She looks, if possible, even more modelesque in person, although this might have something to do with the high-heeled lace-up Balenciaga boots she’s wearing (along with an Urban Outfitters top, Marni belt, vintage gold lamé purse and a skort that once belonged to her mother). When I sit down with Irish Canadian Coco Rocha, who has taken the fashion world by storm before turning twenty-one with an unforgettable face, modish look and vivid persona, I’m struck by her openness and eloquence.
Discovered at the young age of fourteen by agent Charles Stuart, Coco (born Mikhaila Rocha on September 10, 1988) had never considered modeling or fashion as particular interests before Stuart approached her after seeing her perform in an Irish dance competition. She initially told him that she wasn’t interested, but Stuart, whose daughter also did Irish dance, persisted. “He would come to every competition, or he would have some lady come up to me and say, you know, ‘He is legit, try it!’ So a year later I decided to do it, see what it was like — and now here I am today. If it weren’t for my Irish dancing, I wouldn’t be modeling.” Coco can attribute both her dancing, which she practiced for twelve years, and her looks to her Irish ancestry. “My mom’s half Irish and my dad’s half Irish. We don’t know much about my mom’s side but my dad’s mom came from Belfast and married my grandfather, who was from Wales.” Her grandparents later moved their family to Canada.
Born in Toronto, Ontario, Coco grew up in Richmond, British Columbia. She has two siblings, and her parents are both in the airline industry. Coco says her parents are supportive of her career, if a bit out of touch. “For the longest time my dad didn’t quite understand. He’s like, ‘So what are you doing? Are you known?’ I’m like, ‘Yes, I’m modeling now, people know what I do.’ He’s still a little bit, ‘What’s going on?’ My mom, though, she’s here a lot so she sees it all firsthand.”
Her lack of fluency in high-end designers before modeling has helped Coco to create a unique personal style, especially indebted to a great love of vintage clothes. “I didn’t know anything about fashion. You would see me in the biggest sweater with jeans or the tightest elastic pants. Not nice clothes. My mom took me a lot to consignment stores when I was younger and I never really got to go to fancy high-class stores so … vintage was like a step up. You can always find one thing that no one else has, which is nice. To wear things from the 1800s to the 20s and 30s is kind of amazing.”
The breakthrough moment of her career took place during Jean Paul Gaultier’s fall 2007 show inspired by the Scottish Highlands, which Coco opened and closed by Irish dancing down the runway. Vogue called it the “Coco moment,” and suggested that it marked her status as a genuine supermodel. “It was exciting. When you usually dance, you dance in front of a crowd that has no clue who you are, so you can mess up, fall down, be exhausted and no one will really know in the end what you did. But [at the Gaultier show,] I was really nervous because everyone knew what my name was, and if I fell over and everyone was laughing, it definitely would have hit everyone’s radar. … I don’t think I’ll ever have a peak like that in a show. My grandma went nuts. I mean, at shows usually, all you have to do is walk, so I don’t get nervous, but that was a bit maddening.”
Besides setting herself apart through fashion and Irish dance, Coco has earned a reputation as an outspoken model that isn’t afraid to let her personality shine underneath the clothes. “In the industry now, models are [expected] to be seen and not heard, and I think there’s a few of us that are kind of wanting to push the envelope a little bit more and trying to get models back to what they used to be. We want to be out there so people know models are also role models too. It’s not just the singers, the actresses, the dancers, et cetera. Models can be people too. But the only way to do that is to kind of step up and keep doing new things that no one has thought of, from new websites to new blogs, a newscast, doing speeches, talking to kids, it kind of opens a new headline every time: ‘Oh, a model hasn’t done this before, a model hasn’t done that before.’ So I think it’s always being the new fresh person, which is hard because everything’s been done before. It’s just redoing it in a different way.” Lately Coco has been speaking at schools about issues including body image and self-esteem, and is making a trip to Canada to help with a cousin’s cancer charity. In the past, parents and teachers have been wary of spokesmodels who seem to preach self-esteem in empty language without addressing the consequences of their industry’s focus on physical appearance, but it’s obvious that this is an issue genuinely important to Coco. “I think models have that huge say on self-esteem, because we were the girls that were nobodies in school and now have become the models. I think that every girl has a really sad story: nobody liked her, everybody hated her, and then once you do become a model, how things change.”
Speaking about the pressure to be thin in this industry, Coco expresses concern about models that resort to any and all methods of maintaining low body weight, but also emphasizes that not every designer wants the anorexic look. “When you start off you have to have a certain body type. I mean, that’s why we get [recruited] so young. Your body hasn’t even gotten to that peak yet. So when you start aging and your body is changing, people want it to stop, they don’t want that happening. … You can’t please everyone. If Client A and Client B want two different girls, are you somehow going to get both of them? No. If you don’t want me today, someone will want me tomorrow.”
For the last few years, it seems everyone has wanted Coco: she has done advertising campaigns with Balenciaga, Calvin Klein, Lanvin, Dolce & Gabbana and The Gap, and appeared on the covers of Vogue and Elle, among others. With a consistent and star-studded six-year career, Coco is a bit of a throwback at a time when America is introduced to their newest “Top Model” each season on reality television. Says Coco on this phenomenon of disposable models, “I think to be a supermodel is to stay in your own genre, to be 100 percent in everything in that specific area. If you need TV and all that to make you great — then it tells you right there how good of a model you probably are. But for the Heidi Klums and the Tyra Bankses, who have shows, those were girls who were already born and bred as supermodels and then went into new things. But girls of my generation, who aren’t really successful and then go off and become these huge things — I would say it’s more a celebrity model in the aspect of TV than a supermodel.”
Coco herself has plenty of plans for when and if she decides to retire from modeling. “I love the arts — drawing, acting, performing, dancing, all that sort of thing. Because I’ve been so lucky to be in this industry, I kind of have a back door to everything. Everything is at my disposal right now. I don’t need to go to school for arts and fashion, I’ve learned it. So I would like to stay in the industry — if that means photography, styling, editing, I don’t know. Right now this is my chance to kind of broaden out and feel everything and see what it’s like, and then we’ll see. I never plan tomorrow because I don’t even know what I’m doing today.” She has planned minimally for the near future, including a trip to Australia and a first visit to Ireland this summer. “I might see family that I’ve never met, and I’m very outdoorsy and sporty so I want to actually bike along one of the coasts.”
For now, Coco is busy with New York events and updating her new blog, ohsococo.blogspot.com, whose content ranges from updates on her friend’s cat to musings about returning to an era where models did their own hair and makeup. “We learn all the tricks, things to do with our hair, what looks best. You see a lot of girls backstage getting their hair and makeup done, and then you see them go in a corner and fix their makeup because they don’t like something about their eyes or whatever. You know your [own] face better than anyone. I notice more and more that the makeup artists will let some girls do their makeup. It’s kind of funny to watch that come back seepingly, but maybe one day.”
“As for the blog, I know sometimes it’s a little —” she pauses, laughs, and decides to be blunt, “a lot about me, but I think people don’t realize that we do things. People are like, ‘What, you play soccer? What, you go to Home Depot?’ I don’t know. They’re like, ‘Why would you? Why aren’t you sitting on a pedestal?’ Like, we live a life too. It’s not all glam.” She is so personable and so real that for a minute I believe her, but then she’s off to Isaac Mizrahi, where there will be interviewers waiting for her to choose a dress for the next week’s Met Ball and trying to soak up some of Coco’s captivating magnetism as she floats ten miles (or at least a few inches) above the world.