Creative Careers in the Arts

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Spirited Woman Q & A

Interview with Cindy Kauanui, Founder of Jet Set Modeling

By Nancy Mills | Posted June 1, 2007 | Updated May 9, 2019

One morning over coffee, I was reading the Los Angeles Times, and I was genuinely blown away by an article/profile on Cindy Kauanui, the founder of Jet Set, a La Jolla, California-based modeling agency. Her magnetism and guts just leapt from the page, and I said to myself, "I've just got to interview this woman." Yes, I was that impressed.

So, I picked up the phone and called her cold. And she in turn picked up her phone and spoke with me. Amazing. You see, Cindy is something of a sensation in the modeling world. She's the one responsible for taking the skeleton look and replacing it with the healthy-surfer Pacific Coast Highway look. Yes, she's a role model that's changing skinny from "in" to "out!" The woman's a champ.

She's also had quite a rollercoaster of a life. A single mom with three sons, in 1992, when Hurricane Iniki devastated the island of Kauai, where she grew up, Cindy lost her successful production company and home. With only $80 in her pocket, she and her sons, left with the clothes on their back, boarded a Hawaiian Airlines jet, and flew to LA. As she says, "after all the doors shut down on me," they moved to San Diego, CA.

Ten years later, Cindy, in her mid-40's, owns a business with eight divisions that will gross about $5 million this year, has 14 employees, a satellite office in Waikiki (where she works two weeks a month), two homes, represents over 600 kids and adults, over 1,000 babies, and her clients are such fashion giants as Ralph Lauren, Guess, Pac Sun, and Quiksilver. Last year, she won the Pitney Bowes Best Small Business Marketing Award and started Jetty! — a day to night surfer fashion line — with Mitsui & Co, now sold in 100 stores in Japan.

Whew! Cindy is a dynamo, who fights for her ideals and goes for it — with great passion and fortitude! I'm really happy I picked up the phone and called her. And I believe you will be too. Her life is really inspiring. Now, here's Cindy.

Q. Cindy you literally had to start your life all over again. Did you have any idea of what you were going to do?

A. No I didn't know what I was going to do and I applied to all different places as a waitress, anything because you're in a survival mode where you've got three kids and all you're thinking about is how you're going to put food on the table. You're not thinking a career — it was like a Band-Aid job. Unfortunately or fortunately I guess you could say I did not get hired by anybody. They wouldn't even hire me at the Hyatt. So I thought okay, that is a sign, and I am a believer in God. And it was as if God was closing all the doors and really wanting me to do this (starting Jet Set). Had those other doors opened I probably would have walked through them.

Q. How did you actually start Jet Set?

A. I knew that my true core talents were in the entertainment business since I did have a production company on Kauai, where I would find models for movies and New York agencies. Moving to San Diego, I was kind of in the wrong place for what I do, but I loved it — it reminded me a little bit of Kauai, small with a neighborhood feel. A Kauai friend told me that there were these low interest SBA loans for people who lost their businesses during Iniki, and I got in touch with different sources through the Red Cross, and I put together a five year forecast and I got approved. That's how I got started with a $10,000 loan.

Q. What is the Jet Set "look" and philosophy?

A. It's funny, when I first started it was high fashion because that's all I knew. But, I'm a surfer, so I remember that look from the 1970's — there weren't that many girl surfers at the time. I remember looking at the beach crowd and looking at that mix of Hawaiian, Californian — the boys had the Blue Lagoon hair look, the girls were just natural beauties, they had that sun-kist look. I fell in love with that look. So, I'd say Jet Set is definitely a cross between California and Hawaii, so they look a little exotic maybe and they also have that California 1970's Pacific Coast Highway look. Bringing those two looks together.

Q. You're known for having an eye — how do you find your models?

A. It's not that I go to the mall, with a stack of cards, and try to find people — I never do that. I could be out to dinner, I could be driving my car, I could be at the grocery store. It's just whenever I see it, I usually approach it. Then also too, because Jet Set has been around for awhile now, we get a lot of submissions. And we've branded ourselves so the right type of people do contact us. And I also go to a lot of surfing competitions, because my son is a pro surfer and usually I'll see a lot of cute kids.

Q. You were the first one in the modeling industry to connect the beach culture to the fashion world. How did that come about?

A. I was backstage in Milan, during fashion week, I had found the Roberto Cavalli girl, and the girls were changing clothes getting ready to go onstage. I saw them with their bras and underwear on, and they were so thin that I felt like throwing up. I'd never seen anything like that, because when they had their clothes on, you didn't notice it that much, but undressed you could see all their bones. They were squeezing into couture outfits, even being so skinny, that were unnatural sizes — not a natural woman's body. I felt enormous. I watched these girls smoking — they looked so weak, so unhealthy, so pale. I thought what am I doing? Why am I in this industry? Why am I promoting this? It was more a personal conviction, a Jerry McGuire kind of thing, like a rude awakening. I remember going back to my apartment, feeling like I did something really bad. That in my heart of hearts I was not contributing any good to humanity. I didn't want to be a part of it. I wanted to quit the industry. Yet I had the star of the show.

Q. What changed it all for you?

A. By the time I got to back California, I did a lot of praying, I felt that my true love and passion has always been beach culture, surf, the lifestyle I lived — a cool lifestyle that is healthy, where you don't have to starve yourself and you get to have a good fun day in the water watching dolphins. I wanted to show it to the world. I thought, Calvin Klein changed the supermodel of the '80's into the waif by using one model Kate Moss to get that change to take place, and I said, why couldn't I take what I love, find one girl, and make history and get people to go in this direction. It happened with Roxy. I found the first Roxy girl and they gave me the outlet to expose these girls to the world. With their help I was able to get this new look out to the public and they became famous. Roxy stores starting popping up everywhere. One opened in Times Square in the late 90's. Then I got a call from Jockey and they wanted a "surf and city" ad in Times Square. I couldn't believe that was happening since New York was my main source of income. We unveiled a humongous billboard with two girls in Times Square — surfers wearing Jockey. And it actually hit during the millennium — so everybody saw it!

Q. What's the best way to get started in the modeling business?

A. Basically, just sending an agency a snapshot of yourself. Preferably Polaroids is the best way to go because that is what you really look like. If you look good in a Polaroid, you're going to look great on film. Polaroids just pretty much are as raw as you can get as far as what the true person looks like. They should always take Polaroids with no make-up and their hair down — just real simple and in a bathing suit, so you can see if the girl is fit or not, that way you get to see their proportions. Some girls are swim girls and some girls are fashion girls, and those are two different types of marketing. Swim girls don't look good in couture clothes, they are too long-waisted, and couture girls don't look good in swim suits, they look too thin.

Q. I also read you will drop a girl if she loses too much weight. Do you feel the modeling industry is changing, or are eating disorders still a major issue?

A. I have dropped girls for that. Eating disorders will always be a major issue as long as the coutures are still showing advertising with these real thin girls — young girls look at the pictures and think that is what I need to be. Fashion magazines pretty much dictate what these kids do. But right now there is a real positive surge going on about being healthy. We've never been in a better time — people are really getting sick of the anorexic look. There were articles in the New York Times, Milan, and Spain, how they are banning the skinny model right now. It's huge. They're tired of the designers dictating what they think people should look like. They're going to battle and trying to bring back the real size woman, which is so cool.

Q. Cindy looking back you started your business with a $10,000 loan in 1995 and your 2006 revenues will be in the 5 million dollar range — what do you attribute your success to?

A. Good employees and good talent. We really are the best kept secret to be honest Nancy. We only recently got publicity. So all those years we pretty much kept undercover. It's good employees and finding out how to hire good employees. I think I made a lot of mistakes in the past not knowing how to hire the right type person for this industry. I've gotten a lot of help from my friend Mindy at where she'll do assessments on employees before we hire them to find out if they fit the job.

Q.What are your future plans on the horizon?

A. I'd like to get the Jet Set Reality Show off the ground. We've trademarked that for television. I want to do a reality model search for Jet Set, where it is kind of like America's Next Top Model meets Survivor and then a spin-off to that. I've also always wanted to do a "Jet Set Surf Seinfield" about the agency and about our little neighborhood, because it's really funny. We're in La Jolla and it's the original town of surf. The Beach Boys sang about it, it's got the original Rusty's Surf Shop, and it's a funny little Mayberry R.F.D. meets surf kind of place.

Q. What advice would you like to give women about taking risks?

A. First of all, if you have a dream and you really believe in it and you're passionate — you really have to be passionate about it — do proper planning and go for it. But make sure you plan everything before you get out there. There are so many great resources now to help women get started. Take the risk and do it. I'm so glad I did.

Q. Cindy, why do you feel that you are a spirited woman?

A. One, because I have God spirit in me and it fills me up. And because I love life. I love being alive. I love being able to help people. I love the fact that I have a purpose in life — I have something to do. And I want to encourage women to find that thing that they are to do. And do it with all their heart, do it with passion.

©2007 Nancy Mills. All rights reserved.

Next: Interview with Mystery Writer Rochelle Krich