I first met Phillip Ponesky in a yoga class in 2018 when he just arrived in Los Angeles from Germany. We instantly bonded over our love for nature and spirituality. During our first shoot together a few months later, I realized that Phillip wasn't just a pretty face with a statuesque figure. Behind it all was a well-rounded young man with great insight and outlook on life and a beautiful heart. Over the next couple of years, I would see him at Runyon Canyon, a popular hiking destination in Los Angeles. Often, we walked together on the hiking trail swapping stories about living in Europe and spotting red-tail hawks and other wildlife. By then, he was signed to LA Models with his career carefully guided and shaped by Sergio Garcia, a super-agent who takes great care of his clients.
When I ran into Phillip again on our mutual hiking destination, we were deep in the pandemic, but his spirit was high despite the circumstances. We spoke about the idea of thriving not surviving and the gratitude we both had for living the California dream. Of course, adjusting to life in the pandemic was challenging for the young man, just like it was for millions of others, but Phillip kept his faith and positive outlook. We spoke about the possibility of doing another shoot and once we coordinated with Sergio, Phillip and I found ourselves deep in the Conejo Valley on our way to our shooting location.
It was then we got to share stories of anacondas, Pillip's favorite reptile that he wrote a research paper on way back in high school and I told him my real-life encounter with an anaconda while swimming in one of the tributaries of the Amazon a couple of years back. With brave wild rabbits staring at us, we proceeded with our shoot and I got to hear Phillip's story and his unusual journey into becoming a successful model.
Growing up in one of the high-rises of Friedrichshain on the East side of Berlin, the district that still houses the largest remaining section of the Berlin Wall, was a unique experience for Phillip. It meant having many friends, a simple way of life in a community where everyone knew their neighbors. Things seemed idyllic until his parent’s divorce. The instability of childhood with its moving-about, placed Phillip in five different schools over the course of a couple of years, it also earned him the “troublemaker” name. He only saw his father once a month for a few years, that’s until the age of 12, when the dad got full custody of him. They often butted heads due to his father’s explosive nature and at 16 the young man found himself on the street after a fight with his caretaker. Luckily his mother took him in. From that moment on Phillip decided to work hard to bring stability into his own adolescent life. At the age of 16 he already had a few jobs, a steady one in an office and several side gigs in hospitality.
By 18 he saved enough money to move out on his own. Phillip enjoyed his hard-earned financial stability. That was until the young man started to immerse himself into Berlin’s club scene which slowly took its toll on his personal life, health and finances. In his early twenties he often found himself without money to even buy food. He worked 14-16 hours shifts as a bartender to scrape enough together to cover rent but his struggle continued because of bad money management skills.
At 25, his friend introduced him to a photographer who was looking for models to test. That was the first time Phillip stood in front of a camera as a model. Nervous at first, but by the end of the shoot he was comfortable and thoroughly enjoying himself. It was then he realized the great potential and life upgrade modeling offered. Instead of working 16-hour days he could travel the world, meet interesting people and enjoy life instead of withering away in night clubs.
His impeccable work ethic helped him as a budding model. Always on time for test shoots and excited about each opportunity, Phillip applied himself and built a great portfolio. At 26 he signed with Modelwerk, a reputable agency in Berlin. Doors were opening for him. He started booking work and was able to pay all his bills through modeling. His first international campaign came at 27 when he travelled to Singapore for two months. Philip was on track. His drive, work ethic and professionalism made him a favorite with clients. After returning to Berlin, he continued his rise as a model and his childhood dream became reality. Love drew him to the City of Angels and at 27 Phillip relocated to Los Angeles.
To his surprise, the demands of the market significantly differed from that of the European fashion scene. The young man couldn’t book any work for eight months in L.A. After some deep reflection, reassessment and understanding the L.A market’s need, Phillip buzzed his hair. He also understood that he needed a whole new portfolio reflecting the new look. He flew to New York to test with Rodolfo Martinez and Rick Day. It was because of those photos that he got signed to LA Models immediately after his return to the city. Work started pouring in, but just as Phillip stepped into this new chapter of his life, COVID hit and the whole world came to a halt.
It only took the fashion industry a few months to figure out how to safely continue with castings, bookings and shoots. Clients understood the convenience of direct bookings and the value of self-taping and the redundancy of live castings. After 5 months of silence, Phillip’s phone started to ring again. He had put a lot of faith into LA Models upon his signing with them, but his trust and respect for the renegade agency grew exponentially as – despite the impact of covid- he continued to book work. What made this time even more impactful for this young man was the work relationships he has built with accomplished photographers such as Tony Duran, Randall Slavin and Dough English.
I wanted to learn about Philip’s process and the lessons he has learned along his journey so after our shoot together, I asked him my questions.
What was your transition like from being a model in Germany to adjusting to the different requirements in Los Angeles? (Here you can talk about how you eventually buzzed your hair and all)
I had to pretty much start over. The experience I had in Berlin mattered to some degree but not as much as I thought it would. So I had to figure where would my look fit in, what type would work would be suitable since it’s a completely different industry. I had to start from scratch to network and meet new friends, new photographers, new stylists. I went to several agencies, not one would sign me in LA. It took me over a year to sign with a new agency here.
How has California’s forward-thinking mentality and clean living affected your life?
Coming from Berlin where there is a strong nightlife and party atmosphere, it is refreshing to be surrounded by so much health-oriented energy and with people who do a lot of conscious inner work. I started doing yoga here and CrossFit and become more aware of my carbon footprint and I am working on minimizing it to benefit the planet. And because of it, I started eating less meat and following a more plant-based diet.
What is the most valuable lesson you learned growing up that helps you even today and your modeling career?
Even though they were divorced, I took some valuable lessons from my parents. They have one thing in common: that is to be disciplined and never give up and believe in yourself. That you don’t have to follow the regular 9-5 path and if you have a calling and are interested in other paths than your given career you have to definitely pursue them.
What helped keep your hope and spirits high during the pandemic?
The pandemic affected all of us and it also unified us! I’m deeply troubled by the loss of life that it caused, the businesses that got destroyed, but the silver lining is that the world unified in dealing with one joint problem. There is a lot of self-reflection going on, because we’re no longer just focusing on “consuming”. We’ve slowed down and stayed home! And we were forced to face the truth who we are! I feel so fortunate to be living in California and the weather definitely helped deal with the internal challenges.
What is your morning health ritual?
I do a lot of “inner” work, not just physical. I wake up, I do my clearing and intention setting ritual. Then breakfast, which is mostly with grains and fruits. I like to exercise and stretch in the morning, it helps set the tone for the day.
What was it like to work with Tony Duran?
I was nervous because I knew that his work is amazing and I didn’t want him to think that I’m not a good model, but I quickly realized that he wanted me to be only myself. So, I let loose, let all my guards down and found myself not posing anymore, instead I was just simply “being”.
What is your dream campaign to book and photographer to work with?
My dream camping to one day do is Gucci, Tom Ford or Calvin Klein. I don’t have a “dream” photographer but I hope to shoot with Bruce Weber one day.
Photographer: Ursula Vari @ursula.vari
Model: Phillip Ponesky @phillip_calvin
Agency: @lamodels /Sergio Garcia
Wardrobe: Zara, Calvin Klein, Aldo, Nike, Jordan