In our search for powerful women we came upon Lisa Benson, Vice President at leading modelling agency IMG. A small town girl that managed to climb the career ladder, working her way up from receptionist to executive. Lisa Benson, Vice President at IMG Models. The agency is considered amongst world’s most renowned, and operates across New York, Los Angeles, Sydney, London, Milan and Paris. Benson’s team represents top models all over the world.
Lisa, could you tell us something about your family background and how you grew up?
I’m from a small town in the middle of nowhere. Growing up I didn’t have a lot of exposure to the high-end fashion world but I was always interested in it. I grew up in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. It was a humble upbringing. My dad was a passionate golfer, so we travelled around the country and met a bunch of people. Even though we were from a small town, my mum always loved great fashion. She actually made her own suits and designed shirts with me. I was five years old when I wanted to know everything about models and celebrities – from Shalom Harlow, to Niki Taylor and Cindy Crawford. I always wanted to be the best I could possibly be at whatever I was doing – whether it was school, ballet or golf.
Did you already have an idea of what you wanted to be as a grownup?
I always wanted to be an executive at a big company in New York City. I did have that vision as long as I can remember. That is why I studied finance and business law. For sure I did not imagine being a Vice President in the fashion industry at that stage, though I always paid attention to fashion.
I even travelled internationally to see the Cannes Film Festival or Paris Fashion Week – while I was studying abroad in London. One day I made my friend come with me to the Cannes Film Festival. I already envisioned us on the red carpet. We got there and stood outside the red carpet – outside of everything. 11 years later that vision became reality and I was on the red carpet of the Cannes Film Festival.
Who would you say has inspired you the most?
Growing up, it were definitely my parents. They were the ones that would support me no matter what. One day, I got invited for a Saks Fifth Avenue internship job interview. I said, “We have to drive to New York City tomorrow.” They got in the car and drove me there. Ivan Bart, the President of IMG Models, has inspired me at a later point in my career. His energy and work ethic is what inspires me the most.
You can look back on 17 years at the agency. How did you start at IMG Models?
They only had a position open for a receptionist. I really did
not care what job they offered – I would get coffee for everyone. I would do anything. At the same time I was interviewing with other fashion brands and Wall Street firms. Big jobs – I got many offers but declined. After starting at IMG, I wanted to work directly with Ivan as soon as possible. Everything started with an email, when his assistant went to Milan for a job: “I am coming early. I will stay late. I can be your assistant for this week,” and that is when I got to the more interesting side of the business. You know, in our industry it’s all about relationships. One day a young 18-year-old Lily Aldridge walked in. Ivan thought that managing Lily would be a good starting point. Lily and I have
been working together ever since.
What have been some of the most remarkable moments throughout your years at IMG?
One year I had a model on almost every magazine cover, from Italian Vogue to Sports Illustrated – everything you’d want to have in a model’s career. Sports Illustrated was always my dream. When I started in the industry, I felt it was the hardest cover to secure. Now I have secured several. Another big deal is the Victoria Secret Fashion Show. There are not many available slots, and we all celebrate when a girl gets confirmed. In general, I am very proud to have clients in the film industry, that cross over to fashion. And of course, I am proud of just having been promoted.
How do you deal with failure?
I think everyone is going to fail at some point. It might be losing that big cover for your top model, even though you thought you had it in the bag. It is okay to fail. Sometimes we are just such perfectionists, which makes it hard to realize that. You have to accept it and not look at the past. I wish I would have known the things that I’ve learned about accepting failure, earlier in my career. But you live and you learn.
What does a day in the life of a Vice President at IMG look like?
Believe it or not, I love my sleep. I try to get 7 to 8 hours of sleep and I work out in the morning. Then, I go through my first emails and messages. When I go to the office my assistant and I work through the schedule. The days are organized but it is not a fixed schedule. You have to go with the flow. Especially, when people are asking for opinions or advice.
You worked with the supermodels of the 90s and with today’s most recognized models. An impressive crop of well-known models has signed with IMG: Elsa Hosk, Nadine Leopold, Carolyn Murphy, Chanel Iman, Shanina Shaik, Georgia Fowler. How do you discover these standout models?
We have an amazing scouting team worldwide. I mean, they were even at Coachella recently. It is important because we need to know who is the next Bella Hadid, Lily Aldridge or Elsa Hosk. Then, we also welcome walk ins – we do signing both ways. And we actually found two superstars, Lameka Fox and Alannah Walton, through @ WeLoveYourGenes, our scouting program on Instagram.
Have you ever scouted yourself?
I have not scouted in front of a restaurant or a grocery store. I do have an eye obviously, and I am good at finding models through relationships.
Would you say that you recognize the personality of a girl when she presents herself in your office?
You can see if someone has it. Some girls have a big personality, others might be shy – that is
okay too. Just bring something interesting, be ready to talk about the book you’re reading or the last movie you saw. Be true to yourself and that will shine.
Would you say that modelling is a dream job for girls? Modelling definitely is a dream job and it is so interesting because we have so much more diversity right now. Being a model is more than just looking pretty, traveling, and going to events. It is hard. You have to be very disciplined, you do not see your family a lot, you are responsible for your own business at a very young age. You might be outside in 30-degree weather, jumping into water or hanging from a cliff. A lot of hard work goes into the mental part of that too.
Would you say that it is more difficult today than it was in the 90s to achieve top model status?
I do not know if it is more difficult – it is different. Maybe I would say it is a little more difficult because you are competing against celebrities and influencers. Social media are everywhere and it is hard to keep up. You need to have something to talk about. That is, what charity are you interested in? What are your hobbies? The big models in the 90s did not have social media and the celebrities were not fighting for the covers at that time.
A lot of women admire you for what you have achieved in your life, what advice can you give them?
It is nice to hear that what I do has an impact on others. You know, being a woman in an environment where they want women to succeed helps a lot. Just do the things you want to do. I came to New York, that was my dream. Stay safe obviously but it is okay to act without fear. I encountered many situations in which I was fearless. I believed in my ability to observe and connect with people, and this shaped my career.
Being Vice President today and Senior Manager many years prior, did not change your relationship with models, photographers and staff. Would you say that being
“down to earth” is part of your personal success?
I got coffee for others and I still do it today. No matter what make-up artist or assistant. I’m open to meeting new people and enjoy having conversations without passing judgement. You know, my parents always said: “Remember where you come from and where you are going. You have to give back and help people. Do not forget what others did for you.
”Thank you for this interview, Lisa, for your openness to learn more about your interesting career at IMG Models.
– Written by: Michaela Weidlich