Joniel: Representation In Modeling

This is story 6 of 10 of LoveYourzStory’s Creatives Series. I’ve had the pleasure and privilege of getting to know 11 individuals who are passionate about creating. It was interesting to learn where each individual drew their inspiration from. I wanted to shift the attention on other Creatives and tell their stories on what motivates and excites them in their respective field. Thank you to everyone who participated in this series! – Marinelle Cabillo, LoveYourzStory

Joniel’s intro into the modeling world is not what most people would think. He was always into fashion and interested in modeling, but never really had the motivation to take those necessary steps to get his foot in the door. It was actually a traumatic experience that motivated him to change his style, which led to him modeling for well-known companies like Nike and The North Face.

It was 3 days before his high school graduation, and Joniel was racially profiled in front of his Bay View home. He remembers there were about 6 police cars and 2 S.W.A.T buses. Joniel was detained at a block party because he matched the description they were looking for – Black male, his height, wearing a black hoodie with white writing. Joniel was in disbelief that he was in this scenario, it was this moment that changed his life completely.

“I was like, ‘Well I live in a black neighborhood, you can ring anyone’s doorbell or go down the street and you’ll find someone in the same thing,'” Joniel said as he remembered what he felt in that exact moment.

The trauma from being racially profiled switched something inside Joniel’s brain. He got motivated to look more into one of his interests – fashion. Before this, he tried to achieve the Bay Area hypebeast streetwear look. Joniel made a conscious effort to dress differently, drop the hypebeast look, and invest in a completely new wardrobe. His motivation was to differentiate his style from others so he no longer “fit the description” from the traumatic experience.

Joniel started doing his fashion research. He was really inspired by GQ and took notes on their style. Growing up, he always looked up to Will Smith for his fashion and acting. David Gandy inspired him because Joniel feels like he changed the game of male models – from the slender, more feminine looking men, to beefy bulky guys. He was also inspired by Joshua Kissi – just a guy from South Africa who didn’t grow up with a whole lot. Joniel admires how he made his statement in the fashion industry by not giving a shit what people think.

Getting into fashion is a whole other ballgame for creatives. Simply for the fact that this is a form of art where you have to dish out a lot of your money to achieve certain looks that you want. Joniel wanted to stray away from streetwear looks and shifted his style to looking dapper. He wanted to be that one guy in the room dressed up in a suite, pulling it off, but yet maintaining a chill persona and not trying too hard. Joniel had to put in a lot of his own money to stay creative. There was a point where he realized that changing his whole wardrobe was getting too pricey, so for a while, he attempted to make his own clothes. At the end of the day, the price of his clothes didn’t worry him too much because it was an investment worth doing because the garments would always be his to keep. And most importantly, the clothes made Joniel feel good about himself.

Growing up, Joniel wasn’t the most confident kid. He had his fair share of feeling insecure, self-conscious, and overanalyzed things about himself. So finding the new found confidence through fashion made him glow in a different way. He loved that he was investing in himself to make him look good, but feel even better. Joniel’s uncle really liked the way he dressed when he changed up his style and asked him if he was finally modeling yet. “No, but I should,” Joniel responded. It was always something that crossed his mind, but at that moment he decided to actively try to pursue it.

Joniel took the researching stage pretty seriously. His goal was to get signed by an agency, and he was going to make sure it happened. He spent a good chunk of time looking at reviews and talking with people about certain agencies. Joniel took matters into his own hands and reached out to other models under different agencies and asked them how much work they actually got and what their experiences were like with the company. All it took was Joniel taking the initiative to slide into their DM’s to get the relevant information he needed. His research narrowed down his options, and at the end of it, he knew which company he wanted to work for.

When Joniel finally decided which agency was a right fit for him, he stalked them on social media. At the time, he didn’t have a portfolio and no one was helping him out to get discovered, so he used social media to his advantage. He kept up with their whereabouts often and waited for the agency to be at a certain place at a certain time. They would post when and where they would be scouting, so Joniel was always alert on when they would be coming close to his area. Finally, the day came where the agency posted that they would be scouting at the mall. The only problem was that the workers wouldn’t be at a table, but walking around the mall. Joniel made sure to wear his best clothes and went to the mall, in hopes of running into them.

Joniel’s tactics worked, because a photographer started following him around. He knew exactly what was happening, but decided to play it cool. Joniel asked them why they were following him, to which they said, “I work for this agency, are you interested in modeling?” From there, he got to meet the owner. It was really important that Joniel worked under an agency where the owner was a person of color, this is information he already knew prior to meeting them. When they finally met in the mall, he felt as though he was meeting with an uncle, whereas other agencies went straight to business. The owner had Joniel walk down the mall and back, and he left with the owner’s contact information.

It took 2 and a half months for the agency to contact him back. But after that, Joniel was signed to hist first modeling agency. Joniel has always believed that closed mouths don’t get fed, so he really took matters into his own hands to make his modeling career a reality. He played it smart by utilizing social media to his advantage. He laughs and jokes that in a way, he manipulated them into signing him. Joniel signed with an agency in 2013, fresh out of high school. It’s crazy to think that that was almost a decade ago.

Being a model and being able to represent people that normally wouldn’t make it on your screen is something that is very important to Joniel. He wants to help other people feel confident about themselves because he knows that he wasn’t the most confident kid growing up. Joniel explains that being Black, Filipino, from Bay View, and has Vitiligo on his face are all the reasons why he wouldn’t be a potential candidate to be a model. According to him, “the odds weren’t in my favor,” but he still made it happen. Now, he takes pride in representing the people that look like him, come from the same upbringing, and can relate to him in any way.

Social media has never been Joniel’s strong suit, in fact, it is still a work in progress for him. Before getting into the modeling world, he had about 500 followers. When he finally got signed, he would try his best to post consistently to get engagement. That would mean posting 3 times a day. It was a lot to keep up with, but in a year and half he grew his following from 500 followers to 10k. It took him 2 and a half more years to get to 19.6k. Joniel and some other friends from the agency started a social media group where they would text when they posted something so everyone could comment, like, and engage with it.

All in all, it took Joniel about 3 years to see progress in his modeling career. In the beginning, it was hard for his old school parents to get on board with his modeling. They constantly told him that he needed to get a real job. His dad was a little more understanding, due to the fact that his dad also modeled back in the day, but he also wanted Joniel to have something more serious with a steady income. After his first year of modeling, he mad about 12k for the whole year. This gave his parents more grounds to prove their point – he needed a new job and needed to start taking school more seriously. Joniel changed his parents’ minds 2.5 years into modeling when he took them to their first runway show.

“That’s my anak (child/son)!” His mom cheered happily.

“That’s so cool!” His dad later confessed.

Now, whenever he’s on TV or does a shoot with a well-known brand, it’ll definitely end up on mom’s Facebook page or the family group chat. They have learned to support Joniel and be more open-minded with where modeling can take him. It’s a very surreal moment when you see your child walking down that runway or on that ad. They finally understood his passion.

Modeling has challenged Joniel’s creativity in many ways. Fashion helped him find himself. Focusing on his sense of style and what made an outfit “him” really helped him discover the true him. He feels as though all of his modeling experiences has made him more open-minded. He dresses how he feels and does it for himself, not for anyone else. The different kinds of shoots he participates in allows him to just have fun as well. He enjoyed working with Nike because he didn’t even feel like it was work. Joniel described it as if a camera was just there and he was just having fun playing games on the field with other models.

When Joniel graduated from college, he was modeling full-time. He humbly admits that he was really busy and making a lot of money. But when his 26th birthday loomed around the corner, he started to reconsider his career path. Once someone hits 26 years old, they are no longer eligible to be under their parents’ health insurance. This encouraged Joniel to dip his feet into the personal training gym world. When COVID hit, he stopped modeling and training all together. When things started back up again, Joniel picked up from where he left of training and modeling. Now, he doesn’t have plans to model full-time anymore and prefers to do it on the side for fun. He loves that modeling allows his to express himself and do his thing. He loves it a lot, but he’s making realistic steps for his future, and future kids and family.

“It can either be really great or really shitty,” Joniel said when explaining being a full-time model. “And I got to make sure everything’s really great all the time.”

Joniel’s advice to other creatives and models is to keep your head strong and take everything with a grain of salt. Not everyone in the industry is going to be nice to you, so just stay true to yourself. From experience, Joniel has dealt with snobby models and models that throw shade because the industry is a competition. In those cases, he advises to keep your distance. But for the most part, if you’re on the same set, there is mutual respect and understanding that you were all hired to do the same thing, so there is no jealousy or reason to be stand-offish. Joniel thinks it’s important to remain humble.

Joniel thanks his upbringing for his humble demeanor. Growing up without a silver spoon in the Bay Area has shaped him into the man he is today, and it’s important for him to represent the Bay Area every chance he gets. It means a lot to him to maintain the Bay’s original culture, but to also represent the different groups he falls under. He wants people to know that he’s a very caring, protective, and passionate individual.

“I very much care about how people feel, making sure that I can help them avoid some of the feelings that I have felt,” Joniel said. “It’s important to help represent different groups so they can have their own journeys in a safer environment.”