From bizarrely dressed bloggers to Botoxed editors, there’s no place for people-watching quite like the entrance to a fashion show. But the models who walk in the shows are usually pretty anonymous: they slink from one job to the next with their backpacks on, unnoticed.
At last month’s menswear shows, something changed. Outside Versace in Milan, 50 girls in denim cut-offs lined the narrow streets. At Bottega Veneta, a cluster of teens stood by the entrance, craning their necks. At Etro, the excitement peaked as more than 200 teenagers colonised the road, brandishing iPhones and shouting: “Lucky!”
The object of the girls’ affection is Lucky Blue Smith, a 6ft 3in American with blond Mr Whippy hair and unreal, swimming pool blue eyes. On Instagram (@luckybsmith) he comes across as the fantasy boyfriend, clowning with friends, cuddling puppies, peering sleepy-eyed from crisp white bed sheets. At 17, Smith has 1.2 million followers, which doesn’t put him in the same league as social media giants like Kim Kardashian (37.6m followers) or Justin Bieber (31.6m) – but still, it’s a coup for an emerging male model. (The world’s highest-earning male models, Sean O’Pry and David Gandy, have 389,000 and 358,000 Instagram followers respectively.)
It helps that Smith is happy to spend hours with his self-styled Lucky Charms, signing autographs and giving them hugs. Often, the fans get together on Twitter to work out where he will be. Nina, 16, has tracked him down to the Balmain show in Paris. “I like him because he is beautiful,” she explains. “He’s always on Instagram, so he connects with his fans. I prefer models to pop stars. I don’t really like the music.” Gabrielle Benhemon, 14, has met Smith before and shares her trophy: a smiling selfie he took with her iPhone. Later, on the phone from Los Angeles, his American agent Mimi Yapor explains the strategy: “He’s doing things the old-school way, like Elvis Presley. He wants to be a lot more accessible than the typical Hollywood star. His fans have given him this success, so he is kind of giving back.”
Often, Smith invites his fans to meet him, posting a time and address on Instagram; it is at these meet-ups that teenage roadblocks can be guaranteed. He says he started doing this out of curiosity; now he treats it more strategically. “You can’t do it all the time,” he says. “You don’t want to be too accessible or too far away – you want it to be just right.” It’s also best to announce the meet-ups the night before, he explains, because: “They have to work it out with their mums, because half of them don’t drive.”
One recent meet-up in Paris saw 300 fans descend on a busy corner near the Eiffel Tower, while Smith and his sister Daisy Clementine – a calm, smiley 19-year-old, also in possession of the family cheekbones and eyebrows – stood on a ledge, gazing down at a sea of waving hands and selfie sticks. There was jostling at the front, and those at the back were perilously close to the fast-moving traffic. “Everyone stop pushing,” Smith said, his voice remaining cool even though the top of his T-shirt had been ripped. On his fans’ Twitter feeds that night one camp berated another (the camp they call the “groupies”) for their hysterical behaviour. Right now, for the most part, Smith is able to engage with fans without security, but Alexis Borges – director of his agency Next Models LA – says these meet-ups have been mushrooming and may soon need to be held in a “more controlled” environment.
Away from the crowds, in his representatives’ light-filled offices in Paris’s 8th arrondissement, Lucky Blue is a friendly, fidgety teen. He waves his gangly arms around as he talks, runs his hands through his hair, and tugs at his T-shirt until its neckline goes baggy. His voice is gravelly, with a touch of Valley Girl inflection – part Jack Nicholson, part Kim Kardashian.
It turns out Lucky is not the only member of the family with star quality: his siblings are also quirkily named models and musicians. As well as Daisy – who chaperones him today – their sisters Pyper America, 18, and Starlie Cheyenne, 21, are all signed to Next Models, and play in an “old-school surf” band called The Atomics. Lucky is the drummer; their father, Dallon Smith, taught them to play.
It was Borges, of Next Models, who discovered them, meeting Daisy first when she was on a scouting trip to Salt Lake City, near the family’s home town of Spanish Fork, Utah (the Smiths are Mormons). Daisy was 12; her little brother Lucky was 10, and even then Borges saw his potential: “He reminded me of a baby Brad Pitt,” he says. Daisy was formally signed at 14, followed by the rest of the family. “We don’t typically represent kids,” says Mimi Yapor, “but you know a star when you see one.”
Lucky Blue’s first proper photo shoot was at the age of 12, photographed by designer Hedi Slimane for Japanese Arena Hommes; at 13 the entire family did a Gap campaign; at 14 he was playing the drums in front of the Hollywood sign in a campaign for Levi’s. A couple of years ago, Smith’s agency suggested he “edged up” his look by dyeing his dark blond hair platinum; they were right, and his career gathered momentum. In the past year, he has walked for brands from Moschino to Fendi, featured in advertisements for Calvin Klein and was recently revealed as the male face of Tom Ford. Smith has appeared onnumerous covers, too, of L’Officiel Hommes Italia and on Harper’s Bazaar China – where he is particularly popular, in part because his agency has developed his presence on social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat. This does not make him the male Kate Moss – he has yet to score a major campaign with a storied house such as Gucci, Valentino or Prada – but it’s not a bad start.
As well as modelling and the band, Smith has ambitions to act. Borges tells me he hasn’t worked with a “triple threat” of this potential in decades. Nor, in a 27-year career, has he signed an entire family; he compares the Smiths “to the Osmonds or the Jacksons”.
For the moment, though, the spotlight shines brightest on Lucky, especially as far as fans are concerned. He says he enjoys the meet-ups – “they just want a photo and a hug” – though in January, “one girl got a little experimental. She lifted up my hoodie, stuck her hand down… I pulled it out, and asked what she was doing, but she just laughed.” In China, he says: “They really wanna touch you. They are aggressive – in a good way.”
Though Lucky is a special case, being what the industry would call a “slashie” (model-slash-actor-slash-musician), he is also representative of a sea change in the modelling profession. A few short years ago, only the names of the most successful models were known outside the industry. Now, even mid-ranking models’ careers may suffer if they don’t cultivate a decent profile online, with casting agents as likely to ask for a model’s Instagram numbers as their height.
“Some agencies have started special divisions for models who have a lot of social media followers,” says Joseph Thornton-Allan, model booker at Premier Model Management in London. “It adds a whole new aspect to what models can do for a brand. They might get paid to post something, or a certain amount of posts might be part of the agreement for a shoot.”
“Instagram is a massive commodity to a model now,” says Richard Storer, managing director of Eleventen Communications, a PR agency for brands, models and celebrities. “It’s often handled with a separate contract to modelling work, and the value of that contract is based on your numbers.” A big-name model or celebrity could easily get paid between £3,000 and £15,000 for just one post about a brand, he says. “It’s an entirely new revenue stream.”
It’s little wonder that models are not above calculating behaviour to get their numbers up. “I think some of the models do play along with [teenage girls online] and write comments back,” says Thornton-Allan. Smith has noticed yet more crafty tricks: “I know when [other models] are just talking to me to try to get a following,” he says. “They’re like, ‘Let’s take a picture!’ or ‘Oh Lucky, let’s hang out!’ And I can tell right away when they’re trying to use me.” (Surely, the politics of Instagram will offer excellent fodder for the new film Zoolander 2.)
Modelling remains one of the few industries where women are routinely paid more than men. In 2013, the world’s highest-earning model was Gisele Bündchen, who made $42m; the top 10 highest-earning male models made $8m put together. Female models have been harnessing the power of social media for longer: Chanel couture shows are now populated by Instagram stars such as Kendall Jenner (30.1m followers) and Cara Delevingne (14.5m followers). Making money through Instagram is also easier for female models than for men. “I know female models whose postings about high-street brands cause sales to spike – and you can measure that – because the girls who follow them are the same people buying the clothes,” says Storer.