Summer Bellessa spent her youth living in Paris, Japan and New York as an international model. So it was an easy transition for her then to start Eliza, a magazine for “women who want to be stylish, sexy, and engaged in the world while retaining high standards in dress, entertainment and lifestyle.” Now as a new mom, she’s shifted her talents to producing and staring in a variety television show with American Idol alum, Brooke White, while continuing to be a representative of her faith.
I was born and raised in Chicago Heights, Illinois, which is south of the city of Chicago. My parents are converts and my mom started me in modeling when I was four. She had a girlfriend who was also putting her kids into modeling and they thought it would be a fun thing to do together. My mom didn’t have any experience in the industry, but she is a very capable woman. She can figure things out very quickly and she’s a go-getter. She definitely has a lot of energy and is always a great worker.
When I was young, I did catalogues and magazines and even runway shows. I was also in five or six commercials, including one for McDonald’s. One of my favorite shoots was for the Sears Wishbook, which was a five hundred page catalogue. I would tear out the pages of products I liked and put them together for Santa. It was fun seeing pictures of myself around town, but, even more, I loved the excitement of the city. My mom would keep it interesting by taking me to the Art Institute or the Rock’n’Roll McDonald’s after shoots. I have great memories with my mom, exploring the city, going to auditions, and enjoying the amazing food Chicago has to offer.
When I was seventeen, I started modeling full time. I worked in Tokyo, Osaka, and then Paris. I mostly went during my breaks from school, until I graduated from high school early. My teachers would let me take extended breaks, or would give me special assignments. For example, for my English final I had to write a fifteen-page report on the differences between Japanese and American culture while I was living there and experiencing it.
Do you have siblings?
Yes, I’m the oldest of five kids. My mom and dad managed as best they could with five crazy kids.
My mom tried to get my brothers and sisters into modeling but it just didn’t work out. If you don’t have the personality for it when you’re little, it’s really hard. I liked getting my picture taken. I was a calm kid. My siblings have more energy and so they weren’t as good at modeling, even though they were adorable kids.
My first trip to Japan, I was seventeen. I took three or four trips there, for two to four months at a time. I think my mom would have loved to go with me; however, we didn’t have a lot of extra money and she had the four kids at home, which just didn’t make it plausible.
Tell me about being an LDS teenager in the modeling world and about living alone.
My child will not be going to Japan alone when they’re a teen! I saw a lot of things in the modeling industry when it comes to sex and drugs that we probably shouldn’t have had to deal with at that age. At the same time, it was a hands-on classroom. I was able to experience the different lifestyles first-hand. I’ve had a lot of friends that I’ve seen go through really hard times and have issues with drugs or other things. It’s a hard industry and it can be difficult to make it through without succumbing to influences that aren’t healthy and aren’t good for you and your relationships. However, because I had the gospel I was able to stay anchored, stay grounded, and battle through without anything crazy happening. But it definitely is not an ideal situation. However I still really enjoy modeling. I love the travel and it’s always been fun for me.
Was there ever a time when you had to help a modeling friend through a hard time? What perspective did you offer your friends?
I would like to think I was a good example to my friends, and that I gave insight and wisdom to any situations they were going through, but I honestly couldn’t say. I was learning and trying to figure out what I believed in. I wish I had a stronger testimony sooner in my life. I did have a few girls that I worked with over the years who were impressed with how strongly I took a stand as to what I would and wouldn’t do in the industry, when it came to nudity. A lot of them felt pressure to do certain things, and to see me have success and make money without doing that, made them rethink their stance.
What was the most important spiritual factor that helped you stay grounded?
Every Sunday I knew I was supposed to be at church and I would get so much every Sunday from going. It would uplift me and enable me to carry on for the whole week. I’d say before my testimony was even super strong, I still knew that every time I went to church I gained something from it. And I think that’s what kept me going every Sunday, and I felt that anchor in my life, and so I never wanted to not have that. More then a particular lesson that I needed to hear, I had a feeling every time I walked into our buildings that this is where I should be, and I felt a love from my Heavenly Father and I needed that comfort, especially when traveling and being so alone.
Did you ever feel your modeling career was hindered by your unwillingness to do certain things or wear certain things? How did you handle that?
I have had many situations when my career has been hindered. I had one of the top photographers in the world tell me he would make sure I booked three upcoming huge jobs if I would just do a private nude session with him. Later in my life, I also had a successful producer offer me a role in his next movie if I would sleep with him. Unfortunately, it seems like those aren’t uncommon situations.
After Japan, where was the next step in your career?
I lived in New York when I was nineteen, and then in Los Angeles. I still traveled around and continued to model and do commercials. I met my husband, Kerry Bellessa, in Los Angeles.
So Summer Bellessa is your married name? It’s so perfect!
Yes, I know! My maiden name is Smith. Summer Smith. My modeling agents all wanted me to keep Smith cause it sounds so all-American. That’s the look I am. But I only use Summer Bellessa now. Anyway, I had a girlfriend living on my couch, and she went out on a few dates with a guy living on Kerry’s couch. And that’s how we got introduced to each other. And then he proposed to me a month and a half after that first date. And then we got married a little over a month and a half after that. We did not waste any time. He was going to film school at the time, at the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena. He directs music videos and commercials and he just finished his first feature film, Amber Alert, this year.
We settled down in Los Angeles and I kept modeling and acting. I was having a hard time finding clothing that was appropriate for auditions, that was fashion-forward, that made me look my best, and that held standards that I wanted now that I was married. So I decided to start a clothing line. And that’s actually how Brooke White and I met. I had a MySpace page, when MySpace was cool. She saw one of the dresses, and MySpaced me, “I love this dress, can I get one?” and we kind of emailed back and forth. I did these little things called ‘she-markets’ instead of a flea market, and I invited her to come perform her music. All my girlfriends who painted or made jewelry or were photographers would kind of set up in someone’s backyard and have a hundred, two hundred people come and buy stuff, and Brooke would be the entertainment. She would play some songs and sell her album. And then I started Eliza magazine and Brooke was on American Idol, so I put her on the cover and then we became best friends.
Tell me about the beginning of Eliza. Was it related to your work on these dresses?
Well, I was working with the youth program at church at the time, and so I started to look at the fashion magazines that I love from a youth’s point of view. I love the imagery in the magazines, the high quality and artistic photography, but when you look at them from a youth’s viewpoint you realize the image of women put out by those magazines is not a healthy one. I remember reading in a teen magazine an article entitled “How do you know if you’re ready to have sex?” And the answer was, If he could leave you the next day and you’d be okay, that’s when you know you’re ready.
And I thought, “What a backwards way to look at sex!” I felt like I wanted to put something out there that still had imagery that I was drawn to, that was feminine, that was pretty, that was artistic, but that show-cased women in a positive way. I wanted to show that women don’t have to be “sexed up” to be beautiful, and I wanted to include articles that had substance and were encouraging women to be their better selves.
Where does the name “Eliza” come from?
I am obsessed with Audrey Hepburn, and she played Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. I really like how that character is symbolic of a girl from nowhere, who was a flower girl, who had nothing, and with a little cultivation she was mistaken for a princess. I think all of us, no matter where we come from or who we are, with a little cultivation can look our best and feel our best.
What’s been the trajectory of Eliza since you started it? Did you have to get funding for it, or did you have to just bootstrap it yourself?
I pretty much bootstrapped it. My mom also gave me a loan to start it. I reached out to advertisers who wanted an audience with educated women, who wanted to be fashionable in a more classic way. We were in Barnes and Nobles across the country.
How have you been balancing Eliza with modeling?
Modeling definitely took a back seat. I think when you can use your brain and your talents for something, it’s much more enticing than just looking pretty for a picture. However, I still work with clients with whom I have built relationships. I do specific jobs that are worth it, financially.
And now you’ve added a new project to the mix, your web show, Girls With Glasses. Tell us about that.
Since the beginning of our friendship, Brooke and I have really admired each other and really wanted to work together… on something. It’s a funny story: Brooke called me a little under two years ago and it was the day my husband and I were leaving Los Angeles to move to Arizona. We’d packed up a U-Haul and were getting ready to go, when she called me and said, “Hey, I just want to get together and chat,” and I said, “Okay, let’s go to IHOP right now. I have like two hours, that’s it, before we’re getting in this truck and leaving.” And so we sat down and talked and she expressed that she wanted to work together and I of course wanted to work with her also. It’s funny because I normally wear contacts, and so does Brooke, but that day I had packed my contacts, and she had gotten something in her eye, and so we were both wearing glasses–and we were both wearing blazers and skinny jeans with ballet flats. And we thought that was so funny, that we were so matchy-matchy, and we just kind of were the girls with glasses. And so, the idea of Girls With Glasses came about. And we talked about doing some type of variety TV show, and we knew we wanted to take it in our own hands and start online, because it was something we could do realistically.
So between me coming to California for work or to visit family or her coming to Arizona to visit her family there, we do our videos, either there or here or other places we meet up.
What is your goal for Girls With Glasses? Where do you see this going in the next couple of years?
With Girls With Glasses our goal has always been to be on television. However, with the online market growing and projections of online content getting the same kind of ratings as television for advertising, we are really happy being online right now. We’ve had a few television networks and production companies reach out to us, but it just hasn’t been a perfect fit yet, partly because I have a baby now and Brooke is pregnant. But if we did find a perfect fit we would definitely move forward and be really excited.
I think when you become a mom, your priorities really change as to working, your creative outlets, and making sure that you are getting what you need out of them and not taking away from your family. My son is eleven months old now and motherhood has definitely changed the goals of my career. I wasn’t the girl at church always trying to hold everybody’s babies and I wasn’t “baby hungry” by any means. I really like being creative and working, so I wasn’t really sure how this whole thing was going to work. But I have been pleasantly surprised by how madly in love I am with my son Rockwell. I think part of that is because we did wait so long. My husband and I have been married for nine years; we started thinking about having kids years ago, but we just didn’t get pregnant for six, seven years. We didn’t know why I wasn’t getting pregnant, but we just felt like it would happen when it was supposed to happen. I think it did happen at the perfect time for us, so Heavenly Father knew what he was doing. I think because He made us wait so long, I’m smitten much more and love being a mom even more than I would have if it had been really easy for us.
I’d heard some scary stories from friends about how much I was going to have to give up so I thought, “Oh no, I’ve got to get ready to quit everything and just focus on being a good mom.” But I’ve been really surprised at how much I’m able to do and work, with Rockwell right beside me. He’s a well-behaved baby so I bring him on shoots and he makes it easy to keep going. He’s only almost a year, so that could change. Quickly. But I’m ready to adapt with it.
Do you have any further thoughts you’d like to add?
I definitely want to make sure I say I’ve made mistakes in my life and I’m grateful for the Atonement. I try to learn from my mistakes and be better, and try to be the best person I can be. In our culture, we sometimes sugarcoat things, especially when we talk about marriage. I tell people that sometimes life is hard and marriage is hard and sometimes we hate each other. Well, my husband always says, “Hate is a strong word,” but I guess we get on each other’s nerves. We have to think, “How can we work on this marriage?” But I think everyone feels that way at some point, and then you work through the situation and you’re grateful that you hung in there, and then you realize how small your issues are, how small your problems are when you work together and make progress in your relationship and your love for each other.
At A Glance
Marital status: Married
Schools Attended: SMC, UCLA
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Be Still My Soul”
On The Web: www.elizamagazine.com and www.thegirlswithglasses.com
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Portrait by Trever Hoehne and others used with permission.