Have you ever seen an ad for children’s clothes and wondered, “How did they find these kids?” Adults have Tyra Banks to discover them (...sort of), but who’s going around telling the children in this country that they’re still in the running towards becoming America’s next top child model? Earlier this month I talked with the mother of a five-year-old model in an attempt to figure that out. We spoke about how her daughter was “discovered,” the way the job affects both of them, and how well it pays.
Names and other content has been altered slightly to keep the subject and her daughter anonymous.
JEZEBEL: Is she in school yet?
MOTHER: Yes. She goes to school every day, 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
How was she “discovered”?
Long story short, I grew up with the [family who owns The Department Store.] Kathryn was on the advertising side [at the company] and was putting together a kids line for little girls. She follows me on Instagram and thought that Sophia would be a perfect fit. She said in an email that she kind of curated the line around Sophia’s style? Which was flattering, but I don’t know how accurate that is.
Because of all the Instagrams?
Yeah. I started last year when she started going to school. I would take a picture of her outfit, not every day but a couple times a week, if it was particularly cute or really ridiculous. And I had this big collection of just her built up in my Instagram, and Kathryn just saw it and put this line together, and then Sophia was the face of it!
How was her first real photo shoot? Before, you were taking pictures of her, so it was fun, because the photographer was Mom—what was it like when it was a stranger taking the photos?
She has a pretty natural talent for it, which was good, because on our first set, the people that worked with her were not really kid people? There was maybe one other kid person.
She was used to me telling her what worked and what didn’t and why, but that first shoot was different. I was still there but I wasn’t in focus as much. I had to step in a few times and get her back on track. But for the most part she was just feeding off of their excitement over how cute she was and how well she was doing, so it turned out really well.
How many has she gone on so far?
Five or six. We started last September.
How have they changed since then?
We’ve used two different photographers with [the department store]—this one guy we’ve worked with more than the other, who has a daughter that’s Sophia’s age. I would say for the most part she’s gotten better just ‘cause she’s had more practice, but it really depends on who’s on set that day. If it’s a new stylist and she’s weirded out or doesn’t like their taste as much, she’s not as excited about it. Like one day, that particular photographer was having an off day, and that day she almost cried. She made a full recovery and got some great shots, but the way people work with her—and I don’t know if that’s true of kids in general—affects how her pictures turn out.
But, aside from that one day, she’s loved it every time. She loves getting her hair and makeup done. She loves working with the stylists. She likes the actual picture taking okay, but it’s not her favorite part. I think her favorite part is getting to go to school afterwards with her hair and makeup done.
So the shoots are in the morning?
They’re generally in the morning, and having to get up at 5:00 a.m. and drive to a warehouse so she can shoot is pretty tedious. So the night before is when we do our prep- clean hair, no nail polish, clean, trim & file her nails, etc.
How long do they last?
About two hours, I would say. It’s not bad at all. They try to get it done early because of the kids, they have such a short attention span.
How many kids are usually there?
She’s the only one. They’ve only done one at a time.
That makes it easier.
She doesn’t mind it, because she likes adults better than other kids, so. She would prefer it that way.
Does she talk about it with her friends?
Yes. This is something we’ve been working on recently—not just randomly telling people that you work at The Department Store, because you don’t even work there. You work for them. She’ll tell a complete stranger, it’s embarrassing sometimes.
So you have to have lessons about not bringing it up to people on the street?
Yes, and it’s something different if someone says they saw her picture on the website. In that case, sure, you can tell them about it. Answer any questions they have. But when somebody asks you how you’re liking school, an appropriate response is not, “Fine, but you know I model?” I have to tell her stuff like that. She seems like she gets it. She’ll be okay for a little bit, but then it just comes out. She’s very proud of it.
Is Sophia going to continue modeling for the line? Or just this season? I don’t really understand how these things work.
I honestly don’t understand everything myself. They launched the line last fall, and she was the face of the fall campaign. They asked her to come back for the spring campaign too, so she shot that around Christmas. I mean, I think they will ask her back for next fall or maybe even some summer stuff, but we’re not contracted through them. We work with an agency called The Agency, and The Department Store has to go through them.
There are so many laws, and particular people you have to have on set, and certain things you have to do when kids are involved—in modeling, but just working in general. So companies that want to work with her have to go through an actual agency. We don’t have to just stick with The Department Store. we just shot a Mother’s Day campaign for another store here. A smaller boutique. And I’ll look at anything that comes on the table. The Department Store is big, for sure, and it’s a great jumping off point. I just don’t want to get stuck with them. I want her to be able to do whatever.
What do you think could be in the future?
Well obviously I don’t know what she’s even gonna want to do. You know, if she gets tired of it, I’m not gonna make her do it, even though I’d love for her to. Right now, we’ve talked about it. What she likes about it and what she doesn’t. What work she likes to do. She’s more into, it sounds hilarious to be saying this about a five-year-old, but she’s very interested in runway and live action modeling? One day, she wants to be a fashion designer or work the runway.
Does she do a lot of doodling?
Oh my gosh. Yes. [My friend] for Christmas got her this big fashion design book and these new colored pencils and a pencil box and it was better than any present that I gave her, I guarantee you that. I gave her a three and a half foot tall Barbie Dream House, taller than her, and all she wanted was this coloring book. She’s very much into it. Always styling stuffed animals and dolls and her friends and doing makeup and drawing and coloring dresses. She’s into it, for sure.
And if she’s suddenly not into it, it’s just gonna stop.
Yeah. In the fall of 2013 someone suggested we sign her with The Agency so she could get into modeling, so I asked her if that would be something she was interested in. At the time, it was not. So I didn’t make her do it, even though I thought it was a great idea and thought it would’ve been the cutest thing. But she didn’t wanna do it, and I can’t make her. So yeah, if she loses interest, we’re done.
That’s funny. “No, not this one, mom.”
She knows what she wants! It’s crazy. Very opinionated little kid.
How did the original Instagram photos get started?
Last year, when school started up, I would put together these little outfits and sometimes she would really want to wear something, but she looked [ridiculous], so I’d have to be like, “Let’s sub out this for this, and maybe don’t wear your pajama pants, but you could wear this skirt with your pajama shirt?” She was very big into Chuck Taylors at the time, so she wore a lot of those. I mean, I kind of started the looks, but she definitely has input. She will not wear something if she doesn’t want to. She’s kind of developed her own little style. Even now, I can tell how much she loves running around town, going to school, doing errands with her hair and makeup on point. That’s her favorite part about the whole deal. She just feels really great.
Do your friends and family contact you when they see Sophia on the website and in the emails? And how does she respond to that?
Yes, definitely. It’s still such a weird sensation. I remember a month ago or something like that, I was scrolling through my work emails, delete delete delete, and the department store one pops up and there’s Sophia. It startled me. I didn’t even give anyone a chance. I emailed everyone right away.
Apparently she’s in stores, in print—although we haven’t seen that in person. I’ve gotten a couple messages from people saying like, “I just went up the escalator at The Department Store and saw Sophia!” It kind of blows my mind. I think about how many people are looking at it, and can’t imagine how many people that would be.
Do you know if the line has done well?
From what I understand it’s doing all right, and they have more plans coming up, so it can’t be doing that bad.
You don’t have to get into specifics, but are they paying you fairly?
Yes, I think so. And I don’t mind talking specifics because it’s not my paycheck. If you want to know specifics, just ask.
Does she know how much she gets paid or are you just saving it?
I’m just going to tell you because I really don’t care. The agency takes a 20% cut, and she makes $50 an hour for the department store, so she works two hours and takes home 80 bucks, and that’s that.
Do they give you royalties if they keep reusing the images? How does that work?
No, but these pictures can only be used for six months or a year. There’s an expiration date on them. And they all have to come down. I don’t understand how all that works or who’s in charge of what there, but no, she just gets paid flat and the agency takes their cut. Oh, and you asked if she knows about the money?
It seems like a hard thing to talk about.
I think she knows more than your average five-year-old. I took her in there to sign the back of her little check the first time we put it in, so she knows she has money, and we just put it all into the same account that my dad and I put her college fund and savings account.
It’s a cool way to teach kids about money early on. She worked for it.
It is. And it’s totally hers. And if it’s something big that she wants and I don’t agree with it, I’m gonna make her spend her own money on it. As far as little stuff that she wants to buy, like best friend necklaces for her and her best friend, I make her do chores around the house so she has her own little stash from that for smaller things. She hasn’t had to tap into her big funds yet, but she does know about it.
Do you know any other parents and kids doing this?
Like I said, this is all through a third party. So I really don’t know anyone else who does something like this.
Images via Shutterstock.
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