Creating Opportunities; A Conversation About Modelling With International Model Melissa Riemer

Melissa Riemer

When Melissa Riemer got her break into the world of modelling she had a tougher road ahead than most models. At the time she was living in Melbourne, Australia – where she was born and raised.
While the city was known for diversity within food, culture and music, the advertising and fashion world seemed to be the last frontier for representing different races and cultures. “I was fifteen or sixteen when I signed my first modelling contract with Chadwick Models. I’d only ever seen blonde haired blue eyed surfer girls in magazines and advertising in Australia, but one of my bookers – Madonna, took me under her wing and really built me up as a model representing more than just a brand.”

It was the early 2000's and the Australian ideal of beauty was predictably the surfer girl, with salty golden hair and nordic blue eyes. Melissa took the challenge in her stride, setting out to change the perception of clients and public, into seeing her and other minority models as more than just the “exotic” token offering. “It was a big wake up for me, I had always felt Australian, but suddenly clients were saying “You look more Asian than we thought. Sorry we can't hire you for this campaign, that's not the image we want to project.” I didn't understand why there wasn't anyone that looked like me or my friends on billboards or in magazines.”

Riemer's mother is Chinese but born in Australia, and her father is a German immigrant. “Growing up in my household was a lot of fun. We would eat goulash one night and then a Chinese herbal soup the next, I absolutely have to thank my mum for my love of cooking and experimenting in the kitchen with different flavours and mixing cuisines.”

Melissa Riemer

The Early Years

With two years of school left to finish, Melissa spent her time testing with top photographers in Australia. “I really got a sense of what the modelling world was like. Photographers seemed to be genuinely excited to shoot something different. Instead of calling me exotic, they would say my features were a breath of fresh air. I booked a lot of runway, but the commercial clients were still reluctant to take a risk on something they deemed so different. I get it and I don't blame them at all, but I made sure I turned up to every casting, even when I knew the client had their heart set on a model they'd used before. It was a numbers game to me, if I was persistent and could book just one commercial job, I knew I'd be able to show them how much the Australian market wanted and needed diversity.”

Her break came when she booked a jeans wear campaign with three other models. “It was a dream come true, I'd worked with these girls at catwalk shows and on the TV show Deal or No Deal during school holidays, but suddenly we were all hired as the face of this big brand.” Her mother was so excited by the campaign, that she went in store to ask to keep the life size poster of her daughter. “It was so funny, I came home from school one day, and there was this giant two metre tall poster of me and my friends sitting in my bedroom.”

After that, the jobs seemed to fly in. Riemer had expected to take a year off between graduating high school and attending university, but it seemed the industry had other ideas for her. “I'd always been interested in pathology, so I deferred from the course I was in at Melbourne University, fully expecting to return. Obviously that never happened, and magically I'm still modelling as my full time career.”

The campaigns started flying in one after another. Riemer booked jobs that were nationally and internationally seen. “I remember when there was just me and one other Asian girl on the books at my agency. It was like there was a quota of one, maybe two minority girls and that was all the agency could handle; then all of a sudden there was an influx of diverse models being signed. It was amazing seeing girls that looked like me at castings and jobs.”

Melissa Riemer

Exploring a New World

Her first contract abroad was to New Zealand, Auckland, where she discovered a whole new world of modelling. “The first casting I went to was for a popular fashion chain. The client opened my portfolio and wouldn't stop complimenting me on how international and unique my face was. At the time I didn't really get it, I was young, but there were so many times people would assume I was half of whatever they were. I felt like I really bridged that gap, as did so many other diverse models at that time.”

Whether she was being mistaken for a Japanese, Filipina, Maori, Islander, Hawaiian or Latina it was all taken as a positive. Every chance to make diversity the norm, was seen as an opportunity. “My roommate was this really well known model. She'd already been on the cover of every magazine in Australia, including Vogue, and was staying in NZ for a month to experience the city and build her book before she moved to New York. She was this blonde, tall, editorial girl who went on to become a Victoria's Secret and Gucci model, but it was so interesting seeing her book mainly editorials and catwalk. I worked two or three times a week on commercial jobs and she would be working intermittently on shows or these cool conceptual editorials. I felt like the tables had turned, all the girls I'd be working with in New Zealand were mixed or minority races.”

Hitting her stride for international placements, Melissa modelled for years in Asia. “Singapore was the first market I went to where I realised I could be working every day. From there I tried pretty much a lot of cities in Asia, bouncing around from place to place. You get treated like a celebrity simply for being mixed. I met some models who had never even worked in their home cities because clients wouldn't book them, but then they would make a lot of money on a single contract in Asia.”

During that time Riemer made many friends and said it's a common misconception that models are unsupportive or even try to sabotage each other. “Some of my closest friends to this day are people I met while I was living in model apartments. You learn to adjust to things fast. While there's always going to be frustrating parts of the job there's just a likely to be a model there to help you out. I've had model friends care for me when I've been too sick to leave the apartment, and likewise I've taught some of my younger roommates how to cook and deal with day to day agency issues.”

Melissa Riemer
Melissa Riemer

Giving Back

Riemer is so impassioned by her drive to help newer models in the industry, that she contributed to a model handbook for an Australian model academy and wrote regularly for model blog “More than just Models.”, which was set up and run by a former Swedish model she met in Thailand. “When I started writing for more than just models it was awesome to be able to use my passion for writing as well as my knowledge of the fashion industry.”

She has sage of advice for new models that she's eager to share. “The industry has changed so much since I started. These days girls can just as easily get scouted on instagram as they can on the street. Still, I think the same precautions need to be taken. Always look over your contract carefully and take a day or two to read over it. You don't need to sign anything on the spot. If an agency insists, then there's likely something shady going on. An agency will never charge you joining fees or force you to pay training fees.” When Melissa first signed to her agency, she bought her mother along for moral support and as another set of eyes. She took her contract home and had a family friend who was a lawyer, check over it to make sure everything was kosher. “It wasn't that I didn't trust the agency, I just wanted to know exactly what was expected of me and them. I think I made one or two amendments that worked for both the agency and I while I was finishing school, after all it's a two way street, they (the agency) work for you as much as you work for them.”

It's apparent how avidly Riemer wants to share her knowledge of the industry with the new generation of models. “If you're feeling pressure to be an unattainable size or look, then stop, take a step back and reassess what's most important. Health and happiness should always come first. I broke into the industry before diversity was even talked about. I made it work for me, not the other way around.” She also has plenty to say about working with reputable agencies and photographers. “It's so easy to get a private message on instagram and have a shady photographer reach out to you. If you're with an agency, always refer the photographer to your agency. That's what they're there for – to filter out the good from the bad. Don't ever feel pressured into doing something you don't want to on set, even if it feels like something as little as not wanting to hold a cigarette, or something as big as a client asking you to wear something see through. I've luckily only had to call my agency a few times over the years to ask them to step in, which is something they've always gladly done. What it comes down to, is, they have your best interests at heart. They want you to be portrayed in the best way possible. That probably means they'll say no to a lot of photographers who approach them, but every agency has a plan for every single one of their models.”

Lastly, her final piece of advice goes back to her extensive time spent working in the industry. “While it seems kind of counterintuitive, I think one of the best things I did when I was starting out was paying for good test shoots. None of the money you pay for the shoot goes to the agency, if they're reputable. It goes towards the photographer hiring the studio, the hair and makeup artists and the stylist. A time-for-print shoot is great for learning, but there are photography teams who are more established and don't test for free anymore. I was so fortunate that my agency at the time guided me into shooting with Vogue photographer Nicole Bentley, before she was signed under an exclusive contract. After shooting with Nicole, I booked a crazy number of direct jobs from my comp-card alone. Clients didn't even bother bringing me in for a casting, they would book me straight off my portfolio. I think that goes to show the power of a high quality test shoot.”

Signed with multiple agencies worldwide, her career is as strong as ever. On top of her other creative pursuits Melissa has turned her hand to writing scripts for film, as well as writing and performing music under her stage name Isla Noir. She’s also made the inevitable transition from modelling to screen acting, all the while holding strong to the fashion industry and her position in the world of modelling.

If you take one thing away from her pursuits, it's “make the industry work for you, not the other way around.”

Melissa Riemer
Melissa Riemer

Model: Melissa Riemer
Photos by Louis Lay
Article by Noah Asanias