Selina Cullum-Caradona

It’s not everyday that I get to meet a real fashion model. The fashion industry is “other-worldly” to me, very much out of step with everything around which my life revolves. So my curiosity was piqued when I received e-mail from a business acquaintance asking if I’d be willing to give some advice to a model who wanted to publish a book on her experiences. We set up a rendez-vous at Le Pain Quotidien, a salon-de-thé in the 5th arrondissement that is a favorite of mine for quiet conversation amidst the hustle and bustle of the rue Mouffetard marketplace.   I arrived first, and sat at a table at the back of the room but in full view of the door. When Selina walked in, I knew that my preconception about models was about to be exploded. Selina Cullum-Caradona is a “30-something” woman from Columbia, South Carolina. She’s married, has two children, and lives in the small town of Maisons-Lafitte just twelve miles from Paris. She is tall, but not overly so, and has a real figure, not the matchstick frame that I imagined she’d have. And most refreshingly, she has a demeanor that is much more suggestive of her southern roots and upbringing than her years in the showrooms of New York, Paris and Milan.   Having heard from my business acquaintance that I had self-published a book, Selina contacted me to talk about her project – a manuscript about “the business of modeling”. In it, she encourages young models-to-be and gives them an insider’s perspective on what the fashion industry is like. Hers is not a rags-to-riches story, but rather one of success obtained through persistence, a strong sense of self and of self-worth, and just the right dose of luck.   Selina left the South and headed for New York at the tender age of 19, having swept all categories of a scouting session called “Models of the South” and being recruited by an agent from the Big Apple. She quickly learned her first lesson in the “modeling school of hard knocks” when, after having moved into the home of an aunt and uncle whom she barely knew, the agent changed her mind about working with her. Selina was then forced to make cold calls at modeling agencies, facing rejection at almost every turn. She found New York to be “too cold”, “too big”, and full of people who were “too mean”. But because of her mother’s faith and constant encouragement to stay “just one more week”, Selina managed to string those weeks into months and those months into years. Her big break came at age 25. Having been asked to come to the showroom for Geoffrey Beene, and then being turned down season after season for work, one day, the man himself was in the room when Selina was told for the fourth time to “come back next season”. Beene told his employee to let Selina stay, and she found herself in her first big 7th avenue show. She has never looked back, going on to model for houses such as Bill Blass, Calvin Klein, FUBU and Cerutti. She has agents in both New York and Paris now; the old days of freelancing are long gone.   Selina first visited Paris in 1985 when she volunteered for a photo shoot in France. Though the assignment was canceled due to the hijacking of the TWA airliner, she did not alter her travel plans. She stayed a little over two weeks and fell in love with the city. She, her husband Philip and their two children, Christina and Philip Charles, moved to Maisons-Lafitte in 1998. The kids have benefited from a wonderful bilingual school there, but are now enrolled in a French school. And the town is conveniently located so that both she and Philip (a New York construction mogul and Paris drummer) can easily come into Paris to work.   Selina’s experiences modeling in France have been quite different from those in the United States. Perhaps not surprisingly, she feels that a model’s race is much more important in terms of obtaining work, or more precisely, being rejected for jobs, in the U.S. In contrast, she says that being African-American may have been an advantage for her in France, citing the Yves-Saint-Laurent organization that used black models almost exclusively during the 1980s.   When I asked Selina how she measures success in the modeling field, she replied that her personal definition entails staying focused, staying away from drugs and alcohol and working steadily. She has steadfastly refused to compare herself to other models, choosing instead to measure herself by her own yardstick. More generally, she defines success by how well a model is know, and whether or not she is asked to do videos, magazine covers, etc. But this kind of fame does not really appeal to her, though she admitted that she wouldn’t mind the fortune that often accompanies it!   Selina does less modeling now – she is pursuing her interest in singing and is currently a member of Titus Williams’ Street Preacher American Gospel Ensemble in Paris. She would eventually like to switch over to jazz, but is happy with gospel for now. She hopes to release her book, tentatively entitled Selina – My Personal Survival Guide Book for Models.   Copyright © Paris New Media, LLC  
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