Lighting the Runway for Christ

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NEW YORK - New York's modeling industry may be the last place on earth you'd look for God -- at least that's the perception. But for some models, faith and fashion are extremely fashionable.

They're the beautiful people you see on billboards, runways, magazines and TV commercials. They're models, and New York is home to thousands of them.

In the early '80s the modeling doors blew off the hinges for Jeff Calenberg, who calls himself a life-long Christian.

Jeff had been traveling throughout Europe and decided he'd try to make a few bucks so he could keep traveling, but God had more in store for him than he realized.

"And He really challenged me to realize that this was a dark place, a very dark place where there was very little light shining of Him and if I were to follow his path it was to be a light within that industry and to establish a light for others to see," Calenberg told CBN News.

So, Calenberg started out on his mission by starting a group called Models For Christ. At first, it was just Calenberg and one other model.
They created a little pamphlet which was designed to be a tract just for models. After two years in Milan, the "model" missionary moved back to New York where he met Laura who was a fellow Christian model. They hit it off and Models for Christ took off as well. They later married, but before that they started a weekly Bible study in Laura's apartment.

"This was a place where people could come and you know be challenged but be accepted and be understood. I think people were drawn to that because they enjoyed the industry, but they were struggling with can I be in it and be a believer," Laura Calenberg remembered.

CBN News asked Jeff if as a Christian in the modeling industry, were there ever times he had to say no to certain ads?  

"I had to decide, listen, I don't do alcohol endorsements, I don't do cigarettes. When an agency realizes that you don't do that, they begin to say, well, why? He must really believe something if he doesn't do that," Jeff said.

One of the signs of success for a model is being on a billboard in Times Square. Most models will tell you that's about as big as it gets in the modeling industry. Yet the Calenbergs and others involved with Models For Christ will quickly add that even this level of success doesn't fill the void that can only be filled by a relationship with Jesus Christ.

"What matters is being with Jesus, is spending time with the Lord," Model For Christ Brandon Davidson said.

The 28-year-old is living the model's dream. He's done the runways in Paris and ad campaigns for clients like Ralph Lauren. A Christian since the age of 14, Davidson says modeling just fell into his lap back in college, and eight years later, despite the temptations of the industry, is certain this is where God wants him.

"What might look like the most dangerous place a Christian can be is the safest place if that's where the Lord has called you," Davidson said.

Genelle Willanger's story is a little different. A top model with New York Model Management, she was not a Christian when she first got into modeling 11 years ago. Like many in the industry, she got caught up with drugs, alcohol and at times, struggled with an eating disorder.

"I was doing Maxim covers and I was doing just a lot of work that's degrading towards women and at the time I thought this is what I have to do, I'm not worth anything more than my body or my face or whatever," Willanger reflected. "When I got saved, I realized that that's not who I am, that's not who I am, I don't have to do that, I don't have to settle for that."

Genelle decided to risk losing her modeling career and let her agency know she would no longer do risque ads; but, before she could even tell them something amazing happened.

"And they said, 'I hope you're ok with this. We don't want you to do sexy anymore. We want you to have more of a wholesome look.' So, I was like 'sure, yeah, I'll definitely do that' but that was God's grace."

Soon afterwards, she landed a dream shoot in Alaska for Izod.

"Where I'm fully clothed, dignified on a mountain and just feeling the Lord, it was an amazing trip because I just knew that God brought me there," Willanger said.

She gave her testimony at a recent MFC dinner in Manhattan. About 100 people in the fashion industry including models, agents, make-up artists, and photographers gathered for a night of food, fellowship, prayer and a story of one model's road from the pit of despair to a brand new life in Christ.   Modeling agent Tony Vavroch told us MFC provided the safe haven he was looking for in the Big Apple.

"I was feeling isolated. I didn't really feel that I fit in any Christian church culture in New York; and, I didn't really fit into the pagan world culture either of the fashion industry. MFC sort of brought it together and exposed me to people who are believers as well," said Vavroch, a Senior Agent for Elite.

Now in their 40's with two children, the Calenberg's still model but are more interested in seeing younger models find hope, healing, and salvation in Jesus Christ. They're grooming married models Christina and Shane Nearman to take over the reins for the next generation of runway witnesses.

"We'd love to eventually have a space here in NYC that would act as a model's apartment, a safe place for people to come, Christians and non-believers because we know that by loving them well, they'll see who Christ really is," Shane said.

Although the Nearman's have both modeled successfully for years, they say their main calling is to be missionaries in the modeling industry.

"Jesus went to the ungodly. So, He hung out with the sinners and He healed and He loved on them. And people said, 'How can you do that? You are so unreligious,' you know? But He loved them and God loves the people He creates. God loves models!"

MFC has also started prayer groups in Los Angeles, Miami, and Paris.
*Original broadcast, July 27, 2007


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CBN News
Wendy Griffith

Wendy Griffith

CBN News Anchor/Reporter

Wendy Griffith is a Co-host for the The 700 Club and an Anchor and Senior Reporter for the Christian Broadcasting Network based in Virginia Beach, Virginia. In addition to The 700 Club, she co-anchors Christian World News, a weekly show that focuses on the triumphs and challenges of the global church. Follow Wendy on Twitter @WendygCBN and "like" her at