Don Management (Exclusive Interview): A Talent & Modelling Agency Featuring Differently-abled Models

by Shameen Anes

Introducing DON Management, Malaysia’s first-ever talent and modelling agency that casts and works with differently-abled models!

It’s Time For A Change Malaysia!

Disabled? What’s that? It’s 2020 people. They’re called differently-abled now and they’re ready to show Malaysia that they can do what ‘normal’ people can and even more. I was given the privilege to be in contact with the 23-year-old founder Bernard and he has nothing but praises about his talents.

Founder and CEO of DON Management

Bernard Benzamin Nathan has a lot on his shoulders. Ever since he was young, Bernard stood out in the crowd. This was because, at just the age of 2 years old, he was diagnosed with a Spinal Muscular Atrophy type 3. A type of muscle disease that gradually weakens the muscular system in the body over time.

People would tend to stare because he was different but instead of shying away, Bernard embraced it. Since people always seem to stare at him, he decided to give them something more to stare about. That’s when he decided to look good always! And that’s how he came to know and fell in love with the world of fashion and modelling. 

The Start of DON Management

DON Management was founded in July 2018 with his sister Bernadette Benzamin Nathan (she’s currently the COO) and two of his friends who unfortunately are no longer part of the company. Today both siblings are still running the company strong and steady. They have even expanded their team by recruiting a Chief Marketing Officer and a Creative Director to help with the operations.

From left: Bernadette Benzamin Nathan (Chief Operations Officer), Bernard Benzamin Nathan, Rheanna Deandra (Chief Marketing Officer)

Bernard explained how he noticed there was a change in the fashion industry. It was becoming more inclusive and this can be seen in magazines and social media these days. There’s more diversity shown in campaigns and runway shows. Plus-size models, dark skin and differently-abled models are now being more appreciated. Being a differently-abled person himself who loves fashion, Bernard was passionate to start a change in Malaysia.

“Of course there were a lot of barriers and challenges to overcome because the idea of having a differently-abled model here in Malaysia is just out of the question.”

Bernard

The idea started when Bernard told his friend with other disabilities that he’s planning to start a modelling agency where clients from fashion industry can easily connect and work together with them to create a more inclusive change. They started by doing outdoor photoshoots for their portfolio, and by pitching to local brands, fast forward today they have successfully established a worthy modelling agency boasting more than 30 models which have worked with multiple fashion brands and perform in various fashion shows.

Bernard also mentions how they have also changed their concept from only accepting differently-abled models to accepting alternative models too. This means, DON Management accepts models who don’t necessarily have a disability, but they are different in terms of their skin and features. Because it may not fall into the disability category, they’ve decided to call it alternative instead.

DON Management’s Vision

To Change Society’s Perception Towards Differently-Abled and Alternative Models, Leading to a More Inclusive Future.

We asked Bernard whether he thinks in today’s society, people or brands are more open to the numerous possibilities a differently-abled person can do in the talent industry? Here’s what he has to say.

“Yes, in today’s time people are definitely more open to a positive change.”

Bernard continued by saying people are now no longer interested in the mainstream way of doing things.

“People want to see some ‘REAL’ in everything nowadays.”

Bernard

The young CEO further explained that the reason why such a big name in the fashion industry, Victoria Secrets had a downfall previously was because of their models being unrealistic. People are interested in brands that accept and showcases diversity in their models.

With DON Management, Bernard and his team hope to strengthen this positive change and be the number one go-to agency, clients will choose to work with when it comes to differently-abled and alternative models. To achieve this, they would strengthen the models’ skill, expand their portfolio, work with various brands and maintain good relationships with their clients.

Bernard believes that their models are nothing short than that of the usual mainstream models and they keep the same standards in terms of quality of work, along with making sure their models strive to be the best version of themselves.

Introducing Their Talents

DON Management believes and stands for diversity and that is why their models’ age range from the youngest at just 6 years old to the oldest at 51 years old. Most of their models are students in universities with modelling as their part-time gig. One model, in particular, who is very much worth mentioning is Malaysia’s first albino male model, Azfar Firdaus.

Azfar Firdaus

Azfar Firdaus for Cleo magazine

Azfar is a popular figure amongst the young generation on social media. With a massive following of 75.6k on Twitter, he has become one of the locals’ favourite social media influencer on the bird app. His questionable humour and sass are what amuses most people. However, don’t let his tweets about Anime and his love for Gundam figurines fool you.

Azfar is a PhD candidate in Chemical Engineering and an activist who advocates for people living with various conditions and different abilities. He’s kind at heart and would not hesitate to speak up for those in need. He even spoke for TEDxUTM last March on ‘Embracing Your Differences and Overcoming Your Insecurities’.

Bernard was proud to say that Azfar is one of the first models that joined the agency during the start and had stuck with them until now. Azfar has also walked KL Fashion Week 2019 for Kit Woo.

Autism Triplets

The Triplets from left- Asyraaf, Maryam and Aisyah

DON’s youngest models are 6 years old triplets with autism, Maryam, Aisyah and Asyraaf. These cuties have yet to land their first modelling job, but Bernard and his team will continue to look for opportunities for them.

Daniel Lee

Daniel Lee

Daniel has Osteogenesis Imperfecta type 1 or also known as Brittle Bone disease. At just the prime age of 29 years old, he is an all-rounded young man, who’s into athletics and also motivational speaking. Daniel had spoken twice for TEDx and has landed a big opportunity when he was chosen to model for Uniqlo in their Autumn Winter (AW) 19 fleece collection.

Jeslinda Paul

Jeslinda Paul

A clients favourite and also another one of DON’s longest models. Jeslinda has been featured in Women’s Weekly Magazine 2019 March issue and has also participated in Selangor Fashion Week 2019, walking the runway for Kathreena. She was diagnosed with the condition called Spinal Cord Injury L1 Paraplegia after she met with a car accident 5 years ago. Now, Jeslinda does not only models but she is also currently working as an external auditor in a private accounting firm.

The Talents’ First Photoshoot

We asked Bernard, how did the talents feel when they first shot their portfolios with the agency?

“While being nervous during the shoots we also hear a lot of them saying in the end that it was fun,” Bernard shared with us.

He adds how the models usually tell them that it is a new experience for them and it is understandable as there’s no other platform out there that encourages and gives them the opportunity to showcase their features, personality and poses at the same time. The talents felt very uplifted as they felt special to be a part of something they thought was never possible or fitted them.

“We can proudly say after the photoshoot session, we can notice an increase in confidence in almost all of the models.”

Bernard

Projects

DON Management has worked with a couple of big names since their establishment. From #LivOutLoud 2.0, Selangor Fashion Week 2019 and even Uniqlo! How was it working with them?

“We must admit, until today it all still feels like a dream.”

Bernard

Bernard mentioned how they never expected that they would make it this big or come this far. In the back of their minds, they could still remember vividly the day, they had just begun when people barely knew them. “But that’s definitely not the case today.”

LivLola is a company that produces handbags, accessories and gym wear for women. Before working with DON, all their models portrayed the mainstream petite and sometimes curvy women. “So to see them dare to embrace a change by working with our female models who are on a wheelchair was definitely a huge milestone”. LivLola was also one of the first brands that they have worked with and continued to work together again for the LivOutLoud 2.0. The campaigns they worked with LivLola are hugely successful and widely praised by their followers on social media.

“For Selangor Fashion Week 2019, our show was definitely the most outstanding one that caught everyone’s attention for being different.”

Bernard

And to work with Uniqlo was another surprise to the team, as they would never have expected to be able to work with such a huge brand so quickly.

Recently DON Management has worked with Varnam Gallery. The gorgeous Saree and accessory brand collaborated with the idea of having traditional shoot portraying differently-abled female models wearing their saree and Indian accessories. It was widely accepted and celebrated by the public on social media.

Challenges

All establishments would face challenges in their journey, we asked the CEO what were the challenges they have faced and which was the most challenging to him. Here’s what Bernard has to say.

“The biggest challenge we faced was during our early days in the company when everything was still new.” He answered.

It was a challenge for Bernard and his team, in order to get people to understand their concept and they are glad that they had passed that phase. Even during those tough times, they have never let that bring them down. They kept pushing and eventually managed to overcome it.

Although they still face hesitations of working together by some brands even till this day, everyone at DON Management believes that fighting for change is an on-going process and they won’t stop until one day it becomes a norm.

“Either way we enjoy what we are doing and will continue to do this always.”

Bernard

We also asked Bernard, what is the best thing about his job. This was his inspiring answer.

The best thing is that he is in a field that he truly loves and while doing what he loves, he is also making a positive impact and changing the lives of everyone around him for the better.

“It’s not only bringing fulfilment to me but also the lives of everyone directly and indirectly linked to us.”

Bernard

Being a pioneer in Malaysia is something to boast about, but he also always wants to make sure that they will continue to provide genuine value out there and always keep their standards high.

Bernard in the center with his groups of Talents featuring Haneesya Hanee for #WHOsaysyoucant Campaign

To Casting Directors

How can casting directors help to make Bernard and the team’s job easier?

Casting directors can definitely make their job easier if they could share the word around that there is an inclusive modelling agency dedicated entirely to differently-abled and alternative models. This will help to attract more clients without having them to reach out.

How can casting directors make life easier for the differently-abled talents during projects?

They can do so by making sure their facilities/location are wheelchair friendly as most of the time the challenges they face is the location is not convenient for their models to travel.

What’s Bernard’s advice for people wanting to cast more differently-abled Talents?

“Definitely go for it, you will never know until you try.”

Bernard

Bernard continues on by mentioning that most of the time the response will always be positive as people like seeing a change and something that is noble. Usually, the campaigns/shows will receive higher than usual interaction from the audiences which is a good thing for any brand.

We asked Bernard for his thoughts when he sees able-bodied actors being cast in differently-abled roles. Here’s what he has in mind.

“I think it’s completely foolish unless that particular actor has a really unique face or physique that you are seeking for.”

Bernard

It’s better to just give those role opportunities to the genuinely differently-abled person, and that’s also why DON Management exists in the first place. To bridge the gap whereby most people don’t know where to find differently-abled talents.

Talent Scouting

How does DON Management find new talent? Do they personally scout them or do the talents come to them?

What DON Management does is that they chose around two dates each year to officially open their agency to new recruitments. They usually share the announcements and information on their social media pages.

During the beginning, they had to do a lot of scouting themselves, but now they receive applications from outside, the moment they release a new notice of recruiting models.

If one of our readers is inspired to apply for DON Management, how would they apply?

“You can visit our website and apply to join as a model if you are interested!”

They will keep you in their books till their next recruitment date arrives or you can just keep a look-out on their social media page for the next recruitment notice and apply.

Last Words From Bernard

We gave Bernard an opportunity to say a few words to his current talents and also to his future talents. Here’s what he wants to say.

To our current talents

“We will continue to do our best to bring in more opportunities for you and also raise the bar of our agency, and we also thank everyone from the bottom of our hearts for trusting us since day one and giving us the opportunity to be a part of your lives.”

To new talents

“We would like you to know our doors are always open for you and we are excited to have you in our growing family. We hope you will take the first step out of your comfort zone, we know this process may not always be comfortable or easy, that’s why all you need to do is take that first leap of faith, and the rest we will handle and guide you throughout this journey.”

It was an absolute privilege to have been in contact with Bernard and learning of his visions to change society’s perspective towards a more inclusive future. We at WOKE.MY give our fullest support to the talented and beautiful models of DON Management and we wish each and every one of them for all the joy and success they deserve!

Watch below as DON Management’s Models take up the Don’t Rush Makeup Challenge and prove just because we’re stuck at home during the MCO does not mean we can’t glam up!

https://www.instagram.com/tv/B_PPu4VnGSh

Also, watched dialogues with DON hosted by RHEANNA where they have honest conversations with differently-abled models experiencing lock down.

Check out more about DON Management on their Facebook, Instagram, Youtube and Website!

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