SME Spotlight

Hands-on approach to training models

Ms Bonita Ma could not afford an office in the early days, so she used her mother's Housing Board flat in Clementi for meetings and training. The agency now rents a studio and office, and her team includes an artist manager, a booker and a public rel
Ms Bonita Ma could not afford an office in the early days, so she used her mother's Housing Board flat in Clementi for meetings and training. The agency now rents a studio and office, and her team includes an artist manager, a booker and a public relations manager.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

Bonita Ma's agency grew from a one-woman outfit to have 70 models and a new artist division

A models' management firm that describes itself as a "mother agency" might seem out of place in a competitive sector, but founder Bonita Ma believes in keeping a maternal eye over her charges.

Basic Models Management tries to guide its models, aspiring or experienced, through all the aspects of a cut-throat business.

It helps models work with secondary agencies overseas, as well as polish and groom local hopefuls "from scratch", compile their portfolios, assign gigs and send them for castings.

The agency has around 70 models available for booking and an enviable track record in the industry.

Basic has produced celebrity models such as Ms Fiona Fussi, who appeared in Chanel's YouTube make-up tutorials this year, and Ms Aimee Cheng-Bradshaw, who represented Singapore in the third cycle of Asia's Next Top Model.

Yet the fame and glamour are far removed from Basic's struggles to establish itself in its early years.

Before starting the company in 2012, Ms Ma worked as a manager in another modelling agency here, which eventually shut down.

The agency boss had left the country, leaving models who had contracts with the company jobless.

She was the only agency manager there at the time.

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"We had this pool of girls here. We had to be responsible for them," says Ms Ma, a Singapore permanent resident from Hong Kong, who is in her early 30s.

"So we started the agency very quickly. It was supposed to make sure they keep working."

It was very much a one-woman show in those days, with Ms Ma working even when she was about to give birth to her son.

While receiving an epidural in her delivery room, she was texting Ms Cheng-Bradshaw, who needed directions to a show casting.

"She was like, 'Why aren't you replying me?' " Ms Ma recalls.

And the next text message when the penny had dropped was: "I'm sorry Bon. I think you're delivering now."

Her son Daken is now four years old.

Ms Ma had help from her husband, digital marketer Alex Lee, 32, but there were just not enough people to do the work.

"We had to make a lot of phone calls to tell people, 'Hey, you know, there's a new agency in town.' "

Ms Ma's team has since expanded and now includes an artist manager, a booker and a public relations manager.

But she remains active as the head booker, coordinating jobs for the models and distributing the workload.

"There are a lot of bosses that move away from the front line after a while, but I'm still in the front line," she says.

"I have help right now, but that doesn't mean that I'm not doing anything."

Basic has two divisions: fashion and artist.

The fashion division covers campaigns, catalogues and lookbooks, and their models have taken part in fashion week in Milan, Paris, London, New York.

If a new recruit is lanky enough to sashay down the runway for the long term, then he or she can join the fashion division.

The artist division is where the photogenic recruits work in movies and TV shows.

It started this year due to mounting demand from the entertainment industry.

Things have changed quite dramatically for Ms Ma since those early days.

While she declines to give revenue figures, the agency now rents a studio and office in Irving Place near Upper Paya Lebar Road.

In the early days, models had to go to a Housing Board flat in Clementi - the home of Ms Ma's mother - for meetings and training.

Ms Ma could not afford to have an office then. Instead, she invested around $3,000 on a laptop, printer, name cards and composite cards, which are individualised contact sheets with models' photos.

She also paid the utility bills, "as a form of paying rent to my mum, since it was her flat", says Ms Ma.

She scouted for fresh faces on social media, had some referred to her by existing models and held open castings, which she still does today.

Those trying out have to perform the catwalk and pose for the camera.

A blog post written by Mr Lee on the firm's website sets out the requirements clearly, with instructions such as: "We are not expecting you to walk like Victoria's Secret models. In fact, you are not allowed to walk like that in most fashion shows."

Aspiring models who audition for Ms Ma have grown from 20 to 200 each time, with only six to 10 making the cut.

At first, there was a lack of interest, Ms Ma says, which could be due to parents and potential clients being unfamiliar with the agency.

She believes credibility for the modelling profession in Singapore is sorely lacking.

It is hard for a model's career to take off and stay lucrative in the long run here.

"South Korea can do it, Taiwan can do it, China can do it. Why can't we?" Ms Ma says.

"It's all about building a system."

Her dream is to make a dent in the international market with her home-grown stars.

She says some have already received acting offers from Hollywood.

"That is what I would want to achieve at the end of my life," says Ms Ma.

"That's what we are working very hard towards."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 27, 2017, with the headline 'Hands-on approach to training models'. Print Edition | Subscribe