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Fast track: How 17-year-old Houstonian Jacob Riley became a Versace runway model

jacob riley versace
Jacob Riley in one of his two looks from Versace's spring/summer 2012 menswear presentation. Courtesy of Page713
jacob riley
"When I found out that Versace had booked me, I was really excited; not just for the fact that I was walking for Versace but the fact that was getting a once in a lifetime opportunity," Riley told CultureMap. Courtesy of Page713
jacob riley versace backstage
Jacob getting his hair and make-up done backstage before the show. Jacob Riley

Jacob Riley is not your average teenager. After only three months in the modeling industry, the former Lamar High School student was booked to model for Versace’s spring/summer 2012 menswear presentation in Milan last month.

CultureMap sat down with Riley at the Galleria area offices of Page 713 to discuss his experience and career ambitions.

CultureMap: When and why did you decide to become a model?

Jacob Riley: When I was younger I was really awkward looking and overweight. I always wanted to be known and have a good life – money, fame, whatever – so I kept on living my life thinking: “It’s going to happen one day. I don’t know how, but it’s going to happen.”

I had just come back from military school, and I was going into the gym – I had lost a lot of weight from military school – and a random photographer saw me and told me that I should try to be a model. So I decided to give it a shot: I did some research and came over to Page Parkes. Initially, they only put me in the acting division. But that was fun for me too, so I stuck with it.

 I did the walk and everything, and when I came back to Houston, I was talking to someone and told them that I had just been flown up to see Versace. And they were like, “Are you kidding me? Versace?” And that’s when I started to get the idea that this was really a high fashion show, and I got really excited.

 And then in March of last year I came in for agent review; to get my monologue and everything approved. When I came in, I saw Michelle Rogers, one of the agents, and she was like, “Why aren’t you in fashion? Yeah, you’ve gained a lot of weight since these pictures, but if you lost a lot of weight you could do fashion.” So she decided to be my trainer – and we were originally going to go with 30 pounds off – but it took us a year, and we knocked 50 pounds off of me.

So I guess you could say I’ve secretly wanted to be a model but didn’t want to say it, because I was afraid of what people would think. And then after a while it became hard to keep it a secret, because people were asking me why I was watching what I ate and wearing V-necks. People also noticed that I was missing a lot of school because I was going to auditions and callbacks and such. But when I lost all of the weight, I got really excited about being a model, and I wanted to do something big.

CM: When you found out that Versace had booked you, did you realize how big of a deal it was?

JR: Well, when I first started in this industry, I only knew of brands like Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren. I didn’t know anything higher-end than that. When I was told that I was going to be flown up to see Versace, I was like “Oh this is probably some off brand.” I felt really uncomfortable when I got there because it was so intense, and I felt like people were making such a big deal out of it.

I did the walk and everything, and when I came back to Houston, I was talking to someone and told them that I had just been flown up to see Versace. And they were like, “Are you kidding me? Versace?” And that’s when I started to get the idea that this was really a high fashion show, and I got really excited. But I didn’t want to get too excited, because I wasn’t sure if I was going to get it. Calvin Klein had already turned me down, so my thought was: “if I get it then I get it, and if I don’t then I don’t.”

So naturally, when I got it I was really excited; not just for the fact that I was walking for Versace but the fact that was getting a once in a lifetime opportunity. I’ve always thought that I would only stay in Houston for modeling, maybe get to New York if I was lucky, but I never imagined doing a runway show during Milan Fashion Week.

CM: Tell us about the Milan experience.

JR: Milan is crazy, especially during fashion week. You get there, and practically everyone is a model. Everyone is this tall, good looking, perfect bone structured person, and you just feel very self-conscious. But everyone is so nice; it was really cool how everyone was just so inviting and welcoming. Most of my time was spent doing fittings, hair and make-up and practice runs. We were mostly hanging out at the Versace prep space, which was really cool: it was an old house with a courtyard, which was where the show took place. But Donatella was there the whole time, which I thought was really cool, because she actually talked to us and hung out with us. The food was absolutely amazing – that was probably the most impacted I have ever been by food.

CM: How many looks did you do?

JR: I did two looks: we had 50 looks for 30 people, and since I was an exclusive, I got to do two looks. The changeover was really hard.

CM: Who was sitting front row?

JR: I was disappointed that Kanye [West] wasn’t, but we had Carmello Anthony, Dwyane Wade, Chace Crawford, Darren Criss, Ryan Kwanten and Zach Quinto. We had a party after the show, and these guys all treated us like we were on their level – it was really cool.

CM: Was it weird when you came back to go from celebrity status to normal life?

JR: My Dad made sure that my head was on straight: he made me dig a trench for his drainage system right after I got back. And it wasn’t fun, but it keeps me level.

CM: Have you done work since you’ve been back?

JR: I just wrapped up a Nerf commercial. That was interesting; definitely not Versace.

CM: So what’s next?

JR: I’m moving to New York in August, and I hope to be able to do New York Fashion Week, which is in September. I had no idea what Fashion Week even was last year, but I’ve been consumed by it lately, and it’s my goal to be in one show per fashion week. But auditions for New York are in August, and I’ll stay out there for the shows, and then campaign season is right after that. So hopefully I can book one of those too.

CM: What would be your dream fashion house or label to model for?

JR: Campaign wise, Calvin Klein. I’ve always liked his clothes. Or Ralph Lauren or Burberry – one of those three would be really cool. Runway wise, Dolce & Gabbana or Gucci would be really fun. There were a couple of models in the Versace show who had been in several previous shows, and they said that some of the most fun ones were Gucci and Dolce & Gabbana because everything is just so luxurious.

CM: Is there anything that you dislike about working in this industry?

JR: Not knowing what’s next.

See the Versace spring/summer 2012 menswear runway show:

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