Name: Renee Bhagwandeen
Agency: 10 Model Management
Claim To Fame: Bhagwandeen is the former face of Dark N’ Lovely. She’s also a former Miss Universe contestant and a fan favorite from America’s Next Top Model.
Parents break promises all the time. In most instances the stakes are no bigger than a missed Fortnite marathon, or a trip to McDonalds but for a teenage Renee Bhagwandeen there was a bit more on the line. “When I was about 16 years old, a woman contacted me on Myspace and told me I should be a model,” Bhagwandeen told HelloBeautiful.
The woman turned out to an employee of the legendary Ford modeling agency but before she could take a shot at stardom her parents intervened. They told her that they wouldn’t permit her to begin modeling until after she got her diploma. Bhagwandeen respected their wishes and worked to finish school early so she could get her career started. “My mom told me, you cannot model until you graduate. So I graduated in halftime,” she said. “When I’m determined to do something, there’s really, nothing can stop me.
Her motivation made the coursework easy, dealing with her parents though remained difficult. Shortly after she earned her diploma her mother broke the news that they would not be honoring their promise.
“This is something that they did not want for me. I’m the first child of not just my generation, but like the entire generation on both sides of my parents. So a lot of people, they had so many things that they expected me to be. And then, um, I’m also, I was considered gifted. So I was supposed to be a doctor or a lawyer or a rocket scientist or something,” she said.
“When I was 16 and she was just like, you can’t do it until you’re 18. So the day I turned 18, I just dropped out of college and had a huge fight with my parents.”
The fight resulted in Bhagwandeen putting her dreams on hold and ironically fulfilling one for another family member. After holding down a marketing job for a short while she was able to compete for the Miss Universe title. “I didn’t go back to school for a while after that. And then after I did the miss universe thing which is something my grandma said that she foresaw when I was born,” she said.
“I started modeling like in Miami and like with that same agent and it didn’t really work out that well, so I just left there and I was in marketing for a magazine,” Bhagwandeen continued. The 9-5 life didn’t suit her.
“One day my boss calls me in and he’s like, ‘Well, you’re fired, here’s your check. And I opened the check, it’s a plane ticket to go enter Miss Universe. So that’s kind of how I got really started.”
She traveled to their home country of Trinidad to prepare for the competition. She didn’t win but like many other previous pageant contestants she picked up valuable experience that would help her modeling.
When she was finished competing her parents hoped she would head back to school but she chose to head to New York and pursue modeling.
Without their approval she was on her own. Her only contact was a model manager responsible for feeding hopefuls to some of the major agencies in exchange for a finders fee. The manager ran a model apartment where she would be staying. “I would not recommend this to anyone else to be a hundred percent with you because it could be really, really unsafe,” she admitted. “ “So the guy what he did was he took us to castings. He did help me get signed to my first real model agency, which was Fenton.”
“My parents were like ready to come get me,” she added. “It’s just, I believe that God was looking out for me.”
For a moment she was just as worried as her parents about her prospects but she was committed to seeing things through. “I was completely concerned. I thought it might’ve been something that was not very kosher, but the way that my parents and I, the conversation that we had, it got really bad. So I thought this was my only option. So the next morning I had my brother driving to the airport and I left. “When she landed at the airport the reality of the responsibility she had taken on set in. “I didn’t even ask, like, who’s picking me up. I’ve never traveled beside Trinidad really by myself,” she said. “And I’m very sheltered. So I’ve like never really like spent nights over at friend’s house, anything,” she said. “As soon as I got to the airport in New York for the first time I started crying. ‘Cause I’m like, ‘What the hell did I just do? I’m going to have to go back home.’ And I just see this like really tall, beautiful like model walking towards me,” she said.
Turns out the two women were unknowingly sharing an errand. “She’s like coming towards me and I’m walking towards her to ask the same question,” said Bhagwandeen.
“We just so happened to be going to the exact same model department. I’m like, ‘What are the odds in New York City?’ So, um, her name was Shy. She was one of my best friends from then on.”
Bhagwandeen was relieved not to find the cattiness that the media portrayed when she became a part of the New York modeling scene. “So we went to the model apartment and it was like one of the most amazing places that I’ve ever been to in my entire life,” she said.
She was surrounded by women who supported one another and understood one another. “I met some of the girls that I’m still friends with. Like I’m going to one of their weddings soon. Like we’re literally like friends. It was just really amazing to learn from these women in the beginning,” she said. “I had no idea about like, you know, like going out to the clubs. I never had no idea about what actual casting was. So I learned everything from these women and some of them were supermodels in my eyes.”
They taught her the basics of modeling in New York. “When you’re on the subway, don’t be wearing heels, take a model bag with you. So you can, you know, go to different castings and change. You pack your lunch as well because you don’t have money to go to, you know, buy everything that you need.”
“I ran away from home, so I didn’t have any money. I literally had $200,” she added. She explained that she was not the only one in the house who sacrificed for a chance at a life in front of the camera.
“For girls who have come, they literally leave everything. They come to New York to live their dreams. We have to figure out how to hustle. And I was always really protected. ‘Cause the girls that were around me, they’ve been in New York, they know the ropes. They show you like, this is how you get on the subway. This is how you do this.”
Bhagwandeen’s fellow models showed her how to pick up the money she would need to finance her career, one of the methods they used was coat check gigs. The models were so protective of one another that they would even swap gigs with a friend in need.
“We have like our little connects. So like one girl would be like, ‘Hey girl, I know you need to make like a couple hundred dollars to do this or to go home or to do whatever you gotta do, you can take my coach check job for the night.’ And if you smile, toss some makeup on and look pretty, you know, your coat checking at different places that are like super fancy restaurants and different places, you can make really good tips. I used to go home with $600 sometimes a night.”
Another way the women earned money were “promoter dinners,” where party promoters would feed, and compensate a group of models to pack a nightclub. “Sometimes we’d pack the food, take it home for the girls who didn’t get to come or it was, you know, too tired to come. And if we stayed till, you know, a certain time, you get 200 bucks cash and you’re good for the next few days for castings and for doing, you know, maybe you need to take a cab to get somewhere faster.”
Much like minor celebrities and influencers rely on appearance fees, unsigned models supplement their income with these under the table gigs frequently. They help make ends meet when clients and agencies defer payment, a regular occurrence.
“Who do, you know, gets paid 30 to 60 days after the job is done,” she said. “Sometimes they get paid right after you do the job and they keep that money. Like they’re a bank. They keep that money to like facilitate whatever they have going on. And most of the time when you get your payment is like, at the end of the 30 days after they’ve used the money to be, to invest in whatever they need to invest in, then you get your money. If you get it at all.”
After adapting to life in Manhattan Bhagwandeen was faced with another difficult choice whether or not to try out for America’s Next Top Model. “I wanted to leave because I got the opportunity to go onto America’s Next Top Model. And you can’t be signed under agency if you’re with a you know, if you’re trying to do the show.”
She ultimately decided to take the risk and leave all she had learned behind. “I had to get rid of, you know, the model apartment I had to get rid of my agency. So that was basically my way of life at that point. That was my full time job, everything.”
Months later when she was spotted by a rabid fan, she understood that it was worth it.
“I really didn’t understand how big of a show it was until I got home. I was doing a guest appearance and it was for the brand Guess,” she said. “This little girl was coming, like towards me, literally screaming her head off. And I’m like, okay, like if it’s like this white girl screaming, what do you do? So, I mean, so I just like took off cause like I used to run track. So like I took off the opposite way and she’s like chasing me now. So I’m like, ‘Oh hell no.’ And she’s fast,” she continued.
“When I stop and find out what’s going on, ‘cause there’s nobody else running. As soon as I stopped, she like tackled me and like hugs me and starts crying!”
“I didn’t know what was going on,” she said laughing. “She was like, excited about me. So that was like a big awakening. ‘Cause after that, I got a lot of that and I was not prepared for that.”
“I was proud of that because it’s like an opening for more Black models to come on and to be present and to be, you know, displayed to the world cause we’re here,” she added.
The added exposure of television didn’t just lead to hilarious encounters with pre-teen fans it also brought big-name gigs. “I was requested by L’Oreal. So that was like a really big deal for me,” she said.
L’Oreal was a dream come true but some of the other mainstream bookings were not as pleasant.
“I’ve had that mostly after like the biggest jobs that I think are going to be like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is like something I’ve been waiting for my whole life.’ And then they treat you like pure trash,” she said.
She recalled makeup artists refusing to touch her and stylists yanking on her hair. “I’ve had horror stories happen where, you know, you walk out and they don’t even want to do your makeup. ‘Cause you’re Black, you know, or your hair, they look at your hair and they literally just burn it because they don’t want to ask, you know, on how to do it,” she said. “They’ll call us the AA girl, African-American girl. And they just mean in general, anything that’s Brown, anything that’s not White.”
During a venting session she learned that the negative experiences were what her parents were trying to protect her from. They had broken their promise to try to shield their baby.
“I told my mom about it and she was just like, ‘It’s not that we didn’t want you to follow your dreams. it’s that, that we know how ugly people can be and we wanted to protect you from that. And it took me a long time to understand, you know, what my parents were saying, but they weren’t wrong.”
The more popular she became the harder the career became. “I wanted to quit a lot a lot because it’s so dehumanizing,” she said. “A lot of the castings that I go to, I know this is not a client for me.”
Bhagwandeen has used her expanded reach to be selective about clients recently, leaning towards commercial and lifestyle gigs and abandoning the poorly paid, high pressure editorial environment.
“You make so much more money and you’re presented as a human being,”she said. “This is where I think it’s very important for Black models to be.”
She is also drawn to lifestyle’s potential to positively change global imagery.
“I feel like they really need to be in the commercial industry because this is who the young girls are looking at. This is who is on TV, this is who you see, like on all the commercials, like on your YouTube videos and everything. You need to see, you know, black women or black men, you know, being presented in such a positive, happy life.”
When she first began she allowed photographers to steer her into fashion because of her thin frame. “I never really realized that I had a say in anything,”she said.
She briefly considered quitting the business as Black Lives Matter protests ramped up because she wasn’t sure her voice would be protected but she was pleasantly surprised to be asked for her opinions on how she would like to be protected by her new agency proving that widespread change might be on the way after all.
She was told, “if you’re not willing to work with a certain type of company because of their values, you need to let us know in advance. So those are the people that we’ll make sure that you don’t work with because we need to make sure that our models are protected.”
“You know, like I said, God always got me.”