Model of an agency owner

Bonita Ma rose from meeting and training models in a cramped HDB flat to grooming supermodels today for the global runways.

NOT many agencies in Singapore would call themselves a "mother agency", but Basic Models Management assumes the maternal mantle at the crux of of its business. Founded by Bonita Ma, it helps models work with secondary agencies overseas, on top of polishing and grooming local hopefuls "from scratch" to a shiny finish, constructing their portfolios, assigning gigs, and sending them for castings.

The agency has a steady source of more than 70 models available for booking. Of all of them, Basic has produced celebrity models such as Fiona Fussi, who appeared in Chanel's YouTube makeup tutorials this year, and Aimee Cheng-Bradshaw, who represented Singapore in the third cycle of Asia's Next Top Model. Their apparent fame and glamour is far removed from the real story - the startup's struggles in its early years.

Before starting Basic, Ms Ma worked as a manager in a separate modelling agency, which shuttered its doors locally. The boss had left the country, Ms Ma says, leaving girls who had contracts with the company jobless. She was the only agency manager in Singapore present at the time, and negotiated with the boss whom she says "ran away".

"We have this pool of girls here. We have to be responsible for them," says Ms Ma. "So we started the agency very quickly. It was supposed to make sure they keep working."

One-woman show

As she integrated the girls from her previous agency into Basic Models, Ms Ma functioned on a "one-woman basis". This included working even when she was about to give birth. As she received an epidural in her delivery room, she was texting Ms Cheng-Bradshaw who needed directions to a show casting.

"She was like, why aren't you replying to me?" Ms Ma recalls. And the next text upon realisation: "I'm sorry Bon; I think you're delivering now.' "

This was 2013, the same year Ms Ma got married. It had only been around a year since Basic Models started in October 2012. With help from her husband, Alex, a digital marketer, there was still plenty of work but not enough people to do it. "We had to make a lot of phone calls to tell people: 'Hey, you know, there's a new agency in town.' "

Ms Ma's working team has expanded since. What started as a two-person outfit is now a team that includes an artiste manager, a booker, and PR manager. But Ms Ma remains active as the head booker. She coordinates jobs for the models and distributes the workload. "There are a lot of bosses that move away from the front line after a while, but I'm still in the front line," says Ms Ma. "I have help right now, but that doesn't mean that I'm not doing anything."

Basic Models is divided into two divisions: Fashion and Artiste.

The Fashion division covers campaigns, catalogues, lookbooks, and extends to an international scale, such as Fashion Week in the fashion capitals of the world - Milan, Paris, London, New York. If a new recruit is lanky enough to sashay down the runway for the long term, and wants to, then he or she can join the Fashion division.

The other section is the Artiste division, where the photogenic engage in movies and TV shows. It recently opened this year due to mounting demand from the entertainment industry, including offers from Mediacorp and Toggle.

Things have changed quite dramatically for Ms Ma since the early days. While she declines to give revenue figures, the agency now has its own studio at 1 Irving Place. In the beginning, models had trickled into an HDB flat in Clementi - Ms Ma's mother's home - for meetings and training. She did not yet have money to rent an office.

Instead, she invested around S$3,000 on a laptop, printer, namecards and composite cards, which are individualised contact sheets with photos. She also paid for the utility bills, "as a form of paying rent to my mum, since it was her flat", says Ms Ma.

To keep the dollars rolling, Ms Ma scouted for fresh faces on social media, had some referred to her by existing models, and held open castings, which she still does to this day. Those trying out will have to perform the catwalk and pose for the camera. The blog post Preparing for Basic Models Casting Call on the Basic Models website sets out clearly what the firm wants and how it wants it done. It includes straightforward instructions such as: "We are not expecting you to walk like Victoria's Secret models. In fact, you are not allowed to walk like that in most fashion shows."

Numbers of those who audition have grown from 20 to 200 each time, with only six to 10 making the cut. Castings went from thrice to twice a year. Initially, there was a lack of interest, Ms Ma says, which could be attributed to parents and potential attendees not completely trusting her brand name yet.

Driving ambition

Credibility for the modelling profession in Singapore is also what Ms Ma believes is sorely lacking. It is hard for a modelling career to take off and stay lucrative in the long run. "Korea can do it, Taiwan can do it, China can do it. Why can't we?" Ms Ma says, comparing the little recognition for local models here with the greater support other models receive in their own countries. "It's all about building a system."

Basic has started the Artiste division this year, parlaying a wider range of talent, and the Basic Models Academy, a three-week-long training course. The curriculums spell out the practical aspects of being a model, such as learning how to pose, how to stride on the catwalk, and how to stay in shape, among other aspects.

As local models grow successful, Ms Ma's dream is to make a dent in the international market with her homegrown stars. Already, some have received proposals from Hollywood.

"That is what I would want to achieve at the end of my life," says Ms Ma. "That's what we are working very hard towards."