Kelly Gray makes living the St. John lifestyle look easy. Her cool aura anchors the brand’s image, after all. But it takes plenty of effort. Out in the middle of the Arizona desert in a dusty, rinky-dink theme park, Gray poses with her pack of grizzly male models-cum-cowboys for the summer ad campaign. The women on her crew have stripped down to tank tops and shorts. The guys are bare-chested. Gray, who has served as the company’s president since 1996, is dressed in head-to-toe black leather and sweating it out.
“I can take the heat as long as you can,” she calls out to photographer Neil Kirk.
Today Gray is playing cowgirl, but most often she appears in St. John’s ads as a composed blonde everywoman, projecting a glamour that’s just out of reach. And it’s hard to separate the real Kelly Gray from her iconic image. In person she’s part no-nonsense businesswoman, part flirt, just like her St. John persona, a woman shown alternately boarding her private plane dressed in a knit suit and carrying a briefcase or wearing a dazzling gown while draped across a low couch somewhere in the Casbah, aloof from the coterie of scruffy-looking hotties who surround her.
“Advertising for us is a little bit of selling a fantasy,” says Gray. “One of the concepts behind the campaign is to take our customer to a place she hasn’t been or can’t go on her own, usually an exotic destination or lifestyle.”
To fuel the fantasy Gray and company have traveled from Greece to Kenya to Marrakech to Las Vegas to St. Petersburg to Java to the Seychelles, always doing from 50 to 100 shots during a two week stint. But Gray is more than the face of the company. She’s the brains, too. Kelly began working in the St. John offices in Irvine, California two afternoons a week at six years old. By 15 she began appearing in the ads, but her role in the company steadily grew as she became more involved with both the business and in the design studio.
Today, Gray still models for the cause, but as the company’s heir apparent she’s got a lot more on her plate. Besides her daily duties in Irvine and extensive photo shoots, over the next few months, Gray will travel to Asia to nurture a growing business there and will spend time in Italy overseeing the expansion of the shoe and handbag lines. Her travel strategy? “I’d rather just keep flying East on red-eye flights so I don’t lose time,” she says. “I just sleep on planes.”
But it isn’t all work. While away on this shoot, Gray takes a live-hard, work-hard approach, staying out `til all hours to play shuffleboard in a bar with her boys, as she calls the male models, then waking up for a pre-dawn call time. She takes business calls on-set between shots, and her recent honeymoon was the first full 10-day vacation of her career.
“Kelly is more motivated than any model you’ll ever meet,” says Kirk, who has been shooting the campaign since the early Nineties. “You don’t have to deal with a lot of garbage on the set like you do when someone is only booked for the day. She understands exactly what needs to be done.”
She has had plenty of practice. “I was a kid when I started,” says Gray. “I was excited to have my face in a magazine. Unfortunately, at the time, the only magazine we ran in was Town and Country, which not many teenagers ever see. It was like this secret career.”
Gray’s extracurricular endeavors didn’t remain a secret for long. “It’s a huge advantage if you can afford to use the same model for all the shoots,” says Robert Gray, “because there’s an association there. When the customer opens any magazine and sees that face, they realize it’s a St. John ad.”
Of course, he also realizes the practical benefits of Kelly’s dual role. “Even if she wasn’t the model, she’d still have to be there on the shoot,” Gray adds. “Might as well kill two birds with one stone.”
After all, the luxurious St. John look has always balanced the glamorous with the practical. “Our clothes are not so much artistic, they’re wearable,” says Kelly. “They’re designed to sell. We really want customers to look at our ads and think, `I could wear that.’ But when you’re working with clothes that are geared to an average customer, sometimes it’s hard to make them look glamorous. It’s hard to take a customer to this fabulous place unless you’ve got a great backdrop.”
And though Gray’s real life may be less glamorous than the version captured on film, she and her crew have not only racked up the frequent flyer miles, they’ve seen plenty. Four times a year they travel together, negotiating with the customs office in Egypt to have the clothes released, navigating through the Atlas mountains in Morocco, recruiting the Russian navy for a picture. They’ve seen a Buddhist temple rise from the mist on a lush mountainside in Java and have ridden in the back of an open jeep speeding across the bush beside a herd of running elephants. Along the way, Kelly has also survived a cheetah’s scratch and a tiger’s bite.
“Grace Coddington from Vogue was a huge inspiration to me,” she says. “She always went on those big trips to Greece and to Russia and Prague. I measure editorial success by the layouts I remember — when after five years you can still recall the clothes and the location, the mood or the feeling the pictures gave you. That’s the same sentiment we go for in our ads, something that’s fairly memorable.”
Out here in the desert, Gray is definitely giving the tourists passing by a little something to remember. Dressed in a crystal-encrusted American flag T-shirt and an electric blue, Vegas-y sequin pantsuit with star buttons, Gray strides alongside a white convertible Cadillac with two cowhands in the back seat, a cowhand riding his reluctant horse alongside, and the three models in their campy cowboy finery marching behind her wrangling a 20-foot-long American flag. An industrial strength fan is wheeled in and trained on their banner, glammed-up with glimmering paillettes in the St. John workroom, and as it roils, the boys struggle to hold it steady.
Neil hands her a pair of St. John sunglasses.
“Why do you want me in sunglasses?” Gray asks.
“Because you’re squinting, Kell.”
“So just tell me not to squint,” she says, handing the glasses back and opening her eyes wide against the curling dust.
Though her father once fired her — at age 12 when Kelly was filling in as his receptionist — the company image and its business are now in her hands. Just ask Dad. “Being around her as she grew up, there was no question in my mind that she had the capacity to become an icon,” he says. “She’s a great salesman.”