John Casablancas, 1942–2013

The agency boss who invented the supermodel

When John Casablancas ventured into the modeling world in the 1970s, the business was anything but sexy. The superagents of the day were Eileen Ford and Wilhelmina Cooper, who provided chaperones for their models and made sure they were tucked into bed at an early hour. Casablancas acted more like the manager of a rock band, encouraging his young charges to embrace a lifestyle of champagne, wild parties, and massive paychecks. “We gave them huge amounts of money, and we gave them names and personalities,” said Casablancas, whose coveted roster of talent included Linda Evangelista, Gisele Bündchen, Cindy Crawford, and Naomi Campbell. “They became a dream for the larger public. They became supermodels.”

Born in New York to wealthy refugee parents who had fled the Spanish Civil War, Casablancas spent his early 20s traveling the world and flitting between jobs, said The Independent (U.K.). He found his calling when he arrived in Paris and met his future wife Jeanette Christjansen, a model and former Miss Denmark. She encouraged Casablancas to launch his own agency, Elysée 3, representing photographers and models. After a rough start, he founded a new business, Elite, that would focus only on high-end models. Casablancas moved the agency to New York in 1977, and Elite was soon generating more than $100 million a year in booking fees, said The New York Times. His models became idols, and their egos expanded “in direct proportion to their earnings potential.” Evangelista famously quipped in 1990 that she wouldn’t “wake up for less than $10,000 a day.”

Casablancas reveled in the company of beautiful women, and frequently slept with the talent, said the Los Angeles Times. His public affair with Stephanie Seymour in 1983, when he was 41 and she was 16, ended his marriage with Christjansen. Casablancas scoffed at criticism of his “sleazy” behavior, but his reputation was badly damaged by a 1999 BBC documentary that showed Elite’s European agents boasting about taking drugs and bedding young models. “Casablancas was not implicated in the scandal, but he left the agency the following year.”

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After selling his shares in Elite, Casablancas lashed out at the “spoilt troublemakers” he had made famous, calling Bündchen “a monster of selfishness” and Heidi Klum “a German sausage without talent.” His biggest regret, he said in 2000, “is that I created the supermodel. They can be impossible, impossible.”

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