More than a pretty face — much, much more. That’s a cliché, but it’s nonetheless true in the case of Emily Van Raay, the 21-year-old model and certified health coach from a small farming town in Southwestern Ontario.
Van Raay, who lives in Manhattan’s Financial District and is repped by Women/360 Management, launched an online platform called “Models for Wellness” in November, where she writes, edits and sources content from other fit, positive-minded models in the industry on the subjects of health, wellness and body image. She manages the site in addition to posing full time for beauty campaigns (for Dior, Clarins, Smashbox and L’Oréal) and magazines (like Purple, Elle, Glamour and Marie Claire.) And she realizes just how privileged she is to have those opportunities and such a place within the industry.
“I know how incredibly lucky I am to be born looking like an ideal, blonde-haired, blue-eyed, white female who’s thin,” she said. “It’s just luck. I often think, ‘What would I be doing if by chance I had not been born this way?’ This idea of beauty is really confusing…Beauty itself is something that I really want to move forward with dissecting. I never thought about it until I started in this industry.”
While Van Raay — who’s been modeling for about six years in addition to auditioning for theater roles — is no doubt grateful for her career, she found herself craving more. “Modeling is an amazing job but I’m all about achievement,” she said. “I realized this because I lost myself in the first few years. I didn’t feel good, and I didn’t know why. And it’s because I wasn’t building. The relationships I had with people were based solely on the fact that I was a model. I got really sad, and then one day I just snapped out of it. And I thought, ‘No one is gonna change it for you but you.’ It doesn’t have to be that way. You can be happy as just a model — of course you can — but I had to find other ways to keep myself stimulated.”
WWD: How did you start modeling?
Emily Van Raay: I was scouted in a mall when I was 15. It’s funny because I was so under the weather that day. I had gone to the mall with my friend to attend an open-call casting — she really wanted to go — but I was like, “I can’t go inside.” I had an intestinal infection. I also had purple hair. I was all crazy looking — I was in a little bit of a punk phase at the time. But thank God somebody came up to me and saw through the mist and shadows.
WWD: Prior to that, modeling had never occurred to you?
E.V.R.: It didn’t. I acted my whole life as a kid. When I was in high school and we did our last play, the judge at the regionals festival in Canada told me that I was a little too quiet for theater, but he was like, “You should think about modeling.” And I was like, “Okay, I guess he just doesn’t think I’m a good enough actor.” We lived in a very small farm community. Nobody really knew anything about that world.
WWD: How did your career take off initially?
E.V.R.: I was working at a fruit farm in Canada — separate from my parents’ farm — when the agency called me after they met me in the mall. My dad and I drove up to meet the woman who is now my agent. She was like, “You have so much potential.” Initially, my parents were a little reluctant. But when I booked my first job in Japan, they were like, “Okay, I guess this is pretty legit.”
WWD: When did you become interested in health and wellness?
E.V.R.: Growing up on a farm, this idea of balance was so natural and so native to me. I never knew anything different. At the same time, I could see — even as a kid — how strange everything was in terms of processed food and where it came from. The thought of a TV dinner and the meat being made from God knows what totally creeped me out. I wanted to learn more and find out why we were being sold and fed this. When I moved to New York, I went to the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and I’m a certified health coach now.
WWD: And did that lead to the idea for your Web site, Models for Wellness?
E.V.R.: When I started modeling, it turned from this fascination with where food came from to people and their relationships with food. Being in the industry, around all these models, I see how they are pressured and uneducated at such a young age. They’re expected to know what to do to fit this ideal size. I was always trying to educate all of these girls around me…I just had this whole problem with it. If the agencies have an accountant on retainer, why can’t they also have a nutritionist on retainer? It would be such a great investment for business. It’s just like construction, or any other industry: You’re putting a girl out there without a hard hat on. She just doesn’t know what to do. Everyone is struggling with lack of knowledge and education. They don’t really teach it in the schools, and when they do, its just the traditional, conventional food pyramid stuff — all the government stuff — aka what they say is healthy based on the economy.
WWD: Tell me about the site. What’s your mission?
E.V.R.: Models for Wellness is a blog platform where models who are educated in health talk about health, positive living, skin, diet…We try to get at it from all sides. It’s not just about nutrition and running a 5K. It’s about how you feel in your own skin. We talk a lot about body image…loving yourself and not comparing yourself to anyone. Models do it to themselves, too. We’re scrutinized by everyone around us. That’s why I think we’re leading examples — healthy, positive-minded models in the industry who glow with beauty because they love who they are, they treat themselves right, and that’s all there is to it. That’s an amazing role model for women to have.
WWD: Do you see the industry moving in a positive direction?
E.V.R.: There’s been a shift within the industry. Everyone’s moving toward this cool idea of health as opposed to dieting and smoking. It’s everyone: models, agents, photographers, celebrities, actors. With my Web site, I thought, “How can I give voice to that and make it accessible for people to see the healthy role models inside the industry?” We are this ideal and people will always look to it. There are so many beautiful, smart girls within the industry.
WWD: What are the rules you subscribe to for your own well-being?
E.V.R.: Just to treat myself right and work on proactively maintaining health all the time. I have days where I’ll have a slice of pizza, and I don’t guilt myself for that because I feel great, I’m healthy, I exercise. I guess it’s more, “Am I happy?” I ask myself that question. If I’m not, then I work on why. Diet does lead to a lot of imbalance in the body. I’m very attuned to where my balance is. It’s really interesting once you pay attention to it. Now I notice how knocked off I feel if I drink a lot. It’s not saying “Don’t drink,” it’s just about listening to yourself and your body, feeling good and being truthful with yourself.
WWD: What are your goals for Models for Wellness?
E.V.R.: I would love to be able to change the model stereotype. It is changing slowly, but right now it’s still stuck in that Nineties waif thing. That’s toxic because nowadays, anyone from 10 years old to 100 years old sees 10, 20, 30 models a day on their phones. If people still have this idea that models are skinny because of dieting, smoking, etc., this general idea they have is that models lead an unhealthy lifestyle, which may or may not be true for some. But I want to help promote the stereotype that models are health advocates. Models are going to the gym because they want to become strong, not because they want to be thin. Models are working out because it helps them feel good and balances their brain chemistry. They’re drinking green juices because it nourishes their body, not because they want to lose weight. That’s becoming very much true for many girls and so, on Models for Wellness, we’re promoting those ideas. I think it’s totally attainable.
WWD: Have you found that social media plays an important role in your career?
E.V.R.: I went without a phone for a week a few weeks back. I just needed a break. But now that I’ve taken on a business, I see how much opportunity there is for my own personal business and my own brand as a model. But one thing I think is really important is that models should set an example on their social media, and not filtering out who they are for what people want to see. Models have such a mass following now. It’s such a new thing. I think it’s important to not just become this brand, but to give people permission to be who they are, stand up for what they believe in — and believe in something because we’re role models. And a lot of models don’t realize that. A lot of models just don’t know how much of an influence they have. Selfies are great, but they’re not gonna change anything. And we can.
WWD: How do you think the industry should be changed?
E.V.R.: I really don’t think about changing the industry. Someone like Sara Ziff is working on changing the industry for models, and she’s amazing. But I’m more focused on what’s happening outside the industry and utilizing what’s working within the industry to help make positive change. I think it all comes full circle. Consumers play a big role in what goes on within the industry. If you show consumers this attainable idea of health that they never had before — as opposed to this frustrating, unattainable image of being unhealthy — then that will cultivate change within the industry. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s just how I’ve thought about it.