Top models are often perceived as aloof, empty canvasses whose 15 minutes of fame is based solely on their ability to elegantly strut back and forth.
Well, Dawn Leak breaks all those stereotypes. Not only does her modeling career extend over a decade, but she also has a master's degree in urban affairs.
Though Leak experienced success walking for Paco Rabanne, Issey Miyake, and Armani, she never took her meteoric rise for granted.
She understood early on that beauty and charm might open some doors, but it also takes intelligence and determination to keep those doors open.
Behind her soft, lilting voice is a woman who understands how to have longevity in an industry that is quick on glitter and flash, but sometimes short on substance.
After some 10-plus years in the industry, Dawn Leak is proving that beauty and brains do work on the catwalk.
The Fashion Spot (tFS): How did you get into modeling?
Dawn Leak (DL): When I was 17, I was discovered in NYC by a scout for Elite Modeling Agency, and they immediately sent me to their office in Paris.
Everyone in Paris thought I looked like Naomi Campbell, so to differentiate myself and give myself more of an edge, I shaved my eyebrows and my head.
In Paris, I worked with Jay Alexander who taught me how to walk. My first show in Paris was with Yves St. Laurent. I worked with Vincent Peters, Richard Avedon, and so many other great photographers.
Vincent Peters, who managed me, also taught me how to give the illusion of posing without really posing, which is really about continuous movement, posing between the poses. I did a lot of couture work when I first started out.
tFS: Why did your agency send you to Europe instead of launching your career in the States?
DL: In the U.S. you really need a look that is commercial and editorial. Elite felt that I was not commercial enough, so they sent me to Paris. Now, that was over a decade ago, and unfortunately models of color are still not readily perceived as being commercial. So, a lot of us go to Europe, build a very strong book, and come back to the States. In Europe, even though I had no experience, photographers and clients liked my look and took a chance on me.
tFS: What was it like working in Europe?
DL: Well, the agencies are very strict. European designers will immediately tell you what you need to work on; they hold nothing back. However, they are also very giving, and will work with you if they see that you are trying hard.
tFS: You have modeled for Givenchy, Yves St. Laurent, Thierry Mugler, Betsy Johnson, and a host of others. Could you talk about those experiences?
DL: Jay Alexander really helped me a lot when I first arrived in Paris, because I was green and didn't know anything. He taught me how to walk for Givenchy. For Givenchy, you cannot do the American horse walk, you have to walk slowly, and elegantly show off the clothes. You have to peel the clothes off, layer by layer.
I've walked in three Yves St. Laurent shows. Yves St. Laurent was very shy and he didn't interact with the models very much. His assistant Nicole booked his shows, so we really interacted more with her. Sometimes, I would see Yves St. Laurent out of the corner of my eye observing everything.
Thierry Mugler wanted a very deliberate, confident walk. You almost had to walk like the Terminator.
Betsy Johnson was very fun and upbeat. Because I had worked in Europe and done couture, I had to learn to soften my face for Betsy and be cheery.
When I walked in John Galliano's showroom I had to accentuate my angles and be very dramatic. And Jean-Paul Gaultier wanted a lot a drama in the presentation as well.
tFS: What would you say is your calling card, print or runway?
DL: I would have to say runway is my favorite because it is in the moment. Right before I hit the catwalk, I have this adrenaline rush that is unlike anything I have ever experienced. No matter the outfit, hairstyle, or crazy shoes, you have to tell yourself that you are beautiful, and bring it.
tFS: You were the Absolut Africa Vodka model, could you speak about that experience?
DL: It was interesting experience. The campaign was shot over a 14-day period in Niger. Per Zennström shot the campaign in the desert where we camped out. It was a real challenge sleeping outside, with all the bugs flying around at night.
Niger is a Muslim country, so I had to adopt the clothing restrictions. When I was not shooting, I had to be head-to-toe fully clothed. As a model, you have to adapt to all kinds of situations.
tFS: Dawn, you are not one of those models that sits around waiting for her agency to do all the legwork. You are always taking advantage of opportunities. Could you speak about that?
DL: In order to actualize your own dreams, you have to be your own boss and make things happen. You cannot sit by the phone waiting for it to ring.
tFS: Unlike many models, you have an advanced degree. How did you accomplish that and model simultaneously?
DL: When I came back to the States, my parents really wanted me to continue my education. So, I took a break and got my undergraduate degree; however, I did model while I worked on my master's degree. It was kind of awkward, because I had had all these world experiences and most of my classmates had not even traveled abroad. Some of them felt uncomfortable being around someone who had been a couture model, but I soldiered on, and overall it was a good experience.
tFS: What advice would you give young models?
DL: Work hard, believe in yourself, and don't take anything for granted. In this industry, because everything changes quickly, there is always an opportunity to learn something. Observe, and absorb everything.
tFS: What is next for you?
DL: I am transitioning into film. I have had some small roles, and I am writing screenplays. I am also involved in an online horror movie web series. I am continuing to model because I absolutely love it, but I do understand that you cannot model forever.
Photo credits: Per Zennstrom, Keith Mejor, and Nadine Raphael