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Ben Barry’s After-School Project

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009

May 31, 2009

Greetings, all:

Because I need to finish the book I’m writing on the Canada Millennium Scholarship Foundation, I’m taking a leave of absence from the Herald for the month of June. I won’t be filing another column after this one until July.

This column — like several other recent columns — is actually a shortened section from the book. I hope you enjoy it.


Ben Barry’s After-School Project

“I started my business when I was 14, in Grade 9,” says Ben Barry. “My company was focussed on trying to challenge status quo beauty, and create a fashion industry that celebrates beauty that’s authentic, beauty that’s in everyone and that really works to empower, and develop positive self-esteem.”

It started when a friend at Ben’s Ottawa high school took a modelling course — and was told to change her appearance, and lose some weight.

“I thought she was beautiful, and she shouldn’t have to change herself,” Ben remembers. “So I sent off her picture to magazines and local companies, and got phone calls back from people that wanted to hire her, and assumed that I was her agent.”

His first model was delighted that Ben had found work for her, and began sending other friends to him. He found work for them too, and soon he was hanging between the two worlds of fashion and high school — and making some interesting links between them.

“I was learning about the strict criteria the fashion industry has for models and their narrow idea of beauty — and I was seeing that my high-school friends and their families certainly didn’t look like the models in the ads. In fact, looking at these models day after day was negatively impacting their sense of themselves. The culture is so visual. You have images on the internet, in magazines, on billboards, on buses, on university campuses — and every image is essentially the same. So inevitably that one ideal seeps into your system.

“So I just wanted to have my friends and their families represented. We’re not trying to replace one ideal with another. What I wanted to see was body variety, and age variety, and cultural background variety, so that you see a plethora of different shapes and forms and sizes and ages and backgrounds represented in the images.”

After high school, Ben Barry got a Millennium scholarship and headed off to the University of Toronto to study business. He quickly realized that he already knew a good deal about business, and thought he should broaden his horizons by studying something else. He chose Women’s Studies, and it was “the best decision possible. It changed the whole way I thought about my business.”

He concluded that it was not healthy for his models to work full-time as models, because in modelling “they’re solely valued for how they look. And in fact they’re more successful and more creative when they bring their varied life experiences to bear on their modelling. So the models we represent are artists, students, lawyers, teachers, entrepreneurs, and we really encourage them to reveal their personalities and their character and their attitude in their work.”

Does this remind you of the surprising array of beautiful and varied women in the Dove soap “Campaign for Real Beauty?” Yes? No wonder. Ben Barry consulted with Ogilvy Mather, the advertising agency behind the campaign, and also provided some of the models. And how did the campaign succeed in the marketplace? Within six months of the first installment of the campaign, Dove’s sales increased by 700%.

Which proves that the consumer is ready for a different approach to modelling and beauty, right?

Well, maybe. Other companies and agencies remained wary. The Dove campaign, they said, was a fluke. It worked for Dove, but where was the research to support this wacko notion that consumers would respond well to real models?

If the research didn’t exist, Ben would create it. He signed up for graduate studies at Cambridge University, winning an M.Phil. in 2007. Now he’s running focus groups and surveys in Canada, the US, the UK, China, India and Brazil, testing “whether viewing models of the age, size and cultural background of the consumer increase purchase intentions more than using a model that reflects the current Western beauty ideal.” When he’s done, he’ll have a PhD.

Meanwhile, the Ben Barry Agency has grown to represent more than 300 models — all of them beautiful, every one unique. It employs 30 trusted people who keep it humming while Ben commutes between England and Toronto, running his life from his laptop. The agency is 12 years old now.

And Ben Barry is 26.

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