In 1987, I was talking to my friend (and fellow photographer) Gene Lemuel in the middle of the booking room at a new Los Angeles modeling agency called “Prima” when a very loud little 12-year-old girl dragged her mother up the stairs. Gene had found a photo of the girl in a trashcan at the agency the day before, with a phone number on it. He called the number and spoke to the girl’s mother to find out that the little girl wanted to be a model and her mother was looking for representation.
The little girl walked into the middle of the booking room and announced “who do I see about becoming a model?”
Most of the bookers looked at each other in shock, galled by the brat’s presumption, but the owner of the agency, Jeffrey Dash laughed, rose from his chair and introduced himself. Gene Lemuel immediately buddied up to her beautiful mother, Russian actress Galina Loginova.
I took a step back and watched the whole circus unfold. Gene was very quick to jump in suggest that they do a photo shoot. I thought Milla was a pretty little girl, but frankly, I didn’t get it at first. Gene and Jeff seemed to be mesmerized by her attitude and I thought, okay maybe…
The next day, Gene talked the trendy Robertson boutique Comme des Garçons into lending him some clothes and took Milla to Malibu to make some photographs. He didn’t use much hair or makeup. He draped some seaweed on her and had her roll around in the sand after wetting her hair.
They came back from the shoot and I ran into him at the agency again, he showed me the Polaroids. The black and white photographs were good, a little contrasty and moody for my taste, but I could tell there was something there. Gene ran into Herb Ritts and showed him the Polaroids and convinced him that he needed to photograph her. Herb asked Gene if he could keep one of the Polaroids and wrote down her information. The next day Herb called up Prima and booked Milla for cover of Lei magazine.
After that, Milla’s career took off like a bullet. Once she had the cover, it was easy for me to get assignments. I photographed her for a lot of different magazines and advertisers over the next three years. Often, Galina would stand behind me while I was shooting and shout out directions in Russian. I had no idea what she was saying, but the pictures always turned out great.
Milla and I worked together for the short time that she remained living in Los Angeles. Pretty soon she was off to New York and Paris and the rest is history! I haven’t made any photographs of Milla in years, but Gene and Milla are still going strong..
Everyone was always playing up the fact that she was Russian and it used to stick in my craw. My thoughts were that she escaped from the Soviets to come to the greatest land of opportunity known in human history, who the hell cares about the Russians? If she was still in Russia, she’d be harvesting wheat in the steppe! So I literally wrapped her in the flag whenever I could.
The first time we did a picture, she just wore a pair of jeans and I had her hold up the flag covering herself. She looked at me and said “I know what you’re trying to do… you want me to show my boobs!” I laughed and said, “look, YOU DON’T HAVE ANY BOOBS… but if you hold that flag up there, people might think that you do!” She laughed… knowing that I was right and it would make a great photo… even before we made it happen.