By Dana Getz
With a lean, lengthy frame, radiant olive skin and flowing chestnut locks, Katie Cleary was a natural fit for the modeling industry. The Mediterranean beauty got her start as a child model in the Chicago area, eventually debuting her vixen-esque looks on the premiere season of America’s Next Top Model. She went on to land a four-year gig on NBC’s Deal or No Deal, later appearing on shows such as “Tosh.O,” “Rules of Engagement” and “CSI:NY,” as well as the films “The Break Up,” “The Lake House” and “Iron Man 2.”
After several years in the industry, Cleary found herself surrounded by a world where fur means high fashion and leather equals luxury—a challenging realization for a longtime animal lover. She quickly readopted her childhood efforts to rescue and aid animals, volunteering at shelters and joining animal rights protests. Cleary has since founded her own non-profit welfare organization PEACE 4 ANIMALS, launched a radio show entitled WORLDANIMALNEWS via TradioV! and is currently wrapping production on “Give Me Shelter,” an award-winning documentary covering a hodgepodge of animal rights topics. Pausing from her hectic schedule on an early Friday morning, Cleary chatted with us about the truth behind Top Model, her inspiration for “Give Me Shelter” and finding her voice.
What first sparked your interest in modeling and how did you go about pursuing a career?
I started out modeling when I was about 12 years old. Someone approached me at festival in Chicago and they asked if we were interested in doing some kid modeling. My mom said, ‘You know, if that’s something that you want to do then go for it.’ So we started; she would take me to auditions. And then I met Cindy Crawford shortly after that. I said, ‘Oh my gosh, this is my dream. I’ve always wanted to be a model, and a veterinarian as well.’ So I thought, ‘Maybe I can do both and be in entertainment and aid and rescue animals.’ So that’s kind of how I got started with that, and the first big thing I did was Top Model.
Why did you decide to try out for Top Model?
Well, I really didn’t know what it was all about. Someone sent me an email, and it’s weird—I got the email and all of a sudden I tried to check back to see who it was from and it was gone. It was really weird; it was the day before the deadline. I was in college, and I would always send tapes from college because I was in Wisconsin and I thought, ‘Who knows, maybe they’ll pick up one of these shows or whatever.’ So I would just send in audition tapes to MTV and stuff, and I really didn’t think anything of it, I just sent them the tape. Then Tyra called me back when I was studying for finals and I was shocked. I had no idea that they were even gonna call me, let alone Tyra. I picked up the phone while I was literally studying for finals, and I thought my friends were messing with me so I said, ‘You guys, stop. Why are you messing with me?’ And Tyra said, ‘No, this is really me,’ and I said, ‘No it’s not.’ And then she said ‘Pack your bags, you’re going to L.A.’ I was freaking out.
How was your experience on the show?
You know, it was interesting. It was an experience. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t bad. It was something that really kind of prepared me for entertainment. It was very interesting as far as, you know, having people telling you things you didn’t necessarily want to hear. It’s all for TV, too, so it’s not really about the modeling as much as they try to say that. Obviously they want viewers, so they’re going to try to make drama and have as many people with conflicting personalities in view. I think that’s something that was important, so it’s not really about the modeling as much as it is the drama.
Would you recommend it to other aspiring models?
I would, but I wouldn’t take it seriously. I would just kind of have it as a platform to get you started in the business, because a lot of people do watch the show and it has a tremendous following. So I would say if you want to get a jumpstart on your career it would be a good thing, but definitely don’t take the show seriously because it is about viewers.
How did your life change after the show?
It definitely gave me a bit of a platform to kind of go on to my next career move. I moved out to Los Angeles a couple years after and my first audition out there was Deal or No Deal. I had mentioned I was on Top Model and they loved it, they wanted some girls with a bit of a following. So I think that I got Deal because of Top Model, which was great. I was on that for about four years, and I did a travel show on HDNet in between, as well as a few other shows and campaigns while I was doing Deal. So it was cool. Then Deal gave me a platform to branch out and do the big stuff.
Do you still talk to any of the girls from the show? I know Adrianne Curry is from around the Chicago area.
You know, I haven’t seen her in a long time, but I talk to Shannon [Stewart]. I recently just got in contact with Nicole Panatonni, but that’s pretty much it.
You’ve also been in a couple films. Did you find acting to be a natural progression from modeling?
It’s interesting. Acting is much more of a challenge, but I think it’s good to be able to go back and forth from both because a lot of models don’t want to act. Modeling prepares you for acting I think, because you have to take direction, it’s really important to know your lighting, to know your angles, and I think that really is very helpful for acting.
When and why did you first get involved with animal rescue and aid?
I started rescuing animals when I was really young with my mom in Chicago, and I always knew I wanted to be a veterinarian. I was in entertainment, so I thought maybe I could try to raise awareness for animals through entertainment. So basically I thought, ‘Okay, well, the entertainment industry gives you a voice so start there.’ So I started working with places such as Shambala and the California Wildlife Center, and started raising money for them in awareness. And then we did the “Diamonds Not Fur” event for spcaLA to pass the “Fur Free” bill in West Hollywood because we found out that most of the fur comes from China, and much of it is dogs and cats because there’s no regulation. These animals are essentially tortured for vanity and fashion, which is ridiculous. So that was my first big campaign, it was with Betty White. I produced it for over a year. The second big event was “Stars 4 Stripes” hosted by Clint Eastwood’s daughter Alison to save the last 1,500 tigers left in India. It’s gotten to the point where we’re gonna lose a lot of these species, and our children might just have to read about them in storybooks. That’s what I’m trying to fight right now, and it’s an uphill battle.
It’s interesting that you mention how frequently animal products are used in fashion. Being in the fashion industry, do you find that challenging to deal with?
Yeah, that’s actually how I started the event with Betty White. I was at a photo shoot for a diamond company and the stylist gave me a fur vest. She said, ‘Okay, put this on with the diamonds,” and I said, ‘Absolutely not. I would rather go naked and wear the diamonds than the fur.’ I thought that was a great slogan, so I called my publicist and said, ‘What do you think about this? Do you think we should do something with this?’ And she said, ‘Yes, let’s go for it.’ So I planned the event without even realizing the fur free movement was in full force at that point, so I started going to the fur free protests and then the bill passed, which was great. I think it’s really about using your voice and knowing what’s right and what’s wrong, and not being afraid to speak up. A lot of girls will just go with the flow because they need a paycheck or they don’t wanna ruffle any feathers, but really it’s our job as models because we’re putting our reputation on the line for a product or a company. So you have to use your voice, you have to speak up, because if you’re in their ad or commercial or whatever you’re representing the product and you’re tarnishing your brand. So I encourage people to speak up.
What was your inspiration for the “Give Me Shelter” documentary?
I woke up one day and I thought, ‘There’s all these issues going on right now with the ivory trade, tiger trade, puppy mills, dog fighting, etc. I get hundreds of emails a day about these issues, something needs to be done on a grand scale, and it needs to be done now.’ So I said, ‘Okay, well why don’t I just call a bunch of my friends in entertainment that love animals and see if they want to be a part of a documentary?’ So I called Tippi Hedren, Allison Eastwood and a bunch of other people that are really big animal advocates. We started doing interviews at my house, interviewed over 40 people—we had over 72 hours of footage from all of the big animal organizations together—and talked about all these issues. We’re almost done editing; we’re doing all the sound mixing right now which is awesome. It should be out in October, fingers crossed. So that was really the inspiration, just using all of the knowledge I’ve gained over the years to really try to get it out there and tell a story about how we need to change as a species, and to be a voice for all these poor animals that are losing their lives.
What do you hope to accomplish with the film?
I would say number one is definitely raise awareness, and number two is change people’s views on animals. The number one question I get asked is, ‘How does one person make a difference?’ And I say, ‘Well, it’s easy. I’m one person, and I’ve made a tremendous difference.’ But I’m in the entertainment industry, so for people at home it starts in their own backyard. So whether you want to volunteer at a shelter or a sanctuary or a rehabilitation center, or even in your backyard have plants that a lot of animals are attracted to—you could have a little garden for animals to come and actually eat certain vegetables in your yard. So there’s little things you can do. A lot of people just don’t know where to start, and I totally get it, it can be very overwhelming, but you can pretty much Google anything.
How was the experience of producing different from anything you’ve done before?
You don’t have to take direction from anyone, which is great, and you make your own plot line and you make your own time. You have all the creative ability to really kind of run with the project, which is great because I’ve never had that before. So I think that that’s so unique. I’ve had it with charity events I’ve produced, but never on this scale.
You’re involved in so many different projects. How do you handle all the stress?
Oh my God, it’s stressful from the moment I wake up unfortunately. I have a lot of coffee, and I do yoga. I started meditation, which seems to be very helpful, so I’m really hoping to continue to meditate and be able to take control of all the projects that I have so I’m not manic. But it is a lot of work, sometimes I feel as if I’m doing the work of five people—but it’s worth it.
Since your career interests are so varied, what type of work do you ultimately want to be doing?
I would say my goal is to produce and host, so I’m trying to work with a couple networks right now and pitch a couple animal-related shows that I would also be the host for, and possibly doing more documentaries.
If you hadn’t gotten involved in the entertainment industry, what do you think you would be doing?
I would be a veterinarian. I would definitely work with animals; I know that that’s my calling. I can’t explain it; I just knew it when I was as young as five or six-years-old. And then I thought, ‘Well, maybe if I’m a model I can raise awareness for animals that way.’ Which is crazy, I don’t know how I was thinking that at such a young age. Being a veterinarian takes so much school, and school’s not my favorite subject. Although it’s very important to get an education, and I did get a degree in business and marketing, I think that there’s several other ways besides being a veterinarian or a zoologist to help animals, so that’s what I’m trying to do.
Lastly, since you’re from Chicago, what’s your favorite thing to do while in the city?
I’m actually heading there tomorrow for the first time in a year. I love seeing my family and my friends, I love going downtown to a couple of the cafes on Rush Street, and I love going shopping on Michigan Avenue.
“GIVE ME SHELTER” IS SET TO BE RELEASED THIS FALL. WORLDANIMALNEWS WILL RETURN TO TRADIOV! SEPT. 5 AND CONTINUE EVERY THURSDAY AT 11 A.M. PST.