October 1987. A nightclub in Dusseldorf.
Michel Levaton, director of the Metropolitan model agency, is in a bad
mood. He's been in Germany for two weeks and has been unsuccessful in
his search for beautiful girls. ("Scouting" is the word used
in this business.) Suddenly a girl on the dance floor catches his
attention; it's Claudia! Business card in hand, he resolutely walks up
to her. "She thought I was trying to pick her up!" says
Levaton. He won't give up, so she gives him her phone number. The
following day, they meet again in a tearoom. Claudia's mother has come
along and won't hear of photos, nor of Paris. "Claudia must finish
school first," she insists. Several weeks and many phone calls
later, Claudia goes to Paris for photo tests.
The Launch: The French Elle
"I think we've got a star,"
Levaton confides to his partner, Aline Souliers, who is immediately
swept off her feet. "Claudia has this kind of smashing, fresh
ingenuity. She is like a flower: charming, smiling, and very well
behaved, too," says Souliers.
In Paris, Claudia does her first test
with photographer Marie-Francoise Prybys; then Souliers and Levaton take
her around to meet the magazine crowd. It's almost a disaster: Nobody
catches on! "People thought she looked babyish, too chubby,"
Souliers recalls. "They'd say, She'll never be more than a catalog
queen!" Friday, 4:30 P.M., the do-or-die meeting with Odile Sarron,
casting director at ELLE. "Sarron thought she was divine,"
Souliers remembers. "She booked her right away for the following
week, a rare feat for a beginner. Odile has always been ahead of the
game," Levaton continues. "She's got a good eye." Two
weeks later, Claudia appears in ELLE, and Levaton signs her on.
"I frankly think that Claudia
lucked out with exceptional management," Levaton jokingly explains.
"We went to work for her day and night. We bet it all on her. I
must say that she had the stuff of a star. She was serious; she never
said no; she'd get up every morning; did not drink, did not smoke, did
not go out. The girl was a professional. Of course, we had to draw her
out; actually we had to teach her everything. She was 17, from a small
town, and had a very limited view of life. In a way, we became her
surrogate parents." Levaton and Souliers quickly came up with a
strategy. Claudia could have racked up assignments in ads and catalogs,
she could have made a lot of money right away, but her agents preferred
"to book her sparingly to stimulate demand." "Some girls
do all the shows, work on all the ad campaigns; they're good, but
they'll never be stars," Souliers explains. "With Claudia, we
selected every appearance. Every job had to support the image we wanted
to convey, that fresh and sensual young women."
First Step: The Conquest of Europe
Once Launched by ELLE, Claudia starts
off faster than a race car. Italian, German, and English newspapers
begin fighting over her. Five magazine covers later, Europe is under the
spell. America hints at sweet deals. But for Souliers and Levaton, it is
still too early; Claudia's face must be associated with a designer's
"Considering her look at the time,
I didn't think things would work out with Chanel," Souliers
confides. "Still, I sent her file over. When I heard back that Karl
Lagerfeld, Chanel's legendary designer, wanted to meet Claudia, I just
could not believe it!"
Soon afterward, Claudia burst forth on
Chanel's runway. it was her first show. "I spent hours trying to
teach her how to walk," Souliers recalls. "I ended up calling
Karl to tell him that I just could not do it. He answered that it just
didn't matter; he wanted her to walk as if she were on the street."
Second Step: How America Was Won
Claudia was ready to cast a spell on
the United States. "We gambled on introducing her to the American
market via Guess, a very young company specializing in sportswear and
jeans," says Souliers. But once again the agents had it figured
out.: Simultaneously with the stunning Guess campaign, Claudia appeared
on five magazine covers in the United States and seven Europe.
That's when it all started to really happen, and it's still going on.
-- Olivia De Lamberterie