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By Raffaella Tomassi
John Horner is the man who spends the money the world’s most successful models make. Horner has been Managing Director of Models 1, the UK’s leading modelling agency, for over a decade now. Bringing his advertising and marketing background to an industry entirely founded upon image has proved a profitable match, generating a yearly turnover of around £10 million. In the agency’s Covent Garden headquarters, John Horner spoke about his rise from wrapping packages for Dorland Advertising to becoming the beautiful people’s leading man.
Horner and modelling took a while to come together. After a rapid ascension through the advertising and marketing industries – “full of title shmitle” – Horner decided on an early break. “I took a year out, set up a children’s clothing business, and tried and failed to write a book about the Lebenon and the Palestinian situation.” It wasn’t until an American head-hunter encouraged him to get back in the game, demanding, “‘Johnny Horner what the f**k are you doing, get networking, go and get a proper job,’” that he arrived at Models 1 in 1999. Brought in by its head bookers to guide them through a management buy-out, he “had to structure it, produce the business plan and raise the money, do the business. The plan was to sell it in five years and eleven years later I’m still here.” Clearly models were not part of Horner’s plan, so what keeps him interested?
It quickly transpires that Horner is a businessman, rather than a modelling man. “Business is about money in and money out, and obviously you’re as good as your product or service and your ability to sell it. So I don’t really hold the view that there’s any business that I couldn’t turn my hand to, that’s very arrogant but there isn’t. The principles remain the same in business.” Instead of an eye for faces, Horner has an eye for facts and figures – “I love data – there’s no amount of things you can’t do with the data, there’s no amount of things you can’t learn by looking at data.” Horner’s relationship with his work is, at its heart, a creative one. He points out his children’s clothing business as an example – “I invented it, I designed the patterns, I designed the clothes, and we did the photography and we did the catalogue, all that sort of stuff. So I am fundamentally creative, it’s probably my main gene.’
This becomes apparent when reflecting on his turnaround of a dated Models 1. The workings of the business become another branding opportunity, as he is very careful to stress the integrity of the agency. “We’re completely transparent and we pride ourselves on our financial standards and always, always have done, long before I was ever involved in the business. It’s absolutely part of our brand identity, absolutely critically so.” Horner is emphatic about the differences in between Models 1 and Premier, the agency documented by Channel 4’s The Model Agency. Referring to the volatile scenes on the show he insisted, “We do not operate in any shape or form like that. We don’t behave in or out of the office like that. You do not have rows inside this office. You move to a conference room or you move out. We don’t have fights with the models, we don’t scream and shout at clients on the telephone. We behave absolutely properly.”
However, surely the professionalism of a business is harder to maintain when its product is people, and even more so when profitability is determined by appearance? “They’re self-employed and they do sign a set of terms and conditions. Within that they agree to keep themselves in shape and it doesn’t mean to say ‘skinny linky’, you know, anorexic – the Italians seem to like anorexic-looking models on the catwalk – we don’t have anybody here that looks anything like that.” Horner’s engagement with the body image debate is strictly business – “If they are overweight and they’re not getting work because they’re overweight we tell them to go to a gym and to diet, not diet stupidly, not stop eating or anything. One of our models is rumoured to have been told by one of our bookers to stop eating and that booker has been completely balled out.” Models 1’s real concern lies with models that are underweight. The anorexia and bulimia charity Beat holds workshops with the agency that the bookers are sent to. Horner stresses that, ‘It’s important they understand what the signs are and more importantly know what to do about it. I mean we can’t treat it or cure it […] it’s outside of our skillset and our ability to deal with it. But we will send them packing – in the nicest way we’ll send them home to their parents.’ Horner’s attention to welfare goes hand in hand with his attention to the business as, “at the end of the day it’s a different kind of product and if the product isn’t selling you have to get rid of it.”
Horner knows if a model is making money or if she isn’t – strong on the financials, but not the visuals. “I will look at these kids and sometimes I can see an absolutely ugly geezer and they take him on to my amazement or an exquisite girl and I think, ‘She’s fantastic,’ and they don’t take her on.” As successful as Horner has been at the agency, modelling itself does little to capture his interest (“I would get bored if this was all I was doing I’m sure”). He speaks fondly of his charitable involvements, speaking in hand gestures and showing an excitement that isn’t quite as evident in his discussion of Models 1. One of Horner’s longest standing commitments is as a mentor for the Prince’s Trust. “I’ve got a wonderful one at the moment, a girl – she’s Sarah Amunkwa – she’s a Ghanaian girl, frightfully British, but Ghanaian all the same. And she’s selling second hand African clothes which is unusual. She’s great, she’s lovely, she’s so committed and I love her for it.” He is also a trustee of the Jaipur Heritage Trust, and takes delight in describing the music festival (RIFF) it organizes – “There was some you know, real hip hop crazy group [that] came in from California and this little old man, and they were just jamming you know, they’d just speak music. It was amazing, brings tears to your eyes.”
At the age of 65, Horner is showing no signs of slowing down. He dismisses the idea without thinking, remarking, “I would hate to stop, I don’t want to stop. I’d rather die at my desk – not at my desk but I’d rather die doing something rather than sitting like a vegetable in the garden.” Boredom is not an issue for Horner, because it is business that drives him. He advises, “You have to love what you do, there’s no question about it, you’ve got to enjoy it, if you don’t… I would hate to work to live. I’d rather – not live to work – that sounds really sad – but I would rather do something I enjoy doing. I would never want to be on the treadmill of working up some career path in some great big organisation.” He may not have intended to end up in modelling, and models may not be his perfect fit, but he is certainly theirs.