LIVING Tiana Pongs knows the modelling world inside out, from her 15-plus years in the industry as a sought-after, full-time professional. The model and actress tells us about her new book, Keep Smiling: a Career Guide for Models
First published in the September 2020 issue of Lucire KSA
In the features we’ve done on modelling over the years, one thing that surfaces regularly is that it’s a tough game. While in many countries, it’s easy to identify reputable modelling agencies, the internet brings predatory practices closer to everyone, regardless of their physical location, and larger markets also present a confusing array of legitimate and not-so-legitimate representation.
Tiana Pongs, who began a full-time 15-year modelling career in the mid-1990s, and scouted when she was a teenager, believes that 90 per cent of the modelling links online are dubious, and, as a guide to anyone wishing to enter the industry, has penned a book, Keep Smiling: a Career Guide for Models, based on her own extensive experience in the field.
Pongs, who hails from the town of Mönchengladbach in Germany, was offered her first modelling gig in 1995 by a friend of her parents, working at the Collection Première Düsseldorf. A year later, she was recruited by a top agency in Düsseldorf, balancing her work life (she worked exclusively at weekends during this time) with completing her high school studies and her A-level exams. She attended university, studying psychology, while her modelling career blossomed, doing commercial work in Paris, appearing on magazine covers around the world, walking on the catwalk alongside the likes of Naomi Campbell, and, to date, remains the Wella Pure Blonde packaging model, for which she still earns royalties. She continued modelling after the birth of her son when she was 23, and was wise enough to invest in property with some of her early earnings in the business.
She tells Lucire that she began writing Keep Smiling—and an earlier German edition of the same book—out of an annoyance that she was answering the same questions repeatedly. ‘So, I thought to myself, just write it down. And then you can say, “Buy my book, everything you want to know is in there.”
‘Since it is a guide, I actually had to find a logical structure for the book but that was not that difficult; the whole process took maybe two months.’ There was no question that the book would appear in English soon after its German release, in order to get a wider market, and, as Pongs points out, ‘The business is English.’
The book itself is logically structured, as Pongs says, and written in a conversational tone. However, do not mistake the casual, approachable tone for lightness: she has packed it full of useful information that every budding model—and maybe even some who have been in the industry for years—could stand to gain from. Pongs looks at what life is like from the agency and client point-of-view and the industry classifications, as well as her first-hand experience living the life of a model. She discusses how to start out to find an agency, what to do on a fashion shoot, going to castings, finance, image rights, maintaining good health and skin, the workings of different countries, and a glossary of industry jargon.
She is candid about the dangers, including less scrupulous individuals who try to influence young girls into immoral activities. She is also up front about the sort of money models can expect for commercial work, and provides an international list of legitimate agencies to approach. A colleague, Stefan Kögel, contributes a chapter on male modelling.
Despite the prevalence of selfies in the age of Instagram, Pongs is clear that not everyone can be a model, even if plenty seem to want to be one. ‘The job requires some prerequisites just like any other job. You also have to restrict the terminology here. There are many types of models, up to so-called “faces” in casting agencies, but these are not “models” in the classic sense. You have to have the right figure and a pretty or very interesting face and the right height, otherwise you can’t be a model.
‘Haute couture shows in Paris or Milan certainly have the toughest requirements when it comes to size and height,’ she says.
‘There are now commercial shows as well, for example the Victoria’s Secret show. Karl Lagerfeld got to the point with his statements about Heidi Klum: “Heidi never made it in Paris, so she’s not a model.” What nonsense, Heidi was a Victoria’s Secret model and has had a great career in her own way.’
Social media have changed the field for commercial modelling, says Pongs. ‘Here the social media channels are checked as well as the Sed card [a card with the model’s vital statistics and photos, also known as a composite card or comp card]. That’s how the business has changed today.’
She doesn’t believe those taking Instagram selfies and indulging in self-promotion could be called models. ‘These are influencers, but not models. However, customers are now looking at the number of followers and there are jobs that are decided afterwards.’ This is certainly a phenomenon that this magazine has reported on. ‘For customers, social media is simply an additional platform for placing advertisements. Influencers are not models, but models can be influencers, of course!’
Pongs bought her first property when she was in her mid-20s, as a way to prevent herself from spending all her earnings. ‘In the business you can earn well and a lot of money, so you should also start investing early,’ she advises. By the age of 30, Pongs felt it was time to move on, and has since notched up some acting roles in her native Germany.
While being a mother is her first role, Pongs says she feels she is both a model and an actress. ‘I will continue to shoot advertising campaigns if asked to do so and the fee is right!
‘During my career I have always shot, for example for daily soaps. I also shot a number of commercials. Modelling and acting are closer than you think.’
With her son finishing his high school, and forming his own plans, Pongs is looking further afield. She already divides her time between Germany and the us, and the latter, specifically Hollywood, may be calling. She is also a World Vision ambassador, travelling to highlight the plight of some of the world’s poor and in need.
She explains, ‘Well, the heart of the acting industry is Hollywood. Of course, all actors know that, too. I personally fell in love with New York as a child. And from the mind you cannot explain why you are attracted to a particular country. I always preferred to live in the us rather than in Germany. But that’s a personal feeling. For me, Los Angeles is the perfect mix of a life by the sea and still being able to work. And even if you first have to get used to the American mentality as a European, I like it. I also like the climate in California.’ Her son’s plans, meanwhile, might take him to New Zealand for gap-year travel, before heading to university in Berlin.
Being involved in World Vision was an easy decision for Pongs, who began sponsoring a child when she was 16. She was drawn to the charity after a film report about starving children. ‘I was crying at the time and wanted to fly straight away and bring the kids something to eat … I think it is important to give back, especially in such a privileged life that we live. In 2008, I did a tv commercial for World Vision. And as a public person you have a role model function, so it is a special honour for me to be able to work with World Vision for this now.’
Pongs’s creative spirit remains strong, and says there are no typical days for her. ‘A normal day starts for me with coffee and working on the computer, answering emails, etc. And then everything depends on what’s coming up, there is a twist, it may be that I am learning texts. Likewise, for an audition. Or pack suitcases for the next trip. Or just answer a bunch of interviews because I’m in the middle of my book promotion.
‘I love that no day is the same and to always have to deal with new people because I get bored quickly, so I love life the way I chose.’ May that love of life long continue. •
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