While Milwaukee is known for many things, its modeling industry isn’t one of them. Brandis Ohlsson, owner of two-year-old Ohlsson Model Management, is trying to change that. We asked her to tell us what it’s like to open a business in Milwaukee and what’s she’s learned about Milwaukee’s crop of aspiring models.
Tell me about your background. What was your introduction to the modeling industry?
I modeled when I was younger. I enjoyed it but it never really felt like “it” to me. I started interning for Anita Bitton, who owns The Establishment, one of New York’s top casting companies. After a season, she hired me.
I worked with them on Alexander Wang, Jill Stuart, Tory Burch, Cushnie Et Ochs — the big leagues, fashion wise. This is really where I credit my industry education. I had to know the models by face, their names, agencies, their campaigns, covers, shows they’d walked, who was about to hit it big and why. This was all while being in the presence of not only supermodels, but super designers (hours were spent at a table in Alexander Wang’s studio. I was even steps from Anna Wintour.
It was intense and tiring, but it was amazing and so worth it.
How did you decide to start your own agency?
I had talked about opening an agency for a long time, but never very seriously. I caught an entrepreneurial bug probably two-to-three years ago. I knew the only way I could really have complete control over my own life, finances and future was to be my own boss, but the idea of taking the plunge was so scary.
Luckily, I have a very supportive husband who has always believed in me and he convinced me it was now or never. I am super thankful every day he did.
Why start it in Milwaukee?
I lived in Milwaukee before I moved to New York, so when I came back to the Midwest it’s where felt most like home. So the obvious answer would be that I live here, but there really is more than that that makes Milwaukee a great city for a modeling agency.
First, we have some of the largest catalog clients right in our backyards. Kohl’s and Bonton shoot here in Milwaukee, and while they very rarely will book local adults, they book local kids almost on a daily basis.
Second, Milwaukee’s proximity to Chicago allows us to be booking work not only here, but also with clients down there. Third, no one is actively scouting here. I have signed some ridiculously amazing people. We were recently in Los Angeles presenting models to agencies there for placement, and again and again they were saying, “You found this person in Milwaukee? This person too? What is in the water in Wisconsin?”
They were impressed because no one assumes that we’ve got gorgeous, tall, would-be models here, and we do.
And fourth, there isn’t another agency like ours here. I put my blood, sweat, and tears into this agency — it’s not a job, it’s an extension of my life. I absolutely love what I do and I do it 24-seven, 365 days a year. We take what we do at Ohlsson Management very seriously, and I really think our approach filled a much-needed void not only in Milwaukee, but in the Midwest.
What has been the biggest challenge since you opened your doors?
The biggest challenge for me, and my family can attest to this, has been learning to tune out and turn it off from time to time. I’d be at the office until 12 a.m. every night if I wasn’t reminded to stop working. I answer emails at all hours of the day and on weekends and vacations.
I love what I do so I don’t mind, but I have to remember sometimes that not everyone cares about what this model did or wants to see a photo of this amazing kid I just signed. So I’m trying to lean to step back, if only for a couple hours, everyday. Or every few days at least.
What has been your biggest success?
Gosh, there has been so many things that I am so grateful for and excited about. In a year and a half, we have gone from having a desk in the corner of a friend’s studio to having our own gorgeous, sprawling space in the Third Ward. I am really proud of that; we’ve grown so quickly.
I also have a few models who are on the verge of some amazing things. [Stay tuned by following OMM’s social media.] Our kids board is the best in the Midwest. Our kids are like mini- supermodels and they’re all super professional, polite and sweet.
What advice would you give for other young women who want to start a business in Milwaukee?
How quickly we’ve grown. I always knew I could make it happen quickly, but I think how quickly I’ve done it has surprised everyone I credit the fact that I work my ass off, that I have a different approach from other people because of my experiences working in New York, and that we filled a void in this market at just the right time.
If you had to start OMM all over again, would you do anything differently?
Not at all. I have trusted my instinct from the beginning, and it hasn’t swayed me wrong yet.
If you live in Milwaukee and want to stay in the area, what kind of work is out there for aspiring models?
It really depends on what kind of model you are. Children work a ton in this market. Lifestyle models, or models you see in, for instance, advertisements for hospitals or insurance companies, work a decent amount in Milwaukee if they’re really good. Work for someone who would be classified as a fashion model – a model who models clothing, cosmetics and walks on runways – is basically non-existent.There are a couple of clients, for instance Bona Drag, a high-end clothing website shoots here in Milwaukee, but one client does not a fashion market make.When we sign aspiring fashion models we have to be pretty upfront with them that until they’re able, willing, and placed in a bigger market, there won’t be a lot of opportunity for paid work for them here in Milwaukee.