uns*An interview with the exclusively lgbtqia+ talent agency
10 August 2021
The fashion world and as an extension, the modelling industry, has been regularly criticized for upholding unrealistic beauty standards that are also steeped in white supremacy, sexism, queerphobia, and just about every other -ism and -ia out there.
Cora (they/them) and Max (they/he) are the founders of uns*, an exclusively lgbtqia+ talent agency that celebrates the vast diversity of the community, and advocates for the representation of all genders, sexualities, ethnicities, bodies, and backgrounds across all areas of fashion and media. uns* was created with a need to shake up the status quo and push for a more diverse and broader understanding of beauty. YEOJA sat down with the founders to chat about the motivations behind founding the agency, the need for agencies like uns*, and what the industry is like for lgbtqia+ talent.
YEOJA and uns* will also be hosting a workshop for aspiring models on the 14th of August. Sign up here.
How did you both meet and what made you both decide to found uns*?
Max: We met for a photo shoot in 2019. Cora was shooting a series called “QUEER BERLIN” and I was one of the models. After the shoot, we started talking about the industry, and especially how difficult it is for us as trans* and gender nonconforming people to be taken seriously. At the time, I was looking for representation, but no agency had the slightest idea about non-binary and trans* realities. Either I would have to conform to a “more standard female presentation” – or I wouldn’t make it in the fashion world.
Cora: I had only been working as a photographer for a year or so, and wanted to get into fashion photography but found my first experiences of it to be hostile. I couldn’t understand why people were so ruthlessly competitive when there was the option to support each other and lift each other up. After graduating with a degree in popular music, some of my musician friends created their own record labels to sign themselves to; it made them look more established and appealing in the industry. So when I first started looking into being represented by a creative agency I had the idea to come up with a name purely to make myself look like I was already signed (fake it ‘til you make it, u know), then after connecting with Max we felt an overwhelming duty to make it happen and turn it into something much much more.
Both of you have creative backgrounds – what has it been like to dive into the business world, which has historically been accused of gate keeping and homogeneity (typically of the straight cis white male variety)?
Cora: It was a massive shock to the system. We have both spent years surrounding ourselves with likeminded people – that being mostly queer, trans*, gender non-conforming creatives from all over the world. There was a really special time just before we officially launched when we were meeting all the models (we only knew around half of them before uns*) and getting excited with our friends and connections, then after the launch we were thrown into this weird world of holistic business buzzwords, formal conflict resolution, business psychology, bureaucracy, legalities, and so on. Going from doing small jobs and projects around Berlin to networking with cisgender, straight, white, wealthy CEOs and business people was just bizarre.
Personally I had a really intense couple of months where I suddenly became a Bad Business Bitch. I’ve always been really nice and smiley, and so quickly I instinctively developed this ability to demand respect and stand up for us, the models and creatives, and the agency without any fear.
Max: I worked in the art industry before, so I was already familiar with some of the structures, administrative tasks, and complex project management. However, organising a project that is detached from your identity is very different than putting yourself out there as who you are – especially if you are also someone who is experiencing discrimination within the industry.
What made you decide to name the agency “uns*” and can you explain the significance of the “*”?
Max: “Uns” is the German word for us. When we were looking for a name, we wanted to feel like this is representational of our communities. We thought about important LGBTQIA+ figures, but it felt all very cliché, and then we said that it just has to feel like us.
Cora: We wanted something short that had a bigger symbolic meaning. Something impactful and memorable that gives an idea of the essence of what we are doing. It was a massive lightbulb moment when we came up with “uns*” – we added the asterisk on the end as a way to signal that it means anyone who is like us, connects with us, supports us, anything, is one of us. We had to come up with something a bit longer for our website domain and instagram handle, so that’s where “wir sind uns*” (we are us in german) comes from, which is also an elaboration of the core meaning.
As mainstream agencies begin to book folx from marginalised communities, why do you think it is still so important for agencies like “uns*” who are exclusively focused on lgbtqia+ talent who cross intersections of race, body size, etc. to exist? Do you think there is a level of care and understanding you are able to provide your models that mainstream agencies still lack?
Max: We definitely hope that we can provide a better understanding for our talent’s needs. The fact that we have both been in their [the talents] shoes also gives us unique insight into the issues that could occur. However, as two white people, we are quite privileged and there are still topics that we have to educate ourselves on. Once we are able to hire people to work alongside us, our absolute priority is hiring BiPoC, so that as many perspectives as possible are represented, and not just in front of the camera.
Cora: As queer non-binary people, by default we have a deep understanding and empathy for the struggles of being queer/trans*/gender non-conforming in this industry, which means that the relationship we have with our models is already very unusual for a talent agency. We are and will always remain sensitive to the needs of our talent. This means working out how to continue to accurately represent them while they begin HRT (Hormone Replacement Therapy), or undergo gender-affirming surgeries. Self-expression is so so important to LGBTQIA+ people, and the majority of our models have tattoos, piercings, non-standard haircuts, etc. We want to celebrate and encourage this, so we don’t control how uns* models should maintain their appearance.
As an extension of the last question, when working with communities that have been systematically mistreated in an industry that is notorious for the mistreatment of even the most cis, white, thin, models out there, how do you ensure safety on set once the bookings are made and the models are on set? Do you have guidelines that determine which clients you will and will not accept? Max, as a model yourself, do your own past experiences help you in this department as well?
Max: Being trans* in an environment that is so based on stereotypes and has no intention of lifting them, is quite tough. Most of my experiences center around my gender not being respected. For example people using wrong pronouns – sometimes even on purpose – or fetishising me. However, my whiteness and thin privilege have protected me from a lot of discrimination, specifically racism. Without an agency who had my back, I was very selective with who I worked with. I wasn’t willing to put myself into a situation that could be potentially harmful. Other models didn’t have that option, as they depended on the money.
Cora: The fashion and modeling industries are notoriously oppressive and cut-throat. Although we were of course aware of this before launching uns*, witnessing the racism, transphobia, homophobia, and fatphobia from industry professionals first-hand is always going to be like a kick in the gut. Of course as white people we will never have the lived experience of racism, but we will always do whatever is in our power to prevent or resolve situations where our talent are subjected to discrimination.
The safety of our models and creatives on set is one of our biggest priorities, however there are simply some instances where we don’t have the power to create the ideal environment. Sometimes we are one small cog in a big production machine, and while we do have measurements in place to protect our talent, the reality is that no one can protect everyone from harm at all times.
How have you felt the fashion and modelling industry have responded to both you, your agency, and your models so far?
Max: The feedback has been very positive. Brands and companies seem to love the idea and are very interested in working with us. We have had very good experiences with jobs and projects in the first few months since launching. I was especially happy to see that even though there seems to be still a lack of knowledge about several things, especially when it comes to representational questions, many partners are actually interested in learning and understanding.
Cora: We were naturally apprehensive about entering the world of business with something that represents the identities of our communities, and although there have been some pretty uncomfortable moments, the vast majority of responses from our communities, clients and press, has been wonderful. Our white privilege along with Max being a native German speaker and me being a native English speaker have enabled us to push the agency as much as we have, but being two young afab (assigned female at birth) business founders has got us into some really unpleasant situations. We are subjected to misogyny and intrusive questions about our identities which sadly we know will always be an issue, but we would rather risk putting ourselves in these situations so that we can minimise the harm that comes to our talent.
As non-binary founders who have created an agency with the fundamental goal of creating more representation for marginalised folx, would you say that your work is not only about getting your models more visibility and coin but also working to push for a less toxic environment in the fashion and modelling industry as a whole?
Max: It is such a big task to say that we want to push the modelling industry as a whole, especially because we are the first and only agency in Germany that has this focus, but I would definitely say yes. This is something that has been in the making for many many years and BiPOC Communities have had a big role in making this happen. LGBTQIA+ people are becoming more visible in mainstream media and change is slowly happening in mainstream industries. We are still contributing to building the foundations, on which this transformation can take place. We have our vision of an ideal industry, and so do our models. It can be difficult to make this transformation happen at times – jobs are usually booked very spontaneously, and there is not much time for education. In order to make a change, we are really looking into working with partners long term and conceptualising projects that are beneficial to all of us – models, brands, and us.
Cora: Absolutely! The fashion and modeling industries are hostile, competitive, and so so harmful – and that’s the case even if you’re cis, straight, white, thin, and ablebodied. The toxicity and harm caused in the industries are self-perpetuating, and we want to put a spoke in the wheel to bring about an end to the damage it does to everyone involved. Our biggest priorities are to get people paid, represented, and respected, and when these basic boxes are ticked, then the knock-on effect is a clean up of the stinky attitudes that cause such a damaging environment.
How have your models responded to being part of your agency? Especially for models who were previously managed by mainstream agencies?
Max: A lot of our models weren’t part of agencies before, as they didn’t fit in the categories or noticed that agencies did not understand their struggle and wishes. Most talent told us how happy they are that a space for them now exists. We heard that some of the agencies didn’t care about how things went on set from those who were previously represented by mainstream agencies. We want to create an atmosphere where our models and creatives have the feeling that they can come and talk to us – whether it’s about good things or criticism.
Cora: One of our models couldn’t believe that the contract didn’t include selling their whole image to us. Mainstream agencies want to control your appearance to make their own work lives easier, but for LGBTQIA+ people, image is a key tool of expression and community which are things that are constantly policed, attacked, and ridiculed. We would never take that away from our community. We hear horror story after horror story from our models about the terrible comments they have been given from other agencies, and it makes our skin crawl to think about grown professional adults telling 16 year olds to lose weight to be signed. uns* models aren’t props, they are people, and they will be viewed and treated as such.
We love the idea of broadening the definition of what a model “should” look like. That being said, we imagine you do not take on just anyone who applies. How do you balance having to turn potential models down while also remaining true to an inclusive concept of what “beauty” “should” look like?
Max: This is very difficult for us! We get a lot of applications and would love to accept more people. Unfortunately, we are just a two person company, and at some point, it gets too much and we have an obligation to our talent that are already with us. I can’t explain how we choose our models. We often look at an application and say “That’s what we are looking for”. Practical decisions are also part of how we choose. We have a limited capacity for taking in new faces, for example. We also do not want to turn into an agency full of white talent, as we don’t want to create a white washed image of the LGBTQIA+ communities.
Cora: Beauty can’t be defined by a word or a face. It’s a look, a feeling the person gives you or evokes in you, or a way of being. It’s an energy and a style and a history. We aren’t looking for high cheekbones or a chiselled jawline, we’re looking for a certain kind of magic in someone who knows how to tell their story.
Lastly, what are your ultimate goals for the agency?
Max: Definitely making new connections and finding new partners to work with. We would like to book more campaigns that are really LGBTQIA+ led and where we have the word on how we want to be represented.
Cora: Our vision is to create the space for LGBTQIA+ people to enter every corner of the fashion and media industry and change it from the inside. I’m talking about transformational, fundamental, and long-overdue change. Change of the attitudes, procedures, traditions, norms, perceptions of everyone and everything so that everyone, especially marginalised people, have the opportunity to pursue not only a career in fashion and/or media, but also to embody their true identity and expression free from harm.
Photographer, Creative Director, Producer: Rae Tilly
Photographer Assistant: Sarah Hauber
Stylist: Bass Jjoorr
Hair and Makeup: Gianluca Venerdini
Max and Cora wear items from Haha You’re Ugly Berlin and stylist’s own wardrobe. Accessories are models’ own.