Creative Focus: Celebrity Genes

Walking down the catwalk were the usual suspects: models with creamy complexions, cheekbones you could hang a picture on and eyes the color of the Mediterranean. And then there was Natasha Caine. The daughter of actor Michael Caine is hardly a classic beauty. Then again, she doesn’t have to be. She wasn’t on the Gai Mattiolo catwalk for her beauty, but her bloodline.
What’s the best weapon for a little-known designer to fire up some publicity? Hire a celebrity kid to be in a fashion show. An added bonus: You don’t have to invest thousands in ads in Vogue or Vanity Fair. This method is a quicker bang for the buck.
Take Ivanka Trump. Of all the newcomers who starved themselves and faced calluses and cattle calls, hoping fashion week would be their big break, the one model whose face and figure was splashed on the front page of The Daily News was Ivanka Trump.
The offspring of publicity-seeking missiles Donald and Ivana made further headlines when she reportedly demanded the same $10,000 fee earned by veterans Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss. Although her Elite agent, who supposedly demanded these fees, quickly denied it, Ivanka’s dad didn’t. While many groused that this was prima donna behavior of the highest order, the Donald insisted his daughter was worth it.
The reasons why are disturbing–and they speak volumes about our culture. “These girls aren’t models; they’re media bait,” says Michael Gross, the author of Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women. “Their name-recognition factor is inheritable even if the talent isn’t. And if the marketer is lucky, their parents will be in the audience.” This hope prompts more media commotion for the designer. Witness the explosion of flashbulbs as the Trumps sat in the front row of the shows, smiles plastered on their faces for a photo op.
“Ivanka is not a supermodel and does not have what it takes to be a supermodel,” says Daily News fashion columnist Orla Healy. “But she’s been used to drum up excitement. It was so contrived.”
And so effective. As all smart marketers know, brand names sell. Designers got the buzz they wanted–and advertisers took the lessons of the runway to heart. Companies are now racing to cash in on the celebrity gene pool.
“For the most part, it’s an interesting, fairly economical way for people to tap into celebrity culture,” says Richard Kirshenbaum of Kirshenbaum Bond & Partners. He should know. His agency recently created a print campaign for Rockport using, among others, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., lawyer, environmental activist and scion of American privilege, to shill for the footwear maker.
“The American public doesn’t have any royalty, so celebrities have become our royalty,” adds Kirshenbaum. “In the same way people are interested in Prince Harry or Prince William, they’ll be interested in JFK Jr. or Kate Hudson.”
Savvy designer Tommy Hilfiger, who mounted an entire ad campaign around celebrity kids, would agree. To promote his jeanswear, he recruited celebrity genes–literally. Kate Hudson (Goldie Hawn’s daughter), Kidada Jones (Quincy Jones’ daughter), Kentaro Seagal (Stephen Seagal’s son), Ethan Browne (Jackson Browne’s son) and Mark Ronson (Mick Jones’ son) were hired at minimal modeling fees to go on a promotional bus tour of U.S. cities. Everywhere they went, these children of The Lucky Sperm Club were given star treatment by the press.
Coach also used stardom by proxy in its American Legacy campaign, which debuted in 1991 and ran for six years, testimony to the soundness of capitalizing on someone’s birthright. Aside from the obvious sprinkling of famous names, such as Gary Cooper’s granddaughter, they used Paul Einstein, the great-grandson of Albert Einstein, Gina Hemp Hill Tillman, the offspring of athlete Jesse Owens, and Jennifer Emerson, the great-great-great-granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, to publicize its brand name with those who also carried a brand name. What’s truly remarkable about Kirshenbaum Bond’s Coach campaign is that celebrity still resonates several generations later.
In fact, such a market for celebrity genes has been established that modeling agencies are now targeting Hollywood kids. The Ford Modeling Agency has just signed Kimberly Stewart, the daughter of Rod Stewart and Alana Hamilton.
Ford president Katie Ford considers Stewart a new star she will mold into a professional model. “They’re celebrities whether they earned it or not, whether they’ve created that identity or not,” says Ford. “They’re still well-known, and that’s celebrity.”
Of course, there are drawbacks to being a celebrity’s kid, as Carrie Fisher lamented in Postcards From the Edge. While a famous name will open doors, the second generation is expected to deliver the goods. The press will pounce like scavengers on rotting flesh if a celebrity kid doesn’t perform.
Just ask Sophia Coppola. Her father, director Francis Ford Coppola, climbed the Mount Everest of nepotism when he cast her in The Godfather, Part III. While her co-star Andy Garcia was hot, hot, hot, Sophia was not, not, not. “She was so painfully unprepared for this role,” says Roger Friedman, a gossip columnist for Cinemania OnLine. “The result was that it distracted the audiences and contributed to the film’s failure.”
By contrast, there’s no financial risk taken when a kid parades down a runway. No risk to have them smile for a photo op. No risk to have them pose for an ad campaign. “It’s the perfect blending of fashion and Hollywood,” says Andy Hilfiger, who devised the jeanswear campaign executed by Toth Design & Advertising.
According to Gross, the phenomenon of Hollywood kids migrating to New York for fashion shows began in the early ’90s. Sophia Coppola, Zoe Cassavetes and Donovan Leitch led the pack. “They acted like it was their God-given right to have the best seats, and instead of saying no, the designers complied,” says Gross.
The new designers recognized their promotional value, and a symbiotic relationship was born. For some, this smacks of elitism. By virtue of their birth, these kids get so many breaks, it’s enough to make the merit-minded among us despair. But ours is a celebrity culture; you notice them in spite of yourself. That’s the appeal of a brand name.
True, some of these budding celebrity models will last longer than a 30-second spot. This is America. There’s no sin in cashing in on the cachet of your name. These biology-as-destiny opportunities could be their big break, the foundation of a budding career. No one begrudges Stella Tenant or Nicolas Cage. Then again, Cage shed his name to prove he was an artist, not an arriviste.
Bill O’Reilly, an anchor for Fox News, blames the media for all this celebrity fascination. “I’m not sure the public is interested, but the media is,” he says. “To feed the media machine, they need to create celebrities. You always need new ones, so the next choice is their kids.”
Clearly, George Bernard Shaw was wrong when he said, “Martyrdom is the only way a man can become famous without ability.” In our society, beauty and ability are not in the eyes of the beholder–but those who hold the right name.