Even before you learn that Natalie Hand runs Viva London, works with the most beautiful models, speaks two languages and has a degree, you see red hair, gorgeous eyes, hear her soft voice and… well, if you are anything like me… you lose an ability to put words into proper sentences. When we first met, I totally failed being me – I just smiled and swallowed everything I wanted to say. All I could think of was being in a very special place (both literally and metaphorically) and meeting somebody who looks like Christy Turlington (in her supermodel days) and has the best job in the world.
When my brain got back to functioning again, I asked her for an interview – being the treasure that she is, she agreed.
Who did you want to be when you were a child?
An actress. I played Mary in my infant school Nativity play and loved it, even though I remember cringing at 'Joseph' as I thought he was bit of a nerd. I sung and dance playing Marta at the age of 10 in The Sound of Music at Nottingham Theatre Royal. I thought I had really hit the big-time (!) and I even learnt how to yodel! After that I wanted to be a barrister for a while.
When did you feel that fashion really got under your skin?
I must have been about 16, when I started studying for my A levels. The 'Supermodel' era was peaking and I managed to be swept away by the tail end of it. I was more fascinated by the glamour and excitement than the clothes themselves at first I think.
How did you get into the industry?
Pure fluke if I'm honest. I was moving around unhappily trying various post-graduate jobs for size when one day I saw an advert for a 'Junior Booker' at a model agency in the newspaper (probably the Media section of the Guardian). I liked the sound of a model agency as I certainly loved fashion. But also I had been infected with a curious passion for faces since poring over those pictures of Christy, Kate and Claudia. I loved how they could appear to be like silent movie actresses in the pages of fashion magazines. Such chameleons, such storytellers. The thought of being able to play my part in bringing these magical stories to life by finding the right 'actress' for the role... I knew it would be a challenge I could relish.
What are the most treasured memories about working in fashion so far?
One of the most fulfilling things is how you grow with the girls. You can take on a New Face with lots of potential and over the months and years watch her bloom - both personally and professionally. You become very close and revel in their triumphs as much as if they were your own. This is not only a memory but fortunately an ongoing reality. But I also was lucky enough to watch many McQueen shows. They were definitely some of the most emotionally moving experiences of my career.
My most favourite moments - I suppose being privy to the inside world of the fashion industry, being able to watch incredibly talented people (many of whom have become friends), create inspiring and beautiful things and moments. Working with them to help their visions become reality.
Having had the chance to live in Paris for seven years. The combination of that city and fashion is particularly unique and powerful.
What are your favourite Parisian destinations?
Maison Mere, fantastic cosy restaurant near my apartment in the ninth arrondissement.
Azzedine Alaia's outlet shop in the Marais.
The view from the top of Sacre Coeur will always make you catch your breath.
And there are not enough parks in Paris! A downfall actually for an avid runner like me.
And I just have to ask about Parisiennes... Could you share some of their secrets for looking so effortlessly chic and beautiful?
The ability to age gracefully. In fact I am convinced that French women manage to become more gorgeous, sexy and sophisticated with age. They don't follow fads but seem to know themselves very well, what suits them and what doesn't. They all have a very good dermatologist too.
And your won style… Can you describe it in five words?
Simple, elegant, lean, effortless, bold
Are there any unfashionable things you do?
Gosh so many things I'm afraid. But if I had to choose one - you should see the horrendous slippers that my boyfriend hates but I love because they keep my feet warm... my feet are always, always cold.
Lets talk about modelling as I am sure many girls would love to hear your thoughts on that...
It takes an awful lot of character and courage to succeed as a model. To be spotted just means a girl has the physical requisites. But a really successful career requires intelligence and ambition and a lot of hard work on her part. And she will have to love the industry because in the end the top photographers, stylists and designers like to work with people who inspire them too… especially their muses! When they work with models who have something to add to the equation it sets them apart. What is quite interesting is a trend at the moment towards using older girls. Saskia and Kati are two of our most recent success stories at the ages of 31 and 29 respectively. They are women with interests and opinions. I believe that models should keep up their education for as long as they can. Edie Campbell is currently in her final year at the Courthauld Institute studying for a degree in Art History for example.
What qualities make a top model? Apart, of course, the physical appearance... How do you choose the girls who become a part of Viva?
Aside from what I said earlier about personality of course...
People often say that they can recognise a 'Viva' girl but it is difficult to put the aesthetic into words. The best I can do is to say that we always look for true beauty but with a slight quirk - something that sets the girl apart and makes her unique. Often this is enhanced by intelligence, personality, ambition and personal style. You always know it when you see it.
What should a young girl do to get into the industry?
Make sure never to have test shots done by anyone in the hope of being taken on by an agency. The best agencies know what they are looking for - and personal snapshots and digital Polaroids will most definitely suffice to start with. You can of course also actually going in person on an open call so the agents can meet you.
My advice, to reiterate what I said before, is to continue education for as long as possible. If your career is well managed then modelling and education can definitely work in tandem with each other. There will be periods when you cannot work very much of course and others (such as holiday times) when you can. But the most important thing is to find an agency you trust and communicate well with and then you should find this works smoothly.
And what do you think should a young model do to succeed?
After making sure that you are being looked after by a great agency that you respect and like... Try to learn as much as you can about the business and watch and learn from the best. Listen to good advice from people you trust and work hard. Most importantly, enjoy it! Modelling can give you so many incredible opportunities and experiences. Grab them and enjoy them! Your zest and enthusiasm will make you even more attractive to clients.
And what qualities make up a top model?
Ambition, determination, charm, intelligence, hard-work - as well as beauty.
How do you feel when you see Viva models on a catwalk or in fashion magazines?
Incredibly proud always. From the New Face who has just walked in her first show to seeing Edie grab her first i-D cover for example to Natalia shooting another cover of British Vogue… as an agent you always feel proud. You have seen the girls grow and develop, often after overcoming setbacks. You help them on their way, try to give them the guidance and tools to grow... but in the end it is up to them to blossom.
7 things about Natalie:
Favourite dessert: fondant au chocolat (best in Paris)
Best way to relax: meditation (should do more really), reading. Or occasionally a great massage.
If you could be anywhere right now, where would you find yourself? In Santa Monica, staying at Shutters on the Beach.
Most favourite item in your wardrobe? At the moment it is my Kinder Aggugini cowboy print jumper.
Shoes or bags? Can I say jackets?! If not then it would be Churches penny loafers..
Books or magazines? Both at different times. But I really do love books. I wish I had an entire Library room like in Downton Abbey!
One of your guilty pleasures: 70s disco music. I am a gay man trapped in a woman's body when it comes to music taste...