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The Beauty Broker : Nina Blanchard Has Run a Los Angeles Model Agency for 25 Years. It's Not Always a Pretty Business.

November 02, 1986|LYNNE OLSON | Lynne Olson is a Los Angeles writer.

The new model is young, beautiful, and right now very, very nervous. She crouches by the side of the desk as the woman behind it peers through a magnifying glass and scans a batch of slides.

"These won't do," Nina Blanchard says brusquely. "There are a lot of old-fashioned modeling poses here. Look, your neck is too stiff. You have to pull it out of your shoulders--like this." Blanchard demonstrates, dropping her shoulders and stretching her neck.

The model, elegant in a white silk pantsuit, swallows hard and nods. She has just signed with Blanchard's talent and modeling agency, perhaps the best-known and richest of its kind outside of New York City. As a Blanchard model, she has already accomplished what most would-be cover girls only dream about. But it's just the beginning. Before she can be sent out on an assignment, she must acquire an impressive portfolio so that photographers and advertisers can see her ability and potential. That can take months.

"Can't any of them be saved?" the model asks softly. Blanchard looks at the slides again. "Well, maybe this one. And this one. Perhaps this one. But none of the others." Crestfallen, the model gathers up the slides and slips them back into her large leather case.

"You've got to relax, dear," Blanchard tells her. "Keep working at it. It will come."

The model departs. Blanchard leaves her desk to wander around her large office, the cream-colored walls of which are decorated with framed magazine covers featuring past and present talent such as Cheryl Tiegs, Shari Belafonte-Harper, Cristina Ferrare and Catherine Oxenberg. Blanchard herself is trim, 50ish, with reddish-gold hair, in a dark-green cashmere sweater and matching skirt. She confers briefly with a couple of her young bookers, who are responsible for arranging interviews and jobs for the 128 women and 81 men on the Blanchard roster.

Blanchard and her six bookers all work in one room. The telephone rings every few seconds. Usually, it's a model checking in for assignments, or photographers and advertisers requesting a certain model for a job, or young aspirants asking how they can become a Blanchard model.

For Nina Blanchard, one of Los Angeles' modern pioneer businesswomen, life would appear to be sweet indeed. This month, she and 79 other women entrepreneurs from across the country will be honored by President Reagan at a White House luncheon.

Her agency, which books talent for television commercials, print advertising and runway modeling, celebrated its 25th anniversary last May 27, and Mayor Tom Bradley proclaimed the occasion Nina Blanchard Day. The gruff-voiced Blanchard marked the day with a party for 900 at the Hollywood Palladium. Among the guests, in addition to the famous faces she represents, were Prince Albert of Monaco, Valerie Harper, Eileen Brennan, Dennis Weaver, Burt Reynolds, who was Blanchard's escort, and Merv Griffin, on whose talk show Blanchard appeared more than 30 times.

New York City is still the unquestioned center of the $100-million-plus modeling industry, controlling perhaps 75% of the business. Yet Blanchard has seen Los Angeles' share grow substantially since she started her agency in 1961, when there were only two other agencies like it in town. Now there are at least 18. But, Blanchard says, she's at the top of the heap, with billings exceeding those of any other similar L.A. agency. She refuses, however, to reveal the exact amount of her multimillion-dollar annual revenue. There was a time, she says, when she was not reluctant to disclose what she made. But she claims that competitors began exaggerating their billings to make it appear that they had more business. "I've learned not to tell," she says. (Of the more than 1,000 agencies in the United States, four dominate the industry. They are Ford Models--considered the leader--Wilhelmina, Zoli and Elite, all based in New York. But since the top agencies are private companies, their exact size and earnings are not public record. They engage in a continual game of one-upmanship, claiming larger billings than their competitors. As William Weinberg--president of the Wilhelmina agency--has said, "Everybody lies in this business.")

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