Coco Rocha never saw herself as a model and still describes the way she was discovered at 14 as “hilarious”. Her thing was Irish dance, not posing – though she’s become renowned as Queen of the Pose, with a book, Study of Pose, in which she hits 1,000 different contortions across 2,000 pages – not to mention a viral video in which she executes 50 unique facial expressions in a mere 30 seconds. 

She was scouted in the most random way. And she’s been defying the odds since then. She has prevailed in a notoriously mercurial industry, has a stable home life with a husband and two-year-old daughter, and won’t take on jobs that contradict her principles (no nudity, posing with cigarettes, religious iconography or war themes). Beyond that, Rocha, 28, manages and co-owns her modelling agency, Nomad Mgmt, becoming the only model – after Dutch supermodel Wilhelmina Cooper – to step into that role.

Here, Rocha talks about motherhood, diversity and what it takes to be a world-class model.

You were 14 when you were scouted. How did that happen?

I was at an Irish dance competition in Vancouver, sitting with my friends. I was the tall, lanky, dorky girl. To me, a model was sexy, beautiful and gorgeous. When it was suggested to me [by the scout], I laughed. We didn’t feel it was the real thing until my mom and I did our homework and saw that [the scout] was real. He was there because his daughter danced as well. So it was a happy circumstance that we met. He sent me to a modelling convention where agents come from all over the world. I was lucky enough to be seen by [agent] Roman Young, who brought me to New York at 16, and the rest is history.

What made you decide to go into the model management business for yourself?

I’ve always loved the idea of mentoring new models and helping with careers. And it’s great to have the background and foundation that I do.

How has the industry changed since you got started?

Every few years there’s something new – whether it’s the models themselves or how we scout them or what we’re looking for. At this point, the look is timeless – it’s whatever you want. In the past, you’d see a lot of girls from Russia, or the Ukraine, or Asia. But we don’t see that happening so much any more. It’s all about diversity – different body shapes and colours. That’s what people want, and designers are listening and paying attention. Some models today aren’t even your typical models. They’re bloggers, or buyers themselves, and they’re on the runway. That’s the fun of scouting now. All I have to look at is, “What does this person bring to the table?”

You started so young. Do you feel you ever missed out on anything? And how was it being tossed into this whole new world?

I was going to dance class every day, hanging out with my friends. I enjoyed that repetition in my life. Then all of a sudden I moved to New York. It was all completely different. My parents wanted to make sure I was being take care of, that this was all legit. I was lucky also because my mom was a flight attendant so we travelled a lot. If I’d never been anywhere else it would have been overwhelming. But still, I went into it thinking, “This will be just for the summer, a fun project, and I can say to my friends, I modelled!” But it’s been 14 years and I’m still here.

What qualities make a model distinctive? 

Everyone has their own idea of what it means to be a model. Even models have a different expectation. People look at me and think it must be such a fun and glamorous life. And it is, in one sense. But there’s so much travelling that you can never commit to what’s happening in your life because you don’t know where you’ll be. You don’t get to hang out with your friends. You miss family celebrations. It can be upsetting when you’re younger. 

How profoundly has social media changed things in the industry?

The attitude with social media is that everything should happen quickly, that people should respond immediately. It’s much more of a “me first” attitude. Models come in thinking, “I’m going to be famous and I don’t have to do much.” I can sense that right away. That’s not what we’re looking for. We’re looking for hard-working people. It has to be looked at as a real job, otherwise they’re lost in the shuffle.

So that’s your main criterion? Someone who shows discipline and determination?

Yes, and other things. Like maybe someone who’s got a unique cute look, or a funky nose, or great eyes, or maybe she’s really pretty. Then I have to do my homework and find out how hard working they are. Social media is awesome for that. We can see how often someone posts, what they post, do they talk about things other than themselves? Is there a passion project?

Social media is great for digging deeper and seeing who someone is. But we’ve had situations where someone had millions of followers and then we get on the phone and I’m not interested. They don’t have any goals. It’s hard to feel a connection. Then I know it’s best if we don’t do this.

Would you say a young person has to be especially active on social media to become a popular model?

It’s not imperative. I’ve seen people that have zero followers and that’s OK. It’s the attitude and what you bring to the table. Each person is their own project.

What have been some of your more memorable shoots, and why?

Steven Meisel had an exclusive on my career for six months, and that opened a lot of doors. Working with him has always been an honour. We did one shoot for American Vogue where he got his top models – Linda [Evangelista], Christy [Turlington] – and he was in the photo with us too. It was so amazing for me to be alongside those women.

How do you prioritise what you want to do?

I still model, but not so much the runway shows. I did the bride look in Jean Paul Gaultier’s last couture [show]. Now that I’m a mom, when it comes to campaigns and editorials I look at the bigger story. I ask if that’s a good fit for the Coco brand, should I work with every editorial that comes my way, every brand. It’s about pinpointing what’s good. Early on, I would do any job that was brought to me. But then I stood back one second and realised that I didn’t have a life. My agents had lives. They could book me a job and go out to dinner with their friends and I’d be off shooting somewhere. I was overwhelmed. I started dating my now-husband and realised that I was enjoying life a lot more. I didn’t want to be consumed by my career. Now we have a baby girl and that’s what grounds me. I travel as much as I can with my family. My hair and make-up team are people that I absolutely love, who make me laugh. We’re not curing cancer. We’re going to do our jobs, doing it well, and realise we can have fun.

You have standards about what you won’t do. Have you found that people mostly respect that?

As you grow up, it’s a lot easier to say no. It was a bit overwhelming when I was younger. But people respect me for it. They understand completely. 

Do you socialise mainly with other models?

I’m friends with a lot of them but it’s hard to see each other because of all the travel. We might be together for many days and then not see each other for a long time. It’s the name of the game. So it can be frustrating to be friends with other models. Our schedules change by the minute. It’s different with my friends from home. I went back for a wedding recently and it was exactly the same. It was like we’d never been apart.

What are the causes you like to support, and why? 

I support DKMS, which works towards the treatment of blood cancer by helping to find donors. If you have a donor, you can be cured. People can be a superhero to others. And I love Senhoa Foundation, a foundation that combats slavery. At one point I created a jewellery line for them – everything is made by hand, and the proceeds go back to girls and young women in Cambodia. It’s quite amazing what they do.

Do you still dance?

Just a little jig here and there with my little girl. That’s it.