So You Want to be a Model!
If you are reading this page it probably is because you are interested in becoming a model. There are many kinds of models: fashion, commercial and glamour are the major divisions. These pages will not discuss glamour models in detail – that is a topic best left to others who deal in that specialty. We will focus here only on the majority of models in the United States: commercial models and, to a lesser extent, fashion models.
What does it take to be a model? Please follow the links below, where each highlighted concept is explained in more detail.*
1. Location. If you aren’t where the market is, you won’t get work.
3. Height and Body Type. It’s a lot harder if you are 5’2” tall or not slim.
4. Attitude. Can make or break your career. Usually it breaks it.
5. Looks. Sure, they are important, but look where they are on the list.
6. “Being Discovered”. You think this is how it works?
And after all that, if you get to be a model it may not be what you think. Before you make all that investment you need to know all about the reality of Your Role as a Model.
* - “Agency” doesn’t always mean exactly that. See “A note on Terminology”for an explanation.
If she is a model and you know her name or you recognize her face, she is an "editorial fashion model." Seems simple enough, but it isn't.
"Editorial fashion models" work in New York City (in this country) for the simple reason that very, very little editorial fashion work is booked out of anywhere else. There are exceptions, of course: Miami in winter (but often using New York models), and sometimes Los Angeles or Chicago, but these are just that: exceptions. If you want to be a fashion model, you go to New York. There are lots of opportunities abroad as well (Paris, London, Milan, Tokyo . . .), but only one real one in the US.
For women, if you want to be seen on the cover of a national fashion magazine, to sign a lucrative national ad contract, to become a "supermodel", or even to be a "fashion model", you need the following when you start:
1. Be between 15-19 years old.
2. Be between 5'9" and 6' tall.
3. Be thin. Really, really thin. Something like 105-115 pounds, except for Plus models, who can be dress sizes 10-20 or so, depending on the market.
4. Don't have especially large breasts (34C is generally the upper bound of acceptable), lots of stretch marks, tattoos, piercings or highly tanned skin. Dark skin is fine, lots of tan is not fine.
5. Be beautiful. Not necessarily pretty, but beautiful. An interesting, beautiful face is at least as good for a fashion model as is an "all American" look.
6. Have the right personality for it: a strong commitment to modeling (not just an interest in it), an ability to take rejection (something most beautiful girls aren't good at), a thick skin, not a lot of modesty (nobody cares what you don't want someone to see, we have a fashion show to put on . . .) and a lot of self confidence.
7. Be willing to relocate to a major market, with New York City strongly preferred.
8. Be willing to travel to strange locations with no friends there to support you, little money, little help, lots of opportunity for both good and bad things to happen to you.
If you have all of that, you are a very, very rare person, and you have one chance in a hundred of becoming an editorial fashion model. No more than that. If you are anything else, you need to think about some other kind of modeling.
Requirements for men are a little less stringentand have been changing in recent years. Depending on the market city, men need to be 5'11" (6' strongly preferred) to 6'2" (in some cities, 6'3") tall. The traditional male model is slim: size 40 jacket, 30-32 waist. However, in the last few years there has been a strong movement in Europe, now reflected in the major American markets, for much slimmer men. While in smaller cities, the traditional male model can still be successful, in New York especially, jacket sizes of 36 to 38 are now generally preferred by many agencies, with waists proportionately smaller as well. Men can be older to start. Age 18-25 is fine.
Editorial fashion jobs are booked almost exclusively through "editorial fashion agencies" - and those hardly exist outside New York.
Most agency models are "commercial" models - meaning that they appear on local or national print ads or television shows, in catalogs, work in local fashion shows and trade shows and similar kinds of work. They don't get huge fees (although pay can be very good indeed), national recognition or lucrative national ad contracts, but they are the backbone of the modeling industry.
Fashion models also work as commercial models, although the reverse is rarely true. In smaller market cities in the US, most agencies concentrate on "fashion print" or "commercial fashion" models, who tend to be tall, slim and beautiful in a more mainstream way. This is "commercial fashion", a subset of commercial modeling.
Very, very few commercial models make a living at it. It is not a career, it is something they do on an occasional basis while they do something else "full time". Outside of the major markets (New York, Chicago, maybe Miami and Los Angeles) it is doubtful that there is any city in America in which more than a dozen people make a good living at modeling, but in virtually all cities and substantial towns there are many, usually hundreds, who are in the modeling market, and who occasionally find work.
The requirements for being a commercial model are very different from being a fashion model. It certainly helps if you look a lot like a fashion model, but there is work available in most markets for many other types. Models can be older, shorter, heavier and need not be pretty or beautiful - "interesting" often will get work, and “generic good looks” is the most common look required. Commercial models are asked to play roles in pictures: “young mom”, “active retiree”, “Doctor”, “executive”, and they look like idealized versions of these roles. In most of the markets we have surveyed the hardest demand for an agent to fill is for middle-aged men!
Things that help a commercial model are acting ability, an outgoing personality, easy availability for jobs, and good self-presentation skills.
The great majority of commercial jobs are booked through agencies, except for those that are given to friends or members of the client's family.
A glamour model may do many kinds of work, but all of them are based on the fact that she is pretty and attractive (unlike a fashion model, who may not be pretty, or commercial model, who may not be either pretty or attractive).
Some of them do promotional work: things like appearing in a bikini at a boat show, or in bars or special events to represent a liquor distributor. Some do "cheesecake" print work, such as appearing in magazines which appeal to a male audience, adorning the product which is the subject of the magazine (such as cars, motorcycles and the like) or appear in calendars. Many do nude work in magazines, videos, for artists, or in the growing field of web site content.
The market for non-nude glamour models certainly exists, but it is rarely something that a model can make a living at, and generally does not pay as well as other modeling work. The vast majority of glamour models who do not do nudes will have no more than a very few appearances in print, and virtually all of them are in New York, Miami or Los Angeles.
The requirements for being a "glamour model" are different from being a fashion or commercial model - generally any attractive woman with an appealing body can qualify. Preferred age varies by the type of job, but is generally from 18 until the late twenties. Some glamour models have successful careers into their thirties, but they almost always became known prior to that.
There are a very few specialized agencies which handle glamour models, but they exist only in a small number of cities. Very few glamour model jobs are booked by agencies. Some agencies do handle promotional or trade show assignments, but other types of assignment generally are booked in other ways: through personal contacts, direct advertising and hiring by the client or photographer, and more recently, through the internet. It is very common for a model to get such jobs through self-promotion of one sort or another, direct to magazines, clients or photographers. A growing number of them also are getting work through the internet, using on-line model referral pages or modeling forums.
This is the single most important thing needed to be successful as a model. You need to be where the jobs are!
It’s possible (remotely possible, not likely) that you may be flown to a job at client expense some day. It happens. But it only happens after you have been selected for the job – and that takes place where the client and the market are. For "fly to" jobs, that is almost always a major market city like New York or Los Angeles.
Here’s how it typically works:
Clients call agencies and tell them what their requirements are for upcoming jobs. The agency matches those requirements against the people in their files, and selects the models they think are likely to be chosen for the job. The comp cards or portfolios for those people are sent to the client, who then selects the models that he actually wants to see – and those people then go on a “go-see” or “casting”. Sometimes the first part of this process is omitted, and agencies simply have their models “go see” the client. There can be as few as one and as many as hundreds of models at these go-sees, and usually a considerable majority of them sent out by their agencies won’t be selected for the job. This is a competitive business, with lots of competitors and, at any given moment, few winners.
You don’t get paid to go to castings, go-sees or auditions, so a great deal of a model’s time is spent on things like go-sees that don’t actually make them any money. And nobody pays your expenses to get to these things, either. That may be OK for someone that lives in the area and can afford to take time off from whatever else they do for an hour or two. But it is simply impossible for someone who lives in Ohio, Texas or even Maryland to commute to these things hoping that they will get a job. The economics don’t work.
If you are going to be in the commercial or fashion modeling business you have to live within a reasonable commuting distance of the marketplace. We generally advise no more than 50-60 miles away, and even that makes pursuing a modeling career very difficult.
If you want to stay home, and home is more than 100 or so miles from where the work is, an agency can’t do much for you.
Modeling is a business, and like all businesses requires investment by you. These investments may be in time and effort or in money, but you cannot hope to be successful as a commercial model without making them. At a minimum, you will need to invest in the following:
1. Pictures The single most important thing you need is good pictures, in the proper style, to represent yourself. You may find qualified photographers who will shoot you at reduced or no cost, but that is by no means assured. Generally, models must be prepared to spend several hundred dollars at the beginning of their career, and to invest more on a regular basis to keep your “book” or “comp card” updated. Some models (typically young women) may find that they can get pictures done free or for greatly reduced rates, but all models should be prepared for the likelihood that they will have to pay for pictures. Often what you get for free serves the needs of the photographer, not yours. It is relatively rare to find a good photographer who is willing to shoot commercially useful pictures for free.
2. Comp Cards/Headshots Your agency will need photos of you that they can send to casting directors – and they won’t get them back. So you must have printed “composite” cards (for commercial and fashion models) and/or “headshots” (for actors/actresses). “Comps” may run $80-$200 or so; headshots should cost $50-$100. A model can start with only a printed headshot, but a comp is much preferable as soon as enough good pictures are available.
3. Self-presentation skills We discourage models from taking “modeling classes” – they are not required and often are counter-productive. Still, a model should have a good basic understanding of makeup and wardrobe, and may require some guidance on posture and other self-presentation issues. There are a variety of ways to get these things, some relatively inexpensive, and some costing in the hundreds of dollars.
4. “Bag of tricks” Even though many assignments will have professional makeup artists and stylists to prepare you, some will not. You must have the materials and skills to do your own makeup in a variety of styles, and a wardrobe and shoes appropriate to basic modeling situations. You can reasonably expect that these things, if you do not already have them, may run to several hundred dollars or more, depending on how much you wish to invest in flexibility to easily take a wide variety of assignments.
5. Modeling Skills Although we do not recommend “modeling schools”, agencies and clients do want models to have extensive experience in front of a camera. The best way to get this is, quite simply, to do a lot of shooting. Ideally this should be with a photographer who is skilled at working with models in commercial or fashion style shots. Still, any kind of experience is helpful, and even shoots with relatively new photographers often help you gain self-confidence and posing skill.
6. Advertising You need to get your pictures in front of photographers, art directors, casting agents and others that make hiring decisions. It used to be that your agency would assist you in this by including you in the agency headsheet book that is mailed to such people. Now it is more common to use an agency website as well as promotional mailers. As is customary in the industry, agencies must recover its costs from you for these promotional items. Depending on the degree of promotion of you that the agency does, the cost to you may run from $75-$700 per year. Each agency has its own policies on these services and costs.
7. Communications This is a fast-paced business. If your agent can’t find you quickly, you may well lose a job that could pay you thousands of dollars. There are a variety of solutions that models use: cell phones, beepers, good answering services – but one or more of these is necessary to a successful modeling career.
8. Living Near the Market This is a very expensive item, but also a critical one. Fashion models often must relocate. We do not advise commercial models to move just to be a model – but if you aren’t within an hour or so of the market city, it is very difficult and expensive for you to compete for jobs.
In all cases above your model management company should be prepared to help you decide what you may need to do to be successful and to advise you on appropriately qualified vendors and sources. A true “agency” may not in some cases – it’s outside the scope of their duties.
Barring a miracle you need to be 6 feet (for men) or for women 5’10” tall, give or take an inch to be a fashion model. But commercial models are the majority of models in this country, and they can be a much wider variety of heights and shapes. We have found that female “petites” of 5’6” and above generally find ready acceptance in the marketplace. A few very exceptional women of 5’4” and above can get work, but it is much harder. Male models can be as short as 5'9" in some markets, but taller is strongly preferred. Those shorter than that can work only very rarely in the commercial market, except for Asian models, who can be much shorter.
For the most part, models need to be thin. There are exceptions. "Plus models" are fashion models who meet the normal criteria for fashion models in all ways but one: they are dress size 10 to 18 or so, and they have a toned, proportionate body with about ten inches difference between waist and hips. In addition, in some cities there is work for heavier models (up through plus and XL sizes) as Fit models, but this is a very limited, technical specialty. Fit models can also be shorter than normal fashion model requirements.
Commercial models can also be heavier than the "slim" normal. For older models (40+) an extra 10-20 pounds or so is generally acceptable. At all ages there is also some limited work available for "overweight" models, who tend to be more "character" types.
Being a model is like any other job – you have to bring the right skills and attitude to it. Without that, you are doomed to failure. Among the things that help make for a successful career:
1. Self Discipline. You have to be able to get to go-sees, shoots, jobs, meetings and appointments, in good condition and able to perform. If you can’t do that, people will find out very fast, they talk to each other and they remember.
2. Commitment. Modeling requires sacrifice of time, resources, effort and giving up other things you could be doing that you may enjoy. You can’t just hang out and wait to do jobs when called – you have to spend a lot of effort and perhaps significant money preparing yourself for work as a model.
3. Ability to get along with others. Models have to work with photographers, art directors, clients, makeup artists, agency staff and other models. All of these people and others influence which jobs you get and don’t get. Any of them may be able to keep you from getting work, even if you are the person with the best “look” for the job. And all of them talk to each other. If you are abrasive, obnoxious, rude or just someone they don’t like to work with – you won’t get much work. In the long run, people tend to hire people that they like to work with, and you are trying to get hired all the time.
4. Self Confidence. No matter what you really think or feel inside, you must show that you are confident in your ability to be what the client needs you to be. Self doubts need to get left at the door of the go-see or studio.
5. Teamwork. Modeling can be a lot of fun (as well as a lot of hard work). You may find that you are the center of attention, people fluttering around you all day, the object of constant praise, and made up to look like something you only hoped you could be. At times like that it is very difficult to remember that this isn’t about you. It’s about what the client needs, and you are there to be just that. If you look the best you have ever looked, and that isn’t what the client wants, you have failed. As a model you are playing a role, and you need to be what the role calls for, not what you want to be.
Your “look” is not nearly as important as location and attitude.
Are you surprised that looks aren’t at the top of the list?
Is your “look” important in getting you work? Of course it is. In fact, when you show up at that go-see with your book, it’s the single most important thing that will determine success or failure at that moment. You have to look like what the client wants to hire.
But that just means that once you have the other things that are needed for success, “looks” is the tiebreaker. It’s the other things that really count. If you didn’t live where you needed to so you could show up at the go-see, it wouldn’t matter what you looked like. If you didn’t have the commitment to invest the time and money in pictures, comps, a decent wardrobe and self-presentation skills, it wouldn’t matter what you looked like. And if you didn’t have the discipline to get a good night’s sleep the night before, get up early, prepare yourself and arrive on time, it wouldn’t matter what you looked like. In all of those cases you would be disqualified from competing long before a client ever saw you.
Now, given that, what do you need to look like? Well, in the fashion world that’s pretty well understood. Tall, very thin, beautiful (maybe not pretty, but beautiful) and you have a shot. But “commercial models” generally have a different look. Clients and agencies usually want what is referred to as “generic good looks” by type of appearance: soccer moms, executives, doctors or whatever fits the role that the client is casting for in that ad campaign.
A good commercial model is a commodity: able to fit any number of roles – because that is what the client is buying: a person to fill a role. Actors can be excellent commercial models because they can easily take on the “look and feel” of the person that is to be portrayed.
Commercial models don’t have to be “beautiful” – and many of them aren’t, although they tend to be more than just “good looking”. A commercial agency always wants to have some “traditional models” (meaning young, very attractive women) in their group because that tends to attract the attention of clients to an agency. But it is the others – children, older men and women and “character” models, in all ethnic categories – who do a large percentage of commercial modeling work.
We’ve all heard the phrase: aspiring models, just waiting to “be discovered.” The notion is that they can hang out, doing whatever they do, and someone will come along, spot them in the crowd, pluck them out of their hum-drum day-to-day life and suddenly they will be “discovered” and on their way to modeling success.
The worst of it is that once in a while, once in a very, very long while, something like that really happens. When it does it happens to fashion models, not commercial models, and it is a very rare event. Models aren’t “discovered,” they work their way through the system very much like you do in any other job.
But in another sense, the more successful models are “discovered.”
It is a great benefit to a model’s career if someone (or several someones) takes an interest in them, sponsors them and chooses to give them opportunities in preference to other people who could have gotten those chances. Photographers and art directors like to work with people they know, like and have had pleasant experiences with. Agency staff chooses who to send on jobs, and who to recommend to clients in preference to others in their agency who may be equally qualified. There are lots of models, few jobs by comparison, and choices have to be made. It is human nature in all of business for those choices to go to friends and people we like, and in the subjective world of modeling it is all the more true that personal relationships can make or break a career.
Models should always take advantage of opportunities to gain that kind of sponsorship from people with influence in the industry. Virtually all of the most successful models have used “sponsors” to achieve their success.
Pictures are everything! A great majority of jobs are initially cast by casting directors, art directors or photographers, who typically sort through submitted headsheets or comp cards to select the models they want to hire.
As a model you need pictures that present you in the best possible light. But they also must be in the style that casting and art directors are accustomed to seeing from professional models. From fashion agencies they will expect to see "fashiony" shots in a contemporary style. From commercial print agencies they will expect to see shots in “commercial” style for most jobs, although for some work “fashion” or “theatrical” style pictures are appropriate. With a few exceptions, “glamour” style pictures are not appropriate. Classic “portrait” style, senior photos and snapshots are not acceptable for professional modeling work. You must choose photographers who are skilled in the particular style that is needed in your market. If you do not have adequate pictures already your agent will assist you in finding qualified photographers.
Commercial print agencies generally want models who are experienced, ready to work, and have the marketing materials they need before they are represented by the agency. In that regard they are different from fashion agencies, which generally will throw away most or all of the portfolio pictures, comp cards and headsheets that aspiring models bring to them, and start from scratch.
The bare minimum needed to market you is a headshot similar to those used by theatrical performers. If all you have is one really great picture, that may be what you use at the beginning of your career. (Note: new fashion models sometimes start with no more than simple polaroids taken by their agtency. But they need to change that as rapidly as possible. The fashion clients are heavily influenced by pictures.
If you are going to be a model looking for fashion or commercial print work, you should have a printed composite card that can be sent to potential clients. Typically “comps” are 5 ½ x 8 ½ inches, printed on card stock, and double sided. They normally contain a good head shot on one side, three or four other pictures on the reverse, and your stats and agency contact data. Most agencies prefer pictures to be mostly color, but will accept good-quality B&W comps. The agency will probably need at least 50 copies of your comp card in their files. Normally comp cards are updated as you get better pictures or tear sheets that can be included on them, so it often isn’t necessary to print more than 100-150.
If you already have an acceptable comp card it will help greatly for a commercial agency to immediately market you. Fashion agencies and most small market agencies will require you to have a card produced under their guidance. If you do not have a card, but have good quality pictures of the right style, the agency can assist you in finding printers who can produce quality comps at reasonable prices in only a few days.
A “portfolio” or “book” is vital for a fashion model, although less necessary for commercial models. In the larger markets pictures should be 9”x12” or tearsheets from published work. In smaller markets 8x10 may be acceptable, but you should check with local agencies to be sure. Some agencies have adopted other sizes for "walkaround" books, while keeping the "main book(s) at 9x12. For commercial models it is helpful if your comp (or portfolio) contains shots of you portraying some of the “types” that get commercial castings, and that are appropriate to your look. If you can look like a doctor, executive, “young mom”, “active retiree”, “character”, or any other frequently requested “type” you should ensure that you have pictures showing you in clothes and a setting, and with the “look” or attitude appropriate to that type. Also if you are planning on being a “body” or parts model your comp should contain a picture of your specialty as well. Some models with an especially strong specialty may choose to have a second comp card printed which focuses on that specialty.
Your agency should advise you on the contents of your comp and portfolio, but a large market commercial agency will often simply accept one (if it is well done) from new models.
Theatrical castings require a headshot, 8”x10” glossy and done in the style used in the theatrical market. (Note: color headshots are used in California and New York City. In other markets, either Black and White or color may be used. Check with a talent agency in your area for guidance. A lot of them will be needed for submissions to castings, so we strongly recommend that they be mass printed (laser or offset) rather than original photographic prints. We do not recommend you print your own headshots on a computer - it simply sends a message to the casting director that you are not professional enough to get good pictures printed. It is not uncommon for performers to have more than one headshot with different looks, so that a choice most appropriate to an upcoming casting can be submitted.
Child performers or models have less demanding requirements for submission. Most casting directors understand that children change rapidly as they grow up, and do not require full comp cards or portfolios. A simple headshot (8”x10”), reproduced in quantity, should be enough for most purposes, and in some markets simple snapshots are acceptable.
As recently as 2001 most agencies published “headsheets” of their own at infrequent intervals – typically once per year, although some only do one every two years. Some also published updates at more frequent intervals for new models that they wanted to highlight to their customers. These headsheets were advertising for the agency itself, and contained pictures of the models that they felt best represented them to their clients. They may be simple compilations of small shots of the faces of selected models. They may choose some models (or for smaller agencies, all their models) to publish pages much like a composite card, with a variety of pictures and stats.
These agency headsheets were an excellent marketing tool for the model also – it was not uncommon for a casting director to make a name-request for a model based on pictures they find in the agency headsheet.
Lately the traditional agency headsheet and agency book has largely been replaced by an agency website which serves the same purposes, but a few agencies are still producing them, or small flyers to send out as promotional items.
There is a hierarchy - a food chain - in the modeling industry. We won't deal with staff like stylists, but in the chain you will find yourself in, it works like this: Clients rule the world. Advertising agencies speak for them - they generally determine who will be used in any campaign, although they may delegate some of that choice to a photographer. And from a photographer's perspective in the commercial world, the ad agencies (or in-house equivalent in the corporate world) are who they have to sell themselves to.
On a shoot, there may be a client rep or ad agency rep present - an art director, for instance. If so, they call a lot of the shots. Photographers have a fair amount of freedom in many commercial shoots, but ultimately their work is commissioned by the agency, and they do listen.
And on that same shoot, the one person who takes direction from everybody is the model. (S)he is at the bottom of the food chain. She doesn't hire anybody, she doesn't give anybody directions, she doesn't determine the creative direction of the shoot. That is the responsibility of the art director or the photographer.
A model is a commodity. There are lots of them out there, and it is a competitive world. The ones that get hired are the ones that, first, have the look required to do the job, and second that other players higher in the food chain like to work with.
Models who want to argue, or even tell people that they are doing something wrong, are simply not wanted. You can be right. You can exercise your right to speak. You can be unemployed.
If you want to be part of the decision process, become an art director or photographer. Not a model.
We don't mean to imply that a model is not part of the creative process (we can hear the models screaming now) - but as the collaborative junior partner, whose job it is to be helpful and creative when asked, and otherwise to be quiet.
What we have just described is the reality of the world you commercial models say you want to enter. There are lots of individual photographers out there doing their own thing that these rules apply to much more loosely. And even for them, the rule applies. If you want to be hired (in any field, not just modeling) be someone that your employer wants to work with.
1. “Agency” Throughout these pages we will use the term “agent” frequently, and in the commonsense meaning of the term. In the New York market (and many others) many “agencies” really are not agencies at all - they are “model (or talent) management companies.” There is a difference in what these two types of companies do, and they way they are treated by law and certain Union contracts.
Talent agencies have a fairly simple job: to find work for their models. They may (and often do) find it useful to invest a little effort in advising models on what to put into their books and other things a model needs to know, but that is not their primary function. By law in New York, or if franchised by a Union, they are limited to a 10% commission on the work they find their models.
Model management companies, by contrast, are responsible for managing all aspects of a model’s career, and provide a much wider range of services and advice. In New York they typically charge a 20% commission from their models, although some companies charge more. There are no significant, true "model agencies" in New York City and many other cities; they are usually "model management companies.
Whenever the term “agency” is used in these pages it means both a true agency and a “model management company” unless otherwise specified.
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