Managing modelling and Cambridge: An interview with Xelia Mendes-Jones

Gabby Koumis 27 September 2017

Hey Xelia, so I guess it is only right to start from the beginning. How did you get in to modelling?

I was scouted at Strawberries and Creem at the end of my first year. I then meet with the agency a few weeks later, followed by some test shoots over the summer, before signing in late August.

Oh awesome, so it all happened pretty quickly then! Had you considered it before?

Yeah, I actually had! I had a chance meeting with Rankin and he suggest I gave it a try. My mum got over-excited afterwards and had me going round every agency in London one summer, only for me to be instantly rejected by every place – so getting scouted definitely was unexpected!

Your mum sounds super sweet. The rejection thing though – you’re gorgeous so that seems crazy but the fashion industry is known for being ridiculously brutal. How are you navigating that now you’re in it?

Well I never took the rejection hard before getting signed but I think once you’re in the industry it can get a bit harder to take. Fashion week is certainly one of the hardest times – you find yourself in a stairwell in Bermondsey with thirty girls who are all taller, prettier and skinnier than you and you wonder whether your agency has made a mistake sending you along to the casting! It can be a tough week: sometimes there would be up to fifteen castings a day, scattered across London, which might all reject you. That can be quite disheartening. In general, though, the experience for me certainly hasn’t been negative. I’m lucky that my agency is concerned with the model’s experience. One particular casting I went to this year completely demoralised me, and when they sent me a second casting for the same place after they had a drop-out, my agent was completely understanding of why I didn’t want to go. But as long as you set yourself up for the expectation that you will be treated as a coat-hanger/slab of meat/whatever cliché model “synonym” you want to pick, it is fine.

It sounds like you got lucky with your agent, that attenuates some of the coat-hanger weirdness. The Bermondsey stairwell though – I guess that is also what coming to Cambridge for the first time feels like, except academically. That means you’re involved in two very intense, fast-paced environments. I was wondering what wizardry you use to balance them both. How do you stay relevant in the fashion world and not entirely neglect your degree?

Maybe I’m a bit desensitised! I actually found my secondary school a far more toxic environment for that than Cambridge has been. I only work for MiLK part time though which gives me leeway to reject castings when I need to, and be away from London when I need to be too. I have neglected my degree though really! As long as the exams didn’t count for anything, I put little or no effort in, which has certainly frustrated supervisors. I’m also really used to the hectic balancing of extra curricula from years of playing for Spurs and doing at athletics to quite a high national level, all while doing GCSEs and A-Levels.

Seems like you’re well cut out for the juggling act of Cambridge then. What about this year though? It’s your final year right? Planning to change rhythm or?

Yeh, this year will be tough. I never really enjoyed academic study and certainly not focusing on it. I applied to Cambridge for the theatre as I want to act when I leave, so that will inevitably dominate my spare time (rather than blues football). And then any modelling I can squeeze in will be an added bonus. I know that crunch time for Cambridge work doesn’t really come until Lent holidays, and with my degree the workload actually significantly decreases in third year.

It's so true, that Lent holiday is crucial. You don’t want to go in to modelling full time after graduating then?

It’s an option, and not one I’m throwing aside – it’s all dependent on where final year acting takes me. I’ll almost certainly continue part time when I graduate, with full time a very legitimate option. My agency are aware that my preference is acting, and they push me forward for jobs which might get me vital contacts for that.

I like the go with the flow attitude. I’m so done with the pressure to know my life plan for the next 32 years. I suppose acting and modelling go hand in hand really anyway. Do you want to go in to theatre, tv, film, or?

Same! TV and film more than anything, but that’s not to say I don’t love live theatre! It’s an unparalleled thrill.

Fair, I guess you’ll see what unfolds. We spoke a little bit earlier about the problems and pressures of the fashion industry. it is also hardly know for its inclusivity. Do you personally find that an issue and would you consider using yourself and your body as a platform?

At the moment the frustration for me is that mixed race models are virtually unheard of. I am half Indian and I met very few models of any mix let alone Indian descent in over forty castings this year. However, I personally don’t feel like making a song and dance over it. It’s a far bigger problem in other industries and I’m reticent to over-politicise everything. It’s a complicated issue and I feel more like my “look” isn’t in fashion right now, and hope that by next fashion week it will be!

So there’s something about the nature of the industry which makes it easier to excuse?

Yeh, modelling is so based on appearance. Acting, unlike modelling, is more than just image – it has the ability to apply meaning to BME people’s existence. History and culture and individuality can shine through in a way that fashion wouldn’t enable. So it is in theatre that I feel lack of diversity needs combating and I’ve therefore really backed the BME theatre movement happening in Cambridge. The plays that are put on are often tempting to give an all-white case. Theatre is virtually archaic in its representation.

Because so often texts that are hundreds of years old, products of their time, and therefore inevitably backwords by our standards, right?

Right, but in my personal opinion, realism is a waste of time: creating a perfect living room and characters who are fully believably a married couple in their 40s is always just a poor attempt a cinema. The power of theatre is in the conceit. Macbeth of lent term last year was the perfect example of this – a play that would normally feature a token BME actor (Shakespeare productions at Cambridge are unconsciously notorious for this) was made up of every variety of BME actor with no “logical” casting. I.e. if one member of a family group was Chinese, that doesn’t mean their child character was too – and yet the play still worked perfectly and received some of the best reviews of any piece of theatre last academic year.

I love this idea of abandoning realism and performing an alternative logic. A final question, my Instagram stalk tells me you walked at LFW for Emilio De La Morena & ASAI. Tell me a little about that. What was the funniest moment?

They were both very fun and different experiences. Emilio’s dress were fabulous but the funniest experience was probably my fake nails for ASAI – I had a full ten on my fingers, but three on my toes that peeped out of my thigh-high Perspex heels. The MUA was as stressed as I was that every time I stepped they would pop off. Luckily that only happened as I walked to the dressing area and not on the runway!