A new Auckland modelling agency celebrates diversity, challenges beauty stereotypes and – are you serious? – offers hope for the future.
If Keelan Bowkett is indicative of what the younger generation has in store for New Zealand, old people should immediately put on the brakes, hand over the keys and step out of the car. Because, while a generation ago it was cool to wear black clothes and look super-unimpressed, even though the world was reasonably calm and peaceful, it seems in these f’d-up times, a change is upon us: the kids just want be pleasant and positive.
Bowkett’s modelling “anti-agency” Milkshake, whose models have personality and attitude rather than the traditional height, weight and shade restrictions, will turn two in July. Already it has picked up a steady stream of work, both niche and commercial, and is, says Bowkett, huge on social media, particularly among its young audience. “Some of [our models] will be walking down the street and get, ‘oh my God, there’s a Milkshake model’. I never thought it would grow this big and be this popular.”
On the website, which Bowkett wanted to be “fun and fresh and bright and colourful”, the models pose in their own streetwear against popsicle-coloured backdrops, and stare straight at the camera with breathtaking Millennial confidence. They are young and beautiful, to be sure, but also have tatts, braids, freckles and dreads, and come in a range of sizes and all the colours God gave us. Bowkett winningly refers to them as her Milkshakes, because they are “all different flavours” and, in the words of Kelis, because they bring all the boys to the yard.
Bowkett’s dad was Irish and her mum is Māori, and her entire family worked in the film industry: her dad as a cameraman, and her mum and older sister as costumers. She followed them for a while, but “I hated it. The long hours, the unpredictability. I mean, the money’s amazing and I do love the whole being on set and all the people, and it’s like a family. But I just couldn’t deal with waking at 4am and going to bed at midnight.” However, it did leave her with a list of handy contacts for her future career.
Initially, she trained and worked as a graphic designer. “Part of my job was booking models and when I was looking around, I felt like there wasn’t much diversity. As a country we’re super diverse so I was really shocked. Personally, what I think brands should do is look for models that relate to them and their brand.” Taking a lead from successful “anti-agencies” in Europe, she decided to start her own. “I guess I just felt like I could do it, so I did it. I definitely have that mentality, like, I’ll just go and do it.”
Milkshake has one other agent, Krishna Marinas; otherwise Bowkett does literally everything, from graphic design to booking to accounting, though in a perfect world she would focus solely on the creative side. She gets so many applications that she has put a cap on new recruits, at six models thrice a year. Bowkett goes through every one, and “if someone makes me stop, then I’ll interview them”. What makes a good model? “I guess a lot of them have a definite presence about them when they walk into a room. They’re eye-catching. They are beautiful but they also have energy, confidence, they’re friendly and outgoing, ready to share the message that I’m trying to share.”
On the website’s ‘Meet the Milkshakes’ section, Bowkett interviews and writes profiles about each of them; Christian says he wants to be “a youth style icon. Pretty much want to change the game within New Zealand and become an influencer”. Taylor says, “it is okay to be selfish when it means that you are putting your wellbeing first, and no matter what anyone says: you are beautiful, you are smart, and you are worth it”.
Bowkett herself was sent on a modelling course as a youngster, and though she says she was a “horrible” model, it nevertheless improved her confidence. And “maybe that’s how I look at a model agency, giving these amazing people confidence to look at themselves as beautiful”. And because it can be a tough industry, she only chooses people she feels can handle it. “At the start I had an over-18 policy because I felt like as beautiful as all the people are who are under 18, they don’t really know who they are yet and it worries me.
“To put a younger girl out on a job, I wouldn’t want them to feel pressured into anything they didn’t want to do. Now I’ve taken a couple of under-18s but I really make sure they have the confidence to be able to tell me if they’re not comfortable.” And they don’t have to do a job if they don’t want to. “Some won’t do the lingerie shoot or the bikini shoot and I’m fine with that.”
The Milkshakes are sometimes deemed unfit for the higher-end “fashion-fashion” jobs, as Bowkett calls them, and she is okay with that. “I guess if you want a Milkshake, you want a Milkshake for who they are. That’s what happens – ‘oh, I love the look of so and so’. And that’s how I want it to be, I want people to look at the profile and read about them, and be like, they align with my brand, this’ll be perfect.”
A big plague on the industry, she says, is being expected to work for nothing. “I try really hard not to do free work and if that means we miss a few opportunities, I guess that has to happen. I personally believe that everyone should be paid for their work. I’m a little company so how am I supposed to survive if we’re not getting paid?”
Ever since starting the agency, Bowkett has been pleasantly surprised to see an uptick in diversity in ads and marketing. But she says the revolution is coming anyway, because the younger generation will make it so. “A lot of Milkshakes that are signed are amazing, and they’re very young but so in tune with the world, and they are diverse, unique and love being unique. When all the new amazing talent that is coming through in New Zealand starts coming through, I feel like there’ll be a change.”
Wait. Is this positivity for the future I’m feeling? “Yeah, I feel that way. Especially with everything that is going on in the world right now. I feel like it’ll change. The most amazing thing is that I get so many emails from young girls saying, ‘I never thought I was beautiful until I looked at some of your models’. It’s awesome to see the diversity in some of the advertising now as well. We just need to keep putting it in their face.”