There are no short phone calls with Omar Albertto. Whatever it is you want to ask him invariably ends with you on a fantastical adventure into vintage Studio 54, onto the set of a Herb Ritts photo shoot or into the modern-day LA disco hotspot Giorgio’s.
For more than 40 years, Albertto has been living the fabulous life. But as one of the most powerful male model agents of his era, he has also been dealing with the disruption of his industry and the changing relevance of the only job he’s ever loved.
And yet the trim, youthful man with just a splash of grey at his temples who answered Skype a week ago didn’t seem at a loss. Albertto was too full of stories, of plans and of a mind to get serious about creating a place where music, art and fashion could intersect — part Warhol’s factory, part recording studio — and the fun he would have hanging out there with his friends.
In order to get there, however, we need to dip back into the past that set him up on this journey. And it’s a rich journey — one that began in earnest when the Panamanian came for a short stay to Miami with the intention of seeing Disney World and ended up moving in with his brother in New York City.
Sometime early in his stay, Albertto’s father set him and his cousin up with tickets to go see a theater production in midtown. As they walked out of the theater, they saw a crowd of people outside a building on 54th Street with limousines pulling up regularly. On a fire hydrant a flamboyant, diminutive man was pointing at people in the crowd and inviting them behind the velvet rope of Studio 54. He was co-owner Steve Rubell. He pointed at Albertto and his cousin.
“He goes, ‘Are you coming or are you staying?’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, we’re coming!’ and he hands us two tickets,” he says.
For the rest of 1977, Albertto spent every weekend and most weeknights at the legendary nightclub. “We lived to go to Studio 54,” he says. “It was never a nightclub for us. It was a lifestyle … I found me; I found my passion. I started gaining a love and appreciation for the arts, for music, for fashion.”
It was through an Italian designer he met there that he booked his first modeling gig, in Milan. And it was through that gig that he got his foothold in the business that would become the rest of his life. For three years he modeled across Europe, flying back to New York City and Studio on weekends, thanks to a discount his father received as an airline employee.
Upon returning to New York, someone asked if he’d like to work as a booker. He didn’t have to think long. “As a model, I learned one thing about myself: I learned how to get away from my ego,” he says. Also, “I never felt I was that dude — I’m never going to book a big campaign … The guys [that were] like Mario van Peebles, those guys were beautiful men with beautiful, perfect features … I decided, ‘Let me give this job a shot.’ ”
When he moved out to Los Angeles five years later in 1985, he had already developed a reputation for being an aggressive, savvy agent with an eye for uncovering ethnically diverse talent. He and a former colleague rented a one-bedroom apartment a block from Mann’s Chinese Theater.
But he almost didn’t last. His aggressive cold-calling, so suited to New York, rubbed people in LA the wrong way. Figuring he’d be fired the next week, he had one last great weekend. When a paparazzo photographed him reuniting with his old friend from Studio 54, the model who had shot to stardom as the object of Michael Jackson’s affection in “The Way You Make Me Feel” video, his world changed again.
Herb Ritts called on Monday asking for his advice on a model he’d become fascinated with. The phone call evolved into a close friendship. (Ritts ended up photographing him for a Gap ad a few years later.) Albertto’s relationships with Ritts and legendary fashion photographers Bruce Weber and Mario Testino ensured that his models were front and center in the major campaigns and fashion editorials of the ‘80s and ‘90s. He is credited with breaking some stars of his own, including actors Djimon Hounsou and Tyrese Gibson. It was the golden age of massive advertising and editorial budgets where pages and billboards were dominated by an elite few.
“You had to earn your right to be called a supermodel,” he says. “Those girls worked their ass off to become supermodels. They worked with the masters and created beautiful, iconic images that will be remembered forever. Who does that now?”
He struggles with the low bar applied to photography these days and rolls his eyes at the power of social media influencers. But he still consults brands, and he still has an eye for talent. Four days a week he runs up the switchbacks of Runyon Canyon and has a couple of standing basketball pick-up games every Saturday. And though he loves the old stories, he’s wary of having them define him.
“I don’t want to talk about ‘back in the day.’ It was cool, but if I’m going to stay relevant in my industry I can’t be an ‘old dude’,” he says. “I can’t be. I don’t want to settle. I don’t want to go to your house and play chess. I don’t golf. I’d rather go to the hood and play ball. I want to talk shit on the court…”
Then there’s his almost weekly visits to Giorgio’s, an LA nightlife institution at The Standard Hotel. But he goes there mainly to socialize with his friends. To dance, he slips out with a younger set, often the sons and daughters of former clients.
“It’s just exciting. I’m fascinated by how fast things happen,” he says. “Wednesday I’m going to an escape room. I don’t know what it is, but I’m going to try it! ‘Fuck it! Let’s go check it out!’ That’s my life, you know…”