Vivienne (center) for Pottery Barn Kids, 2008
The world of child modeling has earned a pretty bad reputation, thanks to reality TV and several press happy mothers.
A recent slew of train wreck rubber-necking TV favorites, from Toddlers and Tiaras to Dance Moms and "Human Barbie" Sarah Burge's Anderson Cooper moment, seems to have made gawking at stage parents -- and their unfortunate children -- the new American past-time. But despite however contemporary programming manages to sully the term "child model," parents are still lining their kids up for modeling work guilt-free.
Laura, a San Francisco mother of three, takes no issue with her nearly 5-year-old daughter Vivienne modeling a few times a year. The little girl first appeared in a shoot for Pottery Barn Kids at six months old after being signed to an agency. She has since appeared in print advertisements for Nordstrom's and Children's Place. Not only does Laura find the work to be "not controversial," but also completely unlike many of the extreme depictions of children in the entertainment industry.
"It isn't like what you see on Toddlers & Tiaras," says the mother. "It's kids being kids having their pictures taken, only they're being paid to wear what they are wearing or hold a certain toy."
Laura tells Mommyish that although she never put much thought into her children modeling, she was prompted by friends shortly after Vivienne was born. A relative put her in touch with JE Model and Laura submitted her daughter's information expecting to hear nothing in return. The very next day, Laura received a phone call from the agency. One meeting, a single contract, and a month later, Vivienne was appearing in her very first ad.
Contrary to now the infamous sexualizing portfolio of child model Thylane Blondeau, Vivienne's line of work is pretty harmless, according to her mother.
"The last shoot was for Pottery Barn Kids and she literally had a party with other kids while they took pictures. It's just like having your family pictures done, but she's getting paid."
Melissa , a mother of three children in the entertainment business in Beverly Hills and a former model herself, also finds the Toddlers & Tiaras stereotype to be unjust. Her two daughters, aged two and four, have had limited runway experience as well as appeared in ads for GAP and Old Navy. As a parent who has dealt with a wealth of negative criticism, she stands 110% behind her choices:
"Most people do not fully understand what it is we do. They see Toddlers & Tiaras and think that’s what the modeling world is. They’re wrong. Print work and beauty pageants are like night and day. They don’t spend hours in a chair getting their faces on. They don’t get dragged around and dolled up. The entertainment industry as a whole in California works very hard to ensure the rights and safety of children are protected."
Like Laura, Melissa maintains that either she or her husband is always on set when the kids are working.
"As parents it is our responsibility to make sure we know what's going on," she says.
Although neither mother has yet to feel that her daughter has been compromised in a shot, the media's appetite for sexualized little girls is a cultural tendency that concerns them. For now, Laura relegates that issue to Vivienne's teen years, affirming that she and her family will be crossing that metaphoric bridge when they come to it. Melissa also sees the trend as a "slippery slope" for her little girls -- and all the more reason she's determined to be a constant fixture on set.
"As parents it is our job to set boundaries for what we will and will not let our children do and adhere to those standards. We are very involved in our children’s careers and will continue to be because as they get older we want to make sure they are safe and are not exploited in any way," she says.
Kerri, mother of child actor and model Anthony Hobbs, has overseen her 7-year-old's career expand beyond the modeling portfolio to acting roles for Dreamworks and PBS. Another champion and advocate of her son's safety, she's definitely had her morals challenged for the sake of parts. But the vocal mother maintains that she has never hesitated in pulling Anthony from scenes she deems inappropriate. Despite what proclamations she has made as the parent, in her experience, some professionals have tried to bypass her boundaries in what she calls a "sly manner."
“Like for acting, productions will get you into negotiations and planning for shooting a project and pull a ‘hey, by the way, Anthony will have to use foul language,’ or ‘hey, by the way, there's nudity in this project. Anthony doesn't have to be in the same room, but it will be in the final cut and it will appear like he is,’” recalls the mother. “But that's when you have to be a strong enough personality and not be afraid to say, 'Thank you for the consideration, but I'll have to decline this project, but please keep Anthony in mind for the future.'"
Melissa too has witnessed some darker elements of the child modeling world – but not from professionals. From parents. Among her horror stories at auditions are that of the cringe-worthy stage mother, poking at her child to perform.
“I've seen parents get really mad at their kids, yelling at them for acting up or refusing to have their pictures taken,” she describes. “I also heard another mom talk about how upset she was that her school was going to turn her in for her child missing so much school.”
The child's enjoyment of the process is a strong component for Jay, father to 6-year-old Asia, who has been modeling in Japan since she was two years old. Despite how inconvenient their daughter's mini career is for both himself and his wife, they continue to ferry her to jobs because she loves what she does.
"We continue with it because she still enjoys it and asks when her next audition will be," Jay wrote Mommyish in an email. "The only incentive for us are the memories in the form of the final product. We send the catalogs or pictures to my parents and they really enjoy them."
Laura also maintains that the time commitment of modeling children can be particularly grueling on parents. In addition to being responsible for updating her child's portfolio, the mother also must keep her daughter's work permit updated, along with accompanying her to auditions and photo shoots. Between her daughter's hobby, her two other small children, and her personal business, she is relieved that her daughter only books jobs a few times a year.
"When she works or has an audition, it requires a bit of juggling on my end as I have to arrange for last minute care for my other kids. We've driven up to four hours away for a shoot with just one day notice. I don't want to do that too often!"
Like Asia, young Vivienne also enjoys the work and asks when she can audition again, learning many an important skill along the way.
"She is learning about having a good work ethic, being responsible, and respectful of others," Laura attests.
The money is also an incentive. Although not much, Laura maintains that the few hundreds of dollars here and there -- after the agency takes their cut, that is -- are being stored away for college. Jay also confirms that even in the Japanese market, his little girl doesn't make much -- about $2,000 in the last four years or so.
Due to the low pay, Melissa hopes that her little ones eventually maintain acting careers where the pay is 20 times what it is in modeling, provided that her kids are still happy in the business. Many expenses along the way, such as gas or taxis, can have parents reassessing the massive time commitment in the first place, especially along side more conventional child hobbies. Although, Laura doesn't see it that way.
"There are kids in baseball or swimming who have parents with more time commitments than I do with my daughter's modeling," she says.