CINCINNATI — It probably should come as no surprise that Shadia Haddad gave professional modeling a whirl after leaving the University of Illinois in 2001 with a degree in marketing.
From an early age, it was apparent that this former Illini volleyball standout was born with a fashion runway gene.
“I was always into clothes, and I always demanded specific outfits to my mom that I wanted to wear every day,” Haddad said this week.
Janet Haddad was happy to oblige, taking daughters Shadia and Jeanine on shopping excursions in the Cincinnati area from the time they were toddlers.
“We would go and buy lots of clothes, and then we’d come home and try them on and model them for my dad,” Shadia said. “So I was probably modeling clothes from the time I could walk, I think.
“I always loved doing that, and my mom made it fun.”
Later, Haddad became a member of a shopping mall’s Teen Advisory Board. One of the perks was modeling the latest clothing styles available at the mall stores.
“It’s kind of something I was always interested in growing up,” she said.
Soon enough, however, other interests commanded Haddad’s attention, including sports.
She displayed a particular aptitude for volleyball, becoming the first player in Ohio history to play for four state title teams in that sport while attending St. Ursula High School. As a senior, she was the Cincinnati Enquirer Player of the Year.
Taking her talents to Illinois, Haddad became a fixture in the starting lineup by her sophomore year and finished her career No. 7 on the school’s all-time kills list and No. 6 in digs. In the process, the 6-foot outside hitter earned the Big Ten’s inaugural Defensive Player of the Year award as a senior in 2001, and she remains the lone Illini to receive that honor.
So, it was obvious that Haddad — who plans to be back on campus for tonight’s annual Illini Alumni Match — had game. Not always so obvious back then was her fashion sense, although former teammate Erin Virtue recalls that Haddad typically gave her attire more thought than the rest of the Illini.
“She was usually wearing ‘normal’ clothes a bit more than the rest of us,” said Virtue, now an assistant coach at Michigan. “Most of the team tooled around in our team sweats all day, every day.”
Her college coach, though, remembers times when Haddad would display the apparel flair that hinted at a possible future in modeling.
“Shadia was always a fashion-forward thinker and dressed accordingly,” former Illini coach Don Hardin said. “In my opinion, she had an eye for such things.”
Upon graduating, Haddad played professional volleyball for one season in Germany before putting her UI degree to use. Landing a position as an account manager with a Chicago steel company, she quickly proved herself and was entrusted with a number of major clients, including Whirlpool and Steelcase Furniture.
It didn’t take long, however, for Haddad to realize that the work world can have a Groundhog’s Day feel to it — a repetitive existence that’s so often an eye-opener to recent college graduates.
“I felt kind of trapped in my normal 8-to-5 job,” she said. “I’d get up. I’d go to work. I’d go home. I’d take the train. I mean, this is my life every day.”
Then, one day, Haddad happened to reconnect with a friend from the UI. Marcus Smith, a former Illini baseball player, mentioned that he was working as a model and encouraged her to contact the Elite Model Management agency in Chicago. Haddad followed through and, after an audition, walked out the door a model.
“The runway coach thought that I would be a good fit for the agency,” she said.
Haddad kept her day job, going to casting auditions when possible during lunch hours or after work. Problem was, “most of the time, those are during the day,” she said.
After being hired for a few modeling jobs — and growing increasingly restless in her full-time job — Haddad decided to take the plunge. In December 2005, at age 25, she moved to Miami to devote all her energies to a modeling career. For Haddad, it proved to be a rude awakening to the realities of the business.
“It made me realize why I don’t like modeling,” she now says.
Haddad immediately discovered that hirings were highly subject to the whims of casting directors. As an athlete — as well as in private business — Haddad was accustomed to being judged on the merits of her work. In modeling, her job prospects were at the mercy of arbitrary preferences.
“You look how you look and you can’t change that, and some people like it and some people don’t,” Haddad said. “So all you can really do is work out and keep your body in shape, and other than that, there’s not a lot more to it.
“So I felt like I wasn’t so much in control of my own destiny. And a lot of the models that are successful, they just happen to meet someone that really likes them.”
Haddad’s distinctive appearance — her father George is of Israeli-Arab heritage and her mother is half-Lebanese — also could be a determining factor in whether she was hired, although she never sensed those decisions were based on racial discrimination.
“That happens to all models no matter what they look like,” Haddad said. “Sometimes the casting directors want a curvy blonde or sometimes they want an ethnic-looking woman. I found that when I was in Chicago I got more work because that is the Midwest and they wanted more ethnic-looking girls more often because there weren’t as many of us. I got cast for a runway show for an Indian designer because I looked ethnically ambiguous enough to pass for Indian.
“However, when I was in Miami it was quite the opposite. There is a large Cuban influence down there, so there are lots of darker-complected girls so it seemed as though the casting directors wanted blondes who were 5-9. I was actually too tall for most jobs in Miami, which was surprising to me.”
Unlike the U.S. fashion capital of New York or similar sites abroad, most Miami castings didn’t demand the waif look. That worked to the benefit of a former athlete like Haddad.
But Haddad also felt a sense of isolation in Miami. She typically had little to nothing in common with other models.
“A lot of these girls had done nothing but model since they were 14, 15 years old, and me starting at 23, 24, that’s actually really old,” Haddad said. “I’d always thought of myself as a jock and I never had that model upbringing that a lot of these girls had, and so I didn’t really fit in very well because I was very used to being able to work hard for my goals — in school or in sports or whatever it is. But modeling is completely different.”
The erratic work opportunities and the uncertain income flow were isolating, too. Expecting to escape the restrictive work life she’d experienced in Chicago, Haddad instead found “I actually felt less freedom modeling because, first of all, you don’t know if you’re going to get the job. If you do, you don’t get paid until a few months after the job is over, so it’s really hard to budget. So I never wanted to do anything because I never knew when money was coming in. I felt less freedom than when I was chained to my desk in Chicago.”
After about a year in Miami, Haddad moved back to her hometown late in 2006, doing one more modeling job before calling it a career.
Now 32, Haddad is drawing a regular paycheck these days as a financial adviser for Merrill Lynch while enjoying her free time by attending sporting events, playing sand volleyball and tennis, and traveling.
Knowing what she knows now, would this one-time model have done things any differently? Not a chance.
“I have no regrets about that whatsoever, just because it’s something I always would have wondered, ‘What if?’ ” she said. “I’m glad I tried, and I realized I didn’t like it for a number of reasons. It didn’t fit my lifestyle and who I am and my goals of the future.
“But I had a lot of fun, and I was ready to move on.”
Familiar faces back in town
The 2013 Illini volleyball team will make its public debut Saturday night in the annual Alumni Match. What fans need to know:
When: 7 p.m.
Where: Huff Hall
Admission: $5 for public, $2 for youths (18 and under), free for UI students with I-Card. All seats general admission. Proceeds benefit the Illini Networkers support group.
Parking: A limited number of spaces will be available at the Huff Hall paved lot. The grass lot to the immediate south of Huff Hall will not be open.
Format: Best-of-five sets
Alumni (subject to change): Johannah Bangert, Vicki Brown, Hannah Deterding, Rachel Feldman, Kelly (See) Finet, Amber (Lindner) Frykman, Shadia Haddad, Hillary Haen, Mary (Coleman) Hambly, Erin Johnson, Annie Luhrsen, Kylie McCulley, Laura (Haselhorst) Mueller, Tayler Onion, Kristine (Anderson) Rousseau, Colleen Ward, Jackie Wolfe
Post-match: Team autograph session