So You Want to Be a Model?
I'm gonna be a supermodel. I'm not talking Apex undie-boy, either. I'm going to walk the runways of Paris, my face the cover of fashion magazines worldwide. Women will want me, men will envy me, everybody will know me, like me, love me.As a culture, we adore supermodels, and I want in. To the collective us, supermodels represent the most and best everything the most beautiful, the most chic, the best dressed. Supermodels are rich and famous and beautiful, and they live beautiful lives, because worldwide we voraciously buy the magazines that they are in, or the clothes or zit cream or whatever they advertise. Best of all, it seems, supermodels are adored who wouldn't, if asked, go on a date with a supermodel? Now, if Yiddish were Latin, I might have "classical" beauty. As it is, I'm an attractive enough guy. Not the tallest, certainly. Okay, not even average height. Yes, a bit short, even but well proportioned, at least.Not boring, either. My features are...strong high cheekbones, full lips. Big features. Profile aside, I have the kind of features you might see on a model. Anyway, it's apparent that one mustn't have classical beauty to make it in the modeling world. Anyone (President Clinton included) who's seen any of the "heroin" models hip right now can tell you that perfection isn't necessary. What is is what semiotic spoil-sport Laura Mulvey calls "to-be-looked-at-ness" a person's ability to draw our collective gaze a bit longer than normal. I have always wondered if I have what it takes, if I, too, could join the ranks of the rich, the beautiful, the adored. Yes, I certainly am not perfect, but I might have the right kind of flaws to make someone look twice. Hell, have you seen the "Be" models Calvin Klein has been using lately?Time, then, to see if I could break into the business. I decided to try my luck with the six modeling agencies listed in the Rhode Island Yellow Pages. The first three I tried didn't pick up the phone, and although it seemed odd that a business wouldn't be open or even have an answering machine picking up its calls at 10:30 a.m. on a Monday, what do I know about the regular business hours of a modeling agency? Everyone could be out on some exotic shoot, for all I know. My fourth call was answered by a gruff male voice apparently awoken and annoyed. "You want Marky, so call back latuh," he said, then hung up. Again, 10:30 seemed like a reasonable time to call someone. I was beginning to get a bit wary. Could all of these agencies have phone problems? Could they all be out on exotic shoots? Or were they all just sketchy and asleep? I decided to trudge on, determined to at least find that much out. Besides, the next listing, for the Rhode Island Model Agency (RIMA), called to me."Beginners wanted," it said. And the phone was (mercifully) answered by a woman who asked for my particulars height (lied), weight (lied), eyes (brown), hair color (well...depends), jacket size (don't own one) and then told me to come in for an interview to "assess my potential." The agency, Part 1I admit, I had a hard time imagining that right there in Warwick was the "largest most successful Model Agency in New England," as RIMA's Yellow Page advertisement touts. And it was a bit disconcerting that there were no cars around what I assumed must be the bustling hub between Paris, New York, and LA.But then, among hundreds of photographs of lustily staring, heavily made-up models inside, I met Rebecca, a young Alyssa Milano-type brunette who'd be administering the first part of my assessment the runway test. Rebecca led me into a windowless room with a multi-level mock runway. On the way, she told me that she had been modeling for a few years and that she had been with RIMA from the start. She had gotten some work an Apex catalog and a recent commercial for something called "DuraGold.""Batteries?" I asked."No...it's this new kind of gold," she said. The test consisted of my walking up and down the runway, trying to look disenchanted, without at all looking down at my feet, even on the stairs, which was impossible. I did look, at least twice, each time gazing up apologetically at Rebecca, who still wrote "Good" on the little card she was holding.The first thing I would need was a "comp card," she said one or two postcards with three shots on each that showed my versatility. Rebecca directed me toward a wall of such cards and then, seemingly at random, pulled out those of a man named Paul think a sweaty, mean Gene Shalit with gray chest hair sticking out of his shirt. "This shows that Paul can go from very serious [Paul scowling], to an artsy type [Paul scowling in a beret], to someone who's just relaxed [Paul scowling wearing only red suspenders]. Of course, we can do this for you here." When I asked how much it would cost, Rebecca referred me to the actual agent. Donna, a large blonde woman with neon-blue eye shadow from lid to brow, said she wanted $825 for a 12-session modeling course. When I said that I couldn't afford that kind of money, she called me short, and suggested a five-session "intensive" training course for a mere $325. I was stunned. Surely the natural potential of someone who'd scored a "good" on their very first trip down the runway, who, in her own words, had "the cheekbones and the right build" merited a nurturing and, above all, free environment in which to learn the necessary skills. "Do you think you could put that up against future earnings?" I asked. Once outside in the RIMA parking lot, I considered my next step. I had two days before my next interview at another agency. Annette Donahue Models was the only agency I hadn't yet called on, really my last hope. If they wanted the same kind of cash, my prospects were quickly dimming. Posing for no oneModeling agency scams are widespread. So much so that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) put out a brochure dedicated to the subject. What they describe sounds uncannily familiar an agency looking for "all types" sets up interviews with prospectives, then asks the applicants to pay to "participate in classes...required before they [can] work as models." According to the brochure, if an agency also "requires you to work with a particular photographer, chances are the photographer is working with the agency, and they are splitting the fee." The FTC added that although "ads encourage people of all shapes, sizes, and ages to apply, opportunities for 'real people' models are rare." The Rhode Island Attorney General's office says basically the same thing. They warn of photographers who charged up to $1000 for photos that never came and of agencies that took loads of cash from people with really no modeling prospects.Keeping all this in mind, I eventually decided a couple of things about how to proceed with my own modeling career: First, I wasn't paying 800 bucks for classes. According to the FTC, a legit agency "may provide instruction on applying makeup or walking, but most do not charge you for classes."Second, I would find my own photographer. That way, even if an agency wanted me to take their classes, I could just throw down my portfolio and ask them, as an agency, to represent me based on these demonstrations of my photogenic abilities. The shootIn his small studio above a Thai fast-food restaurant on the East Side, respected fashion photographer Bob Caldarone schooled me about some other practices that go on in and around his business. "People will make you pay a lot of money before a shoot, and then they won't even have any film in their camera," he explained. "Or when you go back the next day, the storefront's empty, and they're long gone." Caldarone got quiet, pensive. "It really sucks, because there is so much negative stuff out there," he said. "It really hurts people like me, just trying to make a living. People get scared away from the whole business."To his credit, Caldarone wanted far less money to photograph me than RIMA did, or than the FTC had warned about. The only thing that sketched me out was when Caldarone, with a mischievous grin, told me to "bring props" to my scheduled appointment.The shoot itself was a blast, although Bob wasn't so keen on me doing the Kung Fu pose that I had been working on in anticipation. While big beats pounded over speakers hung from the ceiling, Caldarone coaxed my body into positions it wasn't obvious it could stand. Then he'd say "Beautiful, beautiful. Don't you dare move," as I struggled to even keep breathing.Caldarone worked slowly none of the clickety-click camera work that I was expecting patiently setting up each shot. Twelve of them took about two hours. Since I'd been intimidated by the whole props notion (what if I brought the wrong...kind? Would Bob think me a complete naf?), I hadn't brought any. So Caldarone, with the intent of changing my mood, dug out a silver suit, which he had me put on. "Oh yeah," he said, exuberantly barking commands. "You're a totally different person! Yeah!" I even thought I heard him say "work it" once or twice.When I went to pick up my shots, Bob was excited. There I was, straight on in one doing my best "Yo, baby" look, in another leaning forward a la Trainspotting. And you know, about four out of the 12 picture did look pretty good. Caldarone told me that "that's all you can ask for, in a short roll like this," that "we got some good stuff." "Really nice," he said.The agency, Part 2Confidence soaring from the photo shoot, I went to my next interview. The Annette Donahue Models agency is located in the suburbs in what is obviously Annette's house.The day I visited, there were, at least, cars lining the street outside. I figured there might actually be something going on inside a fashion show or photo shoot and there was: it seemed Annette was having a party. Little children ran about the house screaming and giggling, while unconcerned and middle-aged suburbanites lounged in another room. One woman introduced herself as Susan and quickly ushered me down into the basement again, a small, windowless room loaded with headshots of sultry looking, heavily made-up women. The walls without photos were covered with mirrors, off which bright rows of make-up lights reflected blindingly. The floor was covered by dirty white tiles, and on a small television a VCR played a shaky home video of a fashion show. I took a seat in one of five metal folding chairs in between a middle-aged woman and a girl of 17 who had, shocking as it may seem, even more make-up on than any of the women I had seen so far. Her mother accompanied her.Susan handed everyone an information packet, then asked us to fill out the personal info card in the back of it while she set up the presentation. "Mom," the girl next to me demanded, "it says, 'school or college.' ""Put 'school,' " her mother replied.The first part of the presentation got us acquainted with the agency. Susan introduced herself as the "Professional Make-up Artist" there and referred to herself in that manner at every possible moment (as in, "When I, as a PMA..." or, "As a PMA, it is important for me...") Susan, the PMA, showed us a whole book of their models at work maybe 15 out of the 20 or so ads that she showed us were for Apex. She also showed three campaigns from companies that were no more (Almacs's notorious "Get in the Race" television spot included) although she didn't imply any connection between the results and the agency. Susan told us all straight out that while it was true, certainly, that anything could happen, most of the work the agency would get us would be things like Apex and other promotional work dressing up and passing out product samples in malls and bars and the like. In order to do any of it, though, we would first have to complete their 11-week course, a description of which we could find on page two of our informational handout. For a mere $775, we would be transformed into professional models. Some highlights: Week 2: Wardrobe coordination; Week 4: Individual hand and nail care; all culminating in Week 11's graduation ceremony and fashion show for our proud relatives (refreshments included!!).In addition to all this good stuff, if any of our headshots (week 10 and an extra $82) came out particularly well, we would be included in the special "New Faces" circular a small poster filled by 44 minuscule headshots of the most promising new models in the agency's stable. To be on the poster, which comes out twice a year, one has to pay an extra $75, but the exposure, Susan told us, would be well worth it. My naturally frugal nature aroused, I did the math four classes by six students four times a year at $857 per, that comes out to up to $82,272 from classes alone. The extra 75 bucks each "New Face" forks over (44 "New Faces," twice a year) and you're at $88,872 all before the first actual job has been found, all before the juicy tax benefits of working at your suburban home, and way, way before any 20 percent has been taken out of earned model income.Later, I asked about skipping the whole classroom process if a quality portfolio was already made. Susan made it clear that training at their particular classes was quite necessary. "If we send you out on a job, we're really sending out our reputation," she said. "We want to make sure you aren't going to represent us poorly." "And what about me?" I asked her. "Do you think that I would have success, if I stuck with the program?""Oh definitely," Susan smiled. "With those cheekbones? No problem. We would want to do something with that hair, though." A seemingly disparate childhood memory leading directly to why this isn't quite the scam we think it isAfter Susan told me that I should sign up as quickly as possible, that it would be best for me to reserve my place in class with a $100 deposit, that I indeed could get a fair amount of work, she went up the stairs to interview another applicant.Alone, I sat in the basement/classroom looking at the lucrative New Faces poster and all of the Apex ads hung among the hair salon- type photos once again in a dark and windowless room, aspiring to stardom with people who, it was obvious enough to me, did not have star potential.When I was 17, I decided to learn how to sing. I made an appointment with a teacher, and when I went in for my first lesson, I found myself in a tiny room, windowless and wood-paneled. In it, a wispy, effeminate man with his pants up around his chest showed me a chart with a bunch of names at varying heights on it, mine at the bottom. "This," he told me, "is a progress chart." He gave me a book of children's songs, told me to sing them into a tape recorder, and left the room. At the end of our hour lesson, he looked at me and said, "David, you've done very well today. Even with that little instruction, you're a much better singer already," and with that he moved my name up two lines on the progress board.The next week I got to my lesson early, and as I sat outside the classroom, I could hear a woman's shrill voice inside, slaughtering each note that she attempted. When my lesson time came around, my teacher ushered her out and me in."That," he said to me, "is one of my most advanced students." He pointed to a woman's name at the very top of the progress board. "If you work hard, I can teach you to sing like that, too." After that lesson, I did not return. I felt bad, bad for that woman who was shelling out 35 bucks a week with a consistency born only of deep desire. I also felt bad for the instructor, who was most pitiful of all, sitting day after day in that horrible, windowless office. So, even though my first interview was with an attractive, Alyssa Milano-type brunette and even though I'd met a generally nice "Professional Make-up Artist" and not the pitiful wisp of a man whom I twice paid to teach me to sing, he was yet there: that man was still in the room with me at the Annette Donahue agency. His presence was looming, as it is a 1000 times and a 1000 times over in the countless small, wood-paneled, windowless rooms in which someone with mediocre talent tells someone with zero to a fair amount of talent that they do in fact have plenty of talent, have the cheekbones, are playing better, singing more beautifully with each lesson, making strides. The agencies don't scam us as much as we scam ourselves. They don't lie, don't guarantee anything. They just charge a lot of money while letting us believe that we might have what it takes, when in fact incredibly close to 100 percent of us do not. In the end, though, we want to hear that we have "it" so much that 800 bucks is well worth the cost. There is, in so many of us, a most desperate dream. On the surface, a dream of fame, fortune, and beauty. At its heart, though, both a dream of an escape from the boredom and frustration of our daily lives and, more importantly, a dream of the confidence that only supermodels and superstars exude confidence in the fact that we are singularly important, different, and loved.The agencies/my old singing teacher simply confirm. They offer soothing words of encouragement that are all-too-often empty. We pose for no one only when we pose for people other than ourselves. The tie-up you didn't think possibleThe next day I got a call from Annette Donahue. She wanted to let me know that there really were opportunities for "all types" of models, even smaller ones like myself (though I never expressed any concern about my height)."Once I even got a call for a Sumo wrestler," she told me. "I didn't have any, so I went to all the Chinese and Japanese restaurants and looked in their kitchens. Sure enough, I got one." A Sumo wrestler, or a fat Asian man? I wanted to ask.I asked Annette if she ever took someone aboard gratis. "I have in the past, but I've always gotten burned," she said. "The real money is in the school."