By Billy Montgomery
Traditionally, when female models hit a certain age, they are often hit with a unique kind of ageism from an industry that tends to worship youth and arguably considers aging a disease. However, despite the stigma, today many mature fashion models are finding ways to break boundaries and slay the stage.
Having started with fitness modeling in 2018, Ripsy “Rip” Janikyan switched gears to fashion runway modeling last year. In 2022, the 5’10” healthcare professional walked in over 30 shows, representing more than 50 designers, and was published in seven magazines. At 36 years old, she may have started modeling late according to conventional practices, but Janikyan said she was right on time.
“When I'm on that stage I get this adrenaline rush and I just don't want to stop,” the Burbank, CA resident said.“It's an amazing feeling and makes me extra confident like I'm untouchable. I mean no one's perfect, but when I'm on that stage it's like nothing, and no one can bother me.”
Janikyan said that her strict Armenian upbringing was a large reason why she delayed pursuing modeling fully, citing that her parents wanted her to follow career paths more aligned with their cultural values. Added to that, in her 20s, the fashion model said she experienced a “toxic” relationship and was a young mom. But turning 30 was her watershed moment.
“I’ve always dreamt of being a model but struggled to get out of my bubble,” Janikyan said. “Then, when I hit 30, I was like OK. I have more freedom. Let’s see if I can get anywhere with this,” Janikyan said.
And she did go places. Four years ago, the former high school basketball standout flexed her way into fitness modeling until COVID shut down the competitions. However, her passion was reignited as fashion shows started returning to more in-person gatherings in 2021. With a year under her belt, Janikyan said she is ready to leave the safe shores of the West Coast and venture out into more established shows.
“My next goals are New York and London Fashion Weeks,” Janikyan said. “Everything happens for a reason. This is my time.”
While Janikyan jumped in head-first, some other models tested the waters in smaller pools of fashion opportunities earlier in life. However, challenging industry mandates turned them away. Such is the case for Ukrainian native Natasha Ka who also launched her professional modeling career in Los Angeles, CA last year.
“(Ukrainian promoters wanted to see girls in their early 20s, six feet tall, and weighing 100 pounds,” Ka said.“They’re still similar restrictions but here there is more appreciation for diverse ages and sizes, so we call can be appreciated and healthy,” Ka said.
In the last quarter of 2022, the 5’9” Orange County, CA., resident said she walked in over 30 shows in the LA area, as well as participated in Miami Swim Week last summer. She attributed her popularity among designers to her ability to transform into different characters based on the designs and themes of the shows.
“It’s not just about wearing a look, but the ability to showcase my personality through the different styles,” Ka said. “Different outfits put you in a different mental state of who are you as a person representing the designer’s outfits,” the 44-year-old project manager said.
As early middle-aged models, managing family obligations can be another challenge, but 43-year-old San Diego-based model Penelope Breidenbach said “you have to live your life” as well.
“I have a family that supports me, but I also have a passion,” Breidenbach said. “I have always wanted to do this since I was a little girl. Now that my children (9, 16, and 24) are older, I feel like it’s time to get busy and fulfill my dream. It can be difficult having to work full-time and be a mom full-time, but I also need to make time for me.”
While she has fully invested herself into modeling, the wine brand ambassador added that having a strong support system is key to modeling at an older age.
“Sometimes I have family members with me to support my shows,” Breidenbach said. “It is
important that they see me pursuing my dreams so they can know it is okay to go after their dreams.”
While breaking through age barriers, these models also acknowledge other walls that younger models might overlook due to the excitement of just being in a show. Ka said while younger models can be less vocal in advocating for their needs, older models tend to speak up.
“We are often at shows up to ten hours before we walk and the accommodations don’t always provide areas for us to change away from the male models,” Ka said. “Sometimes photographers are backstage too while we are changing. It seems borderline inappropriate.”
Conversely, Breidenbach said the biggest struggle for mature models can be embracing personal insecurities.
“Weight can fluctuate and can be an issue that can make any model feel insecure,” Breidenbach said.“But we have to stop this perception of being perfect and obsessing if you have a little belly and just go out there and rock it.”
While they are new to the industry, all agree that they see their roles as mentors in addition to models.
“There's never jealousy or intimidation from my end because I feel like what's meant for me is for me,” Janikyan said. “I am here to help us all win.”
Join The Club
Breidenbach agreed with Janikyan stressing how maturity is an asset.
“In many shows, I am the ‘mommy’ of the group,” Breidenbach said. “They (younger models) are always coming up to me asking questions because of the way I carry myself.”
All three models are stepping up their games in the new year advancing to major fashion shows internationally, but Ka said the key is to remain grounded in reality.
“I am Ukrainian so I face the reality of the current war. While I enjoy it, modeling doesn’t define me. It is not who I am. It is what I do,” Ka said. “We should never forget that we have lives off stage.”
Photos by Billy Montgomery/Billy Montgomery Photography
Model Instagram Accounts:
Ripsy “Rip” Janikyan @ripsyjan
Natasha Ka @natashaka_art
Penelope Breidenbach @p_e_n_e_l_o_p_e_m_o_d_e_l
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Billy Montgomery is a veteran photojournalist, writer, and digital content producer. As a media producer, Montgomery has worked with clients in high-profile cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Miami, and Atlanta, effectively producing photography/videography/podcasting for an array of clientele.
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