Big City, Big Dreams

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Photographer Sharon Coker shot in NY styled by Jamie Ainsworth hair/makeup by Tracy Branch

originally published May/June 2016

Before people started telling her she had “the look,” Mary Upton Shirley had never thought about modeling. But she finally decided to see if they were right and give it a chance. Now the 18-year-old senior at Madison Central High School is heading to New York to work as a contracted model. Mary Upton may be a Mississippi girl, but she’s got all the makings of a big city success.

It all began about two years ago when the employees at Libby Story put her in touch with Jamie Elyse Ainsworth of JEA Model Management. “I would’ve never thought about modeling because the market doesn’t really exist in the South like it does other places,” Mary Upton said. She was unsure if she had what it took to be a model, but Jamie saw her potential and signed her with JEA Models.

It was the “boost” that Mary Upton needed to take her role as a model seriously, but the work had just begun. She had to learn the basics of modeling—how to train her face and body—as well as how to adapt to what each shoot wanted. “It’s a science and an art,” Mary Upton said, adding that it’s not as easy as people sometimes think. She began building a portfolio through shoots for Libby Story and local magazines and even walked in Memphis Fashion Week.

Mary Upton Shirley @ JEA July 2015 (7)
Photographer Jon Macapodi shot in NY

The more modeling gigs she had, the more she learned about the industry. “It’s a whole other universe,” said Mary Upton. “You have to make yourself available and be flexible.” She said that models may be called to do a shoot at any time anywhere. Between school and her job at Crossroads Café, Mary Upton’s schedule is pretty packed. “It’s a balancing act for sure,” she said.

Last summer, Jamie took Mary Upton with her to New York City for a week trip to get her name out and hopefully find someone who was interested in hiring her. Meeting with agencies around the Big Apple was a bit overwhelming for Mary Upton, but she loved the big city experience. “Once you get a taste of New York, you want to go back,” she said.

That September, Mary Upton finally got her “golden ticket”—a contract from BMG Models New York.

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Photographer Graeme Wilson shot in Tupelo

After graduation this May, Mary Upton will be moving to New York City to work full time as a model, where she’ll be staying with another BMG addition in provided housing. Though Mary Upton will be living on her own in the big city, she’ll still be a fresh high school graduate at heart. “I’m most nervous about having to do my laundry,” she laughs. “But I’m excited to be doing something on my own.” For Mary Upton, this experience is about more than just modeling. It’s about proving to herself that she can be independent.

The plan is to stay for at least two months, but Mary Upton says that in the modeling world, everything is uncertain. She hopes to stay in New York until fashion week in September or possibly travel oversees for jobs, but it all depends on how she’s received or what is needed at the time.

As a model, you’re either commercial or high fashion. But Mary Upton’s young look, paired with her strong brows, puts her more “on the edge.” “Her look is both commercial and high fashion, with a touch of quirky,” said Jamie Ainsworth. “She has the look to work for numerous clients, which is great for a model.”

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Photographer Michael Nagin shot in NY

Though Mary Upton is signed with BMG, Jamie is Mary Upton’s “mother agent,” which means that JEA has the final say and can step in if needed. But Mary Upton said that Jamie has become more like a big sister to her. “I got to be the one to train, develop, and watch her grow as a model and a young adult, and now that she is making this big step, it makes me so happy!” said Jamie. “She has grown with confidence and has become a beautiful young adult, and I couldn’t be more thrilled to guide her on this journey.”

And though Mary Upton is excited for the journey as well, she’s not blind to some of the issues in the fashion industry. “You’re sort of a glorified coat hanger,” she admits. “You get stereotyped.” In fact, Mary Upton was afraid to tell people about her modeling at first, fearful of what they might say. But according to Jamie, Mary Upton “is ready to take on the modeling world.” “Personality will get you far in this industry, and she has the tough skin and sense of humor to make it work,” Jamie said. She added that Mary Upton’s dedication, determination, and positive attitude are her biggest strengths. And her sweet, southern personality helps her stand out as well. Mary Upton said, “I’m proud of where I come from and the Southern values that are wired in me.”

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Photographer Sharon Coker shot in NY styled by Jamie Ainsworth hair/makeup by Tracy Branch

Mary Upton said that modeling has actually helped her learn how to be more confident. By working in the fashion industry, she’s been exposed to makeup artists, fashion designers, photographers, and the like, who are not afraid to make a career out of what makes them unique. “You see the finished product, but not the behind the scenes,” she said. “It takes so many people to create the whole look.” Watching people pursue their passions inspires Mary Upton to forge her own path and her own personal style. “I think self style is really important,” she said. “It’s your form of self expression.”

Having lived her whole life in the South, Mary Upton said it’s easy to want to dress or act like everyone else. But modeling has taught her that it’s okay to be different and be true to who you are. “You can be from a town like Madison and still do your own thing,” Mary Upton said. “Have the drive. Don’t play it safe. But know your roots.”

No matter what happens in New York this summer, Mary Upton’s not worried. Her Plan B is to attend the University of Mississippi if things simmer down with modeling. But in the meantime, she’s pursuing it wholeheartedly. “If I didn’t take this opportunity, I’d always wonder what could’ve been,” she said. “I’m going to walk my tightrope as long as I can, but I’m lucky I have Mississippi to come home to.”

-Abigail Walker

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A freelance writer from the Deep South with a love of reading, writing, dramatic storytelling, indie music, and her corgi pup.

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