Wild West in the industry. We just didn’t understand. Nobody saw this was a problem before, but it’s been solved and we’re really excited about that.
Jeanne: This is an incredibly productive time in your life: You guest edited Flare’s November issue, you’ve done this book and you recently announced that you’re going to have a baby next spring with your husband James Conran. How are you anticipating motherhood might change you?
Coco: I don’t know if I’m really worrying about any of that. I’m just so excited I have goose bumps and everything inside me is just really excited about the coming days in my life. I’m just excited to meet this little person, to see who it’s going to be . I keep joking it’s going to be real smart and I won’t know what to do with it if at 5 years old if he or she asks me about math questions. I’ll be like: “ I can show you how to pose – but that’s all mummy can do!” If there’s change in my life—and there’s always change—then that’s the great thing. We’re always going to be changing. Life should never be stagnant. It should continue to change.
Jeanne: How do you feel about your changing body?
Coco: I love it! I want to see the bump. I’m thinking, “Please, just pop out one day! Let me see you!” I’m all about it. It’s part of the woman experience I think.
Jeanne: You don’t worry about it chipping away at your drive? Motherhood sometimes can soften you up a little bit.
Coco: I ‘m the sort of person that is always wanting change, always trying new and different things, different projects. This is just another change in my life and I’m eager to see what it does to me.
Jeanne: I know this might be really asking you to project a little bit, but if you had a daughter and if she was especially tall and gorgeous which I’m sure she should be – would you encourage her or dissuade her from a career in modeling?
Coco: It’s a question both my husband and I have thought about. Honestly, if that’s what a girl or a boy wanted to do, I’m never going to be the person who says you can’t do it. If I have done, it I feel like it would be an unjust thing to stop them. I feel now that I have learnt all these things– the good and the bad—it feels like it’s kind of perfect that I could help my child, and be able to act as a kind of guide.
Jeanne: What’s the biggest word of caution that you would tell your kid?
Coco: Not to trust everyone. I mean just because they’re adults, doesn’t mean that they’re have the minds of adults. The industry has all sorts of people – creative, crazies… That’s why being older is helpful because you start to comprehend what you want and what you want out of this career. You have to remember that you’re not doing this for someone else. In the end, it’s all about you, not what someone wants you to be.
Jeanne: Ultimately what do you believe makes an especially great model?
Coco: One that can stand up and say “No!” every once in a while. Being a “yes man” makes for a boring kind of attitude. When you stop and say, “No, I’m not going to do that!” like I did sometimes, you may think someone is a prima donna for having that attitude, but in the end, it means you stand for something and I think everyone respects that. When I started, I tried to agree with everyone, to please everyone. I thought if I’m everyone’s cup of tea, they’re only going to appreciate me more because I’m trying to please everybody. But in the end I wasn’t pleasing myself at all. I was overwhelmed, frustrated and confused. So finally it was, “Okay, this is what I want to do. If you’re okay with that, great. If not, no worries. You’ll work with someone else and I don’t necessarily have to work with you.