When editorial model Briauna Mariah moved to New York City in 2012 after signing with an agency, she found herself eating very little. After only two weeks in the city, she had lost two inches off her waist, a feat her agents would boast about. They urged her to divulge her secrets with the other models.
“It didn’t take too long to realize that I was not feeling very good in the morning,” Briauna said. “It was almost the height of my career, but at the same time, it was my lowest point.”
She discovered quickly that the modeling industry wasn’t exactly what she had hoped it’d be. She found the agents to be bullies. “I've never had a good experience with an agent,” she said. “They are not your friend; they are after their best interest.”
But rather than quit the industry and turn her back on the injustices completely, Mariah decided to face them head on by creating her own agency and becoming an agent herself. Briauna founded We Speak, an agency that represents healthy, drug-free models of all sizes, in 2013.
After incorporating in 2014, We Speak now represents nearly 40 models and has booked gigs for them with clients such as Refinery29, mindbodygreen, and Brooklyn Industries. Briauna, who has taken a hiatus from modeling, feels very passionately about representing models of all sizes and puts health first. “We Speak doesn’t consider models over a certain size to be ‘plus size,’” she writes in the site’s FAQ. “They are models and they are women. Health, like women, comes in all sizes.”
On a rainy Tuesday in an Argo Tea on 23rd Street, Briauna told me more about We Speak’s ideals and the steps a model should take if they’re considering seeking representation.
Can you tell me a little bit about We Speak?
The idea of We Speak started forming in my mind and it morphed slowly over time into an agency that represents health-conscious, drug-free models of all sizes and it's something that I feel very passionate about, promoting this health in the industry. 'Cause you've got this divide right now between 'plus-size' and 'straight-size.' Consumers are seeing Ashley Graham on Sports Illustrated, but that really doesn't mean anything right now, because there's still all of this really nasty, nasty stuff happening to young girls, models in general, that are being pressured to lose weight and not being paid and being bullied by these agencies.
We Speak is kind of a blend between the two worlds, and bringing it together with health and positivity. I like to consider myself a friend to all my models. Maybe a business-professional friend, but a friend, nonetheless. I try to look after them and make sure I'm working with their needs and they're never pressured to do anything that they don't want to. That's something very important to me because it's very common in the industry.
What steps does a model have to take to be considered 'healthy'?
There's a health questionnaire. It's holistic, so it's not just 'How much do you run?' and 'What do you eat?' It makes you consider relationships in your life and factors in your life that contribute to your happiness and your healthiness. So if you're feeling pretty good about your body and you feel good on the inside, that's gonna show on the test. We also require a doctor's physical. It's just four simple questions, but they have to go to a doctor. I'm not going to judge anybody based on medical conditions, or anything like that.
What about BMI? Does that come into play?
No, I don't look at BMI at all. BMI is not accurate. Definitely not. When the law in France was passed about BMI, I felt strongly against that. I represent models of all sizes. I have size 0, I have size 18, everything in between. You can be healthy at a size 0 and healthy at a size 20. Saying that if your BMI is underneath a certain amount, you're not allowed to do the runway? No, we should be looking at health. BMI is B.S.
Have you ever had to turn away models for health reasons?
If anyone doesn't meet that standard, I just have them retake it later. If I'm interested enough in them, I'll still work with them and usually, I am if I've sent them a quiz. The one cool thing I've heard from the models about taking the quiz is that it gets them thinking about their own life and how healthy they are and it gets them thinking about things that they wouldn’t originally think about. There's a question about finances in there. Like, are you financially healthy? That contributes to your mental health and mental well-being.
If someone is interested in working with you, would he or she have to have prior modeling experience?
No, but having good digitals can make or break a submission. I suggest having a friend take some pictures of them with lots of natural light, against a white wall, with little to no makeup on. The camera doesn't matter. It could be an iPhone, but the pictures have to show the model clearly. If they have a specific look we find fits our clientele, we'll contact them.
Where do you find your models? Or do your models find you?
Many models find us and apply online at wespeakny.com/model-registration. I find a lot of models on Instagram — the hashtags are key. Some models are also referred to us by current We Speak models. I've even scouted just in the city and on the subways.
There's definitely resistance. Most of the models that end up being booked are still within a certain requirement. But more and more who are looking for diversity rather than a measurement are coming out of the woodwork, so more and more of my clients don't really care as much about the size requirements. Granted, there are still certain requirements when a client has a very specific project with specific measurements, and so it's really just a matter of, 'What models do I have that fit these measurements, and whether or not they fit the look that they're [the client] looking for.' We Speak really holds our clients in high regard. Because they're doing something different by hiring healthy models, and we love that. We even highlight that with our followers and encourage shoppers to buy from these companies hiring healthy models.
Why do you feel that We Speak's message is important?
We value health and happiness. What's not important about that? Everyone deserves to find love in themselves, in their body, and feel comfortable in their own skin. It's important to bring each other up, and celebrate each other. It's not just important for the models, or the women. It's important for the brands, as well. We're in a time where consumers have a lot of power. If they do not like what they see, they'll happily take their loyalty somewhere else. And I encourage it. Support what inspires you, support the positive. If you do, you're helping create a better world.
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Elissa Sanci is a twenty-something writer who's now a grad student studying journalism in New York because she was reluctant to start the real world. Besides drinking too much coffee and daydreaming about traveling the world, she spends most her time writing, reading and complaining about the weather. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @elissasanci.