Thousands of Instagram followers aren’t the norm and neither is being paid to have your photo taken, but for Kiana Gaona, it’s how she’s building her career.
Gaona, 21, is a working model who was born and raised in Victoria. She signed with the Blanco Agency at 18 years old and plans to officially sign with New York Model Management when coronavirus restrictions allow her to travel to New York City. She now commutes across Texas for photo shoots and auditions to break further into the field.
Much of her work is in the print and commercial modeling industry rather than in runway or pageants. Her photos have run in promotions with Toms Shoes, Whataburger, francesca’s and other nationwide brands, but it all started when she was still a shy high schooler at Victoria East.
When Gaona was a teenager, her mom responded to a Facebook post by local photographer Robert Gentry looking for new people to photograph.
“I didn’t want anything to do with it,” Gaona said.
She decided to go to the photoshoot and found that it pushed her out of her social bubble.
“I was so shy before I started doing all this stuff,” she said. “I was so out of my comfort zone, but once I got there, I was like, ‘I’m ready to do this.’”
Gaona worked with more photographers on more photo shoots while using her Instagram to help promote their work.
Instagram, a social media platform, allows people to post pictures and share them among more than 1 billion other monthly users, according to Statista.
Modeling agencies and marketing firms use hashtags to sift through Instagram for prospective models. Gaona used hashtags like #houstonmodels or #microinfluencer for brand owners, marketing agents or photographers to find her work before she signed to the Blanco Agency.
Texas’ market is competitive, Gaona said, but being based here still gives her the advantage of not competing with models in Los Angeles or New York.
On the flip side, she said bullying is an ugly side to using social media for her career.
“Starting out, it was so ugly to the point where I would come home from high school, and I would just bawl my eyes out,” she said. “That’s where the thicker skin came from.”
Developing that thick skin also helped Gaona stay committed to her career. Going to auditions she didn’t get a call back on became easier over time.
Casting agents are often looking for specific features to fit certain promotions. Having a unique look that Gaona said can fit all kinds of ethnicities has helped her break into new markets.
Often times, casting agents will ask Gaona whether she’s Asian, white, Hispanic or something else. Fitting into different cultures’ markets allowed her to pick up more jobs, like promotions with Dell in the U.S. and Brazil.
“At first, I was so sensitive,” she said of missing out on a part because she didn’t fit the requirements. “But once you’re around it for awhile, you get that thicker skin and know that it’s nothing personal.”
On the other hand, gigs requiring someone with darker skin, or other attributes Gaona doesn’t have, went to other models.
Gaona also said the modeling industry’s inclusiveness for different body types is at an all-time high, therefore creating a market for all kinds of body types.
“People will say ‘I’ve always wanted to take photos or do a photo shoot or something like that, but I feel like... I don’t have the look for it,’” Gaona said. “And I’m like, ‘what look are you talking about?’ Because I feel like anybody can do it.”
In the future, Gaona said she can imagine modeling as a grandma for promotions that require an older person.
“I really want to do it as long as I possibly can because it is so much fun being around people that are so creative, are so energetic, so positive,” she said.
As a longtime member of Faith Family Church, staying rooted in her faith also gives Gaona the confidence that God positioned her in an industry where being committed to one’s faith is hard to come by.
“God put me there in that same audition room, and I’m able to love on her ... I’m able to give her the love that he gives me,” she said. “I’m able to love on people that have probably never experienced that before.”
She has noticed others in the modeling industry that have dealt with depression, bulimia, suicide and other hardships.
“I’m able to extend kindness, forgiveness and grace out,” Gaona said of an industry she finds faith to be hard to come by.
Gaona advises others interested in the industry “do not compromise.”
Setting morals and boundaries, not working with “sketchy” photographers and be secure in who the Lord has called you to be.
Starting Black Friday, shoppers will have the opportunity to see Gaona’s work in stores nationwide and close to home.
Through a promotion with Dell, photos of Gaona will be inside Walmarts across the U.S., including her hometown of Victoria. Whether scrolling through Instagram, watching TV or out shopping, people might see more of Gaona’s face in the future, too.