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You should be a model—maybe not

Trying to become a professional model? The reality may not be as easy as one might think, and here's why.

I receive several phone calls asking for modeling portfolio photography every week, but I don’t have the time to explain things thoroughly, so I try my best of what I can write publicly so that I can just tell them to read this page. I would like to be upfront about this. This information isn’t very much fun for me to write because sometimes the reality isn’t as encouraging as you wish. I don’t want to discourage anyone, but at the same time, I try not to make an optimistic spin on this because I think people should know what it is before they start investing effort. I think, when it comes to this particular topic, many optimistic opinions are misleading.

“You should become a model.”

You may receive many compliments about your look and be encouraged to become a model. You did some research and found some info. That’s how the story usually starts.

If you want to model just for fun, participating in artist portfolio work and student productions, there is nothing wrong with that, and you can pursue it in one of many ways. However, if you like to model professionally, working with other professional people, and with the prospect of earning good money, you need to play this game very carefully and make a serious effort.

Focus on real talent agencies only

Modeling agencies manage the vast majority of professional models. So, it is important to sign with a real agency that books a volume of business for talents who look like you. Not any modeling “agency.”

The first tricky point is that real agencies are almost invisible to people who are outside the creative industry. They don’t advertise, their websites have few words on them (and some don’t even have a website), and not meant to be consumer-friendly. Even if you call them, they may sound a bit dry or unfriendly. They are almost air-tight against non-serious inquiries. On the other hand, there are many “non-agency” companies, which often sell classes and “audition” events. The latter companies are very visible, very consumer-friendly and very cheerful, but not going to make you a professional model.

Choose the right agency

So, you will need to find real agencies and learn how they operate. There are about four such agencies in Boston. (When I shoot for commercial work, those four are the only Boston agencies I see. There used to be a couple more, but they closed.) Boston agencies are a bit like department stores. They have a few departments like lifestyle, fashion, etc. Most work that exists in Boston area is commercial print work. However, agencies in New York are set up in a very different way. Most agencies have only one specialization, like fashion. They may not spend many words to describe that, but if you look at their faces and look at the heights/sizes, that much should be obvious.

Before you contact any agency, make sure you are within the range of heights and sizes of the people in one of their departments. Make sure you generally have the same feel and the similar look to those people. Then, carefully follow what kind of pictures they need you to submit. Generally speaking, fashion agencies like to see very plain photographs (called Polaroids, because these used to be Polaroids, which they use digital images now, but the name stayed), without any makeup or styling. They rather look at the raw material and judge themselves. On the other hand, agencies specializing in commercial print work may want to see images that look more like finished work, like a clothing catalog, magazine editorial or advertising. So, depending on which market you try to go in, you are likely to need very different kinds of pictures. That is one of the reasons why I tell people to do homework first. When you know which market you qualify, and made a list of agencies you want to approach, that’s when you think about a shoot, and I am happy to work with you.

I should also add that, no matter how many people told you looked gorgeous and looked like a model, professionals may not agree. Maybe except for some lifestyle talents, they are not looking for pretty people. Agencies are looking for people who look a bit unusual and exotic look not just good looking.

Each agency has different preferences as to how they want to be communicated. Some require images uploaded on their website. Some require emails. Some require you submit prints in person on a specific day. They get hundreds of people knocking on their doors, and most of the time, they just say “no.” Your chance is already very small, to begin with, but if you don’t make it easy for them, you will almost certainly get a “no.”

When an agency rejects a submission, they rarely tell you much. Don’t expect to get feedback and try again. That’s another reason you should research and aim at the right agency, and play your part very precisely.

Modeling agencies make money by taking a percentage of talents’ work. If they don’t think you will sell to their clients, they will not sign with you, and that’s just how most cases end up. There is nothing personal about it. Also, this should tell you why they are well guarded. (On the other hand, non-agency companies love to talk to you because they make money from classes and events that they sell to you instead.)

Don’t buy training, audition event, etc.

If you find any company that offers a class or organizes an “audition” type event, stay away. They may put a lot of “professional” spin, but they are selling the experience (or a “dream”) to the amateur league. Their world does not connect to the real professional production world.

Models with a real talent agency learn how to do their job by landing a lot of unpaid work, and gradually go up the pay rate. No real agency sells a class. No real audition charges you any money. If they charge money upfront for any training or event, stay away.

Models and actors need different pictures

Modeling and acting are different markets, and they use different kinds of photographs. Some people ask for both types of images in one session, and most of the time, they are getting wrong advice, or working with a non-agency company, or making an unfocused effort without aiming at a target. Although I do know people who model and act professionally, most of them are focusing on their acting career and modeling is their side gig. There are real agencies that represent models and actors, but they would have some real discussion with you before telling you to shoot your pictures.

Conclusion

I don’t know if you liked the information. It’s not always pleasant for sure, but such is the reality. If modeling were easy, everyone would be doing it, and there wouldn’t be an industry (and that is true for any creative field). One unfortunate aspect of modeling is that there are certain things that you cannot control. Cameron Russell said she won “a genetic lottery.” That’s a part of the game. If you want to be good at something, usually, you can make serious and deliberate effort to practice and develop skill over time, but you have little you can do to change the outcome of the genetic lottery.