I meet Bill Wackermann at Wilhelmina Models’ headquarters in Manhattan. His office is cavernous and gray, punctuated with pops of colorful artwork as notes from SZA create soothing ambient noise.
Wackermann’s hip, it seems. He’s also well groomed and physically fit (any doubt of that and a brief look at his Instagram profile confirms it). He also radiates a welcoming, warm energy that almost makes you forget he’s the chief executive of a $36 million, publicly traded company with more than 2,000 models under contract.
But our interview wasn’t about Wackermann, a publishing industry veteran who moved on to the agency side of things in 2016. It was about Wilhelmina, which represents some of the world’s most recognizable faces: Sports Illustrated-featured Hunter McGrady, transgender model Avie Acosta, and recently signed Nicki Minaj, not to mention thousands of others throughout the agency’s five decades as an industry stalwart.
Wackermann is proud to be at the helm of what Wilhelmina Cooper started in 1967. And he’s putting his stamp on the agency’s 50th anniversary with a new book, Wilhelmina: Defining Beauty, highlighting some of the most iconic imagery of the last half century with words from the indomitable fashion critic Eric Wilson, a foreword by Wilhelmina model Patti Hansen, and even a passage by Wackermann himself.
“The book is about the definition of beauty, how it changes, and what the takeaway is. At the end, you can never define beauty,” Wackermann says. This gives me pause: For a man who decides which talent is plucked from obscurity and is to be featured in international advertising campaigns, you can’t define beauty? “It’s such a part of the moment it took place in.” He means context. “While it can never be defined, there are archetypes that come back over and over again.”
While the book explores what Wackermann calls those archetypes of beauty, he’s interested in finding what — and specifically who — is next. In true Wilhelmina fashion, it’s a trailblazer they’re scouting. “We’re on the lookout for a plus-size male model — know anybody?”
Speaking of plus-size, Wilhelmina’s “Curve division” — the agency’s group representing plus-size talent — was among the first in the industry, says Wackermann. In 1994, Susan Georget, then-Wilhelmina director and founder of its Curve division, worked with the “Vogue of plus-size,” Mode magazine, to celebrate body positivity at a time when thin-as-bones heroin chic reigned. (Georget’s since moved on to be the director of MSA Models.)
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It just so happens that one of the agency’s rising stars, Barbie Ferreira, is plus-size. “For Barbie, the least significant thing about her is that she’s curve. She doesn’t give a s*** about anything, and she just happens to be curve,” Wackermann says, sounding like a proud dad (to be sure, he is, to a couple of kids of his own). “She has a freedom and a self-acceptance that’s intoxicating.”
Apparently, the public thinks so too. At 20 years old, Ferreira’s got 447,000 Instagram followers and a new show on Vice, and she just filmed a few episodes of Sarah Jessica Parker’s HBO series, Divorce.
But Wackermann’s learned, too, that while “it’s the most wonderful time to be in the modeling business,” breaking in isn’t as simple as building up a hundred-thousand-person Instagram following.
“It’s not just about pouting your lips on Instagram. Or if all you do is shirtless selfies as a guy and you’ve got all these woman followers who think you’re great, but you’re trying to sell watches to a male audience, how is that going to relate? There’s no relation.”
His advice: Be yourself, drive culture forward, and attract the attention of his 16-year-old daughter. “This generation does not want to be marketed to in a way that feels like it doesn’t reflect what their lives are about,” he says. “They don’t believe that everything’s perfect, and they appreciate and value honesty.”
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