“I’d always wanted to be a writer…but modelling and acting seduced me for a while”: The story of Janis Levy, the most famous face on TV whose name you didn’t know

Published by Scott Challinor on November 26th 2021, 8:08am

Janis Levy has led a remarkable life. Having intermittently modelled from the age of four, victory in the Face of London competition in her teens and a life-changing encounter with John Frieda culminated in her starring as the iconic Cadbury Flake girl and enjoying a 14-year Hollywood career. Coming face to face with the lady herself, The Leaders Council looks back on Janis’s unique life and career and explores how she eventually came to swap the glitz of showbiz for the glamour of Hair Development - the family business founded by her late beloved father, Stanley - of which she remains Creative Director today.

In this opening chapter exploring Janis Levy’s life, we delve into her days growing up in and around the family firm, Hair Development, and how she came to be cast as the iconic Flake Girl which would send her on the way to stardom.

The family business has always been a major part of Janis’s life. In her early years as a little girl, despite her modelling career beginning from the age of four, she would often be found in the shop sitting under the hooded dryers with her hair in rollers. Indeed, it was there that a chance happening led to the meeting with John Frieda that would change her life forever.

Janis won the Face of London competition at the age of 14, and shortly thereafter, the wheels were set in motion for John Frieda to make his discovery of the teen, when he ventured into the salon to buy hair for his wife, Lulu.

Frieda visited the salon with Marion London, Lulu’s manager, and when he saw a photograph of Janis on her father’s desk, they asked for his permission to meet her.

“My mother and I went to John Frieda’s salon on New Cavendish Street to meet him. As John was pulling sponge rollers from my hair, the other stylists and juniors crowded behind him, some of whom included Nicky Clarke, Trevor Sorbie and Michael Van Clarke, and as John combed out each tiny ringlet, my hair just began to expand into an abundant cloud of strawberry blonde curls. At that point, John looked at me in the salon mirror and asked: ‘Do you want to be a model?’, and I just shrugged and said naively ‘yes, sure’.”

With that, although she may not have known it at the time, Janis’s showbiz career was up and running. John quickly arranged a test session with renowned photographer John Swannell, who was commissioned to photograph Her Majesty the Queen for her Golden Jubilee. Famed sought-after make-up artist, the late Paul Gobel, had flown in from New York City and did Janis’s make-up and Frieda did her hair. Needless to say, the shoot was a resounding success.

“I was still daydreaming about the gorgeous lipstick Paul had used, YSL 19, when suddenly there were agents who wanted to represent me,” smiled Janis.

“John introduced me to Marion’s sister, Felice Bognor, the former manager of Jean Shrimpton, who would become my manager. Bobtons were chosen to be my agent. I had loved writing as a child, and always wanted to pursue that path…but modelling just sort of happened for me.”

Janis was soon assigned to her first modelling job, alongside famous make-up artist Barbara Daly who did Princess Diana’s wedding make-up, and acclaimed photographer Clive Arrowsmith, to shoot an ad for Kleenex boutique tissues, which would go on to feature in all the glossy magazines of the time, and demand for more work soon followed for then 16-year-old Janis.

“I left school at 16 and was tutored, but soon the workload took over.”

To be thrust into such a surreal lifestyle during one’s formative years, Janis feels that it could have been very easy to become consumed by everything that came with her early success. However, acknowledging her stable upbringing and the close relationship she always shared with her parents, she says that she owes much to her family for helping keep her grounded.

“I have always had a wonderful, stable family life, so despite being thrust into such an extraordinarily exciting world, my parents never let my feet get off the ground. They have always been so supportive, and I also had some wonderful friends.”

Janis’s humble nature did little to dampen her prospects. She soon found herself in even hotter demand, featuring in numerous TV commercials, magazine covers and campaigns for beauty and make-up, including names such as Miss Selfridge, Marks & Spencer, Miners and Elizabeth Arden. She was on billboards, buses, posters and TV…but it was landing the role as the iconic Cadbury’s Flake girl at the age of 17 which influenced Janis’s career the most.

“Everybody wanted to be a Flake Girl, it was such a sought-after job. I was just 17, had a bout of pharyngitis, and remember wobbling into casting director Jill Pierce’s office in blue cords and a fluffy jumper. They said the copy called for ‘a girl with short blonde hair in a white mini dress,’ but that when they saw me, they changed their minds and decided on ‘a redhead that looked like Bambi.’ They called me back for the second audition, I booked the job, and we were on our way to a 20,000-acre sunflower farm in South Africa.”

The Flake commercial, directed by Barry Myers, was to become the longest running Flake commercial of all time, and when contracts would typically run for three years. Janis ended up holding onto the role for nine years.

“When I first joined Equity, I wasn’t allowed use my name ‘Janis Levy’ because they had an actress with the same name who’d been on ‘honorary withdrawal’ for the last 20 years and was taking a break from the business. At the time I couldn’t use my middle initial either, so I had to come up with a new name quickly.

“I came up with Janis Lee to keep the Levy name in there somehow, then Janis Lee Burns and Janis Burns after that, because that was the other side of the family’s name which is why I have different names across various productions. It was many years later and different names across various productions that Equity eventually allowed me to use my own name. Consequently, Google had a hard time pinning me down!”

“The most famous face on TV whose name you don’t know” - Chat-show host Des O’Connor introducing Janis.

“I was recording live on the Des O’Connor Show to discuss the wonders of a Flake, and Des introduced me to the nation as ‘the most famous face on TV whose name you don’t know.’

“Every Flake commercial was a tiny little masterpiece, so beautifully filmed, they don’t make ads like that anymore, times have changed.”

Being the Flake Girl paved the way for Janis to appear in more than 50 commercials, including for Fairy Liquid, Toblerone, Sunday Mail, Boots, Nestea, Asda, TSB, Barclaycard, hair products, magazines, food, perfume, make-up and the Dubonnet commercial, shot by famous Hollywood director Tony Scott, but it was the Flake ad that caught the eye of the industry, and on the back of this success, the Grande Dame of casting, Maude Spector, who had cast Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet, secured Janis an audition for crime drama, Remington Steele, and she landed the part. Her casting in the show alongside Pierce Brosnan gave rise to a sequence of events that would propel Janis from London all the way to Hollywood.

“I flew to Malta to film the show. The producers of Remington Steele then convinced me that I should be in Hollywood and soon my agents at London Management had arranged meetings in Los Angeles. I flew to LA, my agent following me a few days later. I had the intention to stay for a month, then meet my parents in Hawaii for a family holiday before flying home to London.

“My agent took me to NBC, one of the major networks, I was called back to meet other executives and do a screen test.”

Within two weeks, NBC put Janis under contract, signed exclusively to them, in what would become one of the last ever studio talent-hold contracts. With the signing of that deal, what initially started out as a one-month sojourn would spiral into a 14-year stay in Los Angeles and a successful Hollywood career. 

Photo: Janis Levy starring in the iconic Flake ad. Photo provided by Janis Levy

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Authored By

Scott Challinor
Business Editor
November 26th 2021, 8:08am

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