Justin Brown leads models down runway, into print and onto screen

Austin’s Brown Agency takes care of more than 450 ‘talents.’


Austin’s Justin Brown worked his way through college by modeling and working at a modeling agency.

“It was mostly fit modeling, which is very different from fitness modeling,” he laughs. “Lucky Brand would design clothes to fit my body type. I’d model what we call ‘skinny jeans,’ but back then they were called ‘rocker jeans.’ I made $100 an hour. That’s a lot better than the $6 an hour I made at the the golf course washing carts.”

Brown, who studied business management in college, was more interested in what went on behind the cameras. After acing other agency jobs, he eventually landed in the subfield called “development and placement.” He trained models to operate like pros. Then he either “placed” them, which means he found them work, or helped them graduate to the big time.

In a way, he’s still doing that at Austin’s Brown Agency, the love child of his previous talent and modeling group, Wilhelmina Brown, and a similar rival, Heyman Talent South. Located temporarily above Zen Japanese Fast Food on Guadalupe Street, he and his staff of seven watch over the budding careers of more than 450 “talents.”

Brown, 35, was born in Reno, Nev., and grew up in tiny Susanville, Calif., across the state line. A pretty, shy child who played by the rules, he left for Southern California as soon as he turned 18. Once in the modeling biz, he moved from one California firm to another, learning the tricks of the trade.

“We made sure they looked right, got the right photos and introduced them to the largest agencies in the world,” Brown says. “We probably placed 20 to 30 percent of the talent, which is high for that industry.”

And not bad for somebody only 21 at the time.

“When you’re young and dumb, you think you can do anything,” he says with a smile.

He moved to Austin in 2005. “I could do what I loved to do in a city where I wanted to live. I just connected with Austin. It was big but not too big. There was some industry here, and I felt like I could make my mark.”

He started his own development business right away. The practice of paying agencies for training is sometimes looked at with skepticism by observers — does it take advantage of the talent’s vanity? — but Brown points out that the field is regulated by the Texas Workforce Commission.

“Our main job is to manage expectations,” he says. “You can’t make promises that you can’t keep.”

Luckily, Brown’s experience in Los Angeles and, later, New York, meant he could walk promising talent into bigger agencies on the coasts.

“Often, they didn’t want to go to a bigger market,” he says. “So I reached out to other local agencies. I was getting nowhere.”

He started the full-service JB Models and Talent in 2008, which was licensed by the prominent Wilhelmina national agency in 2010. That gave him a lot more resources just in time for a local boom in fashion runway shows, commercials and print.

Still, he was trying to fit a local culture — one often not too hungry for big-time success — to national needs.

“Austin is very proud,” he says. “We do things our own way. What I was trying to do is take it to a big-market level.”

Brass tacks: The Brown Agency’s cut is 20 percent for modeling jobs, 15 percent for non-union commercial, film, television or video gigs and 10 percent for union jobs. While his protégés are often hired in Dallas or Houston, he notes some regional differences.

“In Austin, they are looking for a more cool vibe, more alternative — piercings, tattoos, funky hair,” he says. “Dallas, for instance, more conservative.”

Recently, he scooped up Heyman Talent South, whose local captain, Michael Bonnee, came with the package. The new Brown Agency competes with only a few top agencies in town.

“This is the exciting part of being in Austin now, especially with this last business acquisition,” says Brown. “Austin is taking off. People are now doing national campaigns from here. The days of runway shows in bars are over. We’re moving in the right direction. We hire local and look national.”

Manos de Cristo

It was one of those flawless nights. The atmospheric Violet Crown hung above Mercury Hall. Austin Lounge Lizards on stage. Sips and samples without long lines. Sincere words about a treasured charity: Manos de Cristo, best known for its dental center, but also involved in education as well as food and clothing support.

Thanks to geographer William Doolittle and Manos board director Shannon Beiberdorf, I learned a little more about the group’s origins in Presbyterian congregations. Sheryl Luzzadder-Beach, new chair of geography and the environment at the University of Texas, chatted briefly with me about groundwater and river tracing. Attorney Kemper Powell and I talked about everything under the skies as the night smiled.

Salonnière 100

You remember the Out & About 500? The widely circulated list of Austin’s most social individuals and couples was fun to compile but an incredible amount of work over the course of six months each year. I gave out a huge sigh when we decided it had served its purpose.

Carla McDonald’s fabulous social blog has raised the stakes astronomically by publishing the Salonnière 100. That would be the best 100 party hosts — in the country! Her team interviewed more than 1,000 folks in the know for nominations, which were then reviewed by an independent group of social authorities and the blog’s editorial team.

Twenty-three cities were represented. Hosts in metropolises such as New York City, Washington, San Francisco and Los Angeles predictably ruled. Austin’s top picks? Julie Blakeslee, along with John Hogg and David Garza. Congrats to all involved.



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