Before I gave birth, I viewed babies with a critical eye, the same one that judged Beauty and The Geek contestants. Sure, I thought all babies were cute in that E.T. kind of way, but I wouldn’t have called a three-day-old gorgeous. I believed kids needed to be at least two years old so you could see how their hair was going to work with their face. Seriously, I said that. But that was before I gave birth to my own old-man-looking, chicken-legged little squirmer. In the delivery room, I was fitted with my own pair of rose-colored glasses and I knew she was the most beautiful baby in the universe. But even I was surprised when a modeling agent agreed.
When I became pregnant, my fledgling acting career (that was me playing the bank secretary in Law & Order‘s Season 9, Episode 23) came to a halt. A friend of mine suggested I do some pregnant modeling, so I signed with an agency that specialized in pregnant models and babies. And I didn’t think anything of it that, when I gave birth, my baby girl, Esm’, went into their headshot files.
Esm’ booked her first job at three months. And unlike me, this girl had nerves of steel. She greeted the cast of dozens – stylist, makeup artist, photo assistants – with that winning smile. As we arrived at that first job, a magazine representative greeted us and ushered us over to the stylist, who sized up Esm’, pulled out a fancy little blue outfit and gave us strict instructions to keep her bibbed and as still as possible to protect the garment from drool and wrinkles. Next, the hair-and-makeup guy took one look at Esm’ and declared her ready. Apparently, concealer isn’t necessary when your skin has only been exposed to the elements for ninety days. I wondered how much he made for chirping, “Babies are perfect the way they are!”
As we sat and waited for the photographer to finish setting the stage, I noticed a few other babies arriving. I asked one mom what she was there for, as if perhaps she had gotten lost along the West Side Highway and thought this was a good place to stop and nurse. She told me she was there for the same shoot – and, by the way, was my daughter sleeping through the night? Before I had a chance to lie, she called over a three-year-old girl who had been pirouetting around the room, black hair swishing luxuriously around her shoulders. “She’s also a model,” her mother said. “She’s done GAP, Ralph Lauren and Enfamil.” The little girl smiled and tilted her head in a perfect Breck Girl pose. I knew if her baby sister were half as talented, Esm’ was in trouble.
Baby modeling feeds on this kind of competition. Smart casting directors will hire anywhere from three to five babies to do one job. That’s because baby models tend to spit up on wardrobe, get painful gas or take impromptu naps. You still get paid for your time, anywhere from $50 to $200/hour, but if you wind up in print, you also get a usage fee, which can hit four figures. I didn’t much care about the money, but the condescending mother with the perfect little girls had me ready to rumble.
When the set was ready, one of the photo assistants came into the waiting room. “Are any of the babies asleep?” she asked. I proudly announced, “No!” Esm’ hardly ever napped for more than fifteen minutes at a time. Another mother said her baby was, indeed, sleeping. Loser! I thought. We had this in the bag! But then the PA said to the other mother, “Great. Mom, can you bring her to the set?” A crib had been assembled to receive only sleeping baby models.
Desperate, I borrowed another mom’s stroller to roll Esm’ around the hallway. For two hours, I wheeled her up and down. Eventually, Esm’ succumbed. I grabbed her and ran into the studio. The crew got some lovely shots in the ten minutes before she woke up. A few months later, I picked up Parents magazine and there was Esm’ illustrating an article about SIDS sure to terrify thousands of new parents. We were ecstatic.
Soon after, came the second job, then the third. By the fifth gig, my husband and I were in shock. Every month, we flipped through magazines at the stand to see her latest photos. We would look back and forth between the ad and the real deal, smiling our heads off. My mother-in-law’s reaction encapsulated what we all were thinking: “We knew she was beautiful, but this proves it!” Even my mother, who is from Oklahoma, where it’s illegal to draw attention to yourself, loved going to the newsstand and seeing her granddaughter smiling out at her. Cautionary tales like Drew Barrymore and Jon Benet Ramsey flew out of my head.
Clearly, Esm’ had a gift. As long as there was a colorful toy, Esm’ was good. She had no idea why people shone a light in her eyes and shook rattles while talking in a maniacally high-pitched voice, but she didn’t seem to mind. She could keep smiling after three wardrobe changes under the hot lights of a cold studio. I had never been that patient. I wondered: would she grow up to gain all the fame I never had? What would have come of me if I had gotten such an early start? Had such a supportive mother? I thought of all the times my father would say I should enter the pageant circuit and my mother would respond, “Absolutely not.” Watching Esm’ enjoy her work, I wondered if I should have been allowed to enter the world of silicone and Vaseline.
Then, we hit the big time: Pampers. Esm’ had been fighting a fever for a few days, but that morning she As long as there was a colorful toy, Esm’ was good.seemed back to her happy-go-lucky self – until we got to the audition. In the waiting room, she began to look not so good, and I don’t mean her hair. She was shaking, and her lips and cheeks were purplish blue. (I would later find out this was a fever spike.) I was trying to get a read on whether the fever was back or if this was an allergic reaction, when the coordinator approached me to ask, “Are you okay?”
I looked down at Esm’. If I answered, “Yes” and brought my shivering daughter into the room, I would be casting myself in a future memoir, Mommie Dearest Redux. If I left, we would miss a big opportunity and risk being labeled flaky. I went with flaky. I wrapped up my daughter and said, “No.”
On our way home from the doctor’s office, where Esm’ was treated for an ear infection, I wondered if I’d crossed the line into psychotic stage mother. Sure, in the past I’d cancelled my baby’s playgroup so she could be rested and ready for an afternoon shoot, but this time I’d actually taken her to a casting call even though she was sick. I wondered if that was a sign that it was time to quit. She’d made more than $2,000 (enough that she had to pay taxes before her first birthday), and she’d had a four-month run in one national magazine. My husband and I had long discussions about what would be best for her. But in the end, it didn’t matter how we felt about it. After we skipped that Pampers audition, we never heard from Esm”s agent again.