An Unlikely Henry Higgins, Giorgio Piazzi, Teaches Model Behavior on a Maryland Farm

updated 05/30/1983 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 05/30/1983 01:00AM

Sometimes their mothers bring them, giggly and nervous, straight to the door. Or Fred the chauffeur, at the wheel of a navy blue stretch limousine, collects them at the Wilmington, Del. train station and whisks them to the 314-acre estate near Rock Hall, Md. There, on the mile-long dirt driveway that forks off Highway 445, they catch their first glimpse of Hinchingham. It is a rambling white brick affair, built in 1774, and, yes, George Washington actually slept there. The limo glides around the boxwood hedges and purrs to a stop, depositing the girls at the front steps. Like newborn foals, they are already appealing, with their long legs and flowing manes, but they are as yet awkward, untrained, unpolished. In just a week all that will change, if the new lord of Hinchingham has his way.

No longer the province of an entrenched Maryland landowner, Hinchingham is now the preserve of a high-powered Italian model mogul named Giorgio Piazzi. He has transformed the farm into a "cradle for the new international models," or so says his flowery brochure. It is called, simply, the Model Workshop. "I am the very first professor of modeling," brags Giorgio. "What I am doing is a little university for models—like Princeton. I want to create a new generation of models, professional people like lawyers, who won't owe anything to anyone."

Back in Italy, Piazzi, who admits to being 41, made his mark as the head of Fashion Model, an agency he founded in Milan in 1964. Over the years Piazzi has represented the likes of Cheryl Tiegs, Jerry Hall, Grace Jones and Tanya Roberts when they've worked in Italy. And now, once a month on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, he takes half a dozen eager young things between the ages of 16 and 25 for a week-long session and readies them for the fast-moving fashion world. Famous in the business for having "the eye," Piazzi sifts through hundreds of applications before settling on the lucky few.

Surrounded by photographers flown in from Milan and makeup artists and stylists skilled at dollying up green suburban girls, each new crop learns how to move in front of the cameras. Most important, they acquire their own "book," a portfolio of glossy color photographs taken in Hinchingham's studios (the former stables) or on location—on the beach, in the fields, in the cow barns. Such portfolios might take months to assemble for a rank beginner pounding the streets in New York.

The girls Piazzi thinks have the potential to make it big are signed to a five-year contract and sent to Milan to work for his agency. He often defers the course's $3,500 fee (only four girls so far have paid the full fee up front) until the models are earning enough to pay him back. Since the workshop started in March 1982, 31 out of Piazzi's 37 students have been sent to Europe. "I got a fantastic book in a short period of time," says Kathleen Breen, 21, one of Hinchingham's first graduates and the recent cover girl for half a dozen of Italy's top fashion magazines. "It really sped up the whole process."

Piazzi's workshop is all work and very little play. Drugs and hard liquor are banned. The trainees are kept on a strict diet—fresh fish and game (venison, rabbit and quail), much of it caught on the property, plenty of vegetables and absolutely no desserts. Up at 8 a.m., Piazzi keeps his girls in front of the cameras for six hours a day. Lights-out is 10 p.m. Giorgio's beauties sleep in a three-bedroom trailer, only 50 paces from the protective eyes of an armed caretaker.

Piazzi's high-priced workshop has its detractors, to be sure. Many modeling schools charge $1,000 for a three-month course. "Piazzi is an absolute joke," fumes Johnny Casablancas, head of the Elite modeling agency. "These kids pay, and on top of it they are stuck with a contract at the beginning of their careers. It just isn't worth that type of money. This is the kind of thing that gives the modeling industry a bad name." His colleagues' criticism may be tinged with envy, however. "I think what Giorgio is doing is terrific," comments Bill Weinberg, president of the prestigious Wilhelmina modeling agency. "I wish I had done it myself." Recalls model Julia Hull, 24, a Hinchingham grad, "I remember we said, 'Who is this Giorgio Piazzi guy?' But we learned a lot. It was great to be working with professionals."

The green fields of Hinchingham are a long way from Forlimpopoli, the small medieval town near Florence where Piazzi was born during the Second World War. Giorgio left school at 11 to help support his family when his father, Evaristo, a railway worker, developed cancer. In 1959 he moved to Rome, hoping to break into the movies. There he scraped together a living as a waiter. To survive, claims Piazzi, he ate stray cats he found near the Pantheon.

In 1962 Piazzi headed for London with his first wife, actress Rhea Richardson. There his luck changed dramatically. One night he stopped by a gaming club and began playing roulette and chemin de fer with a $2.50 stake. He left at dawn with, he says, $35,000 in his pockets. With the money, Piazzi took off for Spain, where he spent some time living with gypsies and learning flamenco. When the money ran out, Giorgio went to Milan and decided to start a modeling agency. His first office was a table in a local bar. These days Piazzi visits Milan twice a year to check up on his agency.

Every lord needs a lady, and Piazzi's latest is his third wife, Kire, 20. "I equate her with Lady Di," says Douglas Keeve, one of the workshop's photographers. "She has married a whole kingdom." Kire grew up in Aspen and was discovered by Eileen Ford when she was a 16-year-old ski instructor. She met Piazzi for the first time in New York the following year. "We had completely wrong ideas about each other," recalls Kire with a big smile. "I thought, 'Oh no, another playboy Italian.' He thought I was just another model out partying all night."

Last year their friendship shifted significantly when Giorgio invited her to the workshop to spruce up her book. "When Kire came down," Giorgio explains, "I was lonely. But I am also very serious, and I don't flirt with my models. But one day I saw her cleaning my saddle. She was wearing a miniskirt, and it was exciting. I went over to her and said, 'I think I can fall in love with you.' " Chimes in Kire, "It was incredibly romantic. It was like a novel. We rode together on the beach and went hunting in the woods. It almost sounds sickening, but it was beautiful." They were married this past New Year's Eve, and Kire is now pregnant with their first child. Giorgio has two sons—Alan, 20, and Robin, 16—by his first wife. He is currently involved in a bitter custody fight with his second wife, Jan Stephens (who runs the Washington modeling agency Panache), over his third son, Stefano, 5.

Midnight at Hinchingham. The students are all tucked in, getting their beauty rest. In the screening room the tireless professor scans the day's rushes. While the faces of the girls he hopes will become the next Christie Brinkley or Patti Hansen flash by, he reaches out to pat the household pet, Bimba, a tame fawn. (Bimba means "young girl" in Italian.) Once again Giorgio is gambling, this time on his reputation. "They say I am a rip-off. Too bad for them, to attack me," he says, puffing on his Dunhill cigarette. "I am doing something too good to be attacked. I am going to be the new starmaker."

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