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D&AD Meets x Halle Deneen

A model and entrepreneur on how she’s pushing for more inclusive casting

Image from Halle Deneen

D&AD Meets is a regular series where we elevate the work of need-to-know creatives. Each season of features is curated by a creative who can reach beyond our established networks to help us find new talent deserving of a spotlight, the ones to watch, and the ones to work with. Here, curator and interviewer Kortlynn Jenae’ Johnson meets model and entrepreneur Halle Deneen to chat about diversity and inclusion in casting and modelling. 

Kortlynn Jenae’ Johnson is a model, host, producer, and comedian currently based in New York City. She's signed to Dorothy Combs Models and freelances as an entertainment journalist, recently interviewing talent in collaboration with Hearst Black Culture.

What do you do, and how did you get into it?

My name is Halle Deneen, I am a professional signed and published model, modelling coach, and CEO of casting and management company HD Model Management. While my journey has been overall amazing, it has not been (and still isn’t) easy. I remember being a teenager doing photoshoots, walking in college runway shows, and going to as many networking events as I could. At such a young age, I never knew that I could make a career out of modelling, I just thought it was fun. Modelling helped me to break out of my shell, when I got on set, I could tap into so much confidence and truly just let go. I worked with some amazing brands as an unsigned model, and each photoshoot helped further my skills. After years of building, I finally did a photoshoot with the amazing Itaysha Jordan in New York, and that changed the course of my career. From there I worked with Plus Model Magazine and I got signed to my first agency shortly after. 

Throughout my modelling career, I noticed that I was being pulled in another direction as well. This was teaching and mentoring aspiring models how to get started in the modelling industry. For me, getting started in the industry was hard. I hit a lot of roadblocks and I had to figure out a lot of things that ultimately elongated my process. I never wanted another model to feel as confused as I did. In efforts to bridge that gap and help models reach their goals, I started my first business, To Be A Model, as soon as I graduated college. Since then, I have held sold out classes in Baltimore, Washington, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Many of my students are signed to major agencies, securing brand deals, walking in runway shows, and overall making their mark in the industry. Still, I feel like my work on bridging that gap to further diversify the modelling industry isn’t over.

Congratulations on this new chapter of your career, HD Model Management. Can you tell us more about it and why you started it?

HD Model Management is a Black, female-owned agency based in Baltimore. I started the company with the models in mind. I want to not only provide a company culture rooted in a family dynamic, but also be able to relate to each and every model instead of viewing them as a number. Models are so much more than what the eye meets. My goal is to further diversify the industry by showing that models of all shapes, sizes, and gender identities have a place in the industry. I’m so excited for this new chapter and I can’t wait to see what all we will accomplish this year.

Can you tell us a bit more about your goal to help diversify the industry?

The biggest thing I pride my agency on is being a real source of diversity in the industry. I think nowadays, a lot of brands treat diversity as a trend, especially since the Black Lives Matter movement, but they don’t really stand on that belief. And that shows in the lack of diversity in their staffing and the models and actors that they choose. So, as a Black, female model and now an agent who is representing all races, all body types, all identities, it is very important to honour my models as I pitch them to different brands. I want to ensure that the brands I am working with have good values and align with my priority of inclusivity. I don’t want my models to ever feel used as a ‘token’ on set. I seek out brands that value inclusivity, model comfortability, and the model’s voice. 

When I first began booking clients for my models, several brands I worked with were Black owned, and I was intentional about that. Along with inclusivity, model comfortability is also very important to me. I have been on set several times as a black model and saw no one who looked like me, and if I can lessen those types of experiences for my models, I will. When my models show up for a job, I want them to have the opportunity to see themselves ⁠— in the director, the makeup artist, the producer, the stylist, etc.

Image from Halle Deneen

What role does HD Model Management play in bringing different faces and bodies into the creative industries? What effect do you hope this will have?

Bringing different bodies and faces into the creative industry is at our core. I have seen so many talented models be overlooked. I really want HD Model Management to give models of all shapes, sizes, and gender identities an opportunity to make their modelling dreams come true. I want young girls and boys to see themselves in modelling ads, runway shows, commercials, and print. It’s about being an agent of change for generations to come. It’s about our youth knowing that anything is possible in this world.

What advice would you give to someone trying to cast more inclusively?

My advice would be to be open minded and think of the difference that you’re making in the world. Oftentimes we operate in a space that’s comfortable, and going against the norm scares a lot of people. Not me, I love to step outside of the box and think about the bigger picture. Casting more inclusively requires you to be open-minded and understand that models come in all shapes, sizes, gender identities, backgrounds, ethnicities, and more. Gone are the days where you have to look a certain way in order to be a model. Society has pushed that narrative on the industry for so long and it made so many people feel like they were unworthy.  There is no universal ‘look’ when it comes to modelling because models are so dynamic. Having that keen awareness, understanding, and compassion is what is key.

We ask that all interviewees recommend at least one creative that they are inspired by. Who is that for you, where can we check out their work, and why should we follow them?

One creative that I am inspired by is Precious Lee. She is a phenomenal plus size model who is breaking so many barriers in the industry. I have been inspired by her ever since I started modelling. Another creative that I am inspired by is Itaysha Jordan. She is a dynamic female photographer who has not only helped my journey, but also elevates so many models through her lens. Her work has been seen in Essence, Instyle and more. She has also shot major celebrities like Issa Rae and Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Get in touch with Halle Deneen:

Halle Deneen

Meet more rising creative talent including photographers, motion designers, illustrators and visual artists. D&AD is committed to showcasing a diverse range of creatives in our D&AD Meets content. We acknowledge the obstacles to getting into the creative industries for some underrepresented groups and so behind the scenes we offer mentorship pairings with a creative from the professional D&AD community to help to develop the careers of some of the emerging creatives featured. If you want to lend your time to portfolio reviews or a networking meeting please contact us at newblood@dandad.org

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