Meet the power player who has launched the careers of some of the world’s most successful models, even one she discovered right here in Ocala.
One recent afternoon, two women shift ever so casually in their seats, trying to get a better look at the effortlessly stylish woman seated across the cafe from them. They nonchalantly stab at their lunches, as they try to make out what is being said by this striking beauty “of a certain age” as she holds sway over a spirited conversation with her lunch companions—a conversation peppered with such bold-faced names as Charlize Theron and Catherine Zeta-Jones. There is something familiar about this woman they think. It’s a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a city like New York, Paris or even Miami—but in Ocala, Michele Pommier is something of an anomaly.
A pioneering model in the ’70s and ’80s, Pommier graced countless magazine covers, from Town & Country and Harper’s Bazaar to McCall’s and became one of the most recognizable faces in the world when she starred in the iconic “You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby” ad campaign for Virginia Slims.
She had come a long way indeed, from her admittedly pampered upbringing in Connecticut society to being recognized everywhere she went for decades to come, as the “Virginia Slims Girl,” the “Clairol Model” or that familiar face from many top international beauty campaigns.
It all started when a friend of the family and famed American fashion and celebrity photographer Milton Greene, best known for his iconic photo shoots with Marilyn Monroe, asked to photograph Pommier when she was just 14 years old.
“He was sitting at brunch with us at our home in Westport,” she recalls. “And he asked my mother if I could do a shot with him, in a burlap bag on one of the hills, and my mom said, ‘Yes, go ahead.’”
The photo ran in Life, and once she decided to pursue modeling seriously, Greene took her first test shots in New York. She was drawn to the idea of becoming a model, but her parents wanted her to get an education first. However, it wasn’t long after she arrived at college that she was discovered and set upon a path that would deliver her to a life in fashion.
“Glamour was working on their best-dressed college students issue and they selected me to be in the issue,” Pommier recalls. “Eileen Ford of Ford Models saw me in that magazine and signed me. Needless to say, I quit college after a year and moved to New York to live in a $200-a-month apartment in Greenwich Village. That was in the late ’60s.”
And although her mother had been a model of some acclaim before her, her father was strongly opposed to his daughter abandoning her studies for a career in front of the lens.
“My father, who had introduced Ebel watches to the United States and was a very famous jewelry designer for Harry Winston, being European, he didn’t approve of my modeling,” Pommier reveals. “So he cut me off financially. That was their mentality in the ’60s. He said, ‘You can’t do that.’ But I was always one of those people that if you tell me no, I’m going to go and do it. I never ever believed there was anything that I couldn’t do.
“I did a lot of work for Town and Country,” she shares. “And I loved shooting with Harper’s Bazaar. In my first year, I made $75,000. It was 1968. I was 19 at the time and that was quite a lot of money, in those days, for a model.”
Suddenly she was modeling alongside Lauren Hutton in exotic locations where actual lions and panthers were used like accessories, strolling in and out of the photographer’s frame.
“Lauren and I were the only two models in New York City who would do it,” she recalls. “Can you imagine? I loved it!”
Her big breakthrough was appearing in a worldwide beauty campaign for L’Oréal Cosmetics and that set her up for success.
“It was huge,” she recalls. “That campaign really put me on the map.”
Her success catapulted her into the upper echelon of the modeling industry. She was constantly in demand and on a fast track that had her partying at Studio 54 between flying out for her various assignments.
“I traveled the world and got paid for it,” she offers, in a voice still full of enthusiasm.
At the height of her modeling career, however, she decided that her high-flying life was one she would happily trade for a chance to settle down with her new fiancé and start a family.
“I had been a model for 10 years,” she recalls. “It was the most incredible journey of my life, but jumping on and off of planes and never being home, it was getting old. So I followed my future husband Peter Diel down to Coral Gables and I started commuting back and forth. I would leave Sunday night from Miami and then work in New York Monday through Thursday. I told Eileen Ford that on Friday, I was out. But ultimately, I wanted to stop with all the traveling,” she continues. “I left while I had three magazine covers out: Town & Country, Harper’s Bazaar and McCall’s. Eileen was not happy, because I was a big earner for her.”
But Pommier was under contract with Clairol and she decided to see what opportunities Florida could offer her.
“In 1978, I had joined a small agency in Miami and they didn’t know what to do with me,” she reveals. “They had never seen a model with a portfolio like mine. And other models were seeking me out for advice all the time. So I said to myself, I think I’m going to open a little agency here. I called Eileen and I asked her, ‘What do you think? Should I use my name or not?’” she continues. “At first, I called it The Agency South. We were located in the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. The next thing I knew, Eileen gave me access to all her girls in her agency. She said, ‘Take whoever you want.’ That gave me a chance to book big New York models while discovering girls of my own.’”
Pommier parlayed that into an entrepreneurial venture that drew on her experiences and talent for spotting natural beauties.
“I have always had an eye for talent,” she offers. “So the idea of scouting and developing models really appealed to me. And there was no one doing that seriously in Miami Beach at the time.”
In fact, Pommier was one of several pioneering entrepreneurs who helped influence the economic growth of Miami Beach as a fashion capital. She did so through her visionary business acumen and ability to launch a whole new generation of models that have gone on to become some of the top-earning models and actresses in the world. Such was the case for Christy Turlington, who is perhaps best known for her fragrance ads for Calvin Klein’s Eternity and has held the title of supermodel for decades.
“When I found Christy Turlington in 1983, she was just 13 years old,” she recalls. “I took one look at her and thought, Oh my gosh! This is the next Audrey Hepburn. Christy really put me on the map as far as discoveries. Famous modeling agencies from Paris, London, Milan and New York called me to see if I would let them represent her. She, Linda Evangelista, and Naomi Campbell were the top three girls in the world at the time and went on to become iconic supermodels.”
Another prolific career that she helped launch is that of Academy Award and Golden Globe Award-winning actress Charlize Theron, who continues to appear in one of the most lucrative modeling contracts in the world for Christian Dior. During her time representing the statuesque beauty, Pommier secured an incredibly lucrative deal for her to represent luxury watch designer Raymond Weil in an exclusive ad campaign, worth millions of dollars for a one-day shoot. She worked that same magic for Catherine Zeta-Jones, securing her yet another multi-million dollar contract with the Italian luxury jewelry brand Di Modolo.
“Charlize found me through an agency friend in Milan, after working briefly in Milan and Cape Town as a model,” Pommier shares. “My friend said, ‘I have this girl that I’m working with here and I don’t know what to do with her.’ She was 17 years old. After she arrived at my agency, I could see what I needed to do, so we worked to develop her and get her in great shape,” she continues. “Then, when I felt she was ready, I sent her down the road to Versace. Gianni started using her and that was it! That’s how she got her start. After working for awhile in Miami, she flew to Los Angeles to pursue her acting career.
“I like to discover and put a model on the map,” she confides about her continued focus, “if they have what it takes and listen to my guidance. That is what I continue to do.”
Pommier’s most recent discovery was made right here in Ocala. She and her husband, former professional golfer, stockbroker and model Peter Diel, who is currently the head golf instructor at Ocala National Golf Course at Golden Hills Country Club, followed a friend to the area.
They now spend about half their time in Ocala.
“We bought a house here about three years ago and I started commuting back and forth between here and Miami,” Pommier explains. “I was driving and it was a little crazy. In December of 2018, I decided to really focus on my ‘special girls’ like Alex Hansen, who I discovered right here in town. She was living in Tampa and visiting Ocala for the day. It has taken me several years to develop her and a lot of hard work on both our parts, but she recently starred in a worldwide campaign for GUESS. I know how to develop models, because I have been there. I’m going to make her a star,” she says with determination. “I’m always scouting for talent and I want to find some of it in Central Florida, because I know it’s out there…Ocala, Gainesville, Tampa, Orlando,” she continues. “These girls and boys do not need to spend the money or drive to Miami to have a career in modeling. They can meet with me to see if they have what it takes. I guess I’ll be discovering talent until I’m no longer here!” she says with a laugh.
Her wit, wisdom and zest for life make her a thoroughly enjoyable lunch companion—yes, we’re back at that lunch—but it is her candor and humility that make her disarmingly down to earth.
“Oh my gosh,” she offers, upon noticing that she has attracted the attention of several fellow diners, as she flips through a glossy portfolio of images. “What must they think?”
What Pommier thinks about our community is perhaps more compelling.
There are so many wonderfully interesting people here in Ocala,” she offers enthusiastically. “You would be surprised how many of them have these really great stories and talents. With the World Equestrian Center coming,” she continues, “things are just going to blow up here. It’s going to be something to reckon with very soon.”
Family remains at the center of Pommier’s life. She has two children that she adores.
“My son, David Diel, is involved in golf at a very exclusive golf club in Miami and my daughter, Jacqueline Pommier Diel, is helping me scout Ocala for the next big supermodel.”
Alex Hanson has a life that many dream about. In five short years, she has become an internationally recognized model with an impressive body of work.
It might surprise you to learn that Hanson was discovered while on a day trip to Ocala. She was visiting from Clearwater, where she was working in a restaurant, living paycheck to paycheck and trying to find herself. Michele Pommier only needed one look at Hanson to know what a bright future she could have as a model. Since her discovery, Hanson has graced the pages of international magazines, appeared in television commercials for top brands and starred in advertising campaigns for the likes of GUESS, Bare Necessities and Linea Roma. We caught up with the globetrotting beauty to get a firsthand account of her journey since being discovered.
What was it like being discovered?
I had no idea what was really going on. Modeling was something I had thought about, but it was a daydream situation until I met Michele. I trusted her immediately and I don’t trust people that often. Michele took me under her wing and I am so very grateful to her. She was the person who believed in me, even before I believed in myself. She gave me that confidence. It certainly didn’t come overnight. I didn’t know how to pose or anything. That was what was so great about working with Michele. We’d do shoots and she’d show me something I was doing with my hands or what angles were my best. A lot of people think it’s easy, but there’s a lot to learn. A lot of models don’t have an agent like Michele to look out for them.
Was there a moment when you realized, I’m really going to be a model?
It was my first job. Michele booked me a national Colgate commercial. My very first paycheck was $60,000 for one day’s work. It opened my eyes. I was like, I could make this my lifestyle.
What was it like to shoot the GUESS campaign?
The GUESS campaign was a high for sure. The GUESS woman is always such a bombshell—that’s a woman right there. It was a campaign I really wanted to do, so I let them know. Everything I’d done up to that point had prepared me for that moment and the reason I got the campaign was that I was ready for it.
What was it like when the campaign came out?
It was something I will never forget. I was traveling a lot and suddenly I was seeing myself on billboards and in stores in LA, Tokyo and Cape Town. It was the coolest thing.
Have you had any “pinch me” moments since you began modeling?
You meet a lot of interesting people and have a lot of “pinch me” moments. I met Mick Jagger in LA and he said, ‘Come to my show.’ So I got to be a part of that whole rock star lifestyle with the Rolling Stones and go backstage with the band. It’s definitely cool to be able to say that Mick Jagger is a friend.
Any advice for young people interested in modeling?
It’s not a hobby. It’s a career. You have to be committed. There’s a lot of rejection. You can work really hard, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. You have to take it as a lesson instead of throwing yourself a pity party. I’m grateful for all the rejection I had, because now I know what I’m worth. I don’t really care if a client thinks I’m too big or too small. In a business like this I’m the talent and not everyone is going to like what I have to offer. All you can do is be nice to everyone and really give your all.