NEW YORK, United States — Casting agents are typically a behind-the-scenes bunch whose hand in selecting the right faces for runway shows, editorial pages and advertising campaigns is largely invisible to the untrained eye. But get-up-and-go Natalie Joos is anything but typical.
A striking blonde with a sharp eye, Belgian-born, Brooklyn-based Joos has not only done casting for a long and diverse list of clients, including Phillip Lim, Mark Fast, Hugo Boss, Lacoste and Jay-Z’s Rocawear, but she also slips seamlessly between a dizzying number of other creative roles, from styling to design consulting to blogging, and has become a regular on influential street style blogs like Jak & Jil and Garance Doré.
“As a casting agent, I am the liaison between the client and the model agency,” says Joos. “It could be a designer or a photographer or a producer who comes to me.’ Suppose it’s a Grace Kelly shoot; they want somebody that looks like Grace Kelly. Then obviously you have to look for a blonde, very beautiful, elegant girl,” she explains.
But finding the right girl isn’t only about picking a pretty face. "For an advertising job, because certain girls have certain rates, if you have a budget of, let’s say $20,000 dollars a day, certain girls will not be able to do that — like a Lara Stone will be like $100,000 — so basically, you have to ask an agency who they have available for a certain amount.
“For advertising, it’s usually an ad agency that designs a concept and there’s maybe five names that they come up with, like, ‘These would be our girls,’” says Joos. For editorials, by contrast, "you have more creative freedom. I look at a name of a girl, I imagine her in this story, I’m putting her in the clothes or in the decor, and I’m like, ‘Meh, yes, no, yes, no.’
"Basically, it’s as simple as that. Will this girl make it work? Will she bring something to the table? Will she enhance the images? Is she going to vibe well with the photographer? Runway shows, are “a whole other beast,” Joos continues, “because it’s not just one girl, it’s like 15 or even more… 20, 25, 30. It’s more like putting pieces of a puzzle together. They all have to work well together and help create a consistent vision.”
But casting for shows and shoots is just one of Joos’ creative outlets. In 2010, she launched a popular blog called Tales of Endearment, on which she posts “stories about friends, vintage, love, style and life.”
“I’m trying to find a way to do everything during the day, because I always take out time at night to write, and then I go to sleep at 1am,” she confesses. “It’s hard, it’s just a lot of work, but you want to do everything.”
Perhaps not surprisingly the blog has become something of a casting cheat-sheet within the industry. “It’s often used by people to do casting, like who’s cool at the moment,” says Joos, who often refers to the blog herself. "Right now, there’s a big trend in shooting real girls for ad campaigns — all these social people and DJs and singers and bands — so it’s very useful in that way. If I have to suggest people to clients, I go on my blog and look a little bit."
“People are more open-minded at the moment,” says Joos. Clients are going for “a cool, real girl. It’s just closer to your audience and the people who actually buy your clothes,” she continues. “You see stranger-looking girls, short girls, girls with gaps in their teeth, or bigger girls,” she adds, citing Marte Mei van Haaster as a model who sums up the moment: “She’s not particularly pretty, but she’s tall and she’s cool. She’s also older.” As for new faces to watch, “Josefien Rodermans,” says Joos. “She’s like a Karlie Kloss to me.”
Since last year, Joos has also made a move into styling, working with Natasha Alaverdian at Russian Harper’s Bazaar (who herself decided to expand into photography). So far, she has styled four stories for the magazine, including the all-important March cover. “[Natasha] was styling and shooting these stories that I was casting,” Joos recalls. “So I was like, ‘Why don’t you let me style something? You can shoot it, I can find the girl and I will do the styling.’”
“The first one that I did was pastels and prints. Then I did a shoot that was called Toy Story,” she says. “Basically, my inspiration was the little Jil Sander sweater that had a face on it — and Prada did these prints with cars — so I thought we should focus on everything that’s an actual object as a print, like a face, or a car, or a cat. And that’s how it started. Now I’m being asked to style shows and I’m doing some design work for Peter Pilotto,” she says. “It’s just something that happened organically. A lot of the things that I’m doing have just sort of happened,” says Joos.
In 1997, Joos moved from her native Belgium to New York, where she assisted legendary downtown writer and creative director Glenn O’Brien. “I had met this woman in Belgium who was starting a publishing company in New York and the first book that she was going to publish was Glenn O’Brien’s Soapbox,” Joos recalls. “Glenn was very good friends with her husband.”
O’Brien soon introduced Joos to his agent, Anne Kennedy, one of the founders of prestigious creative agency Art + Commerce. “She needed someone to do some production work for Craig McDean, so she introduced me. My boyfriend was a photo assistant, and I told him, ‘I met with this photographer today, this guy called Craig McDean.’ He almost flipped,” she laughed, recounting her fortuitous meeting with one of the biggest photographers in the business. Joos ended up working as McDean’s studio manager for six years and when she was ready to strike out on her own, it was McDean who encouraged her to pursue casting.
But Joos’ success story, more than the result of good fortune, is rooted in her fearless and ambitious willingness to embrace possibility. “I think I did a lot of things right,” she says. “When I was young and still in university, for example, I ended up backstage at a Dries van Noten show in Paris. There was one woman on TV in Belgium that did a program about fashion once a week, and I saw her, so I went up to her and I said, ‘I want to intern for you.’ In that way, I was ambitious. I was her first intern.”
Building a strong personal network has also been invaluable. “It’s all about connections. For me, it was, at least,” she says. “I was never a casting agent before I started, I never assisted a stylist, but I do all these things because of my connections. It’s very, very important to know people. Go out to parties, talk to people, be social,” she advises.
Indeed, if Joos regrets anything, it’s the time, during college, in the midst of writing her senior thesis on “the ideal standards of beauty in mass media,” that she decided not to approach Amber Valletta when she saw her in a Paris nightclub. “I really wanted to go up to her and ask her for a quote for my thesis, but my friend was like, ‘You can’t go up to her!’ I don’t know why my friend talked me out of it! That was one thing that I really regretted, never talking to Amber Valletta when she was at the club. It was like 4 am or whatever, but she was having fun, I’m sure she wouldn’t have minded.”
“If you want something, ask for it,” she insists. “If you don’t ask, you don’t get. I’ve gotten so many things achieved just by asking,” she recalls. “I went up to Style.com and was like, ‘I want to do a party with you guys.’ And they were like, ‘Okay.’ That was the defining moment. I was like, ‘Oh, it’s that simple?’ Just ask? Great. Don’t be scared. Don’t be afraid. People are very open-minded in New York. They love it when you’re an ambitious person and you’re determined.”
The Creative Class explores the personal and professional stories of leading creatives from across the fashion industry. More stories on Kate Lanphear, Peter Marino, Inez & Vinoodh and others are available here.
Tommye Fitzpatrick is a writer based in New York.