July 6, 2009 -- In 2006, Sean O'Pry was like any other 17-year-old kid, attending high school in Kennesaw, Ga., and tinkering with his MySpace page in his spare time. What was not so normal was what happened after the photos on O'Pry's page caught the attention of New York modeling agency VNY Models. VNY owner Lana Winters personally phoned O'Pry's mother to get her permission to fly Sean to the Big Apple, and within three days he had landed a major ad campaign.
"He came here with a little suitcase, not knowing what to expect and basically became a star overnight," says Winters. "I've been in this business for a very, very long time and I've never seen anybody get such a response."
In the two-and-a-half years since, the now 19-year-old O'Pry has nabbed some of the most prized campaigns for designers from Calvin Klein to Armani and was named GQ Style's 2007 "Man for the Season." All that acclaim makes O'Pry Forbes' most successful male model this year.
To compile our rankings, we looked at the most prominent male models' work over the past two years, counting magazine covers and spreads, advertising campaigns, contracts and runway shows.
O'Pry's success makes for a great story, but it's the exception to the rule in the female-dominated world of high fashion. A top male model may take home anywhere from $200,000 to $500,000 annually, but most make a less glamorous living from catalog work. Now, thanks to the recession, advertisers are shortening photo shoots and renewing older contracts to save money. They're also narrowing the types of men they feature.
"In times of economic downturn, there's an automatic reversal to a more classic look," says Gene Kogan, co-director of the men's division at DNA Model Management. "During those times, clients, designers and department stores need to speak directly to the consumers."
That traditional aesthetic bodes well for the classically handsome Garrett Neff, who broke into our top 10 this year at No. 5. Already the face of Calvin Klein Jeans and Man fragrance, Neff followed in the footsteps of Mark Wahlberg, David Beckham and actor Djimon Hounsou last fall when he was named the brand's newest underwear model.
Another success story is swarthy Brit David Gandy, who has graced billboards for Dolce & Gabbana's Light Blue fragrance and commands rates rivaling those of some female models. "[Gandy] is still one of the few guys that we can really say 'no, we're not taking that [offer],'" says Kogan, "and the clients pay."
On the opposite end of the spectrum, models Tyler Riggs and Cole Mohr defy traditional standards of male beauty with visible tattoos and thin, angular frames favored for more artsy magazine spreads. "They're image guys, and they're trendy," says Kogan. "But once people know them and have used them, they tend to fall off." Still, he adds, "That's not to say that [they] don't work; we have plenty of great editorial image guys that are doing tremendously well."
Since the fashion industry operates on budgets gleaned from the previous season's numbers, it's roughly six months behind the rest of the economy, so we may have to wait longer for real changes to hit.
The best bets for male models today? Campaigns for beauty products and nonseasonal fashion items that offer more staying power than the mercurial apparel category. Especially coveted are fragrance contracts, which can last upward of three years. "Once a model is branded to a certain fragrance, they're not going to do too many after that, so they really try to get as much money out of the client as possible," says VNY's Lana Winters. "[The client] really understands that and that's why they pay so much."
Recession or not, there will never be a shortage of ambitious young models waiting to be discovered, or of agents with their eyes peeled for the next Sean O'Pry. "I go to Disneyland and I'm scouting like crazy!" says Winters. "I don't even know what's going on in Disneyland because I'm just looking for people."
You hear that, guys?