Spring 2009 Issue

Project Barry

Barry’s Opulent Image Models combines the allure of the catwalk with the fun of a social club

By Rebecca Wakefield

Yashira Rivera walks the runway in ‘Beyond the Velvet Rope’ April 11, 2007.

So far, 22–year-old Vivian Olodun’s life has been steered by chance detours on the Internet. A stroll through Craigslist led her to her job as a cyber fraud investigator. An offhand comment on her Facebook page gave her the idea for what to call the modeling club she and a fellow Barry University student started almost two years ago.

“A friend called me the opulent Miss Vivian and I thought, ‘Ooh, I like that word,’” she recalls with a giggle typical of her bubbly personality: “op-u-lent.”

Johann St. John, on the other hand, is the kind of cool customer who slides into a situation casually and then takes it over. This quality, it turns out, was the other essential ingredient in the creation of Opulent Image Models ¬-- part social club, part modeling agency.

St. John, who is also a member of the Barry Campus Activities Board, said that although most students in the club are not looking to become full-time professional models, they see the experience as a way to explore a dream while in college.

“It’s a good time to try things you wouldn’t try later on in life,” St. John muses.

Like Olodun, St. John, a senior majoring in political science, had been part of a forerunner club called Fiji Fashions. But after its founder graduated in 2007, the pair decided to create something that would continue to combine campus life and high fashion. Opulent Image Models has since branched out from model training to fashion production, photo portfolios, fashion consulting and promotions.

“I had a natural knack for it,” the 21-year-old St. John confesses. “For me, leading a team is easy.”

Opulent Image is kind of like “America’s Next Top Model” in that there is an audition process, which if you pass, gives you the right to attend long, brutal training sessions aimed at turning perfectly normal humans into beautiful alien creatures.

“We’re not promising you can be the next top model, but we train you and you get a lot of experience,” St. John says. “We try to [hit upon] everything the industry does, give that experience to the college student who wouldn’t necessarily get it otherwise.”

Freshman Adrienne Catlett struts on the catwalk February 18 during ‘Around the World in 60 Minutes,’ a show sponsored by the student-run Opulent Image Models.

A prospective model is measured, photographed and then interviewed by a panel of current models that susses out whether the student has the inner fortitude to become a model.

“We’ve had as many as 187 students auditioning,” St John says. “We’ll take maybe 80 people, then there’s two weeks of intensive training where you end up with 50 to 60 people.”

Those who make the cut are taught how to stalk down a catwalk like a pro, how to strike a pose and other tricks of the industry, not to mention the mysterious art of the “I’m too sexy” stare. They also learn what to always carry in a model bag, so they are prepared for anything.

Although some of the models are thin enough to become invisible when standing sideways, not all have the typical model physique. This is a club after all, not the Janice Dickinson School of Self Loathing.

“A girl may not be the right height or the best walker, but she may take an amazing picture,” St. John explains. “We try to find what you’re good at. We look at the potential.”

Take Olodun, for instance. At 5’1”, she’s nowhere near tall enough to be a professional runway model, even with the face of the fifth place finisher in the Miss California pageant. But she likes fashion, art, photography and adventures in conquering her fears.

That’s how she and St. John built Opulent Image Models into a pretty credible agency that produces several fashion shows a year and whose models often are hired for outside work with stores like Macy’s and Dillards, local clubs and emerging designers.

“We have tenacity to spare,” she says. “Sometimes you just have to think of the big picture first and then worry how you’ll get there later. It will fall into place. We’re not afraid to fail and not afraid to be successful either.”

That go-for-it attitude led the pair to contact local stores and designers about providing clothes for the models. Not only did most of them loan clothes, many of them became clients for their own photo shoots. “It was inspiring to find the courage to ask and to see how easy it was,” says Olodun. “You never know what can happen until you ask.”

The agency has also worked with local and emerging designers Yasser Faraco, Piida Diida, Playne Jane Boutique, Eteeks Sivad, CJ Urban Wear and Carolina Mejides and Karen Mendivil, among others.

The first one that came on board was Alicia Kuhnke, owner of the Tiki Boutique, a shop in Miami Shores. She credits St. John’s “amazing, full-of-energy character” as the force behind making the fashion shows at the school as good or better than many other small shows she’s been involved in.

“At [Barry] it’s a lot more professional, they have the lighting, the settings and the models,” she says. “They do a great job. I like how their shows are not full-on runway; they incorporate dance and music. It’s more of a “show.”

The agency’s main show is in April every year and it tends to be more about traditional runway fashion. But the smaller shows are looser, incorporating dance routines that often showcase the Caribbean backgrounds of many of the models. One of last year’s themes, “Video Mayhem,” simulated music video styles.

The fashion show this past February had the theme “Around the World in 60 Minutes,” with models wearing fashions from every continent. “It’s entertainment, where you get to put all your hard work on stage,” says Cheré Harley, a senior in ultrasound technology, with loose braids and enormous eyes. “We get big crowds (sometimes in excess of 500). They come to see what we’re wearing, the performance we put on. The word of mouth gets [it] around. It’s getting exposure.”

Malikka McDuffie strikes her best model pose in ‘Around the World in 60 Minutes,’ a fashion show organized for this year’s FebFest activities February 18.

There are some models that go on to make a little bit of a career out of being a clothes horse. But most say that’s the last thing on their minds. Brittany McNeal, a psychology major, joined the club not so much for the modeling experience – she’d been modeling for years – but for the social development it provides.

“You build social skills, multitasking skills, networking, leadership,” she says. “It’s a club at the end of the day, not like an agency where you’re going to get jobs.”

Well, yes, Opulent Image Models is a club, even doing community service projects with organizations such as Camillus House and Habitat for Humanity. But its models also get valuable exposure in professional venues like the Miami Design Expo, Miami Fashion Week and Rip the Runway in New York.

But the models are students first. They look at the experience as a way to leverage their good looks into living a little bit of the fantasy life, while pursuing a game plan in college. Olodun graduated last year with a degree in political science and a minor in public relations. St. John plans to be an international trade lawyer, or perhaps work for the United Nations.

“People have said to me that doing this has given them the courage to write and ask for internships, to do presentations in class,” Olodun says. “You learn the confidence to try to do something that is important to you.”

That’s what Khristeene Sealey, finance major, hopes will happen when St. John graduates this June. He’s asked her to take over and keep the group going. She’s nervous about it since she’s never managed people. Then again, she wasn’t much of a model when she started, either.

“At first my walk wasn’t on point,” she admits. “It was normal, not a model walk. But I’ve become more confident. This group makes you become that way. It’s a lot of work, but we also have crazy fun.”