The country’s been charmed, and Zee Lifestyle finds out why. During a tropical holiday on Cebu’s shores, model-of-the-moment Kelsey Merritt talks about breaking into New York’s modeling scene.
It’s early on a sunny Sunday morning, and Kelsey Merritt is sitting in the makeup chair—a spot she’s probably very familiar with, considering she’s one of the country’s most sought-after models and had signed with Wilhelmina Models. She’s bare-faced and with traces of sleep in her eyes, quietly going through stories on Snapchat and scrolling through her Instagram feed while makeup artist Chady puts on her sun-kissed beauty look. She yawns, stretching her arms up, and looks up at us with a sheepish grin; and for a moment the international model falls away and Kelsey is a fresh-faced 19-year-old with the kind of natural charm that’s hard to emulate. “Sorry,” she laughs. “I’m not a morning person.”
In that small gesture, it immediately becomes easy to understand why everyone has been smitten by Kelsey Merritt. Besides her obvious good looks—the piercing hazel gaze, the soft angles of her face and those incredible freckles—she’s bubbly and smiling. When she’s in front of the camera, though, it’s a whole different story.
“I never intended to model in the first place,” Kelsey admits, something which may come as a bit of a surprise when you see how much the camera loves her. “My friends were starting to model professionally, and I got interested. I just thought I’d test the waters to see if I’m any good at it.”
Very good, as it turns out. Since she first started going to go-sees at 14, she’s in the midst of a true model moment. “It’s overwhelming, of course. I’m still trying to keep up with everything, but I’m always thankful,” she says. “It’s very humbling because I and to work very hard to get where I am. I’m glad that my hard work is being recognized by people in the industry.”
Of course, her stairway to success was a very millennial one—social media played a huge part in bringing Kelsey to where she is now. “It launched my career,” she shares. “I did my first-ever fashion editorial because the editor-in-chief of Candy Magazine saw my photos on Facebook. I was scouted by Wilhelmina through my Instagram account.”
By Wilhelmina, she means the international agency that handles the likes of Soo Joo and Alexandra Richards. “BJ Pascual and I had been planning to do a test shoot for so long, and finally we were both free and it happened. He uploaded the pictures on his Instagram account a few days after,” Kelsey recalls. “On the exact same day, the director of Wilhelmina Models followed him on Instagram. Inevitably, the first thing he saw were my pictures!”
There’s a little bit of serendipity involved in her so-called big break, which she happily admits. “I’d like to call it fate and a dose of good luck! It opened my mind to a lot of things. I feel like I do things differently now, like I’m more disciplined. You have to be disciplined when modeling in New York.”
Not to say that she wasn’t disciplined in the first place. When most would have jumped on the first plane to New York once the email from Wilhelmina Models came through, Kelsey, who was then in the middle of the school year, asked to make the trip in April during her summer break. “It’s all about setting priorities, and school is my number one priority. I put that above anything else,” she explains. She had originally left her hometown in Pampanga to study Communications with a major in Advertising and PR at Ateneo de Manila University. “I thought this course would be perfect because it’s the same industry I’m already working in. It’s good that I could put my connections to good use.
“It’s really about setting aside time for school, family, work, friends and myself,” Kelsey continues. “I was struggling at first when I didn’t know how to manage my time well. Now, I basically try not to work on school days and leave all my modeling jobs for the weekend.”
There are some exceptions, though, such as finding out she had been booked for the Vera Wang Fall 2015 campaign. Despite a paper due and a big test coming up, the model took off and flew out for the photo shoot. “Honestly, I found out right as I was going to bed,” she recalls. “I was just lying in bed, incredulously thinking how this girl from Pampanga will be flying to New York to shoot a Vera Wang advertising campaign. I couldn’t believe it! It seemed so surreal.”
The campaign gave her the chance to work with industry greats like photographer Patrick Demarchelier and digital artist Pascal Dangin, who was serving as the shoot’s creative director. “I thought it would be intimidating shooting with someone like Demarchelier, but when he arrived in Pier 59—the studio where we shot—he greeted everyone and asked them how they were,” Kelsey shares. “He’s a very warm and approachable person. When it was time to shoot, he sat down on a chair in front of me and two other models, and just started shooting. Pascal was behind him, directing us and Patrick would also comment from time to time. He encourages us whenever we were doing things right, and he even came up to me once and fixed the angle of my face. We’d know the shoot was done when he put down his camera, and went to look over the photos on-screen with Vera and Pascal.”
If it seems like Kelsey is a keen observer, it’s because she truly is. She treated her experience in New York as a learning one, making notes on how the industry worked in that side of the world. “It was all about learning how everything worked,” she says. “Whenever I went to a casting, I would look at what the other models were wearing, what looked nice and what didn’t. I saw how polite the models are to the clients—they always asked how they were and would tell everyone to have a good day when they left. It’s all about making a connection with the client. You have to show them that you’re someone they would want to work with.”
The study worked—Kelsey went on to book fashion editorials for Harper’s Bazaar and Nylon, for Steve Madden’s website, and for Uniqlo’s Re-Jean campaign, which brought her to London for a week. “Traveling is definitely one of the things I enjoy most about modeling, as well as getting to work with a lot of talented people.”
Dressing up is another perk that Kelsey enjoys. “I’m usually in jeans and a tank top. A typical casting outfit,” she describes as her go-to outfit when she’s just being herself. “My personal style’s been greatly affected by what my agency wants me to wear to castings. They tell all new girls to dress in either black, gray or white—so I ended up getting used to that, and now those colors are all that I ever wear or buy!”
This buying is usually done at Zara, and Vania Romoff is a favorite designer. “My style icons would have to be Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid,” she shares. “They dress very well, very chic. This is what I always try to go for, and I always end up using their style as reference.”
The downside is the inevitable lack of free time, so Kelsey spends much of her downtime at home. “I go on Netfix to find something to watch, or read a book. I don’t really like going out,” she admits, naming Game of Thrones as her reading material of choice. “If I’m not at home, I’m probably at the beach.” That, or driving to Pampanga to spend time with her family. And what exactly does she miss most about living away from home? “The absence of home cooked meals,” she laughs.
Kelsey off duty, it turns out, is the girl looking up at us with a goofy smile, her hair in curlers, her freckles showing and her eyes playful. She explains that on days off or spent at school, she’ll just give her lashes a quick curl, slide on lip balm and is good to go. “My favorite shade of lipstick is a pinkish nude one, the kind you wouldn’t think I had any lipstick on,” she says.
There lies her charm. As someone who has often said that she finds modeling a career and not a lifestyle, her persona off-camera is arrestingly charming—and the hint of that shines through even as she’s posing on-camera. This is probably what earned Kelsey Merritt the title model-of-the-moment. But if the girl herself is any indication, this moment is going to last a very good while.
by Shari Quimbo photography Steffen Billhardt photo post-processing Carlo Sardes of Mooodigital
stylist Blaq Mafia makeup Chady Pantaleon of MAC Cosmetics hair Erwin Monteza
production assistant Carlo Rivera locale Shangri-la’s Mactan Resort and Spa
Originally published in Zee Lifestyle, March 2016. For back issues, subscribe to Magzter.