The Modeling Industry's Teen Dream Scam

Suckers are not born a minute, but dreamers are. We all dream — of fame, fortune, and glory — and for teenage girls, all three are rolled into one tenacious fantasy: the dream of being a fashion model.

Enter the Model Search, an event run by various talent-hunting corporations who promise a shot at making these dreams come true for fees ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars.

One such Model Search was underway last month at a hotel in midtown NYC, where, over a few days, thousands arrived to impress representatives from over 100 international modeling and talent agencies. In the modeling showcase alone, over 500 people ages 13-25 strutted down an elevated runway constructed in the hotel's ballroom, alongside which rows of agents sat and watched.

I followed a modeling agency's scout — let's call her Allie — as she attended the search for three days. As it turns out, Allie and the hundreds of agents here are not too interested in what's on the runway. They actually find it all rather boring and tasteless.

DAY ONE: CATTLE CALL
Set to the steady beat of loud pop tunes, the lights dim to blue, an announcer blandly states, "Number 6651," and a young woman walks to the center of the runway, where she strikes a pose, probably intended to create the effect of a sexy silhouette like the opening credits of a Bond movie. Instead, the young woman does an awkward shuffle getting into a pose, thrusting arms back, dropping the chin, then waiting for the cue. Bright lights illuminate the stage and two giant screens display her photos (is that a Glamour Shots picture?) and she charges to the end of the runway for another shuffle-and-pose in front of a row of judges. Number 6651 then turns and walks off the end of the runway via a set of portable stairs. Her total time on the runway: 27 seconds. Her total cost to be here: $5,000.

Every so often, a piercing screech of cheering adolescent girls explodes from a corner of the room to show support for a friend onstage. "That's really irritating," says Allie, the scout, sitting next to me alongside the runway.

Onstage, the girls' bodies don't seem to be of their own possession, more like alien vessels performing forced personas ranging from the diva (all hips and bouncing shoulders) to the beauty queen (with the plastered smile and regal gait). I worry at several moments that someone might not make it to the end of the runway, especially the nervous wrecks, who have quivering shoulders and arms that resist movement entirely.

"See what you've been missing?" Allie says leaning over.

Unlike the agents, who wear mostly black and little makeup, the runway is awash in color, with smoky eye shadows, glossy lips, puffy dresses, and consistently high heels. The skirts are short, the accessories are camp: feathers, hats, knee-highs, a tutu! One outfit consists of white high-heels, red-striped socks, pink hot pants, and a sweater of gold sequins. I'll give her credit for covering her crotch, having already seen an unfair share of butt cheeks exposed in micro-minis.

"You know what's really sad?" Allie leans over again. "These people are 14 and 15."

The saddest thing at a model search contest is not the sight of girls performing womanhood defined as display object. Nor is it their exceedingly slim chances to ever be the real deal. What's really sad is the state of the agents: they sit with arms folded, yawning regularly, checking their BlackBerrys. After a solid two hours, Allie has seen over 300 contestants. She's recorded just eight numbers for callbacks.

Given the slim pickings and what looks like a big parody of their industry, why do agents bother coming to a model search?

Because another kind of search is in full swing downstairs in the hotel bar, where agents from around the world convene to gossip, network, and commence the delicate work of negotiating the global trade in models, essentially making deals across regional and overseas markets.

At the bar, Allie grabs a table and a glass of white wine and gets to work, greeting agents from Tokyo, L.A., Paris, and Houston. She pulls out her iPad to showcase portfolios of her models that are available to travel abroad.

Meanwhile, agents ridicule the wannabe runway, from the "hooker heels" to the outfit choices. About their physiques, Allie adds gravely, "I've never seen so many out of shape bodies."

"Ugh…and tomorrow's the swimsuits," notes Jane, an agent from L.A. "Who wants to see that?"

DAY TWO: SWIMWEAR
On the runway, there are few swimsuit edition bodies, and the agents sit unimpressed. "It's a crap shoot," an Atlanta agent says when I ask if she expects to find any new faces today.

Not just anyone gets this chance to meet the agents. It's invitation only, and hopefuls are recruited to spend their thousands on the Model Search through expensive modeling schools like Barbizon in strip malls across the country.

Some agents are even apologetic for what they see is the exploitation of vulnerable, if foolish, kids and their parents. But they need to be at the event's cocktail party to network, and in exchange for the complimentary cocktails and hotel room, agents participate in the official events. It's not that the Model Search never works for a lucky few — one in a million like Jessica Alba have passed through similar doors — but this is a poor way of finding an agent. For $5,000 cheaper, any hopeful can walk into an agency's "Open Call" for an evaluation.

Indeed, the agents' cocktail party is like the hall of fame of model managers: here are renowned scouts rubbing shoulders with the ex-managers of supermodels. A young hopeful would have reason to want to be here. Unfortunately for her, this cocktail hour really is invitation only.

DAY THREE: CALLBACKS
The odds of getting a callback are not good: Allie issues just 23, which is less than 5% of the hopefuls she's seen. The odds of a callback leading to stardom are even worse: "I must have been really out of it yesterday," Jane from L.A. whispers. "Some of them when they turn up [for callbacks] you're just like, ugh, what was I thinking!"

Seated at one of 100 tables in the ballroom, Allie greets a 17 year-old brunette who sits down for her callback. Allie asks her the usual: Where are you from, love? How old are you? What's mom's name? After taking digital pictures, Allie explains that she might be interested in seeing more, "But" — and here comes the clincher — "you'll need to get in shape." The girl is 5'9" and probably 130 pounds.

"I feel creepy telling you this," Allie continues, "But we are scouts so we notice these things, and I did see you in swimsuit yesterday. Now I can typically tell if a girl is at the bone and can't lose anymore, and you have a little, um, bit of tush you can shed." The girl politely agrees, "I've got some flesh, I know," and promises to work out and send new pictures.

Across the room, Jane is speaking to a thin fresh-faced girl. Later, looking over her digital images, she says, "You know what it is? Her eyes, nose, mouth, forehead — she's uneven. Her face is asymmetrical, see?" As an afterthought, she adds, "Yeah, it's a shame, really."

The room empties by lunchtime, and most of the agents have seen enough. I ask the owner of a Hong Kong agency if she found any future talent. "No," she replies, shaking her head. "To be honest it's just a networking event. The girls, most of them don't even have the right measurements. For most of them, today is going to be a wake-up call."

But downstairs in the lobby, excited girls congregate and chatter. A group of 15-year-olds gather in the corner, looking at each other's pictures. The cost of the Model Search, they explain, was "definitely worth it" because it was a good experience: "It was really fun," a girl says, although another adds, "I wish you didn't have to be so tall to be a model, then I could do it." Still, she received 2 callbacks, and is pleased with the event, if not with being 5'6".

A Tokyo agent carrying measuring tape walks past us, accompanied by a noticeably stunning brunette — turns out she's already a working model scouted last year on the streets of Soho, and she's here to audition for potential work in Japan. The girls don't seem to notice. One of them is now chatting about the next upcoming Model Search in Boston. So the dream, and the scheme, continues. "I just want to make money and have fun," she explains when I ask her why she wants to be model. "And when I grow up I want to be a doctor, and just, like, model on the side."

Who wants a wake-up call, when your dreams are this sweet?

Ashley Mears is Assistant Professor of Sociology at Boston University.