Anna Shillinglaw is a former model who had a hugely successful modelling career that spanned 17 years, she also was one of the original curve models. Anna worked for renowned fashion and commercial clients and was ‘Bikini Girl' in the British comedy classic ‘Kevin and Perry Go Large.' After her career slowly started to end, she decided that she needed the industry to become more diverse and inclusive so she set about to make a change in the industry and opened Model agency MiLK Management. Her agency has a diverse roster of talent and she heads up the world renowned curve board that has broken barriers globally in the fashion industry.
Tell us about your journey into modelling
I set up Milk Model Management in 2011 but I was a model from the age of 17. I very naughtily didn’t finish my A-Levels and thought I’d give this modelling malarkey a go. I was signed by Storm Management and my mum helped me move to London the following week and from there I modelled for the next 17 years. I understood quite quickly how it all worked and how important it was to reinvent yourself as a model, keep your name in the game and stay positive. Learning about different markets was also important for my career and I ended up living in New York for 7 years.
How did your modelling develop over those years?
When I first started I was what you call a ‘straight size’ model, I was very very slim, and that was great at the time but in my mid-20s, when I started gaining weight, it became very stressful. I was always going to shoots thinking am I going to fit in these clothes and then you would get in a lot of trouble with your agent if you didn’t fit in the clothes so it was really a lot of pressure. I was then introduced to plus size modelling and for me, it was like wow, I can still be a model and not starve myself! From there I ended up doing plus size modelling for about 10 years!
How did the idea for MiLK Management come about?
My lightbulb moment came when I moved back home and realised that the UK didn’t have a plus-size agency. At the time I was 34 and pregnant with my son Oscar. My husband was in the military so I started MiLK in my spare bedroom in our army quarter in West Byfleet.
When I was a model I was a bit annoyed because I used to think, I’ve got a pretty face, why do they care so much if I have a little bit of a tummy or a bit of a bum? I thought I would love to be in an agency, that I wasn’t scared to go into or have the measuring tape brought out and that’s what I wanted to create.
When I started though I had no idea what I was doing but I had a little bit of money and one of my mum’s friends was really good at websites. The website was made and then I was on a job with some friends and I told them my idea and they were like, yeah, we’ll join you and so I started with about 5 girls.
What was important for you?
I wanted to do something very fashion forward and inclusive. It wasn’t going to be just about curves, as to me, people are beautiful whatever size they are, whatever skin colour they are. I wanted to have a great agency and make money, but for me, it was more about showing brands and photographers and the public that diversity is really cool, it's beautiful, it’s not just about size. So our focus was really on making beautiful imagery and shooting great diverse people. In England, there were a couple of curvaceous agencies, but they were just curves. We were the first agency to have a roster of all kinds of talents, in all shapes and sizes!
How far has the fashion industry come in terms of showing empowerment and more diverse representations?
I mean it's huge right now, many big brands are jumping on board, with their advertising. Not only size and waist but also with age and disability and it's brilliant. There is still a long way to go, but you’ll definitely see more. River Island has just done a great advertisement campaign where they used older people, younger people, people of different sizes and people with disabilities.
Also, I don’t know if you saw the latest Grazia cover which had all these beautiful girls with disabilities on the cover and they also did an age cover.
Do you see the industry going in any particular direction over the next 5 or 10 years?
There was a little bit of a fear, that maybe this diversity thing, was a bit of a trend, but now, I’m seeing so many people get on board and many new brands email me every day saying, “Oh, actually can we see some girls that are a size 14, 16”, and you never thought you would see that brand say that! So, I do think, it’s here to stay and I do think that’s because of social media. Social media definitely helped drive everything that we have been doing. I think the general public have just got a bit bored of seeing a blonde haired, blued eyed, size 6 women models and I think people just want to see something different and that’s the way we’re going.
Do you think that it is a good industry to work in as a woman? What do you love about working in the industry?
It’s definitely a tough industry and can be very cut-throat. As a model, most people do have a shelf life, so you know, you have to get in there and make a stab while you can. But it’s also an amazing job, you get to travel, you learn to adapt to different situations, you get thrown into situations where you turn up and there are 20 people you’ve never met before and you have to be really open and perform. You meet really interesting people and you become very life savvy. There is definitely loads of great things about being a model. As long as you do what you do with integrity and you are kind, you have self-respect, you can be in this industry for a long time and have a great reputation.
Has there a particular female role model or support system that has been invaluable to you?
Absolutely, I’ve always looked at other agencies and other owners of agencies. There is an Australian agent called Chelsea Bonner, the owner of Bella Models in Australia and I have worked with her for years, she has supported me from the beginning. She is just one of those people who has always been very direct, very honest and she is also completely loveable, and I really respect her. She has been a huge role model for me.
When you set up your agency it was different from anything else on the market, where did that confidence come from?
I was very determined. When I say something, I do it, there is like a fire in me, you have to have that. I’m not afraid to be different, I’m not afraid to be a little bit quirky, I’m not afraid to be on my own, I like a bit of Anna time. You can’t be afraid to be different and you have to try things. I definitely made some massive fails in the beginning, but you learn from your mistakes. If you think, oh, I’ve made this mistake, I’m just going to give up then you’ll never do anything.
How has a setback or obstacle shaped you?
I’ve made huge mistakes and I have learnt from them and I know to never make them again. You do become a bit more wary about things, but you have to be. You also have to take massive risks, I remember when I signed Tess Holliday and everyone in my office looked at me like I was mad, and I think some people were very unhappy about the situation. That was a decision I made with my heart and at the end of the day, it definitely paid off but it was a massive risk that not everyone agreed with. You just have to remember that not everyone is going to agree with you but as long as you know in your heart that it's the right decision and it’s the decision you'vee made, so you’ve just gotta own it.
One of our key themes is asking for help is that something that comes naturally to you?
I have no problem asking for help or in hiring people that know more than I do. Even now, I definitely take advice, even from my younger peers as they have different ways of thinking. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, a good boss or a good company will embrace that. The more questions the better when you start a job.
What is next for you?
We are moving offices to a place double the size, we’re growing so much, so that is really exciting. But for us, it is more about quality than quantity, we’re going to heavily focus on British scouting and that means, going around England, looking for unique wonderful people to represent us and to continue riding this journey with diversity, because our board is just getting stronger and stronger and it’s really exciting.
What piece of advice would you give to a young girl or boy who was on the brink of deciding what to do with their career?
I think interning is great. Intern at a few different places and send your CV to people, try to get their emails. I don’t look at any CV’s if you don’t send me a cover letter, because it’s nice to know a little bit about yourself. Don’t be afraid to try lots of things, it might not be right, but you can move onto something else. Find something you’re passionate about, who wants to go to work and be bored. Find something you love and makes you feel excited to get up in the morning.
Anna's TV show 'Curvy Girls Stripped Bare' airs tomorrow night on Channel 5 at 10pm! We can't wait to watch it!