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Teen Model: Grace Hartzel’s Rise to the Runway
The hottest new face in fashion hails from Zionsville—but what does it mean to give up the last bit of childhood for a dream?
Editor’s Note, March 3, 2014: Yves Saint Laurent announced today that Grace Hartzel will play the fresh-faced lead role in its latest campaign, that for Saint Laurent’s Permanent Collection. Here’s a look at her road to runway success:
Mary Clarke sat in a St. Louis Cheesecake Factory and scanned the room. As owner of Mother Model Management along with her husband, Jeff, Clarke had kept her head on a constant swivel for 25 years. She was well-known in the industry for having discovered a young Ashton Kutcher in an Iowa bar and supermodel Karlie Kloss at a cattle call for a local charity fashion show. But what were the chances of spotting a model in a Cheesecake Factory? She had popped into the chain restaurant for a bite to eat after scouring the adjoining mall, often the best place to scout young talent. But as she ordered her meal, her eyes came to rest on a nearby table. There sat the most beautiful family, an attractive middle-aged couple with four children—two younger girls, a boy, and the eldest sister, who was chatting away. The girl’s expressive manner emphasized her high cheekbones and sharp angles. Her huge blue eyes looked exotic on her girl-next-door face. Even sitting, the girl was obviously tall—and very thin. Bingo.
Clarke walked over to the strangers’ table and introduced herself. Then she turned to the girl.
“Have you ever thought about modeling before?”
Kimberly Hartzel shared a knowing glance with Grace, her 15-year-old daughter and the object of Clarke’s attention. Grace beamed.
“As a matter of fact, I have thought about it before,” she said.
Two years earlier, Grace, then 13, had sprouted to 5-foot-9, though her lithe, bony frame was no surprise. Her mother, at 6 feet tall, was an active tennis player who overshadowed her opponents. Her father, Michael, towered 6-and-a-half feet and was mostly arms and legs. Still, it hurt Grace when her friends would joke about her weight (or lack thereof) at the lunch table in her Chicago middle school. She felt isolated, and her mother fumed. Kimberly remembered that age, when being tall felt like a burden—when boys ignored her or she had to slump down in pictures.
It didn’t help Grace’s confidence that she was struggling in school. She studied for hours and got B’s while her friends seemed to effortlessly score A’s. Some days Grace came home and cried, feeling she couldn’t meet the high expectations. But she was a beautiful singer; perhaps an audition for the parts of Eponine and Cosette in the school production of Les Miserables would give her confidence. As Grace took the stage to audition, she realized that the shoo-in for Marius, the male lead, was a head-and-a-half shorter than she was. Even after a killer performance, Grace didn’t get either part.
Grace was devastated, and Kimberly tried to think of another way to give her daughter a boost. What are things only girls who are very tall and thin can do? Modeling! Grace found an ad for an open call in downtown Chicago.
“Mom, can we go?” she pleaded.
By the following weekend, Grace was signed to her first agency, and modeling became a natural rhythm in the Hartzel household. Kimberly dropped off Grace in the city to take test shots and then picked her up, like any parent would after a sports practice or music lesson. Within a few months, Grace was walking in Chicago’s fashion shows and modeling for local companies, including a shoot for Carson’s department store. That fall, she made another leap: a spot in the Kohl’s juniors catalog.
Then, suddenly, in early 2010, Michael received an attractive job offer in Indianapolis. With the move, the drive to Chicago fashion shoots would be too far. This has been a good experience, Kimberly thought. She’s finally feeling confident. Her kids had tried many hobbies over the years and then, for various reasons, set them aside. She assumed modeling would be no different.
But modeling was one thing that always made Grace feel good about herself. Now here was Mary Clarke in a Cheesecake Factory, offering her a second chance. The Hartzels were only visiting St. Louis from their home in Zionsville for a few days, so Clarke arranged some test shoots for the following morning. Grace arrived and positioned herself in front of the camera. From the first click, she came alive, giggling and tossing her hair. Clarke, off to the side, took a few snapshots with her own digital camera. She e-mailed them to her husband, who was sitting in a cafe in Milan with modeling agents from the international agency NEXT. Jeff opened the attachment and flipped his phone around.
One agent leaned over Jeff’s shoulder. “Oh my gosh,” he said. “This girl is amazing.”
Within months of that serendipitous moment, NEXT signed Grace and began flying the Zionsville High School junior to shoots in New York and across Europe. In the two years since, Grace has walked the runway in more than 100 fashion shows from Paris to Milan for big-name designers like Chanel and Louis Vuitton. She has appeared in Russian and Italian Vogue. The paparazzi call her name in New York. She is a girl on the cusp of becoming a star—even if it means giving up the last bit of her childhood along the way.
At first, other parents would make judgments about the Hartzels’ decision to let Grace leave home to model, framed as compliments. “You’re so laid-back,” they would say to Kimberly. “I could never let my kid go to New York alone.” But Grace wasn’t alone. True to their business name, Mary and Jeff Clarke became Grace’s “mother agents”—essentially a stand-in set of parents for when Grace is away from Zionsville. In the beginning, the couple accompanied her everywhere—scheduling flights, introducing her to casting directors, traveling with her to fashion weeks. Eventually, they loosened the reins. Kimberly trusted them, and the knowledge that Grace was being looked after put her at ease.
Navigating New York, though, was still stressful for Grace—as was the competition. Some days, she would notice that the models around her were all tall and beautiful, too. In the Midwest, she had stood out; here, she was one of many.
Keeping up with schoolwork was no picnic, either. Sometimes, while waiting for a runway show to start, Grace would take out her laptop and calculator to work on math problems. Because she missed so many school days, she tried to get her assignments in advance. Still, she struggled. Eventually, she cut down her load to take just one online class, Algebra II, through Zionsville High.
In July 2012, Grace walked in her first “season,” as the release of designers’ collections is known in fashion-world parlance—the fall/winter haute couture shows in Paris. The couture shows often feature over-the-top, one-of-a-kind outfits. The other category of shows, known as ready-to-wear—those trend-defining pieces most likely to make it into boutiques and department stores—can mean even wider exposure for an up-and-coming model. Either way, one good season, in which a model stands out at multiple designers’ shows, has the power to transform an unknown into an “it girl.”
In Paris, Grace walked in the first Christian Dior show since Raf Simons had been named creative director—one of the most highly anticipated of the couture season. Donatella Versace and Diane von Furstenberg sat in the audience. At one point, Grace looked around and saw models she idolized, like Lindsey Wixson and Sigrid Agren, and realized: I’m here with them. I’m a model, too.
By the September ready-to-wear shows in New York, Grace felt even more confident. She had spent weeks running around town to castings and fittings, finally solidifying several high-profile gigs. During the famed Fall Fashion Week, Grace met designers and fashion editors like Anna Wintour and Nina Garcia, nibbled on kebabs backstage at Chanel, got lost a few times while running from show to show—and tried not to fall. It was at the Marc Jacobs show, though, that she had something of an epiphany. There, a hairstylist backcombed and twisted Grace’s hair until it was tall, wispy, and tangled. She then whirled the mass into a bees’ nest and secured it to Grace’s scalp. A makeup artist dabbed Grace with foundation, winged out a bit of black liner from her eyelids, and darkened her full eyebrows. She put on the outfit she had been assigned to wear: a beige, just-past-the-knee skirt with a cropped, sheer shirt atop a beige bra. For the final walk, the runway assistant corralled Grace and the girls into lines and told them not to move. The models stood behind mirrors, which flipped open at intervals to reveal each girl. Grace watched out of the corner of her eye as several groups of girls’ mirrors snapped up and they jaunted into the triangle-shaped runway.
Grace was nervous, but when she looked up, her reflection in the mirror caught her eye. She was proud of herself. Grace, even if you don’t get any other shows, this is so amazing, she thought. Grace’s mirror flipped open. Don’t fall! While Grace thrilled to her new life, Kimberly dealt with the hole her oldest child’s absence left at home. She had been preparing herself for the day Grace would go off to college—but she thought she would have more time. They still talked on the phone every day, Kimberly attempting to mother from afar, consoling Grace when she was passed over for a gig or giving her advice on how to market herself. Still, modeling had catapulted Grace into pseudo adulthood. She practically lived out of a suitcase full-time in a New York apartment with other models, doing her own laundry and cooking her own meals. With the help of the Clarkes, she began having more input into her schedule—requesting time off and asking for work in a specific city, like London or Paris. She started booking her own flights. Yet she often still acted like a teenager. On one of Grace’s brief trips home, she put on a minidress to go out with friends.
“Uhh … Grace?” Kimberly asked, with the raise of an eyebrow.
“Don’t you think that needs some pants?”
“Nope, I don’t.”
And with that, she ran out the door.
When Grace wasn’t home and Kimberly missed her, she tried to concentrate on the great opportunity. She was happy to see Grace excel in something she loved, and Grace peppered her with stories about the fun she was having, like the time she met High School Musical star Vanessa Hudgens. And about all the crazy fashions she wore—the purple wig and the bowl-shaped hats. She gushed about a cute male model named Richard.
Still, Kimberly couldn’t help but hope her daughter might eventually return to Zionsville. “Grace, are you done with this yet?” she often asked her daughter. “Don’t you want to come home?”
It was last December, though, when Kimberly realized that Grace might be gone for good. Grace had walked in the Chanel pre-fall show, an extravagant, exclusive event that the fashion house typically held at an international location—a gig
coveted by even veteran models. The company flew Grace first-class to Edinburgh, Scotland, where the show was held at Linlithgow Palace, a home to Scottish kings in the 15th and 16th centuries. There, Chanel’s notoriously picky designer Karl Lagerfeld, with his iconic white coiffure and sunglasses, thrilled Grace by telling her that she looked good in her dress.
When she flew back to New York, she called Kimberly.
“Mom, it was amazing. At the palace they had these huge glass tents over the lake—you could see out, but you were inside. It looked like it was out of Harry Potter!”
In that moment, Kimberly realized that while Grace’s reference was childish, the fact her daughter had been asked to the event meant she had reached a certain status in the modeling world. That what had once been an after-school activity could be the rest of her daughter’s life.
She’s not coming back.
Kimberly’s fears aren’t unfounded—Grace’s success isn’t just possible, it’s probable. Of the 7 billion people in the world, only a thin slice achieves “model” status. For starters, a tall, waif-like stature is required. Grace is naturally slender thanks to those genes from her parents, who also passed down to her the importance of eating healthy fruits and veggies as well as protein to keep up her energy while running around New York during 12-hour (or longer) days. That’s not to say Grace doesn’t indulge in dinners out or birthday cake. She loves waffles, milkshakes, and other desserts, and they don’t beef up her bony body—at least not yet.
But fashion-industry success takes more than just fitting the physical mold. The best models have a bold personality—a confidence without arrogance. A playfulness, a youthfulness. They also must grow up quickly and take care of themselves, to woo photographers and negotiate contracts. But to move beyond that, to truly ascend to the supermodel mountaintop, to be an artistic inspiration for designers—picture Kate Moss for Calvin Klein—that takes something special.
Though Grace has had an impressive year, her agent, Mary Clarke, says that in many regards, she has just begun her ascent. At the booking tables, Grace is still considered a “New Face.”
“As a New Face, she’s getting the level of shows and designers and magazine interest of a significant model,” says Clarke. “But the development period is so important because you’re preparing them for that next step—you don’t want them to peak too soon.” As mid-teen models grow and mature, Clarke explains, more opportunities arise. “All of a sudden someone will say, ‘There’s this brand-new girl who is the new face of whatever designer,’ and ironically, if they really looked, they’d see that actually that girl has been modeling for three years. It’s just that now she’s breaking out at a new level.”
Right now, Grace’s agents are waiting for that breaking-out point. And while Clarke is confident Grace has what it takes to have a long, successful career, many girls tire of the hectic schedule if they don’t see significant results, quickly. Clarke currently represents 25 to 30 girls. Each time she and Jeff add someone to their roster, they pin her picture to the wall in their St. Louis office. Mary had just taken down three pictures, representing three more girls who had tried and failed.
“You have to have passion for it because it’s not all fun and glamour,” she says. “There are times when you’re alone, when you’re traveling and you’re tired. Many times you have to make big sacrifices.”
Modeling isn’t the typical secure, salaried scene, either. Like any talent-based industry, it can provide barely enough money to eat or enough to buy a private island. Even when models land big shows, it can take several months to receive payment. The Clarkes say it is hard to tell what Grace’s earning potential might be, and the Hartzels say allowing Grace to model has never been about money (and are tight-lipped about her financial success thus far).
There are also more serious concerns. In a sense, young models trade in the adolescent peer pressure they might have experienced in high school for industry judgment. They constantly put their bodies on display, only to be passed over for other girls at the last minute. Story after story circulates about models dealing with anorexia, drug addiction, depression, even suicide. So far, Grace says, she hasn’t experienced this darker side of modeling. It’s the temptation to think she’s not good enough that’s always there instead, lurking.
The gap between Grace and her life back in Indiana appears widest during a visit home in March. At a Starbucks in Zionsville, the 17-year-old fiddles with her iPhone, making weekend plans with friends. Fresh-faced without a trace of makeup, she wears black skinny jeans, a black tank top, and Dr. Martens. An oversized kelly-green sweater she scored at a thrift shop in Paris drapes her shoulders. She sips steamed milk and honey. “It’s on the cafe menus in Europe,” she says casually of the concoction. “But no one really drinks it here.”
This is Grace’s first visit home since New Year’s Eve. In the last two months, while her pals have been in school and planning for prom, Grace has walked in 40 major fashion shows and taken all of her classes online. She wants to make her time in Indiana count.
“After this, I’m meeting my best friends, Kristen and Ashley. I’m going to meet them at El Rodeo, then we’re going to another dinner place, then we’re going to a movie, and then we’re having a sleepover,” she chirps, smiling. “Tomorrow we’re going shopping!”
Her bubbly personality and energy are engaging; this is the aura that has helped her land major clients. But at home that enthusiasm has also been a mask to hide her concerns. Insecurities often swarm her thoughts—and remind her of all she has missed.
In microeconomics, there is a theory called opportunity cost. Put simply, the term describes what one loses by choosing option A over option B. Though she would probably never characterize it in this way, Grace’s opportunity cost becomes palpable back in Zionsville. When she eats crepes in Paris or walks in a fashion show for Chanel or meets new friends from Russia, Grace can’t imagine doing anything else. Here, she realizes precious moments have passed.
In February and March, Grace walked in the fall and winter ready-to-wear collections, which took place in four cities: New York, London, Milan, and finally Paris. Grace could tell this was a special time. Before, she had only landed a few jobs walking for big names; now, a solid lineup of top designers had booked her. In New York alone she modeled in 17 shows.
It was there, walking on the streets with the Clarkes, that she realized she was beginning to make a name for herself. When a group of giggly girls passed by and saw Grace, they stopped and started whispering. “Grace, they wanted a picture with you!” said Jeff. “They knew who you were!”
Outside of the fashion shows, photographers swarmed her. They started calling her name: “This way, this way, Grace, over here! Grace, Grace, over here!”
That attention may be only the beginning. While in New York, she did a test shoot for a powerhouse beauty brand. If she’s chosen to represent that makeup company in advertising, the exposure could boost her to another level. Thus far, much of Grace’s work has been for magazines and runway designers, who sometimes seek out models with an edge. Advertising or commercial-work clients, on the other hand, tend to seek out classically beautiful models. Showing she has appeal in that arena would round out her portfolio and open new doors—and cause another piece of her dream to fall into place.
And yet, some days the sacrifices seem too much. “I mean, of course I’m missing out,” she says, as she sucks down the rest of her steamed milk and honey. “In school you see your friends every day, and I’m not in school. I’m missing out on basketball games, football games. I was already in high school for two years, but now it’s junior and senior year—it’s just starting to get good.”
Grace had hoped to be able to attend prom, but she was slated to be in London at the beginning of May. She later sees her friends’ prom pictures on Facebook and feels a bit of sadness. She calls them and asks, “Did you have fun?” and inquires about their dates and dresses. Those poufy gowns covered with sequins pale in comparison to the couture pieces she’s sported down runways, though. And she hates that she thinks this way.
But that night in March, Grace stays up late with her friends talking about boys and school. It almost seems as though no time has passed, until she spots a thick SAT prep book on a desk; her chums will be taking entrance exams and applying to colleges soon. She isn’t envious, but the realization makes her feel a bit more removed.
It doesn’t help that her friends don’t always fully understand her job. Grace flips through a magazine and stops on a picture of Lindsey Wixson, a model with full, curvy lips and a gap between her front teeth.
“She’s literally done every Prada campaign,” Grace tells them. “I think she’s so beautiful.”
“Grace, that is the ugliest girl I’ve ever seen,” says one of her friends, laughing.
Another time, Grace modeled in a fashion shoot for Wonderland magazine. The editors put her in a black wig with choppy bangs and pushed her elf-like ears out on the sides. She wore black leather outfits. It was a huge opportunity for Grace, and she proudly showed her friends.
“Grace!” one said. “You look scary!”
“People who don’t really know me have started calling me ‘Grace the Model.’ I’m like, oh my gosh, please don’t call me that.”
Still, Grace tries to stay connected through Skype, Twitter, and Instagram, though inevitably some relationships have dwindled. One pal, Daniel Sousa, says many of her female friends have broken off contact because of jealousy, or fears that Grace is snobby now. In the last few months, says Grace, some people have started to treat her differently when she’s back home.
“When I go out to dinner with my family, people will turn and look, or say things,” she says. “People who don’t really know me have started calling me ‘Grace the Model.’ I’m like, oh my gosh, please don’t call me that. I love modeling, but just Grace is fine.”
A few days into her March trip home, Grace’s family loads up the Hartzel Land Rover and drives to Destin, Florida, for family time. She plays a competitive round of the alphabet game, bickers with her siblings, and takes turns sleeping on their shoulders on the car ride down. At the beach, the days are filled with volleyball (which she played in high school), slathering on sunscreen to protect her porcelain skin, and eating fresh seafood. She has long one-on-one talks with her siblings.
Before she started modeling, Grace would go out with her friends every night—to Steak ’n Shake to drink chocolate-banana milkshakes or to the movies. Many times, Kimberly had to give her a guilt trip. “Grace,” she would say, “don’t you want to spend time with your family?” Now Grace fully engages, soaking up every second.
The last night, Grace curls into bed with her mom. They talk about Grace’s success, and laugh, and finally fall asleep. One last precious moment between mother and daughter.
The next day, they drive home to Zionsville, and Grace packs her suitcase to fly back to New York, and then Paris for a couple of months, to shoot the next round of collections. The dropoff at Indianapolis International Airport feels too familiar; planes make Grace nauseous, so once on board, she plugs in her headphones and leans back in her seat. She closes her eyes and tries to savor the family memories.
Then her phone buzzes, and she looks down. It is her agency in New York. The next day’s schedule is ready.
Photos by Stacy Newgent; Instagram photos courtesy Grace Hartzel
This article appeared in the September 2013 issue.