A (Somewhat Jaded) Guide to the Baby Modeling BusinessNancy Bevilaqua
My son quit the modeling business almost three years ago. He was sixteen months old at the time, and he’d been working for about a year. After about eleven months of sitting patiently and very happily for anyone who pointed a lens in his direction, he rather suddenly decided that he hated it. And so, with no regrets whatsoever, we told his agency that we were through with the go-sees and the shoots and the checks that were being deposited with amazing regularity into his education fund. For my part, getting Alessandro out of the business that I’d gotten him into was, by that time, a relief. It had all become more trouble than it was worth.
For parents dreaming about seeing their children on magazine covers and in ads, my contention that the baby modeling business “ain’t all that” will likely go unheeded. And I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t thrilled every time I saw Alessandro’s big blue eyes, beautifully lit, look out at me from a magazine or yes—even more exciting—a Baby Gap ad. So, at the risk of sounding like both a hypocrite and a malcontent, I offer the following as a guide to those of you who know perfectly well that your child is much cuter than the baby on the cover of any given issue of Parenting, and intend to prove it.
Getting In, In the First Place
You don’t need to pay anyone for anything: Reputable model agencies don’t ask parents to pay them for the privilege of having their children make money for the agency. The agencies are perfectly capable of getting their share from the advertisers and the magazines. That’s why they’re agencies.
Nor is it necessary to pay a professional photographer to take pictures of your child for an agency to see. Alessandro’s agency—Wilhelmina—wanted prospective models’ parents to mail them four or five in-focus, close-up snapshots that anyone with a camera could take. If they were interested in meeting your child in person once they’d seen the pictures, they’d let you know. Very simple, very cheap.
Don’t try anything cute: The bookers at Wilhelmina stressed that they’d rather not see children—either in snapshots or in person—in frilly dresses, cowboy outfits, those little headband things, etc. Simple dresses, pants, nice tee-shirts, and overalls (I believe they said to think Gap or OshKosh B’Gosh) are preferred. Picture the way Jon Benet Ramsey’s mother dressed her, and then don’t do it.
Personality counts: This is a purely subjective observation, but I got the impression that agencies would, for the most part, choose a baby who isn’t conventionally “beautiful,” but has a recognizable joie de vivre, over a gorgeous child who likes nothing better than to stare moodily at her toes. Twins and non-Caucasian children also seemed particularly popular.
Don’t bug them: The bookers at Wilhelmina were very nice and very competent but, except on rare occasions (particularly when Alessandro was getting a lot of work), not inclined to spend a lot of time chatting or discussing the best career path for anyone’s child. They were extremely busy all the time, and an average phone call with one of them lasted for about twenty seconds. (“Hi, it’s X, Alessandro has a go-see tomorrow at X o’clock at X studio at wherever. Bring purple sneakers. Thank you!”)
That’s all you really need to know about bookers. Don’t bug them. Oh, and keep them supplied with a lot of recent snapshots of your child (to show their clients). Did I mention that you shouldn’t bug them?
They’re not fun: A typical go-see goes like this: You find the building, take an antique, creaking elevator up to the appropriate floor, find a parking space for your stroller in the designated area, fill out the form that someone’s assistant hands you, and wait. Generally you’re in a room with dozens of other parents, nannies, and children, some of whom spend the waiting time sizing up the competition (O.K, maybe everybody does it). Sometimes you’re asked to undress your child down to his diapers, or to have him get into a fashionable bodysuit that the abovementioned assistant has handed you. While you wait, you try every possible strategy to keep your child happy until his name is called (this can take anywhere from five to forty-five minutes—any longer than that, and my recommendation is that you leave). When it’s his turn you sit him down in front of the camera and then stand behind the photographer making funny faces at him until the Polaroid is taken. Trying to determine what people think of your child’s suitability for the job by looking at their faces is optional.
Don’t think about it after you’ve left: Unless a photographer tells you that your child would be perfect for the shoot (even this doesn’t necessarily mean that she’ll get the job), you probably won’t be able to figure out whether or not she’ll be chosen until you get—or don’t get—a call from her agency. Trying to second-guess what a photographer, photo editor, or advertising person is looking for is usually an exercise in futility, and takes up space in your brain that could be used in much more productive ways (such as having non-modeling-related conversations with your child).
Only once did I know whether Alessandro got the job before we left the go-see. We’d arrived at the photographer’s studio late, when everyone else had left. The shoot was going to involve having a baby sit with a very large pair of roller blades on his feet, and every baby who had already come in cried or crawled away from the blades. Alessandro had no problem with it whatsoever and sat happily for his Polaroid. The photographer nearly cried with relief, and Alessandro had the job (kind of a Cinderella/glass slipper scenario).
Some go-sees are “by request,” which means the photographer has seen a snapshot of a child (or worked with him before) and probably wants to hire him. Even if your child has been requested, he is not guaranteed the job.
Unless you’re told otherwise, Rule #2 under “Getting in, in the First Place” applies: Bring your child to go-sees in neat, simple clothes. You may also want to choose outfits that are easy to take off and put back on.
They’re more fun than go-sees, but not much: Don’t go to a shoot expecting the supermodel treatment. In general, cute babies seem to be considered commodities whose sole reason for existence is to help companies sell their products, and they need to be kept happy only so that the shoot will go well. This sounds harsh, and there are some genuinely nice, child-friendly photographers out there, but the reality is that (1) they see a lot of babies, (2) they’re concentrating on making perfect pictures so that their own careers can go well, and (3) to use the cliché, time is money, and they don’t want to spend it playing peek-a-boo or telling you that your child clearly has superstar potential.
It is, however, definitely true that the more “upscale” shoots (magazine covers and advertising) are much more pleasant and professionally run than the average catalogue shoot (and they pay more). The nicest people that Alessandro ever worked with were the ones at the Baby Gap shoots. Of course, most of them were from San Francisco, where it’s O.K. to be nice.
Come prepared: There’s often a lot of down time for your child during shoots—sometimes hours. Bring food (some, but not all, shoots are catered, but your child may not like sundried tomatoes, couscous salad, and vegetable terrine), toys, pillows, stuffed animals, and anything else that will help keep your child content and comfortable.
You, as a parent, are considered a necessary evil: Your job is to get your child to the shoot on time, to keep her happy by any means necessary, and to stay out of the way. No one wants your advice on what she should wear or which angle to shoot from.
Remember whose parent you are: Neither you nor your child are likely to get VIP treatment, and behaving like a diva will get you nowhere, but when brusque efficiency becomes downright incivility toward you or—much worse—your child, you need to do something about it. Bookers will tell you to simply call them and let them handle it, but I believe that there are situations that warrant picking your little commodity up and getting him out of the studio
Only once did I encounter a photographer and crew so surly, rude, and insulting that walking out mid film-roll would have been the best thing to do (I still regret that I was too intimidated at the time to do so, and waited until the end of the shoot to leave—in tears). It was, of course, a low-budget catalogue shoot for a department store I’d never heard of. Apparently every child who’d shown up that day had refused to cooperate, and the shoot was a disaster (Alessandro did cooperate; I can only hope that the photographer’s assistant forgot to load film into the camera before they started shooting). I did call Wilhelmina after we left. The bookers were supportive and spoke to the photographer about what had happened, but it wasn’t enough to assuage my wrath.
Be careful what you sign: In addition to the model agency’s release form, a photographer may ask you to sign his own. This could mean that he can use pictures taken of your child during the shoot for purposes not related to the original intent of the shoot. This may be fine (he may simply want to put them in his portfolio), but always check with your bookers before signing anything other than what they’ve given you.
There are laws—sort of: When you sign a contract with a model agency, they will tell you where to go to get a modeling permit for your child (none of the clients that Alessandro worked for ever asked to actually see the permit, but you are required to have one). Laws regulating the print model industry seem somewhat nebulous compared to those pertaining to television and film, and they vary from state to state. The Department of Labor has a website (www.dol.gov/esa) with some information about the industry, and the modeling permit itself mentions some regulations. For children who are working in television or film, the Screen Actors Guild website contains the AFTRA-SAG Young Performers Handbook, which is clear and very useful.
It’s unlikely that your child will get rich, become a star, learn much that is useful or, except for brief periods when she’s being entertained for the benefit of the shot, have a lot of fun by working as a model. But, provided that you keep in perspective the importance of being “in the business” in her (and your) life and future, there are some benefits: (1) you’ll get some insight into how the “magic” of advertising is actually made, (2) the money that she makes can be used for things like school, books, and toys, and (3) when she’s sixteen or so, you’ll have nice pictures to show her dates when they stop by to pick her up.
Last night I asked Alessandro if he remembered working as a model. He did. I then asked him if he’d want to do it again. He shook his head. What he wanted to do, he told me, was to use his own camera to “take pictures of the studio guys” (the photographers). Apparently, he learned one good lesson from the experience: having the power to create an image is preferable to being one.