fashion

How one agent changed fashion by opening the modeling world

In 1985 Gail O’Neill was selling copiers for Xerox when a photographer spotted the 23-year-old beauty at JFK Airport and gave her the name of model agent Frances Grill.

O’Neill had no portfolio and had never walked on a catwalk before she stepped into Click, the Manhattan agency Grill started in 1980. Plus she wasn’t used to seeing girls like herself — that is, black girls — in magazines or runways at all.

That didn’t matter to Grill. She took one look at O’Neill through her signature oversized glasses and signed her on the spot.

“Three days later I was working,” O’Neill told The Post. “Three months later I was on the cover of British Vogue.”

Grill died on Jan. 24 at the age of 90, just two weeks before the start of New York Fashion Week. Yet the iconoclastic, tough-talkin’, pastrami-loving Brooklynite could be felt everywhere on the season’s runways, which have gotten progressively more diverse thanks to her.

Click was inclusive “before there were any hashtags … before there were any boycotts and demands [for diversity in the world of fashion],” said O’Neill. “Frances looked around and said, ‘There’s something wrong with this picture.’ ”

Grace Jones
Grace JonesGetty Images

At a time when the industry was fixated on all-American Christie Brinkley blondes, Grill got a 29-year-old Isabella Rossellini — who, according to People magazine at the time, “had never plucked her eyebrows, much less worn makeup” — a Lancôme gig. Grill repped transgender model Teri Toye. Her roster also included laborers (including an actual Long Island clamdigger), athletes, punks and androgynes.

“Everybody laughed [at Frances],” said her daughter Stephanie Grill, who works as a booker at Click. “But she believed so hard … that she was able to make this whole agency happen.”

“She was a trailblazer,” said Allan Mindel, who was studying medicine when Grill convinced him to drop out of school and help her launch a modeling agency. “She was an agent of change.”

Grill didn’t always have a glamorous life. She was born in Red Hook, Brooklyn, in 1928, the daughter of a longshoreman and a seamstress. She and her three siblings grew up in and out of orphanages and “surrounded by thieves and bookies,” said Mindel.

Things were tough, but Grill had moxie. While working as a hat-check girl at a downtown nightclub, she bluffed her way into repping a fashion photographer. She soon started her own photo agency, with clients such as Lillian Bassman, Fabrizio Ferri and Oliviero Toscani.

Opening a modeling agency was a logical next step. Her photographers were bored with the same blondes being pushed by established agencies such as Ford and Elite so Grill thought she would help them out.

She enlisted her son, Joey, a teacher, to run the business side. Five days later she randomly met then-21-year-old Mindel — in town to see a Picasso exhibit at MoMA — and convinced him to join her, too.

“It was very loud, very frenzied, but it was really fun,” said Olga Liriano, a creative-marketing director who worked at Click as a booker in the mid- to late 1980s.

Click got its first big break with Rossellini, when Grill negotiated a then-unheard-of multimillion-dollar contract for the journalist-turned-model daughter of Ingrid Bergman.

Isabella Rossellini
Isabella RosselliniCorbis/VCG via Getty Images

“She was more than just an agent to me,” Rossellini wrote on Instagram. “She taught me how to work, how to manage a career, how to integrate in the US, how to be independent and she made me laugh a lot.”

And Grill was famously egalitarian. “She wasn’t afraid of being branded as having the freaks or the weird models,” said model Caroline Ellen, whose olive skin and dark eyes were considered too exotic — until Grill signed her.

“Back then, it was accepted that models could be treated like objects — almost pimped out,” Ellen added. “Frances had such a different attitude. She treated people like human beings. I felt like a partner with her in building my career.”

Grill continued working up until about six months before her death, showing up at Click’s offices every day despite her dementia.

Yet she never let her illness slow her down, haunting thrift shops and cooking chicken soup for her four grandkids — and staying out late.

“She was a total party animal,” said Ellen. “Even when she was in a wheelchair she would have Nina, her health aide, wheel her to parties.”

“Fran was bigger than life,” said Stephanie. “She always was 10 steps ahead of all of us — actually more than 10 steps. She never stopped.”

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