The Performer: Supermodel Coco Rocha

On jet lag, personal image and what it means when the product you’re selling is you.

Canadian Coco Rocha, the fashion world’s reigning obsession, was famously discovered at an Irish dance competition in 2002 (a skill she later showcased to great fanfare on Jean Paul Gaultier’s runway). Since then, Rocha, 21, has served as muse to fashion titans including Karl Lagerfeld. She has appeared in campaigns for Marc Jacobs, Dior and endless others. Recently, she landed at the centre of a New York fashion-week battle over models and healthy weight (at a size 4, she was deemed too “healthy” by some). On May 27, Rocha will host Strut for the Cure in Toronto, benefiting children battling cancer. She talked to Canadian Business deputy editor Lianne George.

What has been the single most important factor in your career success?
In fashion, a lot of it is who you’ve worked with. I mean, I had done castings and castings in New York and Toronto, and nothing really bit, and then I worked with [renowned photographer] Steven Meisel, and once he puts his stamp on something and says, “This model is my muse,” well, that’s when I was put on the map.

But there are millions of pretty girls around. What makes someone a muse?
First, it’s personality. A lot of people can take a good picture, but it’s how your personality shows through. And if you’re meeting a client and you can make them feel comfortable, then people start to say, “Wow, she’s different.” Those are the girls who are working every day.

What’s an average week like in the life of a supermodel?
It really depends who you’re working with. During show season, maybe it’s going to a fitting or seeing a client, doing a show and then doing another show or an editorial shoot. Otherwise, maybe it’s flying to a destination, doing some pictures and flying back the next day. I work with [cosmetics brand] Rimmel right now, so I do a lot in London. I fly there for a day or two, fly back to New York to do a shoot, then Rimmel may phone and say, “We’re ready to do another thing,” and it’s fly back.

Speaking of which, I read your mother was a flight attendant and you spent much of your childhood in planes. Do you have any secrets for fighting jet lag?
I’m pretty good about jet lag. If I have an overnight flight, I try to sleep it. If I have a day flight, I try not to sleep it. If I get there and it’s morning, I do not sleep until it’s night. I mean, I just get into wherever I am and I don’t think about, “Oh, it’s a five-hour difference.” There’s no such thing. You are in this city, it is now the time, you know? That’s how my mom has always done it.

How do you cope with the intensity of your schedule?
You have to be disciplined. When agents are telling you this, your parents are telling you that, and photographers are telling you another thing, you have to think about, “Who can I trust?” You need to know what you want. A lot of young girls don’t realize this until the end of their career, and they go, “You know what? I didn’t have to do all of that.”

What’s ‘all of that’?
Well, there were always physical sort of things I did not want to do, you know, nude shoots. I didn’t want to portray myself as that sort of girl right from the start. Although there were a few pictures that I could say that I’m not so proud of, in the end I have been able to keep my status as the girl that won’t take her top off when she gets on that set. I don’t do smoking pictures. I want girls to know you can portray yourself as a classy lady, and that there’s such a thing still out there.

How do you deal with all of the competition for jobs?
In the fashion industry, it’s always about the new girl, the new clothing. We’re always a season ahead, so I think a lot of girls feel overwhelmed when there’s a new group of girls, and then when those girls are established, they get a little nervous when there’s a new bunch. It’s just the name of the game.

It is the ultimate image-based industry. Does the scrutiny ever faze you?
It’s funny how, when you’re selling a product, you talk about changing that product so people will want to buy it. With models, our product is us, and people have the same thoughts about us. They think, “We need to change it, we don’t like it, we need it this way.” But I think a lot of people forget who they’re dealing with. These are young girls, not mature adults who know their skin. These are vulnerable young women that don’t know where they are in life yet. That’s why I’m a big advocate for models and a healthy body image.

What is your definition of a healthy body image?
I’ve gone really “healthy girl,” where I was working out every day, eating perfectly correct, and it just didn’t feel good. So, for me personally, I’m not into the crazy workouts every day and eating right all the time. You have to ask, what do you really want to do: work super super hard to work with all the people in the industry, or be comfortable with yourself and hopefully they’ll be comfortable with you as well?

The New York Times recently reported that you had become too heavy for some designers. Is it hard to read that stuff?
Any girl would be upset to hear that, but in this industry you realize you’re going to get it constantly, and I choose to try to ignore it. And there will be days where I’m like, “Oh, that was mean,” or, “That was upsetting,” but I just have to stop and think, “What industry are you in?” and if you don’t like it, you have to just leave the industry.

Lots of models — Heidi Klum, Kate Moss — have extended their brands into other areas like TV, cosmetics and fragrances. Do you see yourself doing something like that?
Well, I think every model should think about her future, because modelling is a very short career. So yeah, a lot of girls brand out from the industry. I think once you’re at a certain peak in your career, that’s the time to really think about what you want to do because of your connections with editors and business managers. For me, I really wanted to start my own clothing line, and I thought, “Well, you have so many people rooting for you, why not use the chance?”

So now you’ve got a fashion line coming out?
Yes, hopefully by the end of this year. I’m super-excited about that, and it’s a nice feeling to create something that excites me. When you’re a model, you feel like you’re just this thing sometimes, whereas now I get to show what I can do and hopefully people will take me seriously.