When Maria Sivakova Li, a.k.a The Little Model, walked in it was hard to miss her for even a moment- bubbly and enthusiastic she took a seat at the table confidently vocal about the message she wanted to convey in the interview. Her excitement didn’t depend on being able to talk about herself, rather sharing her experiences with readers and hoping to inspire them while also offering a look into the hard work that goes into the seemingly “perfect” life of a social media content creator. This petite girl packed a powerful opinion that came off as not only relatable but like a motivational powerhouse, the type of person who would be your loudest cheerleader before even knowing you, with a striking honesty that made it impossible to hide behind insecure small talk. As the conversation carried on she was more than ready and willing to dig deep and talk to ups and downs of the fashion and social media industry, both of which she’s spent long enough in to gain a following of over 90k people who admire her sense of style and more importantly her positive message of self-acceptance.
It’s a big move to come from Russia to New York to follow a fashion career- how did you manage to get into this business and decide on making the big move to another country?
I’ve been modeling for the last 6 years, I started in Russia and before modeling I got my master’s degree in public relations so I had this great experience being able to work for Chanel in Moscow as a PR manager and I also worked with Fashion Week in Moscow assisting the producer. Working behind the scenes so much made me realize how much I really wanted to do something in front of the camera. I had this modeling dream since I was little and let insecure thoughts get in the way- I’m not tall but why not try anyways? I aimed to try to do commercial work maybe- I was very afraid to admit this was a dream of mine knowing I had such a disadvantage. But the desire to get into modeling just never went away- I couldn’t keep denying it so for my own sake I had to try and I really dreamt of this life of modeling in New York. I tried to focus more on believing in my own abilities despite the pressure to fit the standard “model mold”. I had to learn to deal with the stress and the stereotypes and overcome them by always focusing on the fact I was pursuing my biggest dream.
What was it that you were so afraid of?
The fear was really in that not only am I not tall enough but I’m not at the age most people start. A lot of girls start very early on around the age of about 12 or so. When I was around that age my mom thought it was great but also worried it would destroy my future and that I needed to focus more on my education- her focus was on making sure I was a “smart girl”. I wasn’t able to try it out until I finished college, I was now an adult capable of making that call for myself and I wanted to give my dream a chance at least.
When you came to New York how was it trying to break into modeling?
To be honest, coming to New York I had in my mind that I would become this big high fashion model, find a major agency to sign me, and with my determination and work ethic I’d have all this success. I came to New York with just this dream and a tourist visa and right away jumped into going to all these major agencies for castings. Instead of finding success, I was rejected over and over because of my height and also my broken English. I was also stubborn, had no money, and no longer had the great contacts in the industry that I had in Russia. I spent a lot of time broke living on couches and it was a blow to my confidence.
It must’ve been hard picking yourself back up from that, but clearly you did. What changed for you?
I realized I could be more than just a model, with my experience I could be not only the face in front of the camera but the brains behind it pushing my dream forward. My new focus became learning new skills, building my own brand on social media, networking tirelessly- I became my own agent, my own business. I was posting the behind the scenes looks and all about my life on Instagram and people enjoyed it and I started getting more followers. Dragging myself out of that terrible pit meant discovering my independence and making things happen for myself without relying on the fantasy of an agency doing it all. It’s never as easy as you think it is, but it’s also not impossible.
Do you see agencies being outshined by social media these days?
I think that agencies are great for big projects but there are so many other things you can do through social media that agencies don’t have control over or that you could do better on your own through things like YouTube and Instagram. The industry is changing and it’s changing because now people don’t want to be represented by agencies as much they would rather represent themselves or have someone they trust represent them. There are brands that will just reach out to you directly- major brands- that will just message you on Instagram. That’s how I partnered with Bobbi Brown for their international “Be Who You Are” campaign which was such a big deal for me, they liked the message behind “The Little Model” and reached out.
So, what does “The Little Model” mean to you?
The Little Model brand is meant to inspire people without pretending the road to accomplishing your goals will be easy. It exists to tell people the climb will be difficult, even without all of the issues surrounding women’s rights, body shaming, sexual harassment, and others plaguing the fashion industry today. But the road is worth it because the lessons you learn along the way will serve you for a lifetime. Maybe someone wants to be a model or an actress but is afraid of taking that first step, I created this brand and called it “The Little Model” not because of my height necessarily but more for promoting following your dream by taking it into your own hands and working for it. I’m happy I can support people; a lot of girls reach out to me afraid to pursue their dreams but say I motivated them to fight that fear and that’s a great feeling to know I helped someone by giving them the positive push they needed.
What other recent projects do you have going on?
I work with Adore Me where I represent their petite models and they really promote self-acceptance and have models of all sizes working with them which is important to me. Petite Studio NYC and I also work together, we shot a video where I was able to talk a lot about myself and how I incorporate their pieces into my personal style. It was a fun idea and I loved working on it with them.
It’s easy to see on social media you’ve done a lot of traveling- tell us a bit about your globetrotter lifestyle and how it defines you.
I was born and raised in Russia but I never felt completely Russian, I felt different growing up. For one, I looked different, my mom is half Chinese and my father is Finnish and I felt this connection with people when I traveled abroad and explored Europe with all its diversity. Nowadays I spend most of my time in the United States since moving here, but I’ve traveled to around 16 countries around the world. I also lived for a time in Paris and in Italy, and I’ve been living in New York for about 4 ½ years so far and still loving it- there’s no other place like it, you can experience so many cultures here. You meet so many interesting people and you never get bored.
Being on social media so much, is it ever hard to put on this face for your followers who connect you to this picture-perfect lifestyle they dream of?
Looking at Instagram every picture is perfect because we make it that way, it’s not always easy. Many days you get up and you’re tired and you feel not so confident in yourself or how you look but you have to push yourself through it. There isn’t really a choice in that, you have to do it. But your mindset changes when you are “in the zone”, you need to shoot outside and its cold but you tell yourself it’s not cold because you have to. And it’s funny because then there are days you won’t have anything set up, no shoots or articles to edit for my blog or even emails to send out, and I feel obligated to do something at that very moment because i feel guilty and want to be useful. So, it really goes both ways. Sometimes you don’t want to do the work but you force yourself, and then sometimes you want to work but you have nothing to do.
So how exactly do you “get in the zone” when it comes time to push yourself?
It’s like putting on role a lot of the times, almost like an actor. It’s something we all have to do regardless of what you do for a living and being a content creator is no different. You find that on switch and get to work.
There was a news story recently about an Influencer who asked a hotel to collaborate- trading her stay for advertising on her social media pages. In response the hotel publicly bashed her and made headlines around the world laughing at her. With the public shaming of influencers being common when news stories like this go viral, does it make you nervous about reaching out to pursue relationships with businesses?
I think that’s really sad honestly. People SHOULD collaborate and help each other to grow their businesses, I can’t see why not. And with things like Instagram and YouTube growing so much it’s important to be accepting of the times and how the market is changing. It’s great that people can collaborate and reach out to each other these days so easily. So many people ask how I started out and I started out the same way- reaching out to photographers and people to collaborate with. I think it should be encouraged, not shamed.
Honest question- you look at these influencers online and with many people the first question that comes to mind is, how do you always have a photographer on hand for these moments?
When I first started I had to pay for shoots sometimes, but if its something you are serious about you see it as an investment in your future. There are times you work with a photographer and you both have a different vision, when collaborating for free you wind up having to compromise or argue more to find something that works for both of you. I prefer when I get to work with the vision that works best for me, so investing in that and spending the money was worth it because I knew it’s what I wanted for my brand.
Any suggestions to people who are interested in traveling around the world while trying to be successful in their professional careers?
Find a way to integrate travel into your work. There are more and more ways to integrate your “career” with your dreams, whether it’s through picking up a camera, picking up some fashion styles, picking up some great food picks, anything and everything that can be shared to an interested audience that can benefit from what you have to share. It’s not easy, but if the heart desires it, the brain will find a way to get there
Location: Le Coq Rico
What’s your next move? What is next for you and your brand?
I would love to branch out and begin consulting more with brands, lending my creative direction to help them figure out their brand strategy and promote their growth. I love the excitement that comes from creating something from scratch, and it’s been great working with a lot of brands that allow me to express myself creatively.
Location: Le Coq Rico
Photography via Rachel Kuzma
Special thanks to Le Coq Rico