Opening a magazine such as Vogue or Details is a bit of a different experience for me than perhaps it is for most readers. Flipping through the first few pages of glossy ads for cars and clothing, I almost instinctively focus on the flaws: places where the soft-box lighting on a model's cheek was too bright or a model on a tropical beach is too devoid of sand to have been sunbathing very long. I try not to do this as I would rather concentrate on whatever new product is being offered or at least the models themselves, but having been a model myself I react to the diorama before me in a special way. I know, at least, I am not alone as several model friends tell me they do just the same. Certainly, commercial photographers do, too, but for them there must at least be the whim of inspiration felt in seeing exceptional work instead of an overriding feeling of . . . not quite dread but something very close. For it is the model whom, when a photo doesn't come out quite right will have to rehash their poses and once more (with feeling) endure the rigors of the hot studio lights or windy location or sticky oils that are supposed to make us look beautiful and alluring. Sure, the photogs have their own issues and there are plenty of reasons to not envy them, but at least they are on the cool side of the bright lights they position over every spare square-foot of ground they can find.
I started modeling when I was twelve because my piano teacher had commented that I had "that surfer kid" look that was at the time in-demand for fashion photography. Her daughter had modeled from high school through college and apparently loved the experience so she was able to put us in touch with some reputable photographers and agents. Moreover, I already had a vague concept of wanting to be a Broadway actor or otherwise in acting . . . if I wasn't a fighter pilot, helicopter pilot, pro soccer player, pianist, or assortment of other childhood goals for adult life. Modeling sounded exciting then: it was, my teacher said, "a lot like acting". I was a blond, tow-headed lad with tousled hair that drooped down to my shirt-collar; though genetically pale as the proverbial ghost, I had a deep tan in the summer as I lived in central Florida and spent nearly every waking moment outdoors. I did not know it at the time (nor would have cared) but I was at that perfect age before teens develop the acne problems that haunt many of us through adolescence : a fact I only learned when years later.
The first session with the photographer was all about creating a "book", or a portfolio of various shots of me in different environments, wearing different clothing. This was the main marketing tool my agents would have in finding me work. When a person, especially a child or teen, enters the arena of modeling the first action taken is to get a good book put together to either find a quality agency willing to represent the model or, in the rare cases where such has been already accomplished, to secure actual jobs. Oftentimes, the agency will see enough potential in the book to hire the model as part of their roster but at the same time will commission a new book with their own photographers. With the absolute top-flight agencies this is almost always done with new talent to foster a sense of aesthetic unity and harmony over the span of all their models. A good fashion photographer can work wonders in providing an agency with a given "look" and the very best can furthermore provide each model with a distinct feel that should help prospective employers really focus on the best models for their needs. Of course, assuming that this situation always works out seamlessly as such is like assuming the mail always is delivered in a timely way or that everyone in a hospital properly communicates with each other all the time. There's plenty of margins for error in modeling like any industry.
I don't remember a lot about my first photo-shoot except it was a rather long experience and it was divided in two segments: a studio session and a location junket at a park. Boys, I later learned from photographers, are a special challenge for them as most young models are girls and the industry is geared towards certain types of shots that are more appropriate for girls. There has long been an emphasis on "sports" or "action" shots for boys, as to remove any stigma of femininity from modeling for them. In my case, as I played soccer, I was photographed kicking a soccer ball around the park and otherwise doing active stuff. The problem here apparently is that while such images are common to the business, not as many clothing retailers and other clients shoot these kind of images for actual jobs. Static studio shots are still most common for medium-budget retail ads and the like.
My photographer was astute enough to know the merit of the studio shots and to also bother with some outdoors head shots (very useful) for me. The whole affair, when it came back from the various stages of E-6 (slide), C-41 (color print) and black-and-white processing and printing included numerous 8"x10" prints and a selection of slides. This was at the time when digital photography was just becoming a somewhat viable tool and was not nearly as advanced as it is now, so there were no digital shots nor was anything put online or on a CD-ROM as it would typically be today. Indeed, Photoshop was not even reliable and complex enough to do the editing that would be needed so the few blemishes that required touch-ups were corrected by hand, on the transparencies (slides) with an airbrush: grueling and expensive work.
In the smaller markets, kids and teens make up the lion's share of models: a lot of girls seem to go into the field in middle or high school as do a growing number of boys. This is not good when it comes to the amount of competition in a small market with limited clients but it is at least useful in the sense that the photographers involved get accustomed to working with kids.
Along with the photos themselves, the portfolio contains vital information such as height, weight, eye color, and hair color. The more sophisticated agencies are adept at including other viable information such as sports the model has played, any foreign languages and musical and dance talents. Given that sports and things like teens strumming a guitar seem to figure into photo-sets a lot to the point it's very trite, it's good to know that the models may at least have some idea of what they are supposed to be doing. Many times, the photographers are clueless about all aspects of sports and other enjoyable and youthful activities they manage to script their models into. Some of the better photographers, especially those with a national reputation such as the gentleman behind ModelTeenz do know their sports and are good to provide an accurate representation. As I have been a skateboarder since seventh grade, I watched with great dismay when photographers would have myself or other models on skateboards but wearing running shoes and other inappropriate clothing for skating. Overall, this situation's vastly improved, though. Another nice aspect of being photographers is that while some lord over their expensive cameras, others were more than willing to let the models play with them some and encouraged our own budding interest in photography.
The best photographers and agents will help the young model establish his look, mostly based on the photographer's experience in seeing how models with similar looks have been best marketed. Despite what the public may assume, you don't try to produce clones in modeling but instead attempt to create distinctive looks for every model. Not everyone will be right for every job, sure, but the naturally attractive and interesting features of the model are best accentuated instead of being homogenized. In my case, I was supposed to be the "surfer kid" so I was largely left out of jobs that would include wearing a suit and tie or those where a wholesome, All-American kid was needed to stand grinning and adoring next an adult selling a lot-full of used cars or such. At first, I was not provided with many black-and-white shots, either, which was a big mistake considering that the smaller agencies do a huge business with newspaper advertisers who need to know how someone will look in monochrome. Color, you learn quickly in this field, is expensive as all. A good sixty percent of the overall business at my first agency seemed to be for newspaper and was monochrome. Hence, quality black-and-white work in your book is essential.
While my early agencies and photogs did an overall great job, I learned even in my teens some glaring mistakes they made:
--You don't try to make a skinny little blond kid look like a football player.
--Animals do not and will not cooperate in photo shoots.
--Florida is humid: you deal with hair accordingly And don't assume guys' hair is magically easier than girls to tend to during shoots.
--Photographic equipment almost always shows up in reflections in car ads if you are shooting close-in. Sunglasses can present the same damn problem. (Nowadays, retouching in Adobe Photoshop makes this pretty much a non-issue, though.)
--Shots where kids are drinking Coke or some other soft drink are cute but make sure the brand is not evident when the client is trying to sell something else: consumers tend to notice the most-prominent of logos and products first.
--Boys don't know how to not get makeup all over their clothing while changing. And trying to learn this delicate art while wearing all white is not a good thing, either.
A word about makeup in general: it's all-present and gets on everything. Professional makeup for stage and screen is very different from the makeup you or your girlfriend applies in the morning to pretty up the face. It's primary function, aside from making the model more attractive, is to reduce glare from those inevitable strobes and other lights. Also, effects often have to be exaggerated to be apparent in the photo so this means more eyeliner, more lips gloss, more whatever. And always a ton of foundation, again, due to glare and oily reflections. Boys, of course, are rather wary of makeup (not all boys, but most I worked with) but we were coaxed into it nonetheless. We didn't have at that level especially great makeup artists, either, so you end up learning a lot from the better ones so you can do it yourself. Like Reba McEntire and Anita Baker, I usually did my own makeup. That is, when I was allowed to do so. I also learned that drugstore brands work just fine for the majority of applications contrary to what everyone in our industry wants to believe.
So that's the basics on how I got into modeling and what the initial experience with the business was like : now for the fun part. While I enjoyed the work I did in my early teens it was in my later teens and early college when stuff really took off. I never dreamed I would be huge as in supermodel huge, and I never exactly got there but I did get some sweet jobs, decent pay, and travel to posh and exotic locations. I transferred from one agency in Orlando to one in Miami that was connected to another agency in LA and which worked with some excellent photographers in both cities. Because I went to college in San Francisco, I ended up flying to LA and Miami a lot for modeling once I was in college but when I first moved to the Miami agency I was a junior in high school so it was more difficult. Plus, they just weren't finding much work for me at first. Fortunately, it picked up when I turned eighteen for several reasons:
First, this was the era of marked growth in mall-based middle-price-range retailers of youth clothing like PacSun and Journeys seasonal campaigns. The Internet was really taking off as a marketing device and before the legendary dot-com bust we did have the equally legendary dot-com boom. And San Francisco was the epicenter of that while in the mid to later 1990s, LA and Miami were the centers for modeling for youth fashion in general. There was a need for boys like me.
Second, I was eighteen. To be frank, you can do a lot more things with adults than kids in terms of what work you get them. And I don't mean porn, although of course that's always an option (though not one my agencies dealt in) also. A lot of jobs are going to want all the models to be over eighteen simply for liability issues and when in large cities, it's easier to work with adult talent when you have to fly people in because they can be (hopefully) turned loose and left to their own devices without too many ill effects.
I learned very quickly on a shoot in Miami that once you're eighteen a lot of things relax. Sure, some of the shoots I have been on had not been exactly the most wholesome of atmospheres anyways (while others were as pious as a vicar) but now there was no one purposefully looking out for me or any of the other models. Because I'd dealt with an agency in Orlando with a very good and solid reputation for its young models before, they had done a quality job of watching our backs. Now, that was out the window. Also, this shoot was a major production for a leading upper-range designer and it included a beach shoot and a shoot in a fabulous Art Deco hotel. Time, due to the caliber of photographer involved and his rather large posse of assistants, was of the essence so things were rushed. I had not done runway modeling before so I didn't know about the marathon changing sessions and hurry-up-now-wait nature of things. Most of the other models, about seven girls and five guys, were all runway pros already.
In a situation like this, there is little room for modesty. You are changing clothes in a backstage type area (in this case, an office off the lobby of the hotel where we were shooting) and while you're nearly nude you have your makeup and hair people as well as wardrobe folks milling around and fussing with your general appearance. Actually, make that fussing with your specific appearance. Nothing is left to chance. You wear your belt, whatever jewelry the way the stylist sees fit, not how you do. You don't get dressed in many cases until right before the shooting takes place and when you have changes of outfits, there is still plenty of time that you're standing around in your underwear while someone:
a) finds the garment you're supposed to wear
b) selects a different garment or realizes they had the wrong one
c) has to alter the garment to fit you or otherwise do whatever they think it should do -- you'd never believe how many $900 shirts are held together in photo shoots by safety pins
d) restyles your hair because the fans that simulate wind for the shoot messed it up already
Because of the close proximity you are working in and the nature of the business you quickly develop a sense of camaraderie with your fellow models, photo assistants, clothing stylists, hair stylists, and makeup artists. It's a very network-y professional scene, after all and to this day, I can be assured I will get into some of Miami's top salons for a cut and color even if I call the same very day. All the people in hair I knew then are still in business, it seems. Stylists, overall, tend to be sweethearts. The photo assistants on the other hand . . . and some models . . . eek.
People in this business are always out to find more work, and a lot travels via word-of-mouth. I did get a fair number of offers to participate in porn (both straight and gay) but declined. I have never been bashful, but it just didn't really appeal to me. Nudity though is a part of the business. My second Miami job was a shoot for a major competition swimwear manufacturer (no, not Speedo but a competitor) and when all you're wearing is speedo-type briefs and jammers (bike short like super-tight lycra shorts for competitive swimming) you end up changing in and out of these garments with nothing underneath them . . . so you see everything of everyone else. Not that such is a bad thing, but it's interesting. Spray-tanning is an integral part of a shoot like this, as is being sprayed with all manner of stuff to make you look wet. Real water never seems to cut it for swimwear shoots: five of us were in a pool and while it looked great the photog's assistant wanted more shine on our shoulders so some oil was rubbed up there, we went back in and had to be absolutely perfectly still so that no ripples would cloud the water and make it hard to see our swimsuits (which, after all, were the product). Without sunglasses on, the light was blinding and we lost one reflector (a foil gizmo to reflect natural light on the models for the photo) into the pool and it had to be retrieved. Of course, a photo assistant does that: the models in the pool don't dare move an inch after we've been perfectly positioned.
A general word about clothing on shoots, especially the high-end ones: nothing is ever the correct size. If you're a 32 waist the jeans will be a 30 . . . as a 29 waist I never got stuff that was too small (which a lot of guys did) but ended up with plenty that was too large so, again, safety pins saved the day. With the swim briefs and jammers, two briefs were too large for me (a 34, which is really like a 32) and one jammer was too small and rather uncomfortable. As a stylist remarked, "you guys do really bust your balls in this job". Shoes never fit and unless they are the product being shot, they are always an afterthought. I had to wear a pair of adidas Superstar shelltoes that were about a size and a half too large on one occasion and could only try to drape my jeans in a way that didn't make them look too large. You can sometimes wear your own shoes but most of the time your street-clothing is already somewhere far from the shoot clothing and a stylist will select something for you instead. Always, there are complaints about the shoes and people running to and fro to exchange stuff. This is one reason you commonly see sandals in many ads where the footwear is unimportant and they would be appropriate: the sizing isn't so essential and they can be kicked off easily.
What about anorexia? Indeed, it is an aspect of this business and it is not limited to female models, either. I have heard, in fact, that anorexia is very bad with high school male sprinters because it is under-diagnosed with boys: certainly, in modeling it was also not spoken of with male models as much as with the female ones. However, those of us (like myself) who looked more boyish than manly were often encouraged to look as adolescent as possible and to therefore not gain weight at a point in our lives where doing such would be normal. For a period of time I was myself somewhat anorexic although I don't think I would have met the clinical criteria for anorexia. Still, when I look back at some of those old photos I know I was simply too thin for my 6'1" frame.
Complaints aside, modeling in places like Miami and LA is not so bad, and certainly not all work. We'd go out clubbing most every night unless a night shoot was planned in which case we'd be far too exhausted to dance afterwards. How do you feel after a day of modeling? Much like you feel after a transcontinental flight with several layovers, really. Most models are excellent dancers and many of us have taken years of dance anyways, so we're party people. When we have a chance to dance, we dance. One thing that most people probably don't realize though is female models tend to be rather tall and in heels at a club look a bit too Amazonian at times. Still, most are beautiful people and not just physically. We're in an industry that some may easily (and in some ways, rightfully) see as vapid, but it's also an industry that's supportive of many other areas of business and we are people who by and large enjoy our work. Moreover, many of us go on to other fields--be it photography or business or law--after modeling. Unfortunately, modeling--except at the highest levels--is not the sort of thing one can turn into a long-lasting career in most cases.
Sex? Yes, that goes with the territory if you want it to, as do drugs. The latter is something I stayed far away from though I knew plenty of people who did not. Sex, however . . . yeah. Whether you're straight or gay it's very accessible and at the age of eighteen or so, it's certainly something you'll take advantage of, too. This doesn't mean that it's a whirlwind of orgies, though, because again even if such was really available all the time you are far too tired for it. You don't end up sleeping alone though if you don't want to and because of the fact that you spend a lot of time around people you find attractive often wearing very little there's plenty of potential for attraction, affairs . . . and related drama. I discovered that a fair number of male models are gay or bi, which didn't surprise me, but is interesting when you think about it in the scheme of things. Also, when you consider how much advertising is blatantly heterosexually-minded in the sense you see a guy and a girl eating together, holding hands, driving somewhere . . . whatever. When you're gay and see this--not only the end product of it but the production of the ads in detail--it does present to you how important harmonious, happy, hetero relationships must be to middle America. And it's damn funny to see a guy holding a beautiful girl tight in his arms during the shoot and then to be making out with him later that same night after the club.
One of the fascinating things about our business is watching the different trends in photography that evolve. When I started modeling the whole grunge look was still very big but slowly faded out towards a more refined and elegant approach. However, photographers such as Nan Goldin and Corrine Day (herself a fashion photographer) greatly influenced work while I was modeling as did skateboarding and other "street" oriented photography. The more elegant look was something my agency mostly avoided because their competition was more into that so we did a lot of work that was less polished and truly, more innovative. Our location shoots were often structured to look less "perfect" and contrived and more like a couple kids were goofing around with a camera one night. Apparently, 1970s porn, B-movies, and the first wave of grunge fashion, and goth subculture were also huge influences on our photogs, as this example shows. One interesting aspect to this aesthetic was that clothing often had to be distressed beyond what it would be when sold in retail for the photo shoots. I have even seen stylists (clothing stylists, not people who do hair!) take Converse Chucks and rubs grease on the white toe-caps to make them look worn and not gleaming and brand-new. It's amazing what a lady with a tackle box full of acrylic paint, box-cutters, and sewing supplies can do to make something brand-new look vintage.
Before we had digital cameras, Polaroids were used to check how a photo would actually look before it was committed to film . . . usually by having a special back on the medium format cameras the photogs favored to take the Polaroid exactly like the final photo would be shot. We would have these Polaroids laying around everywhere by the end of the day and it was these that would give us our only glimpse of what the final piece would look like. Of course, this wasn't even accurate because you had to factor in all the cropping and other work the graphic designers would do prior to sending something to the printers as an actual ad. They could create things out of the raw photos that were produced that I think even the photographers never expected. Just the addition of typography gives a photo a whole new look, never mind what selective cropping or changing something from color into black-and-white could accomplish . . . for better or worse. During the whole time I was modeling, I would get new shots done for my book to constantly keep it fresh, also. And from the photogs I learned a wealth about their craft that, despite some of the reservations I may have about certain individuals, has garnered them my total admiration as a group of professionals. Beyond that, it's inspired my own avocation of photography.
When I left modeling it was because school kept me too busy. I didn't want to walk away from it but I was at a level where if I couldn't travel I really couldn't work and school and travel were not mixing in an agreeable way. Moreover, I was very involved in snowboarding which seemed to take me to places very different from where modeling jobs would take me. Something had to give. I had taken a lot of computer engineering and programming courses and managed to hook up a job as a LAN administrator on campus which suited me fine given that it meant I could get most of my homework done while sitting at my desk and being paid for it. To this day, I look back on modeling fondly, overall. Some friends I made in the industry I still stay in touch with and a couple photogs I worked with I still find time to time to have work in major publications, which makes me happy. It's a fascinating business . . . I am not in the least chagrined or cynical about it or regret it. Nor do I see it as the epicenter of glamour that some people (mostly those with no contact with the industry) espouse it to be. Modeling is unique but it's a part of the greater whole of the advertising and marketing industry . . . but that's a story for another time.