Natacha Andrews recently signed up her 4-year-old daughter, Anaya, with a modeling agency. Anaya says she wants to be "like Tyra"—that is, model-turned-media-personality Tyra Banks.
Her mother, a 36-year-old Phoenix attorney, has another motivation. "I know people who successfully saved money this way," she says. In a weak economy, with five kids' college tuitions to plan for, Ms. Andrews says, "I want to make the most out of whatever resources we have."
More parents are signing their children up with modeling agencies and talent classes, in search of fame and, even better, a little extra money in a weak economy. Agencies like Wilhelmina International Inc.'s Wilhelmina Kids and Teens and Funnyface Today Inc. in New York City and Peak Models & Talent in Los Angeles say they have seen the numbers of child applicants grow in the past few years. Charlie Winfield, head booker at Funnyface, estimates the agency's children's division has seen a 50% increase in applicants in the past three years. Modeling Camp in Tyson's Corner, Va., saw a 30% increase in attendance at its workshops last summer from the year earlier and plans to expand to New York and Florida next year.
The economy is driving the trend, says Funnyface's Mr. Winfield. The agency is getting more calls from parents who are out of work and now have the time to take their children to auditions. With kids' modeling wages typically about $100 to $125 an hour, he says, "it's another way to subsidize their income."
Also contributing to the growing number of mini-models are reality-TV shows featuring children, agencies say. Such shows have transmitted the culture of fame-seeking; some shows—"Toddlers and Tiaras" and "Little Miss Perfect"—even follow the lives of child pageant contestants. Page Parkes Corp., a talent agency in Houston, Texas, is just one of the agencies seeing more interest from parents who want their children to be on television. Separately, modeling and acting jobs have become increasingly open to many ethnicities, encouraging a broader swath of families, such as Latinos and Asians, to pursue careers in entertainment.
There's just one problem: As advertisers cut their budgets, there are fewer modeling jobs available. "The quality of jobs and how many options are out there is definitely lower this year," says Jason Jeffords, owner of Puddletown Talent, a Portland, Ore., agency representing 300 kids ages 15 and under.
That means more competition—and, for the kids, more rejection. Carol Stevenson, a public-relations consultant, signed her three kids up with Peak Models & Talent because she wanted them to start saving for college. But she has felt the effects of the job market at auditions. Since June, they have gone to about 12—fewer than she expected. "It's been painfully slow," says the 39-year-old from Stevenson Ranch, Calif. While Jacob, 9, and Annika, 8, have landed a photo shoot for a catalog, her 6-year-old daughter, Sabrina, has yet to get a job.
Breaking the news to children when they don't make the cut can be tough. Sabrina is "a little sad," Ms. Stevenson says. "We've explained to her the best way that we can that for different reasons they are looking for different looks."
Still, parents are flocking to the business. TheCuteKid.com, a site that lets parents submit photos that are judged by casting agents, saw its membership double to two million in the past year. The site was launched by Internet marketing company Parent Media Group Inc. in 2006.
The Cost of Breaking In
In the best of times, modeling is a challenging business. Many parents don't anticipate the initial costs. Funnyface and Peak say parents spend between $200 to $400 for a photo session plus about $100 for composite cards—resumes of sorts that display models' height, weight and photos. (Only some parents of babies—who change so quickly that photos are soon out of date—can get away with using their own snapshots.) But photographers' charges vary wildly, so some families pay far more.
Ms. Stevenson paid about $1,000 per kid for the photo sessions, composite cards and separate photo prints. What's more, parents generally have to spring for new photos as children's looks change. "Getting into this industry is so much more expensive than I expected," says Ms. Stevenson. So far, she's spent more than her kids have earned.
Families also face costs for things like travel and grooming. Cynthia Serra, 42, of Lewis Center, Ohio, registered her two daughters, Jennelle, 7, and Arianna, 9, for the Actors, Models & Talent Competition, a convention that links participants with casting directors and agencies, in Orlando, Fla., next January. She plans on looking for seasonal work to help pay for the travel and hotel rooms for her family of five. "I will be getting a second job to pay for it all between now and January," she says.
The opportunity, she says, is worth the expenses. "I believe they'll do a wonderful job with it," she adds. "My girls are very excited."
Consumer advocates caution that parents who are new to the business may be vulnerable to schemes that seem to guarantee fame and fortune but fail to deliver. Last month, the New York State Consumer Protection Board urged parents to be careful when signing contracts with talent agencies that promise stardom.
"Everyone wants to think that their darling is the most talented," says Mindy Bockstein, the agency's chairperson and executive director. "They get inflated promises or ideas of grandeur. Sometimes that gets the best of them."
For instance, some outfits pressure parents to leave a deposit or to purchase head shots or acting lessons from the agency or an affiliate. The Consumer Protection Board recommends that parents ask for a list of its successful client representations and request written references about the company from clients. They should be wary of agencies that ask for money up front.
Critics of the industry say that child modeling can do more than just break the bank. Kids don't know to anticipate potential rejection, which could hurt their self-esteem in the long run.
'You May Not Be Wanted'
"Children at a really young age have no idea of what is conceptually involved in this," says Syd Brown, clinical and neuropsychologist in Bethesda, Md. "They don't know that if your body changes in the wrong way, you may not be wanted anymore."
Plus, he says, a few parents' reasons for getting their kids involved may not be entirely altruistic. "Is there some sort of narcissism involved on the part of the parents? That's probably true in some cases."
Indeed, some parents worry about what they are teaching their kids. Ms. Andrews, the mother of the 4-year-old who aspires to be a supermodel, says she is concerned about sending her daughter mixed messages. "Teaching her that how people look is not supposed to be the most important thing, and then saying, 'Oh put on your pretty clothes and smile,' it's a bit of a contradiction," Ms. Andrews says.
But others say that they see no harm. "It's something that I think is fun, and it doesn't hurt the child," says Jennifer Ormond, of Quincy, Mass, whose two youngest children model. "It's a way that they can have a little money set aside, and if it's not touched for 18 years, I think that's a good chunk of change."
In fact, she says the industry gave her an unanticipated benefit: She was able to get some one-on-one time with her 4-year-old daughter, Julia, in April, when the girl was selected for an ad in an L.L. Bean catalog that paid $600. Ms. Ormond left her other kids with her husband and traveled with Julia to Maine for the shoot. "That was awesome, because it was three days of me and my daughter."
Julie Dines, 42, reaped another surprising gain: When she took her two children to meet with Funnyface's Mr. Winfield, he asked if she had ever considered modeling herself. "I said, 'I think I'm way too old for this stuff,' " Ms. Dines says. But she tried anyway and became the first one in the family to get work through the agency. "Ironically, I'm the first one that gets an assignment for a print ad in Oprah magazine," she says. "We were cracking up."
Her kids' feelings are more mixed. "I'm happy for my mom because she got a job," says her 12-year-old daughter Lauren. "But there was also a little jealousy."