No expiration date: Meet the women fighting ageism in the modeling industry

Carolyn Doelling backstage at a photoshoot as makeup artist Aquina LaShae Turner applies her makeup. (Photo courtesy of Doelling)

As Carolyn Doelling smiled, the skin around her brown eyes creased. Her short, curly gray hair framed her face. She had just finished working out and wore baby pink hand wraps. 

“I became passionate about kickboxing after feeling that I was not really valued and that I was being underestimated,” Doelling said. “People treat me like I am past my expiration date.” 

Doelling, 75, started modeling three years ago. She lives in Oakland, CA, and is represented by WeSpeak Model Management. Her call to modeling began through her hair journey. 

After a lifetime of straightening and coloring her hair, it started to fall out. 

“After about a six or eight-month period of wearing a wig, I realized that gray was my authentic self,” Doelling said. “I am trying to change the meaning of what is going on in this fashion world and what is going on with ageism.” 

According to a diversity report by the Fashion Spot, an online publication that embraces body positivity by documenting modeling demographic data, the modeling industry has become more inclusive in terms of race, ethnicity, height, and gender. However, the data shows that only four models over the age of 50 walked the runway during New York Fashion Week in fall 2022. Those models accounted for less than 1% of the models working the show. 

The numbers improved in spring 2022 with 12 over-50 models. While that still represents less than 1% of total castings, the increase does seem to hint at a shift in the modeling industry, with agencies and advertising companies including Celebrate the Gray, Fancy and Grace Creative hiring models like Doelling. They are changing the narrative of what it means to age gracefully. 

“Nobody really wanted to talk to this audience unless it was about incontinence.”  

Lack of Representation 

Stephanie O’Dell, a mother of two in San Rafael, California, founded Celebrate the Gray in 2019 when she noticed that women over 50 felt ignored within the fashion industry. 

“I met these amazing, strong, vibrant, powerful women who were living their life unapologetically, not by anybody else’s standards, and just had this moment of ‘why are these not the women I see in marketing to represent aging?’” O’Dell said. 

Celebrate the Gray is a modeling agency that represents more than 100 female models, ambassadors and influencers using social media and working to send the message that aging is beautiful. 

Lisa Felder, also known as Mama Lisa, is a 75-year-old model in San Leandro, California who is also represented by Celebrate the Gray. 

Felder, who has modeled for companies including Ulta Beauty and Athleta said she loves to model, but older models are not represented enough in the industry. 

“Modeling is a lot of fun. You get to meet people from different walks of life,” Felder said. “Older people like myself have not been in the forefront; once you get to a certain age, you are forgotten. Now, [brands] are taking another look at this.” 

Lisa Felder smiles wearing a black turtleneck and red lipstick during a Zoom interview from her home in San Leandro, CA. March 17, 2022. (Photo by Hunter Troy)

Embracing Reality 

In 2011, Katie Keating co-founded the advertising agency Fancy in New York with her partner Erica Fite when they both realized that women over 40 are neglected in the U.S. marketplace. They left their jobs and steady income to make this invisible demographic visible.  

Keating believes ageism exists in the modeling industry, and that brands must begin to see the value in older models if change is to occur. 

“If you are a brand that feels that it is important to include women over 40 or 50 in your depiction of your products and the way you market your products, then there will be women over 40 for you to hire,” Keating explained. “At Fancy, we did a survey of 500 women over 40 and one of the things that was surprising and wonderful that came out of it was that 83% feel stronger, cooler and sexier than they ever expected they would feel at this age. It is not surprising that it is taking the modeling industry a little longer to catch up with how women are feeling.” 

“83% feel stronger, cooler and sexier than they ever expected they would feel at this age.”

While Keating acknowledges that older women are represented more in media and the advertising industry over the past five years, she believes a more accurate representation of this demographic is important. 

Susan Lee Colby also feels passionately about how older women are represented in media and advertising, which is why she and Kathy Sjogren co-founded Grace Creative in 2015. Located in Los Angeles, Grace Creative’s goal is to portray older women authentically. 

“Nobody really wanted to talk to this audience unless it was about incontinence. What was reflected in modeling and advertising were these images of older people who were on the decline and that was just not the reality,” Colby said, “Part of our mission is to activate the power of women over 50 and to activate the buying power because by showing the buying power, brands will change.”

Emily Trinh is a San Francisco-based fashion and portrait photographer who moved to the Bay Area four years ago from Vietnam. She mostly photographs people in their 20’s, and believes brands hire younger models because they are out of touch with what society wants. 

“Advertising has traditionally been more about aspiration and what you want to look like, not like a true reflection of what you look like. Even if [brands] are marketing to people who are a little bit older, they still want younger models, because they want to sell you that if you dress in our stuff, you are going to look more beautiful and younger,” Trinh said. “I do see a shift in model representation, and I think that is because the consumers are speaking up about how they want to see themselves.” 

Youth Obsessed 

In 2007, Sherri McMullen, stylist to Golden State Warriors player Stephen Curry, opened McMullen Boutique in Oakland after working as a fashion buyer for Neiman Marcus. 

Bette Gordon, the boutique’s vice president of operations, believes the fashion world needs to “embrace all curves, ages, races and genders.” 

At 59, she also models for McMullen. 

Bette Gordon over 50 model

Bette Gordon poses in a colorful dress and white kitten heels in McMullen Boutique in Oakland, CA. May 3, 2022. (Photo by Hunter Troy)

“Men grow older gracefully. Yet women must cover everything up. But think about it, everyone is faced with this reality of getting older, so we should practice embracing all ages and celebrating fashion for all ages,” Gordon said.

San Francisco State student and model, Olivia Wynkoop is 21 years old and has modeled since she was a child. She believes that the modeling industry needs to include older models because hiring only younger models is not realistic. 

“Now if I walk into a show, I see girls who are 16 and still in high school. I am the oldest at 21,” Wynkoop said. “Models wear clothes that no 16-year-old could ever afford. The women who are buying these designer pieces do not look 16, but the 16- year-olds are wearing them because that is part of the dream and the vision of this youth and beauty. It is not a realistic standard by any means.” 

Looking in the Mirror 

Saskia Baur, a 50-year-old model and actress based in Los Angeles and the Bay Area, believes that the industry is more inclusive than when she was growing up in the 80’s, but change is slow. 

“Corporations and media still have some learning to do. When I was growing up, I heard once you hit 40, you were done. You might as well be dead,” Baur said. 

Maybe it is part of our responsibility to say, ‘Hey, I am going to be 60 on Saturday—this is what 60 looks like.’

O’Dell believes that although brands are partially to blame for not hiring models who are older, the public is also to blame. 

“It is a two-way street,” O’Dell said. “People sit and complain, but you buy the color for your hair, and you buy all the products for your face, and you lie about your age, or you say, ‘Do not ask me how old I am.’ Maybe it is part of our responsibility to say, ‘Hey, I am going to be 60 on Saturday—this is what 60 looks like.’” 

saskia baur model over 50

Saskia Baur poses in a photoshoot wearing a burgundy lipstick and a champagne-colored blouse. (Courtesy of Baur)

San Francisco-based photographer, Peter Salcido, started his career in 2016 at the Academy of Art in San Francisco. His work focuses on fashion portraiture and highlights people from all backgrounds with his photographs appearing in local boutiques and magazines around the Bay Area. 

“I think there is ageism in the industry. Brands and agencies both contribute to that deeply,” Salcido said. “It is also a societal issue. People do not want to see older people on billboards, unfortunately. But I would love to see older people on billboards.” 

Salcido believes to change ageism within the modeling world, the everyday person needs to shift their perspective. 

“We all have this ability to contribute to the transformation and expansion of the fashion industry because it affects all of us, even people who are not in the industry,” Salcido said. “It boils down to society as well because they have the power to decide who they want to see and what they want to consume.” 

2 Comments

  1. June 22, 2022 / 1:28 am

    I have just hit 58 and I can see how gravity is catching up. So glad to have found this inspirational post and thank you for sharing it.

  2. June 22, 2022 / 3:36 pm

    So happy you found it, too 🙂

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