Karma Chameleon: Coco Rocha
She’s had a kaleidoscope of looks over her decade-long career, but Coco Rocha’s latest incarnation is to nurture the next generation of models. She tells Kate Wills about finding her voice, starting her own agency and coaching Kendall Jenner
This is how supermodels spend their Sundays – still in pyjamas at 2pm in the afternoon. “I just love a day in comfy clothes,” says Coco Rocha gleefully, sounding chirpy and much younger than her 28 years. “Sometimes I’ll get home and take off the tight dress and put on my baggy, baggy pants – I call them my Justin Bieber pants – with my fuzzy socks and a sweater and just get real cosy.” It’s a world away from strutting the catwalks in couture or her era-defining magazine covers, but then Coco Rocha has always been a woman of many faces.
Known for her ability to pull over 50 different poses in 30 seconds – Tyra Banks called her ‘The Queen of Posing’ – Rocha has also had more hairstyles than an undercover spy. “I’ve done red, I’ve done black, I’ve gone long, I’ve been short,” she says. “I play a lot of different characters, that’s the kind of model I am. If they’re looking for a David Bowie, I’m the girl…if they want someone who’s going to play an actress without speaking, that’s me.” Today she’s sporting an asymmetrical platinum blonde crop, the work of Nabil Harlow, Balmain’s Master Hair Designer, but Coco being Coco, she is already thinking about her next ‘do. “I’ve been blonde for six months now and it’s been fun but I know in a few weeks’ time I’ll be itching for a new look. My favourite look is always the new look.”
This spirit of reinvention has been key to her longevity as a model, alongside a prescient love of technology. It’s almost hard to believe now – in a time when models are booked solely off the back of their Instagram followings – but Rocha was one of the first in the fashion industry to realise the potential of social media. “When I started out it wasn’t really a thing,” she explains. “I had a MySpace account and then Twitter came along and no one really knew what it was for. But I enjoyed blogging and writing posts and started noticing that there were these random people I’d never met in my life who were writing comments to me. I realised that this is probably a really smart business idea for a model to be able to use this as a platform.”
A decade ago, the rarefied world of high fashion wasn’t totally on board with broadcasting every detail of your life, but Rocha persisted in using Twitter to address Photoshop injustices and posting less-than-glamorous-shots of herself in bed with fellow model Karlie Kloss watching TV. “I definitely had my naysayers and quite a few people told me it was a really bad idea,” says Coco. “They were confused and frustrated by what I was doing, but lo and behold all those people now have their own accounts, even their animals have their own accounts and that’s just how it is.” It crosses my mind that she could well be talking about Karl Lagerfeld, who she has collaborated with on various campaigns, and whose cat Choupette now has a 91k strong following.
Today Rocha puts most models to shame with her 16 million followers across 13 different platforms, including 2 million on Weibo – the Chinese blogging site. But she’s refreshingly honest about how exhausting it can be. “Social media is not fun any more – it’s a job,” she says. “I can spend 45 minutes staring into my feed going ‘What am I doing?’ When it comes to figuring out what the next post is and what it should say and where should it go and who’ll like it and who’ll dislike it, it gets to the point where you’re like ‘Why am I even bothering?’ But then again you know why you’re bothering because this is the business now.”
But connecting with people online is more than a savvy business move, it’s a form of empowerment. “Social media gave me a voice at a time when models were just seen and not heard,” she explains. It’s clearly a subject she feels passionately about – Rocha has spent her career advocating for young girls coming up behind her, including working for the charity Models Alliance, helping pass a New York State Law protecting underage models and writing an open letter in <The New York Times> about the prevalence of eating disorders in the industry. In 2012, Rocha began coaching rookie models on what to expect from the profession, including someone who now needs no pointers on the power of social media to build a brand – Kendall Jenner.
“Early on I did a modelling class for Kendall and Kylie,” she says. “It was when Kendall had just decided to start modelling so it was just some pointers on what [the job] entailed, what to expect.” Rocha recently took to Twitter to defend Kendall’s fellow squad members Bella and Gigi Hadid, calling them “the REAL DEAL”. So are these Insta It-Girls the new supermodels? “These girls are in everyone’s phone, they’re in every single tabloid with what they’re eating, wearing, doing. Even Middle America wants to know who they’re dating, what basketball game they went to see… and that’s exactly what it was like with the original supermodels.” And Rocha is quick to defend them against those who think they’ve selfied their way to superstardom. “I personally know that these girls work really hard, maybe even harder because there’s so much negativity towards them so they have to prove they deserve it. Kendall was modelling for many years before she got her break.”
Rocha’s breakthrough came back when the Kardashian-Jenners were still a twinkle in a reality TV producer’s eye. Scouted in 2002 at an Irish dancing competition in British Colombia, Canada, the 15-year-old Rocha’s first destination as a newbie model was Asia. At Taipei castings, models were given a theme such as “cutesy” or “feminine” and expected to strike a sequence of poses for one or two minutes without stopping. Rocha discovered she had a knack for it and soon she was shooting up to two catalogues a day. She naively assumed it would be the same in New York, where she moved in 2006. “A lot of people were like, ‘Why isn’t she staying in one pose?’ Some people snickered and some people were like, ‘That’s amazing!’” she recalls. One person who fell into the latter group was “model maker” and photographer Stephen Meisel, who selected Rocha alongside Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista as one of his favourite girls.
But perhaps her most memorable modelling moment came in 2007, when Rocha opened Jean Paul Gaultier‘s Scottish Highlands-inspired show by Irish-dancing down the catwalk. “I’d only done one show with him before that and all of a sudden he called me into the room while I was doing my fitting and said “I hear you can do the Highland Fling’. I didn’t have my dance shoes so he phoned a dance school in Ireland and they arrived two hours before the show.” she remembers.
But Coco Rocha didn’t simply waltz – or jig – her way into fashion history, there was a steep learning curve, too. “In the early days I knew absolutely nothing about fashion,” she remembers. “My agent told me to burn my clothes the first time I walked into the agency – I had zero style. I met Donatella Versace and Anna Wintour but I didn’t have a clue who they were. My favourite story is about when I opened the DKNY show and Donna was talking in the third person and said to me ‘Donna must like you’ so I thought that she was Karan, and Donna and Karan must be twin sisters,” she laughs.
Now Rocha has countless covers, campaigns and catwalk shows under her Zac Posen belt (the designer is a close personal friend). Last year she launched her own clothing line Co+Co and her own agency NOMAD models. “We wanted to move away from big corporate agencies and the cattle call of girls all doing the same thing and instead provide a new way,” she explains. Being an agent allows Rocha to implement the changes she wants to see in the industry. “It’s about doing our part to make sure we see more diverse models on the catwalk, different skin colours and body types. We are starting to see more Middle Eastern models, we have a Lebanese model on our books, Ahmad Chabayta, he’s also a professional soccer player. It’s about changing the conversation.”
As well as the agency’s global outlook, the name NOMAD also reflects Rocha’s love of travel. The model has been jet-setting ever since she was a child, when her mother was a flight attendant for Air Canada. “I’ve always loved Africa and I remember going on safari in Botswana searching for animals when I was little with my mom.” In October 2016 she spent time in Dubai, visiting her friend, the fashion entrepreneur Mohammed Sultan Al Habtor. “I discovered my new favourite drink is from Dubai – it’s like a mint and lemonade smoothie,” she says. “We went to see the Old City which has some really beautiful architecture. Mohammed knew all these interesting corners and rooftops to go take some nice photos… because of course the only reason you’re travelling is to take good photos for Instagram!” she jokes.
If you’re one of Coco’s million-plus Insta-followers, you’ll be used to seeing her loved-up family holiday snaps with her manager-husband James Conran and her daughter Ioni, 2. James put aside his career as an artist to manage Rocha’s expanding empire. “He knows the industry better than me now,” she says. “I know for some people spending all day every day with their husband wouldn’t work, but if we argue it’s mostly about home stuff, like whose turn is it to empty the dishwasher or why’s the toilet seat up?” For Rocha, being a model goes well with being a mother. “I’m very lucky in that I can make my own rules and bring Ioni on set if I want to. When I have a job that means I have to leave her I make sure I’m not away any longer than two days.”
The model often dresses her mini-me in matching outfits and Ioni seems to have inherited her mother’s love for the camera – the toddler has 51k followers on Instagram herself now. “I know some people think ‘My kid will not be in the public eye’ and I understand that,” says Rocha. “But we had paparazzi put cameras in Ioni’s buggy from the start, so we decided we’d rather put photos of her out there ourselves so that there won’t be any need for people to try and sell them. Plus, I’m like every other mom in that I want to share cute little photos of my baby!” And if Ioni wanted to follow in mum’s Louboutins and become a model too, Rocha would be supportive. “It’s an awesome experience and I’d be the greatest mom-ager!” she jokes. “But I think like most kids she’ll want to do the opposite of her parents, probably a scientist or something!”
Rocha has packed so much in, it’s easy to forget she’s not even 30 yet. But of course, in model years 28 is positively ancient. “I’m like every other woman in the world so when I see a frown line or a grey hair you do think ‘oh my goodness!’” she says. “I’ve never done fillers or Botox but I’d never criticise women who do. People laugh at me when I talk about looking older because to the normal world I’m very young, but in our industry I should’ve aged out many years ago. But then I guess we have models like Mae Musk, Elon’s mother, who is 68-years-old and modelling and gorgeous and there are models from every generation who are still going strong. I look at Iman and Cindy Crawford who are real inspirations to me because they’ve continued to model and do a thousand other things.” Something tells me that in a decade’s time Kendall and co. will be saying the same thing about Coco.