Kevin Tan says it only took a year before he started calling Gisele “Gigi” Soto his godmother.
The 32-year-old actor and model has been represented by Soto’s talent agency since 2005, when he took a print job with the Marriott Courtyard Hotel. Since then, he’s appeared in more than half a dozen indie films and several TV shows – thanks in no small part to Soto.
“Gigi is a very loving person, she knows the business inside out, and she’s always there when I need her,” he says.
Tan — whose family immigrated to Columbia from Taiwan when he was 11 — is one of roughly 150 actors and models under the wing of Cima Talent Management, a boutique agency Soto has been quietly operating from Howard County for nearly 20 years.
Known as a “mother agent” — the middleperson who promotes and protects her talent’s interests with larger agencies — Soto, 56, has developed a solid reputation for finding beautiful faces and nurturing a familial relationship with the people she represents.
“Gigi’s my ‘momager,’” says model Courtney Hejl, a former Miss Maryland Teen USA who, at 32, has been with Cima half her life. “We consider ourselves actual family now; we even got puppies from the same litter.”
Soto moved to Columbia with her own family (in the literal sense, her husband Israel and daughter Tatiana) in 2000. Before that, she’d been working as a manager in the music industry representing a single artist.
She says acting and modeling is a more realistic calling than the music industry because “if you understand the business, there’s a lot of local work that can be done.”
Motivated by a simple desire to help others “get into the business the right way,” she grew Cima into a full-service agency, moving the studio to Ellicott City in 2012 and interviewing prospective talent by invitation only.
She stayed out of the limelight because, for her, “it’s all about the work”; glamour is not her reality.
But she says people will likely recognize Cima talent in posters at BWI Airport, or in ad campaigns for Black and Decker, Live Casino and Hotel, Fannie Mae, American Express, Center Stage and many others.
“I have to find the face that is not only beautiful but has the right personality and attitude,” she says. “If there’s a movie being done, or a TV show or a commercial or ad, that production or casting company will pick up the phone and call me and I’ll find the talent they need.”
Soto does her own scouting, takes on only a few new talents each season and grooms her models to understand finances, “what beauty is” and exactly how to present themselves as professionals.
“They’re in my college,” she says. “I have the most loyal models and I keep them working.”
Deya Dresner was a full-time fashion show producer in the D.C. area when she began working with Soto about 15 years ago. She’s hired Cima models, ages 17-35, for runway jobs at upscale venues such as the Washington Marriott Wardman Park and the now-closed Harriet Kassman Boutique.
“Gigi’s models have a level of professionalism and professional ethics that is superior to dozens of other agencies I’ve worked with,” she says. “She is the only person I’ll go to.”
Dresner produces an annual fashion show fundraiser for the Rene Moawad Foundation, most recently at D.C.’s Mandarin Oriental Hotel. She says Soto always provides solutions to last-minute changes calmly in high-pressure situations.
“She’s very easy-going and that’s very important in this business,” Dresner says.
Brion McCarthy, a Baltimore photographer, has hired dozens of Cima models in their 20s and 30s for campaigns as diverse as Black and Decker, DeWalt, Jill Andrews Gowns and 180s.
He describes Soto as a “huge-hearted human being” who raises her young models “wisely and healthily.”
“Gigi is rare; she’s out there supporting these people like a mom,” McCarthy says.
Just ask Lydia Garten, whose 21-year-old daughter Angela was discovered by Soto five years ago. Angela now regularly travels to gigs in New York City through Elite and has modeled for Este Lauder.
“Gigi is a like a sister to me, and she looks after Angela as if Angela were one of her own children,” Lydia Garten says.
That kind of support has proven valuable for model/actor Andrew Evans, 33, who says he quickly learned by commuting to New York City for auditions how easy it is to feel lost in the crowd. Signing with Cima has been much better for his career; he’s gotten a lot more work through the boutique agency.
“Gigi doesn’t sugar-coat anything and tells you exactly what you need to hear, and she fights for her people,” he says.
Evans recently wrapped up filming in a South Indian indie film, “Aniyankunjinum Thannaalaayathu,” with Bob Paff, a communications expert and media specialist in his 50s who also works as a model, actor and voice-over artist. Paff, who has appeared in his own local TV and radio segments, says he generally doesn’t audition for the gigs Soto sends him to, which speaks to the level of respect she’s earned in the industry.
“Every job with Gigi is really special,” he says. “The gigs I do for Gigi, I won’t always do for someone else.”
He calls Soto “his close sister from another mother,” adding to her already lengthy list of quasi-family.
Sometimes, the agency’s talents form close bonds with one another, too.
Kevin Tan recently finished a Fannie Mae print shoot with Marili Kateri Mejias, 34, a Cima talent who refers to him as “her brother” and predicts that Tan will be the next big Asian film star.
Mejias has also appeared in numerous films, on Fox’s “America's Most Wanted” and on “Fatal Attractions” on the Animal Planet network.
Soto scouted Mejias at the 2000 Best of Baltimore at Camden Yards where she was a choreographer performing as a back-up dancer.
“I like to call Gigi my aunt,” Mejias says. “We have a lot of trust in Gigi, not only professionally, but personally as well.”
After loving living in Howard County for almost two decades (her daughter, Tatiana, graduated from Howard High School), Soto recently moved to North Carolina and says she looks forward to managing Cima, now based in Columbia, from home.
“I’m a protector of talent, and I keep it real,” Soto says.