From an early age, Elmer Olsen had an eye for beautiful girls. When he was a boy, he and his family travelled from their farm near Areola, Sask., about 180 km southeast of Regina, for groceries every Saturday. Then, young Elmer would head for a nearby drugstore to leaf through the fashion magazines. Recalled Olsen:
“My mother said that once, when I was about 12,1 said, ‘How come all the girls in the magazines look so different from the girls around here?’ ” Now, at 42, the former farm boy is one of the most important model scouts in Canada. And with his knack for picking winners, he is the man that many aspiring Canadian models want to meet.
Olsen’s job is the envy of many.
He travels on the Toronto subway system, he says, “because that’s where young people are.” He usually eats in restaurants and acknowledges that his eyes are always roving. Even at the Blue Jays’ baseball games that he regularly attends, he is on the lookout for girls with what he calls “model potential.” “I don’t think it’s work,” said Olsen in his downtown Toronto office. “You never know where that next amazing girl will be.” And over the years, he has
built up a reputation for having a near-flawless eye. “Elmer has consistently produced one beautiful model after another,” said Lisa Herzog, vice-president of the New York City-based Elite Modelling Management Corp., the world’s largest agency. “He has had a lot to do with increasing the popularity of Canadian models.”
Talent: For Olsen, scouting for beautiful women was a natural progression from his career as a hairdresser. Not only did he own a popular Toronto hair salon, but he frequently went on out-of-town assignments for a hairproducts manufacturer and for fashion magazines, including Chatelaine and Flare. Gradually, his editorial clients came to rely on more than his talent as a hairstylist. He advised them on prospective models culled from the many ambitious young women who crossed his path. Then, in 1985, he sold his salon and established himself as a full-time scout. He made his first independent discovery at a baseball game, paid
for a photo session and sent the pictures to Elite. Recalled Olsen: “They phoned me and said, ‘This girl is incredible.’ ” The girl, Karen Campbell, who was then 17 years old and a recent high-school graduate, went on to a successful career in Paris.
Since then, Olsen has devoted himself to the search. He goes to high-school fashion shows and popular student bars. He introduces himself to girls at bus stops. To avoid rebuffs, he simply hands a potential client a business card and tells her that if she is interested, she should have one of her parents call his office. But he is hard-pressed to put what he looks for into words. “A great agent has to like all kinds of looks,” said Olsen. “Personally, I’m attracted to girls who look a little bit unusual, who have that little bit of something that the other girls don’t have.” He added: “Now, there’s a real craze for a little bit of ethnic, a little bit of
this, a little bit of that—but you can’t put your finger on what it is. And that’s the type of girl that I really like.”
Style: Olsen now represents about 60 young women and 15 men through Elmer Olsen Models Inc., the company that he started in October, 1990. He works closely with his models’ parents and helps the models develop their style and assemble their portfolios. He arranges for agencies in other countries to represent them. About half of his clients remain in Toronto, while the others work in Europe, the United States and Japan. Like most agents, Olsen receives five per cent of a model’s earnings out of the country, and 15 to 20 per cent of what the model earns in Canada. The only part of the job that Olsen says he does not like is when a girl wants to be a model but does not have what it takes. “There are some girls who aren’t right for the business,” said Olsen. “They don’t have that certain inner strength and they lack being able to put themselves together.” He added, “I made up my mind when I got into this business that I would be as honest as I could so I could live with myself.”
In his office, Olsen produces snapsnots of gangly, awkwardlooking 12and 13-year-olds, girls that most people would pass on the street without giving a second glance. Seconds later, he shows photographs of what the young women look like now. “Elmer has always had an eye,” said John MacKay, the former editor of Toronto Life Fashion magazine and now a fashion industry consultant. “And he has refined it over time. He not only has an eye for beauty, but he has a sense of what will sell.”
Olsen, who is not married, says that he believes everyone has three careers in their lives. He has already been a farmer and a hairdresser, and model scouting is where he says he wants to stay. “I do best at getting girls started, and that’s what I like the best,” he said. “My parents always taught me that you must always do what you do best.” As Olsen’s many discoveries attest, he has done as well by them as by himself.
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