A model agent

Israel's 'high priestess' of fashion is a far cry from her cut-throat public image.

Yael Bar Zohar 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yael Bar Zohar 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
As one of the judges on the Israeli reality TV show The Models, Betty Rockaway came across as an unsympathetic modeling agent with extremely high standards for any young person seeking to find fame through looks and fashion. But this reputation could not be further from the truth. Any of the models she's taken under her wing will tell you that "being one of Betty's models feels extremely similar to being one of her children." Sitting at a café in Jerusalem, far away from her office in Tel Aviv, Rockaway can hardly finish her cup of green tea before being asked for her autograph by a group of teenage girls who are staring wide-eyed in her direction. She doesn't mind the disturbance; handling admirers comes with the territory of making oneself into Israel's most famous agent. Rockaway has held the title of high priestess of the modeling world ever since opening the nation's first modeling agency in 1985. The idea came to her while working as the cover production manager for Women's World magazine, where she assumed the job of finding girls to be photographed for various spreads and advertisements. She soon realized she has a natural talent for detecting beauty. "I could see people in a third dimension; I knew which girls would look great in front of a camera." She soon began receiving dozens of calls a day from companies asking if they could use the women featured in the magazine for their ads. "I was constantly asked: 'Who is that girl you put on page 34?! Where can we find the model from page 67?! I said to myself, 'I'm giving all these names and numbers out for free? What am I, crazy?!" It was then that Rockaway came up with the idea of opening a modeling agency, and mere months later Image Models was founded. Unlike many in the modeling world, Rockaway did not go into the career for the fame and money involved. Having grown up in a warm family, with her parents' door always wide open to anyone in need, Rockaway always noticed the less fortunate youth living in areas near her home and decided she could use her talents to get them off the streets. "I would walk down Dizengoff St. and my heart would break at the sight of so many young boys and girls lying on the pavement, bone-thin and drugged up. I saw modeling as an opportunity to give these tormented young souls the chance to take their life in a new direction." Not only did Rockaway give these homeless youth a job, she welcomed them into her home and family. When her career began, she was living in a penthouse apartment in Herzliya Pituah with her husband and two children. "On the balcony of our penthouse we had an extra bedroom and kitchen complex, which soon became a 24-hour, stay-as-long-as-you-please, free-room-and-board-with-two-meals-a-day-included youth hostel for every one of my models." Before leaving for work every day, Rockaway would make breakfast for her own kids, as well as for all of the kids she had found on the streets. And this routine was repeated every evening. As soon as she would get home from the office, she'd kick off her high heels and get "straight to work in the kitchen, making dinner for anywhere from 10 to 30 kids a night." Luckily, her husband never minded the youth hostel-like atmosphere. "He was an angel about [it]," she remembers. "Sometimes he would come home from a conference abroad and find young strangers wandering around the apartment. He'd ask who they were, and after I explained, he would say, 'okay.' My children didn't mind, either. In fact, they kind of liked having all this company in the house. I was very fortunate in this regard," she says. However, Rockaway knew far more about her models-in-training than just their favorite foods: "I knew what made these kids sad, I knew every scar on their body, every relationship they had ever had. I knew these kids better than I knew myself." She was the first mother figure many of these future supermodels, actors, actresses, agents and movie producers had ever had. Interestingly, while the outside world saw Rockaway as a powerhouse career woman working her way up the ladder of success, her children viewed her in a very different light. Both her son and daughter will tell you that they had the most easygoing parents of any of their friends. Her children chose to stay out of the modeling world. Rockaway never encouraged them to model, nor did she push them into the fashion world. "I let my kids be kids. I saw too many other children robbed of their childhood to do any differently," she insists. Under Rockaway's management, Image Models achieved international recognition and success. For 10 years her agency sponsored and ran Israel's Supermodel of the Year competition, part of the US-based Ford Model Agency's worldwide Supermodel competition. Celebrities who modeled for her in the past include Yael Bar Zohar, Yael Abukasis, Shiraz Tal, Dudi Balsar, Mili Avital, Ronit Elkabetz, Shirli Buganim, Lior Miller, Orly Bauman, Ayelet Zorer, and Yael Goldman. Currently, she handles Keren Michaeli, Rana Raslan, Esti Mamu, and Anna Bauman, among others. Many of her models have worked all over the world and have appeared in Vogue, Cosmopolitan, Elle, Sports Illustrated, and W. Today, 22 years after founding Image Models, the high priestess still has her priorities straight. "I see my job as part of a bigger plan that God has for me." Recently, Rockaway has become the face of a public awareness campaign about anorexia. As part of her "Image Says No to Anorexia" campaign, she visits schools and runs workshops to raise awareness among youth on how to avoid and overcome the disease. "Parents don't usually know when their child begins the downhill slope leading to anorexia; friends always know first," she explains. Her awareness of the influence on impressionable young girls has prompted her to use her fame to disseminate positive, healthy messages. "I try to make these children aware of how dangerous anorexia is, and show them that by watching their friends stop eating, they are watching their friends kill themselves slowly." Rockaway has also lobbied the Knesset to pass a law restricting the number of hours a day child actors are allowed to work and stipulating the number of breaks and meals they must be given a day during filming. Although she chose a colorful career, Rockaway has yet to be distracted by the hype surrounding the modeling industry. She says the question she's most frequently asked is: "Is it fun to be Israel's biggest modeling agent?" "The answer is, I love my job because I love my models," she confides. "When anyone else sees one of my models in a magazine or on a billboard, all they see is a beautiful body and a lot of makeup. But I see a sense of humor, I see a student who struggled to do well in school, I see a child who was knocked down again and again in life, but got right back up on her feet every time. And it makes me proud - proud to have been a part of the lives of every one of these beautiful people."