From Australia's Next Top Model to Miu Miu and now Calvin
Oh man, it's been fun tracking the Cassi van den Dungen story.
The latest development: a Calvin Klein Collection exclusive at New York Fashion Week.
As you – well at least you down under – were sleeping, van den Dungen made her New York Fashion Week debut walking for Calvin Klein.
Not to put too fine a point on it, booking the Calvin Klein show is one of the biggest modelling coups of any season, if not the biggest. Especially when it’s an exclusive – that is, so the model doesn’t appear on any other brand's runway that season, in that particular market.
That also means no running around town frantically attending castings and fittings on your own dime, in the hope of landing some good gigs - with the hope of just some runway photos and a few free handbags or "trade" in exchange for your efforts. An exclusive usually means flights and accommodation paid for and real monetary compensation for the job (generous compensation, even in the case of new faces). In addition to the prestige of booking such a high calibre show.
Calvin Klein is a “queenmaker” of a show and in terms of Australians to have booked it so far, by Frockwriter’s count, only Gemma Ward, Abbey Lee Kershaw and Julia Nobis have walked it.
Not bad company for van den Dungen, who first emerged on the modelling radar back in 2009 at the age of 16 as a contestant in Cycle 5 of Australia's Next Top Model. She was crowned the series runnerup - much to the surprise of many in the industry, who believed she should have won.
Flipping the bird to the show’s then model affiliate agencies Priscillas and Elite New York, which offered her contracts regardless, van den Dungen did it her way, signing with Sydney's Work Agency and going on to the beginnings of what looked to be a very promising career.
There have been one or two hiccups.
There was the option for a Balenciaga exclusive in Paris the following year which ended in a high profile disaster after the booking evaporated and van den Dungen's Facebook comments about her first travel experiences in Paris leaked and gained considerable media traction. Notably her observations about "frog eaters and snail slurpers" (the French), "Frasians" (French Asians), who she called "idiots" and, specifically, her then Paris agency, IMG Models, representatives from which she described as being "****ed in the head".
Now 21, with a gorgeous little boy, Drake, van den Dungen is very much back in the modelling game and poised for international takeoff.
Her first international foray was walking for Australia’s Dion Lee at the International Woolmark Prize final at London Fashion Week in February, swiftly followed up by appearances on the runways of Giles Deacon and in Paris, Maiyet and notably, Miu Miu.
Frockwriter caught up with van den Dungen for a Skype chat on the eve of her Big Apple debut.
SO HOW EXCITED ARE YOU ABOUT WALKING FOR CALVIN KLEIN?
Cassi van den Dungen: So excited. It’s such an amazing opportunity. It’s something I never thought would happen but I always hoped for. It’s like a dream come true. You never think your dreams are going to come true and it’s actually happening.
WELL YOU WALKED FOR MIU MIU LAST SEASON. THAT WAS A PRETTY GREAT GET.
Yeah – everything just keeps getting better and better and better and I can’t believe it.
I GATHER IT WAS ALL A BIT OF A LAST-MINUTE RUSH.
We found out on Tuesday last week that Calvin Klein was going to pay for flights and wanted to have me for an exclusive. So Tuesday, we thought I had to leave the following day and it was kind of like a big, dramatic freak out, because I was working and it was like, ‘OK, I might have to leave tomorrow for New York’. I was working with Camilla and Marc. I had just spent 35 days working in Tokyo and only got back I think it was three weeks ago, something like that. If they wanted me to leave on Wednesday, I had to get my passport renewed because you have to have six months on your passport before you come to the US, so I had to wait for the passport renewal to come through and if I wasn’t able to pick it up on Monday, then I wouldn’t have been able to come. But I picked it up on Monday night [and left at 10.30pm that night].
AND YOU HIT THE GROUND RUNNING, I GATHER, AFTER ARRIVING IN NEW YORK ON TUESDAY AFTERNOON.
The minute I arrived I had to go straight to Calvin Klein and do a fitting. Then I had to go back to timing rehearsals for the show. My call time is 8.00am in the morning [Thursday].
IT’S BEEN SUCH A FASCINATING JOURNEY FOR YOU. FIRST CAME AUSTRALIA’S NEXT TOP MODEL, THEN YOU STARTED MODELLING PROFESSIONALLY, THEN THE BABY. HOW LONG DID YOU TAKE OFF?
I took a year off when my little one was born. But also [with] the time that I was pregnant, it was almost two years.
BUT NOW YOU’RE BACK AND GETTING SOME AMAZING OPPORTUNITIES.
Really amazing. As I said, I’m still in shock at some of the things that are happening. When I was 13, 14 and wanted to be a model… thinking, you know, I wasn’t ever going to get as far as I have. Now doing the stuff that I am, it’s just seriously like a dream coming true and just unfolding every time I’m working.
THE BALENCIAGA OPTION BACK IN 2010 AND THE ENSUING STORY ABOUT THE FACEBOOK COMMENTS WAS A BIT OF A FALSE START OBVIOUSLY. GIVEN YOUR MEDIA PROFILE HERE, IT ATTRACTED QUITE SOME MEDIA ATTENTION, EVEN IN FACT MAKING IT AS FAR AS THE UK TELEGRAPH AND THE TIMES OF LONDON. WAS THAT A TOUGH TIME?
Yes, kind of, a little bit. Especially since it felt like everyone was blaming my fiancé [Brad Saul] whenever something went wrong. And he had nothing to do with it. He wasn’t even there when the problems with Balenciaga happened. It felt like everyone tried to blame him for everything. If anything, he’s been – besides my dad – he’s been one of the most supportive people. He knows he can’t come to work with me. He knows he’s not allowed to come to castings with me. He knows he can’t be with me when I’m working. And he doesn’t have a problem with it. And he’s been so supportive. That’s why he has changed his career so that he can be with my little boy and I can work when I need to.
YOU’RE THE BREADWINNER THEN?
At the moment, yes. When Drake was born, because of his cleft [palate], he can’t go into daycare still. The inside of the roof of his mouth is still very sensitive. Sending him to daycare, I’m worried someone looking after 20 kids all at once…. The other day in Tokyo, Drake cut the roof of his mouth on a straw. Most kids, it would only bleed for two or three minutes. Drake’s mouth was bleeding for about 10 or 15 minutes, maybe a bit longer. When Drake was born, Brad stoped bricklaying so he could help me. Now after all of this [Drake’s cleft palate] surgery, Brad has now changed his career. He is starting his own company, trying to bring the [American] Lowrider culture to Australia. Not just the cars, he wants to bring everything, the food, the tattoos…
SO LIKE A LOWRIDER CONCEPT STORE?
He’s starting to draw up clothing and is working out a website design. He started it up on Facebook [Westside Lowriders] thinking nothing of it, about two or three years ago. And he realised that Australians are really into it and that there’s a market there for it that’s open. That’s going to take another two to three years. But it’s something he can do and look after our son while I’m working and he can travel with me so my little boy doesn’t get depressed like he does when I’m not there. So it made it easier for me to have my career and be able to travel and him being at home looking after our little one.
OBVIOUSLY BEYOND THE ADDITIONAL NORMAL CHALLENGES OF MOTHERHOOD, THERE HAVE ALSO BEEN THE ADDITIONAL HEALTH CHALLENGES WITH DRAKE [WHO WAS BORN WITH A CLEFT LIP AND PALATE AND HEARING DIFFICULTIES]. HOW MANY OPERATIONS HAS HE HAD NOW?
He’s had two major operations on his mouth. He had his lip repaired. When he was born, he basically had no soft palate. That didn’t exist for him, so he’s had all of that repaired and his hard palate repaired. And we still have more surgeries to go too. He’ll still have to have his nose reconstructed, his ear reconstructed and maybe a surgery on his neck as well because he has a torticollis [twisted neck]. He also has a severe cauliflower ear. Something that happened when he was in my belly, probably sleeping on my placenta, Every time we had an ultrasound, the left side of his head was up against the placenta. But we have a lot of family support. Brad’s sister Jess comes around at least three times a week, just to see Drake.
YOU’VE BEEN REFERRING TO BRAD AS YOUR FIANCE FOR SOME TIME NOW. ARE YOU PLANNING TO GET MARRIED ANY TIME SOON?
We are getting married but we want to buy a house first.
BACK ON AUSTRALIA’S NEXT TOP MODEL FOR A MOMENT AND, AT THE END OF THE DAY, ALL THOSE REALITY SHOWS, IT SEEMS THE PRODUCERS REALLY LOVE TO EXPLOIT THE TALENTS' EXPLOITS [VAN DEN DUNGEN, WHO WAS DESCRIBED AT THE TIME AS A 'FIRECRACKER' AFTER SEVERAL OUTBURSTS, WAS ORDERED BY THE SHOW'S PRODUCERS INTO ANGER MANAGEMENT COUNSELLING].
They loved to pick on me.
DID YOU SEE THE CURRENT AUSNTM SERIES, IN WHICH TAYLAH ROBERTS WAS DISQUALIFIED FROM THE COMPETITION AFTER ALLEGEDLY ASSAULTING ASHLEY POGMORE?
I don’t actually watch it but I did hear about that. And at least I wasn’t that bad!
BUT OF COURSE, REALITY SHOW PRODUCERS LOVE THAT SORT OF THING BECAUSE IT’S ADDITIONAL DRAMA. AND THEY SLIP THE FOOTAGE OF THE ROBERTS/POGMORE INCIDENT TO A CURRENT AFFAIR FOR MAXIMUM PUBLICITY IMPACT [FOXTEL HAS A COMMERCIAL PARTNERSHIP WITH ACA BROADCASTER, NINE NETWORK AUSTRALIA]. SO YOU FELT THEY PICKED ON YOU?
There were times when even the other girls in the show turned around, with challenges and stuff and said, ‘The producers shouldn’t have done that to you’. That’s why when we went to London during the show, the producers let Adele win the challenge. I can’t remember what it was. Adele turned around and said it should have been me. The prize was to go to the Fast and Furious 4 premiere in London and so she took me, because she said that it should have been my prize, not hers. The producers just liked to do anything that would tick me off.
AND GET A REACTION FROM YOU?
Yes. That’s what they do to create drama. It’s a reality tv show but I hate to say it, reality tv shows are not all reality.
WELL, ENGINEERED REALITY, PERHAPS. THEN THERE WAS THE EPISODE ON FACEBOOK WITH [AUSTNM JUDGES] ALEX PERRY AND CHARLOTTE DAWSON ENGAGING IN SNARKY BANTER ABOUT YOU ON PERRY’S PERSONAL FACEBOOK ACCOUNT, TO, NEVERTHELESS, SEVERAL THOUSAND OF HIS FB FRIENDS, WHICH ULTIMATELY LED TO THE COMMENTS MAKING IT TO THE PUBLIC DOMAIN [AND EVENTUALLY PROMPTED VAN DEN DUNGEN’S AGENT HELENA VITOLINS TO THREATEN LEGAL ACTION]. BUT PERRY HAS SINCE BECOME ONE OF YOUR BIGGEST SUPPORTERS, HASN’T HE? HE WILL BE THRILLED WHEN HE FINDS OUT ABOUT THE CALVIN KLEIN GIG. YOU HAVE WORKED WITH HIM ON NUMEROUS OCCASIONS SINCE THAT EPISODE. DID HE EVER APOLOGISE TO YOU?
He never actually apologised but there have been times when you could tell he regretted it. There was one point when he said to me [that] sometimes you just have to keep up with what is happening and he kind of apologised at one point and said, you know, he was not being himself, he was being Alex Perry the judge and not Alex Perry the person.
ON FACEBOOK, YOU MEAN?
Yes. He told me that he regretted it but he never actually specifically said sorry. But he has on many times said that it wasn’t ‘him’ and that he was just trying to keep up the fun from Top Model afterwards.
THERE WAS NOTHING ‘FUN’ ABOUT SOME OF THE COMMENTS THAT WERE MADE THOUGH. THEY WERE PERSONAL INSULTS. BUT I’M REALLY HAPPY TO SEE THAT HE HAS SINCE BECOME A BIG SUPPORTER. DID YOU EVER FEEL AT TIMES OVERPOWERED BY THESE BIG POWERFUL MEDIA FIGURES THAT PEOPLE LISTEN TO AND THAT YOU DIDN’T REALLY HAVE A VOICE?
Yes, kind of. There would be things in the paper and it was like, that’s not the true story, that’s not what happened. But no matter what I said or how I said it, everyone would just change my words and twist it so I was wrong. There was one time when I said to an interviewer… I wasn’t saying I was drinker, but I was comparing myself and saying I’m not a champagne drinker, I’m a Jim Beam and coke person. I’m not the type of person that would be all dressed up and be going to all the big fancy parties. I’m more of a person to stay at home and not do much. And they took it completely the wrong way and twisted my words and made it out as if I was an alcoholic at 16 years old. And it was like, what the hell happened?
WHILE AUSNTM CERTAINLY GAVE YOU A PROFILE IN AUSTRALIA, THE TOP MODEL STUFF MEANS NOTHING TO THE INTERNATIONAL FASHION INDUSTRY. BUT YOU’RE NOW GETTING THESE GREAT OPPORTUNITIES. WHAT ARE YOUR PLANS?
I want to keep on working and try and build up as much of a career as I can. While I’m still young and my little boy is still young. My main focus at the moment is to get a house. We need a house for ourselves.
ARE YOU ON STANDBY AFTER THE CALVIN KLEIN SHOW TO GO TO EUROPE?
After being in Tokyo, I wanted a bit of a break from travelling. I’m here in New York but it wasn’t planned, I was planning on taking that time off. So I’ll go back to Australia after here and pick up work in Australia and then come back to New York in October.
BUT WHAT HAPPENS IF BALENCIAGA, GUCCI AND CHANEL CALL? YOU WOULDN’T TURN THEM DOWN SURELY?
[Laughs] Well I guess it depends. I haven’t thought that far ahead. I guess it depends on the job and how much it’s worth to me. At the moment, it’s more whether it’s going to cost me or whether I’m making money from it. As long as I’m making money, I’m sure things will happen.
WHAT’S YOUR ADVICE TO YOUNG GIRLS WITH STARS IN THEIR EYES WHO WANT TO ENTER THE INDUSTRY?
My advice is to find an agency that you are comfortable with and that you can talk to your agent like you do your mother or your best friend. And to just put as much effort in as you can. I hear of a lot of models who want to be models but they can’t be bothered going to castings and they don’t want to wear high heels all the time because their feet hurt and it’s like, come on guys, if you want to be a model, this is the stuff you have to put up with. You have to put up with the crazy hours, you have to put with being in pain sometimes and wearing shoes that are too small and you have to go and see clients, otherwise you’re never going to get the work that you want to go and get. If you’re going to be a model, you’ve got to put in the 101 percent effort, otherwise there is no point. Just give up.
DO YOU THINK MODELLING REALITY SHOWS SUCH AS AUSNTM ARE A GOOD ENTREE TO THE INDUSTRY?
After my experience and learning that reality tv shows are not exactly reality, that a lot of it is all set up then no, it’s probably not the best thing. I’d say for a model who has never done anything before and wants to start up, best to find a really good agency that they feel comfortable with and are happy with and to make sure that they know that they’re the ones who are in charge. So your agent is not your boss. You’re your agent’s boss. I don’t do underwear or bikini shoots. My agents understand that, they know I don’t feel comfortable with that, that’s not a problem. But if you’re 16 and your agent says ‘Oh you have to do it’, you argue that point if you don’t feel comfortable. You have to be strong enough to say ‘No, I don’t’ feel comfortable being 16 and doing an underwear shoot’.
YOU’RE 21 NOW AND YOU’RE STILL SAYING THAT YOU WOULDN’T DO LINGERIE OR SWIMWEAR SHOOTS?
No, I don’t do it now. My dad drummed it into my head to never do it. He said to blame him!
YOU’RE PROBABLY AWARE THAT THE HIGHEST-EARNING MODELS IN THE BUSINESS USUALLY HAVE A VICTORIA’S SECRET CONNECTION. SO, WHAT, IF VS COMES KNOCKING YOU’D SAY NO?
I’d say no, because I don’t feel comfortable showing myself in my underwear.
GIVEN HOW MUCH NUDITY THERE IS IN FASHION EDITORIAL THESE DAYS, DO YOU THINK THAT MIGHT CREATE AN ISSUE FOR YOU? HAS IT SO FAR ANYWHERE? ONE WOULD ASSUME THAT IF YOU WON’T POSE IN LINGERIE OR SWIMWEAR, THEN YOU PROBABLY WON’T BE DOING TOPLESS OR NUDE EITHER.
It’s never been a problem. I haven’t had a problem so far. If they want my shoulders to be clear we always manage to find a way to work that out, like dropping my top down below the camera line. It’s something you can work around in the industry.
I THINK A LOT OF MODELS FEEL THEY HAVE TO GO ALONG WITH IT [PRISCILLAS’ HEAD OF DEVELOPMENT DOLL WRIGHT SPOKE ABOUT THE PRESSURES ON YOUNG MODELS IN THIS RECENT BOOT CAMP FOR THE AGENCY’S NEW FACES DIVISION]. SO JUST GENERALLY, THEN, WHAT WOULD YOU SAY THE BIGGEST LIFE LESSONS YOU HAVE LEARNED OVER THE PAST FOUR YEARS HAVE BEEN?
My biggest life lesson learnt is probably to make sure that if I’m not comfortable with something, to speak up. And to not let everybody walk all over me. I’m in charge of myself and in charge of what I do and if I don’t feel comfortable then I have to say it, not just keep it to myself.
HOW HAVE ALL THESE EXPERIENCES CHANGED YOU DO YOU THINK?
I’m a bit wiser in the decisions I make. With anyone growing up, you learn to deal with things differently. I think it’s just age as well.
I THOUGHT THAT PRIOR TO JOINING WORK AGENCY, YOU WERE CONSIDERING GIVING UP MODELLING?
No, I never wanted to give up I just didn’t want to sign with Priscilla’s. I was already with an agent in Melbourne, so I stayed with her, to help find somewhere that would set me up somewhere where I was comfortable. And that’s exactly what she did. I was with Tanya Powell in Melbourne [who had repped her as a child model] and she said to me, she was so honest, she said ‘Look, I can’t book the work that you’re available to do, but I’m going to pass you on to these agencies and they’ll be able to look after you’. She’s the one who got me with the agencies that I wanted to be with and made me feel comfortable and [which] suited me.
IF YOU WEREN’T MODELLING, WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU MIGHT BE DOING? ARE THERE ANY OTHER CAREERS THAT YOU HAVE CONSIDERED?
When I was in high school, if I wasn’t going to be a model, I also wanted to do fashion. I’ve always wanted to get into the fashion industry. Even if it was photography. I still love photography now, but now because I’m a model, I don’t do fashion photography, I prefer doing photos of landscapes and nature and stuff.
WELL YOU’RE LEARNING ABOUT THE FASHION INDUSTRY NOW OBVIOUSLY VIA MODELLING. GREAT EXPERIENCE.
Yes - great experience. You get to learn a lot.
THE FANS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN THERE FOR YOU HAVEN’T THEY? YOU HAVE A HUGE SUPPORT BASE OUT THERE.
Yeah, always. And I love hearing from them as well on Facebook and stuff. I’ll get messages and people will find photos that I haven’t found yet. I love all of that. I’ll always stop for a fan if they want a photo. But what I don’t like is when they try and sneak a photo. I’d prefer if you come up and have a photo with me, instead of trying to hide and do it. I prefer for people to be open, rather than hide behind somewhere and try and sneak something.