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Meet McKinley Sterling

Today we’d like to introduce you to McKinley Sterling.

Thanks for sharing your story with us McKinley. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.

My story starts in Dallas, Texas. I attended a small and elite private school in Addison, Texas, a small suburb of Dallas, Greenhill School, and grew up living very close to my school.

I attended Greenhill from 1st grade to 12th grade. However, in 3rd grade, I left Dallas for Chicago because my mom had a big career promotion on her journey towards becoming a major airline executive. I moved back to Dallas and attended Greenhill in 4th grade, where I stayed until graduation in 2006.

Greenhill actively encouraged diversity of thought, freedom of expression and individuality, It was co-ed, no uniforms, and we had a lot of freedom as far as curriculum choice. It wasn’t very racially diverse during my time, but diversity, honesty, academic excellence and individuality was definitely promoted. There were about 90 students per class in my graduating class.

As a child, I had always had an interest in modeling, acting and the arts. My parents have been married for over 48 years. Though it took some coaching from me in the beginning, they have always been supportive of my career ambitions and pursuits. In early childhood, I took acting classes outside of school, with an actor who played Barney on Barney and Friends. I believe my parents enrolled me in class to be more confident and expressive, not necessarily to pursue acting as a career. In fact, I think my parents were more interested in me becoming a lawyer or government official. In middle school, there was a time where I wanted to be President of the United States. As of present day, I think I could be doing a better job than the man who is currently holding that position right now.

As a teenager, I enrolled in Model Search America, a large and costly modeling convention, when the tour came to Dallas. I did not advance or get any interest from any attending major market agencies. Model Search America doesn’t exist today, however, there are some legitimate conventions that do. As a teenager, I was awkward; and also had skin problems, braces, and major self-confidence issues. America’s Next Top Model premiered around that time and I was obsessed. This was at a time when reality TV was new. Watching Tyra Banks instruct and inform aspiring models on how to become professional industry models was fascinating for me. Although this was years before their first co-ed season, I was enamored by the glamorous and exciting world of professional modeling. As a kid from a suburban town outside of Dallas, it was thrilling for me to watch, and something I had never seen before. At the time, I was also very into GQ Magazine and dreamed that I could be just like the male models in the fashion spreads and magazine covers. Later in life, I was fortunate to be on the cover of catalogs, in spreads and on billboards.

I was always fashionable and trendy. At the time, the internet was also new, I looked up every major modeling agency in Dallas and Los Angeles. I had met with some agencies in Dallas, but did not have very much luck. Filled with disappointment where I was in Dallas, I went into a general modeling industry chat room on AOL and befriended an agent in LA named John, who took an interest in me. I convinced my parents to travel to LA to meet with him and I also lined up open call meetings with many of LA’s top modeling agencies. John was the only agent willing to work with me. He tried his best, but not living in LA was a major detriment for me at that time. I would message him on AOL Instant Messenger almost every day because I was so determined to make my dreams happen. I do not recommend meeting agents in chat rooms or message boards today. Nevertheless, my peers thought all my pursuits were cool, regardless, even though I wasn’t doing anything significant at that point in my journey towards becoming a professional model. I experienced a lot of rejection from the modeling industry at a very early age and my confidence took a major hit growing up, but it made me stronger in the end.

My parents loved the arts also and graciously took me to see many professional plays in Dallas, Chicago and around the country. In high school, I dedicated a majority of my time to policy debate, where I learned the art of communication, persuasion and argumentation. Because of the rigorous and time-consuming constraints of being on the debate team, I didn’t concurrently pursue theater, choir or sports in high school. I decided to pursue debate over other interests because I believed it would help me academically, intellectually and for college admission. All of which proved to be true. Because Greenhill was an elite, and academically rigorous, private K-12 school, there was a lot of pressure felt by many students to get into an elite college. I had a lot of success in debate, and I was able to travel to many states, and made friends across the country, outside of my small school, which was exciting and expanded my worldview. Because of debate, my grades improved in school, I made the Dean’s List several times and I was also on student council. Many of my former peers from the debate community are now lawyers or involved in politics, but I decided to take a different route. Due to my concurrent interest in modeling, that all my peers knew of, I was voted “most likely to appear on the cover of a fashion magazine,” in my senior year yearbook.

I graduated from Greenhill in 2006. Knowing, in the back of my mind, that eventually I wanted to reside in Los Angeles to pursue modeling and acting, but on the other hand, being heavily involved in the debate world and invigorated by US politics and world affairs, and lacking an experience in, and confidence for a professional modeling and acting career, I decided to attend The George Washington University in Washington D.C. with interest in their Political Communications program to become a broadcast journalist, similar to Oprah Winfrey, but did not get into the program and pursued general curriculum to get my basics completed with the intention of reapplying at a later time to the Political Communications program.

After a lot of soul searching, I decided to transfer to the University of Southern California in Los Angeles in 2007. I was a Communication major and Acting minor. I decided against Political Studies because I came to the conclusion that communication and culture had more power and influence over the masses than politics. A lot of people may have believed Communication was an “easy major,” but my decision to pursue a BA in Communication was very intentional. I took many different courses at USC both in the Annenberg School of Communication and the School of Theater. I was heavily involved in extracurriculars. I was involved in several school plays, the diversity committee of student government, Dean’s List, Lambda Pi Eta communications honor society, Anchor then Host of an entertainment talk show news segment of USC TV (which aired on campus and local stations) and pledge class secretary of a Beta Theta Pi Fraternity.

In the summer prior to my senior year, I started to take acting classes outside of USC. During senior year at USC, I signed with my first commercial agency. I went on a few auditions but did not book. Around spring break, I had tried to get into the big modeling agencies such as LA Models, Ford Models and others, but was rejected once again. I was told no so many times throughout my career. Upon graduation around the age of 21, I told my parents I wanted to pursue acting and modeling full-time and really make a go at it. I started to take modeling and acting more seriously and began working extra hard on toning my body, my look, and my acting skills. I got involved with even more acting classes. After improving my body and overall look, I made yet another set of rounds to open calls at professional modeling agencies in LA. After improvements made on my end, I received a totally different response. Many were interested this time. I signed my first professional fashion agency contract with Next Management under Mimi Yapor. Shortly thereafter, I landed theatrical representation and within months, was booking modeling gigs and auditioning at many major studios for television roles.

I had many friends in Los Angeles through my network at USC, from acting classes and from the LA modeling community. I was partying heavily during this time. In 2011, everything came crashing down. There was a period where I was awake for days and was acting out of character in extreme ways. I went to a psych ward outside of LA and came home to Dallas where I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Everything changed. I kept my apartment in LA and was trying to manage my life. However, I couldn’t manage my new life with bipolar disorder on my own. I remember being in an acting class in LA and falling asleep in class while watching tape playback because I was adjusting to new medications I had never tried before. Because I couldn’t manage life on my new medications alone in Los Angeles, I came home to Dallas to be under my parents care and supervision. I lost modeling contracts and I felt like my LA dreams were dead and gone.

After years of gaining weight with bipolar medications, seeing my grandma pass away, battling major depressive episodes, and working in corporate America, I re-entered the modeling world again from Dallas around the age of 27 or 28. After losing the weight, getting stable with my medication, getting into therapy, and dealing with my substance issues, I was re-discovered, this time on Instagram, through a hashtag search. Shortly thereafter, my modeling career started gaining momentum again and I signed to multiple leading agencies across the country and landed several national campaigns and eventually a major contract with a big agency in Los Angeles. I moved back to Los Angeles in Spring of 2019.

I have recently launched an online model coaching business, where I am lending my knowledge, resources, and expertise, to the next generation of aspiring models. McKinley’s Model Coaching Program teaches models, at all levels, how to get the most from their modeling careers and side-step the many pitfalls of the industry.

We love hearing how great it is to pursue your passions by everyone we interview  – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you? What inspired you to start your model coaching program?

No, it has not. It takes a special kind of person to embark on a professional modeling career. First and foremost, you must have confidence in yourself and always be alert. In modeling alone, there are several scams and predatory people in power positions in the business. From scam agencies, conventions, pay-to-play fashion shows and more, there is a lot of ways that people try to take advantage of desperate newbie models who are eager for success in the industry.

Furthermore, there are predatory photographers, agents, stylists, creative directors, and many more “behind the scenes” industry folk that mislead models. Unfortunately, this happens at not only the lowest levels but the highest levels of the industry as well. Bruce Weber, Terry Richardson, Dov Charney, and countless others have been exposed for taking advantage of both male and female models in the national press. In the pro modeling business, models, especially male models, are at the bottom of the power hierarchy. Unfortunately, there are countless regional and national people in power positions in the business, many of whom are simply unknown and never make national headlines exposing their predatory practices. Modeling is a “sexy” business in many ways, and many models have physical appeal, but that does not give agents, stylists, photographers, and others behind the scenes, the right to take advantage of them. Fortunately, California has recently passed some laws regarding sexual harassment in modeling, but this new in California and is not a federal law in every state.

The act of “taking advantage of models” by industry professionals on the “business” side of the business doesn’t even necessarily need to be sexual in nature for it to be predatory. When it is sexual, sometimes it isn’t overt. I’ve had scenarios where production people are literally watching me undress or where a stylist or agent is making fun of my body or someone on set is laughing at the models on the job for one reason or another. These types of things are not ok. The other types of predatory practices that often go overlooked is when agencies withhold money from models, like the agent getting paid for booking the model, but the model not getting paid for the work, asking models to work for free in exchange for exposure, being dropped from an agency without explanation, being asked to work in unsafe or unsanitary conditions, not being allowed to book your own opportunities without the agency and much more. These are all examples that I have personally experienced and one of the reasons that I decided to start my model coaching business. In short, to be an advocate for the model. Speaking of the “business” side of the business, many models forget they are their own business! Professional models are independent contractors and many models, even ones that are fortunate enough to make tremendous amounts of money, are never coached on the basics of being your own boss such as how to manage your finances, file for taxes as an independent contractor and other things of that nature. There are many successful models who lose money and get in debt because of a lack of financial education. Agencies do not usually take responsibility for those kinds of things.

Unlike the world of professional acting, there is no formal union that protects models like SAG/AFTRA does for actors. Many agents do not have experience and leave agencies just as quickly as models switch agencies. Agents leaving can sometimes be devastating for a model’s career and mind-state. It’s all about having the right people on your team. Much like professional acting, it’s true that in modeling you have to have thick skin. You have to be comfortable with rejection. However, because there are no set rules in modeling, unfortunately, many people behind the scenes take advantage of models, in one way or another. I was rejected and dropped many times by many different agencies over my career without explanation. I was dropped from agencies without even an explanation of why. Agents are human too and sometimes they play favorites and that can be devastating for a model as well.

The pressure to stay in shape along with the constant rejection and pressure to look good and be nice and “perfect” at all times can take a toll on a model’s mental health. Although young women make more money in the business than young men, unfortunately, they expire at a certain age in the eyes of the fashion world and often are burnt out by 30. Men get burnt out too but usually have more longevity. There are also unspoken rules about professional behavior from models that, unless you follow these rules, can make or break your modeling career. For example, if you are working for a client and say the wrong thing to another model in front of a stylist or make-up artist, you may never work for that client again. I learned that, and many other lessons, the hard way. Models are often under tremendous pressure at all times.

I’ve been fortunate to have some great agents in my career, and some not so great ones as well. In my several years of experience, I have seen models spend many years in the industry and be extremely successful, others that have left the industry entirely, and others, like myself, who took a break to pursue other things, and have come back. I’ve said in other online articles that it is very important for models to have a life outside of modeling and something that grounds them because the industry can be very fun and rewarding but also extremely unpredictable and demanding. I understand the pressures agents are under and everything from the point of view of the agent, my interest isn’t meant to challenge agents. I’m here to advocate for new models who often enter the industry with limited knowledge, support and protection to avoid the darker side of the industry.

Oftentimes, even the best agencies are sometimes too busy or overwhelmed with client demands, or agency CEO expectations, to give models the personal attention they need to succeed in the business. If you ask for too much direction, sometimes you are seen as being too needy or taking too much of their time and get released. Sometimes you can be released from your contract for even asking a simple question. For all of these reasons, and because you can’t always rely on agents or managers to help models, even if the agency has a great reputation, I decided to launch my personal coaching business, to coach models on the tools they need to be successful, if professional modeling, or becoming a better model, is something they wish to pursue.

Have you run into any challenges with your new online model coaching business? 

Yes, I have. In some of my initial complimentary video calls, there are those that want to video conference with me that are not mentally, physically, and/or financially committed, or ready whatsoever, to become a model. Others are lonely and simply are looking for someone to converse with. After all, these are challenging times for many people. However, I am not a therapist nor am I interested in working with people who are looking to converse for conversation’s sake (I have a IGTV talk series for that), to date, or to do anything outside of wanting to become a model or a better working model. Also, many people who do my initial virtual coaching assessments believe they need to “look perfect” for me before we start our video calls. That is not the case. No one is perfect and I’d rather see someone natural than seeing them on their “best day.” I am interested in coaching individuals that are serious about their careers and ready to grow as a model. That’s why I offer free introductory video calls to assess their commitment levels, give them an opportunity for reflection about where they’re at, and to see if it would be a good match for both of us moving forward.

What are you most known for? What sets you apart from similar businesses or entities? What else should we know about you and your new business venture?
I am best known for being a professional working model. I have been represented by some of the best modeling agencies, both regionally and nationally, in the U.S., and in the world. I have been part of the modeling industry for over a decade. I have several relationships with agencies, managers, photographers, stylists, make-up artists, production staff, creative directors and many other professionals involved in modeling across the globe.

I have had many successes and disappointments as a professional model working in the industry. I believe in life, there are no failures, only lessons that help us to get better. However, it is because of the many lessons I learned the hard way, that I can help aspiring models to achieve even greater success. Though many of the campaigns I booked are for commercial brands, I have also been signed “across the board,” with agencies, at several different points in my career, which is a coveted position in pro modeling that not many achieve, meaning I have been represented by agencies in every division: commercial, fashion and runway. This versatility of experience in the fashion industry is what makes my coaching program even more beneficial for the public.

When I first started modeling, there were naysayers and people that were critical about whether I would be successful. Since then, countless individuals ask me for advice, every day, online and off, about how to become a professional model or to be a better model. Most recently, before starting this program, I helped an agency-model friend to secure better representation for what he is specifically looking for in his career when his current agency was not meeting his needs. I have helped countless aspiring models and agency-signed models to achieve greater success in their pursuits. I do not claim to be a supermodel or one of the most successful, well-known male models. However, within a week or two of starting my model coaching program, I had over 65 signups and got clients immediately.

Success in modeling looks different for everybody. Since Instagram is where a majority of my following is, and where I am linked to many aspiring models, I’ve had many virtual conversations with people of all ages, genders, colors, sizes and orientations, in the US and around the world, who desire my help to become better models and are inspired by me. Some are interested in working in the professional modeling world as either a fashion, commercial, curve, fitness or other category of professional model. Others are simply interested in the art of it all or want to take better pictures for their own self-confidence and others want to be more popular on Instagram or other social networking platforms. All my clients have different needs and interests and everyone who signs up for my program has a unique need they are wanting my help with.

What sets me apart is that I am here for aspiring models, that want a greater level of support, however that may look. With COVID-19 and our tense climate in world politics being the dire situation that it is for all industries, there’s questions about the future of the professional modeling industry as we know it today. Whether someone wants to work in the traditional “fashion” industry or simply become a better model, I am here to help guide amateur and working models to get more out of their careers. I am a working model who is here to be an ally, advocate and coach for other models.

Some people have asked whether I am interested in starting my own modeling agency or management firm. I am undecided about that as of right now. I do believe I have the knowledge and resources to do so. For right now, my interest is in helping others, especially the younger generation of aspiring models, that had big dreams just as I did, to achieve greater levels of success as professional models, or steer them in the right direction on their modeling journey. Many amateur models, or people that desire to become models, are lost as to what steps to take to become successful. While I do offer some initial complimentary video calls, my services are not free. I do not mislead anybody, make false promises, or make any guarantees for professional representation. I also do not claim to be a model scout, or representative, for any of my former or current, professional modeling agencies. Although, I may be open to that idea in the future.

I know times are tough right now, and though I’m not perfect, I have a caring heart, and I know this business well. My services are affordable and I’m willing to be flexible with my rates, to an extent, for those experiencing financial difficulties. I have already heard countless stories from clients, and future clients, about scams and wasted money spent from “industry experts” with insidious intentions. For instance, one of my current clients has a strong desire to be a fashion model, however, per traditional “fashion agency model criteria,” he does not meet the requirements. Unfortunately, others have taken his money, when all he really needed was to be pointed in a different lane of the industry that would work for him. I have also personally experienced many scams on my own journey, so it’s not in my interest to mislead and take money from others.

I recently had a video intro call with an aspiring male model in NYC, who is interested in my program, who shared that he remembers Tyra Banks on ANTM, the same show I grew up loving, saying “never to pay a professional modeling agency for representation.” While I love Tyra for the icon she is, the fact is, the industry has changed tremendously since she made that now famous statement at the start of her show in the early 2000s. To present day, there are still dishonest agencies and other “companies” that take inappropriately large amounts of money from aspiring models and offer false promises with little return. In fact, some of Tyra’s former ANTM contestants work for some of these companies.

Not to discourage people, but the revenue for the working model in the traditional fashion business today is not what it was in the early 2000s. Budgets are shrinking and the number of models wanting to enter the industry is increasing. Furthermore, while reputable modeling agencies may not ask for money upfront from new models, there are still costs involved. Reputable professional modeling agencies, especially those in major markets like LA or NYC, are not providing free photoshoots to models to jump-start their portfolios. Many photographers know this and charge excessive rates for “portfolio development” for new models, but that’s a conversation for another day. Lastly, if a new model is fortunate enough to secure representation in multiple states and/or countries and book jobs outside of where they currently reside, like I have done, many brands are no longer financing travel and lodging for bookings. In the COVID era world and into the immediate future, I do not expect this to change for the better in favor of models. Again, becoming a professional model (and even, to some extent, a more popular social media model) requires financial, mental, and physical dedication.

I’m the first to say that I am not perfect. I have worked through a lot of struggles to get to where I am today. I am proud of overcoming many personal challenges and I’m humble enough to realize I still have more work to do. What sets me apart, is that I am a working model, who understands the struggles of aspiring models because I’ve been there. I’ve experienced significant setbacks along with good successes and I’m here to help guide the next generation of models to be better equipped and ready for the exciting world of modeling. Many aspiring models who are interested in my program are people of color, and while I enjoy helping all people, I am especially motivated to help other people of color and other underdogs.

So, what’s next? Any big plans?

Most definitely. I decided to stop waiting for other people to give me permission or follow traditional rules when it comes to my next ventures in Hollywood.

While modeling will always be my first love and passion, in addition to my new model coaching program and being a professional model myself, I am also currently exploring other areas of the entertainment business. With the uncertainty surrounding the future of the entertainment business as we know it, I believe digital media and original content is the new frontier.

To that end, on Instagram, I have recently launched an original talk series on IGTV, “Real Talk With McKinley,” (#RealTalkWithMcKinley @TheRealTalkWithMcKinley), where I host a variety of interesting guests. The premise of the show is: real topics, real people, real stories, real conversation, real entertainment, and real talk. I’ve realized that we all have incredible stories to share, and I love engaging in relevant conversations with people, in real-time, and in an interactive way. I have big plans for the future of this series, and for my future endeavors in hosting.

We are experiencing an unprecedented time in history right now with COVID-19 and the fight for black lives. Regardless of status, age, orientation, religion, race, gender, or background, we all have a story and the world really needs to hear them from us right now — especially those stories from people of color. I have many more exciting episodes on the way and under production!

While I am new to digital hosting and producing, and while it may seem like I love to talk, I love listening more, and each guest teaches me something new.

As far as acting goes, last year, I had a lot of doubts and insecurities that prevented me from “doing the work.” Somehow amidst this time of historic chaos in 2020, I am finally doing the work and have been more in touch with myself now more than ever. I look forward to being a multi-hyphenate artist (model-host-actor-personality-producer) that the public gets to know better and see a lot more of – in the very near future.

I am actively in a range of acting classes, mastering self-tapes, auditioning, updating my marketing materials online, creating my own content and much more. I’m excited to be a digital creator on the frontlines of emerging trends in show business.

Image Credit:
Brent Weber, Jay Heatley, Andrea Pascalau, Maxim Vakhovskiy, Franklin Jasper III

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