Fashion is a first-name-only world: Think of superstar models Naomi or Giselle, or designers Marc and Donna. Marlon is another first-name-only star. Say his name to the models he works with at IMG, the powerhouse management company, and their adoration is plain. "No other agency has someone who does for us what Marlon does," says Luca, a lovely German model.
If Marlon has a last name it seems that no one knows what it is. His card reads simply "Marlon" with an e-mail address and phone numbers on three continents. If Marlon has a job description—you assume IMG doesn't pay him top dollar for nothing—it is equally vague. "I show up backstage," he says. "Or I show up at the studio. I talk. A lot of what I do is just being there. I do nothing." But Marlon plays a critical role in the lives and careers of the beauties he dotes on.
"Look" he says, "you have a bunch of mostly teenage girls from all over the world from different backgrounds and cultures who are thrust into a situation they would not normally be in at this stage in life. There is a lot of pressure. They have to cope with unusual and extreme situations and they often don't have the tools for it, and I'm here to help them find their way with a smile."
According to Luca, who was sharing a few minutes of quiet conversation and a pot of tea with Marlon between shows on Tuesday evening, Marlon makes life bearable. "We travel," she says. "We don't go home after work for 6 weeks at a time. Marlon says this is when dinner is and everyone comes. And it's not a fashion party. It's just us."
Who does a lonely model talk to? Marlon. Who does a model worry with? Marlon. "Some of these girls are 16 years old. They're far from home. They might have a sick grandmother or trouble with a boyfriend. They might be shy. I tell them you don't have to dance on the tables just because the next girl is." While people think a model's life is carefree, it isn't. The competition for top shows and top advertising contracts is intense, and financial success does not come easily. "For a young person, there's a certain authoritarian thing with a manager. 'Get up at 6 a.m.!' or 'Show up on time!' But I don't do that. I listen, and I talk." While it might seem indulgent, it's not. Marlon's job—part shrink, part life-coach, part parent—is also good business. He is there to protect the product, to watch over the breadwinners. "Whether it's from a moral position or a heartless position, it will pay off in the end."
While Marlon has been part of great success stories—he helped shape the career of Caroline Murphy, the multimillion dollar face of Estée Lauder—he has lost a few girls to recklessness and indecision. "I call them angels with broken wings." And sometimes the girls are just plain mean. "I've nurtured and nurtured and nurtured and some girls become supersuccessful and then I don't hear from them anymore. I took a girl from the beach and gave her a life—and nothing. But one has to let that go."