In this interview, Cherell Monai discusses doing your homework, preparing yourself, and understanding what you have control over.
You went to undergrad for photography, but didn’t finish—is that right?
The reason why I didn’t finish my degree in Illinois—that’s where I was doing my undergrad—was I was playing basketball, actually playing college basketball on a full-ride scholarship, and I started going through depression—a side effect of the birth control I was using [at] that moment in my life. That just put me through a huge darkness, so when I was going through that I couldn’t really get up to go to basketball practice. I couldn’t do anything. I was so stuck, and after the depression was over, I was like, I don’t wanna play basketball anymore. That’s when I started pursuing photography, in my last semester of college. I started pursuing that fully and I loved it so much and started doing more than what the class actually needed me to do—that’s how much I loved it because I was able to express myself within the photography. That’s what led me [to] a whole new passion and a whole new journey.
At that point in time, when I was dealing with that darkness, I remember calling up one of my good friends, Tyler, who's one of my best friends now, and she was like, “Dude, just come to SCAD. Come to Savannah, Georgia and see if this is what you want to do.” But I already was calling her to see how much she liked it for fashion design—[that’s what] she was going for—and she loved it. So I was like, You know what? Since I really like this photography thing, I might as well go ahead with it. That’s what led me on the journey to Savannah, Georgia to go to school for photography at SCAD.
What altered that path? Was it really just simply getting that job?
Yes, I'm a very impulsive person and what I realize is [that] when I'm really good at something, I stick with it for a while. Photography was the first thing that I really realized I was good at after basketball. So that’s the first thing I pursued, but then I was looking for another job and I got this awesome job, which was 100% commission. [I] found out I was really good at it and started making a ton of money. I had the choice to either save that money for school, ‘cause I was making more than enough [to] just pay my way through school, or just live.
At this point in time, it was like the fervor for photography was dying. I did one collaboration with a few photographers in town, but after that, I became so busy. I think that was the biggest thing; I was so blinded by the money because I was so busy. That’s what really killed my passion for photography. So then it became a month of not shooting, and then it became two months of not shooting, and then eventually I was like, I haven’t shot anything in a whole year.
Then I got really good at the sales thing, and when I got good at that I [thought], Savannah’s not for me anymore if I'm not going to school. I feel like if you’re not retiring, or if you’re not going to school at SCAD, Savannah’s not really the city for you. I needed a city that’s a little bit more: doing more, maybe more nature, more city, more young people, more people my age, creative people who aren’t necessarily in school but just living their lives. So that’s when I came upon Austin. I [said], Since I'm making money here in Savannah, Georgia at Verizon, why don’t I just transfer to the Verizon there? And that’s what led me on my journey to Austin, Texas.
When you decided to move to Austin, it wasn’t with the initial intent to pursue what you’re pursuing now?
Exactly. It was nothing [related to] what I'm doing now. I had no clue I would be doing this in Austin, at all.
So then my next question is, how did you find yourself into this?
Actually, when I got here I became friends on Facebook with this girl who was in a band and also did some commercial work with an agency in town. I thought her page was so inspiring that I followed her. I didn’t really know her, but she was in Austin, Texas and I was trying to meet new people. I kinda reached out to her and I was inquiring about the agency. I wasn’t for sure gonna do it, and she was like, “No, I love your look. You should totally go into an open call. I think they’ll love you.” So I went into an open call and right away I got signed and was just so encouraged by that.
When I got signed, having a basketball and athletics background, I’d never done anything in front of people other than sports. I’d never done theater; I’d never even hung out with theater people. So the first thing that the agent said was, “Hey, I need you to take an acting class because that way the clients know that you’re somewhat serious about this profession. And that way when I'm sending you out on auditions, they’ll be like, OK, at least she’s in an acting class, she’s good.”
That’s when I actually started doing the acting class. When I went to my first class [with] Carol Hickey, I fell in love. I was like, This is what I wanna do for the rest of my life. I loved how much I was being challenged. It reminded [me] of when I was a young girl starting out with basketball and how much it challenged me. And now it’s like a whole new want.
Then shortly after that, I reached out to [my fashion agent], like “Hey, I'm interested in potentially being in the fashion division.” He called me in to meet with him and then he wanted to sign me on as a fashion model as well. I was just doing commercial work and acting work, but then that came about as well, so now I'm just pursuing that and I'm trying to build that craft as well.
So the agency that you signed with, you didn’t necessarily do research, you just kind of went off the faith of this person that you met through social media?
I did a lot of research because when I was younger this was a dream that I had. I’ve been pursuing this dream for a long time, on and off, but I dealt with some scams when I was younger so that kinda turned me and my family off from it. I actually went to another agency before the agency that I'm with now; it was the one that my friend told me about, but it was not a good business fit for me and we weren’t the best business partners. When you're signing up for an agency, it’s really important that you understand what the company’s values are. Actually, it’s good to reach out to a lot of different talent and ask them questions before signing. That way you can get a lot of different perspectives because eventually, that’s an investment on your part. That’s time; that’s potential things you could have booked over that time. So you really gotta make sure that’s the perfect agency.
So I left that agency; I told them to take my photos off. We ended things. It just was not a good relationship, so then I got a new agent. I'm so proud to say his name; it’s John Kolinofsky and he’s with Callidus Agency. The professionalism of this guy is just out of this world. He was initially in Dallas, but he came to Austin to meet me face-to-face, and ever since it’s just been great and I’ve been booking so much with him. I have auditions almost every single week. I just love it and I'm just so grateful for everything he’s done for me. And this is the agency [where] I'm also a part of the fashion division now.
Starting this type of career in your twenties, do you feel like you’re struggling, or that there are things you have to get caught up with? I know you said you had to take an acting class.
Right now it’s considered very late, and I think that the main obstacle I’ll face is that most agencies in New York City [are] looking for someone who’s already developed, or they’re looking to fully develop them. So it’s either you’re so young that they’re able to put all their work into you and invest in you and make sure that you’re the model that they want you to be, or you’re going to New York and you better be freaking developed already. Honestly, for me, there’s no patience. When I go to New York I need to know everything: I need to know how to pose; I need to know how to hold myself up at photo shoots, in front of clients, and in front of casting directors. I need to know these things.
My time in the modeling industry because of my age is slim; it’s very slim. I can't have any excuses for why I'm not up to par. It’s a lot of work and making sure I'm detailed and very professional and just able to watch other girls, other models in the Austin area, do their work: being very observant so I can be prepared in New York.
I do want to talk about these things that your booking. Now of course there are the blind auditions, there are these auditions with the open calls, I get that but you did mention that sometimes you get things out of networking. So how is that for you; is that sort of a new element for you in building these relationships and learning how to talk to people and just developing in this industry; are there things that you had to learn in forming these relationships?
Honestly, I think that growing up in the church really helped me [be able] to talk to a big group of people, weave through a crowd, get to know a lot of people and make an impact on them and let them make an impact on me. I think that this has been a skill that, unknowingly, I’ve been developing my whole life, [by attending] church conferences and seeing a lot of different Christians.
For me, reaching out to people—I realize I just have to do it. It’s just something that needs to be done. And with social media being such a heavy force right now, I'm the only one who’s going to limit myself [to] what I can do. You can literally message the people [whom] you look up to on social media, and get answers from them, and help them to inspire you, or get tips from them. It’s only a message away, and I just can't limit [my] greatness because I'm not willing to step out and network with people. For [contacting] photographers, it’s definitely easy because once they see your social media site and they see that you're serious about acting and modeling, most likely photographers are on board as well because they see that you're an artist. They're artists and they're more than willing to do a TFP, which is a “time for print,” like exchanging work-for-work, or they're more than willing to collaborate with another artist.
I come out with different friends [to] all of these networking events, and even just in general in Austin walking around, I think sometimes people come up to me and they want to work with me, just from seeing me. Or sometimes at outings, I'll meet people and find out they're doing something that I wanna be a part of. So it’s just so cool and so much fun, and I think it’s the way to go and it’s really gonna prepare me for New York.
Your Instagram, and by extension your Facebook, feed is constantly updated with images from photo shoots. Are you actively using social media to develop your career?
Social media now is a tool. I want to use the tool as much as possible to build my brand. Social media allows an avenue to do that in every way possible. With an industry like modeling where my face sells, I have to make sure I keep putting out photos, so people are more accustomed to seeing me and ultimately loving their view. [I’m] hoping it will allow me to be seen by the right people (e.g. directors, producers, and writers) as I continue to develop my acting career simultaneously.
Are these shoots more from friends, young photographers looking to build their portfolios, or professional shoots?
In the beginning stages of modeling, we are given a list from our agent with many photographers that talents [from the agency] has worked with. It's our job as models to seek these relationships out. All of my photo shoots have been because I emailed a photographer. I usually have so much fun that I make a friend by the end of the shoot.
Texas isn’t a market I would think of for acting or modeling.
Texas is a smaller market, but you could still have a nice career here. Not so much for film and high fashion, though. Hence, the reason that I'm moving to New York City. The best market here is going to be commercial, for sure. A lot of clients come here—major brands, actually, all the time. There are so many commercials being filmed [here] every single day. With commercials, they're the highest-paying out of anything in the industry because you can run a national spread, a national online, and then you get residuals. You're constantly getting paid monthly for these commercials that you've booked, versus for a fashion shoot, you’ll probably get paid one time, or an editorial you’ll get paid one time. That’s why [with] commercials you can really make a living off of them in this market.
So why not stay there, then, if it’s the more fiscally rewarding marketing?
I think that now that I'm in it, [I] feel I can push myself further. Obviously, commercials are great, but it’s not what I want to do. Commercials will always be there. I feel like there’s always gonna be a brand promoting itself, so there will always be that [option], no matter where I live. But more so, I’m looking to be challenged [as] a character in a movie scene—that’s what I love. I want to be filled with my heart. It’s not about the money so much for me. I got that experience in commercials, but now I wanna challenge myself to be something way different than “Cherell” in this film. Now I wanna challenge myself physically to be in this action film. I want to be challenging myself in every other way. I want to challenge myself in not [just working] with the photographers in Austin. I want to be on the runway shows with my favorite models. I don’t wanna just be staying here. I'm on to the next level; that’s what I'm thinking in my mind. I’m ready for the challenges; I'm ready for the competition.
Have there been challenges for you [as] a dark-skinned black woman entering those industries?
I think that, first off, it depends on where you're located, and secondly, it depends on what you’re looking for. I'm in Austin, Texas; it’s very diverse here. And not only that, every brand doesn't want just one color skin; they want to show America. So, for the most part, they’re gonna want a black girl; they're gonna want a Hispanic girl; they’ll want an Asian girl. That’s what they're looking for as a brand. They don't wanna seem like they’re just one-sided. Commercials [are] not that hard for me to book because I am high demand. People wanna see the everyday American citizen when they look at a commercial on TV: they want to [relate to people they see].
But as far as the film industry, I haven’t gotten so much into that yet. I booked a short film, but I haven’t been able to fully indulge in it. That may be more of a challenge, and [dependent] on where I'm living. That’s another reason I felt like New York will be a little bit better for me in the film industry. But I could understand being typecast; I could understand that totally. I haven’t dealt with that personally, but I could understand how someone would be.
And the fashion industry—they love dark skin. There are some designers who definitely will sometimes do all-white shows. I [hear] more frequently that really dark skin like mine [is] so beautiful. But I did hear that the percentage of black girls in fashion shows this past year [has] actually went down from the year before, 2016. Fall [had] the most black girls ever in fashion week, and then this Spring 2017 it fell probably five percent, and they were asking why. I don’t know the details. I just know that right now, [with] what I’m [focused] on, it’s not that hard for me to get jobs.
Is that something that you feel you need to prepare for, though, that type of discrimination?
It’s not because I live in this skin every single day. Whether or not it’s through my job, I get discriminated against every single day. I already have tough skin for it. I mean, either way, it’s gonna happen. I focus more on what I actually have control over. I’m not gonna bleach my skin; I’m not gonna do anything for it. I don’t see a point to focus on it. I just know it’s a factor that may alter some things in my pursuit to greatness, but other than that it kind of is what it is.
You’re moving to New York. Why there, as opposed to L.A.?
Coming from Austin, Texas—a lot of people in Austin are from L.A. and [they] feel like it’s kind of that lax mentality. Obviously, not everyone’s like that [in L.A.], but I think that one thing I’ve always looked up to about New York is that everybody is grinding and it’s a lot of hustle and bustle. I want to be able [to] see that and be inspired by that every single day. I would rather not have a car. I would rather feel like I’m hustling in every way of my life: I’m taking a bus, I’m taking a subway. Even though it’s normal there, not having a car at my disposal [will] be different than what I’m used to. I like that a lot, and I like that it doesn’t matter what career: if I see a garbage man I know he’s hustling, if I see the men on the street, I know that they’re hustling just to sell the newspaper they have and they're always going to try to sell you on something more. Everybody’s just trying to grind on what they are good at. I want to be around people like that.
Also, it’s the fashion capital of the world. I feel like if I was going to go to L.A. first, it would be because I was a little insecure, instead of just going straight to the punch. I feel like my look is going to sell better in New York. L.A. is more of the glamor, more of the afro and smiling on the beach, whereas New York is weird and edgy and that’s who I am. I definitely feel like New York is the best option in my life and I'm excited to see where it takes me.
What are you doing right now? I know you plan on moving to New York in August, but what are the practical steps you’re taking for your career in the next twelve months?
Well, I’m about to sign up for improv class. Honestly, right now it’s all about putting in as much work as possible so when I get there it shows on my resume, it shows in my portfolio book, [and] it shows on my comp card. Like I said earlier, [I’m] developing every part of myself in trying to educate myself on every part of the industry. Obviously, there are some things I’ll never be able to learn until I get there, but it’s just important for me to be prepared. I just [acted as creative director] for my first photoshoot in a while, since Savannah, Georgia, because I [really] wanted a certain shot in my portfolio book before I get to New York. Then we have another one coming up where we’re both [creative directors]. I’m really excited for that. So I’m getting the book that I want. [I’m getting] everything that I envision so I can sell myself even better in New York. It’s just getting myself prepared: trying to book as many commercials as I can; trying to add as many versatile things as possible.
Once you get to New York, are you going to have to look for an agency blind?
I haven’t decided yet. I talked to my agent briefly about it and he wishes me the best. He does have agents in New York that he’s willing to allow me to meet with once I get there, which is really exciting. I have the mindset of seeing it as an opportunity but also knowing I’m going to be by myself there and understanding that this is the beginning again. It’s OK to fail when I first get there; it’s OK that I don’t get signed when I get there. I would love to get signed when I get there. That’s also a possibility that could totally happen. But I’m accepting both sides. I’m accepting that it may work and it may not work. And if it doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean that it won’t work in five months. It’s just preparing for both sides. I’m working out; I’m trying to get to the size that I need to because you gotta be a lot smaller in New York. [I’m] just preparing in every single way so that hopefully I can get an agent right when I get there.
Cherell Monai began her story along the Chicago River and stayed in Illinois for her undergrad, having received a full athletics scholarship. Before finishing her degree, Monai traded in harsh winds for thick humidity: relocating to Savannah with the initial thought of attending the Savannah College of Art and Design in photography. But after a year, she decided that desert looked better than marsh and moved to Austin. It was there along the Colorado River that Monai established her career as a commercial model, gaining representation by Callidus Agency. Later this year, Monai will be admiring the East River as she pursues her career in fashion modelling in New York City.