Modeling 101: Finding a Seat in the Big Tent


There are two common misconceptions about modeling for women: 1) you have to be 6’ tall, and 2) if you’re short but really spunky, #1 doesn’t apply.  Both notions, alas, are wrong; unfortunately, they’re also both correct.  If you want to walk a runway at a major fashion show in any of the world’s primary markets—say, New York, London, Paris, or Milan—you will have to be at least 5’9” tall and weigh no more than 115 pounds.  And no, they absolutely won’t make an exception for you, regardless of your spunky quotient.  On the other hand, you could be a lot shorter and be a runway star in the fashion show put on by the Macy’s store in your local mall.  It’s also true that being spunky, as well as a whole lot of other characteristics we discuss in And You Call Yourself a Professional, does matter.  All other things being equal, people with determination, discipline, and highly developed social skills get more work than rude, lazy slugs do.  The problem in trying to make a general statement about the requirements of the modeling industry is that it’s a huge business, with numerous distinct genres and sub-specialties, each with its own modeling needs and criteria.  Whether or not you have a realistic chance to make it as a model depends first of all on being realistic about which type of modeling we’re talking about.

Generally, modeling jobs fall into one of three categories: Fashion, Commercial, and Glamour.  You may also see other ways of dividing the industry, however, such as Editorial, Catalog and Commercial, and Advertising.  Part of the problem is that the categories often overlap, and the overlap can spawn a specific category that looks like something unique but really isn’t.

For example, Editorial is sometimes specifically defined as modeling for magazine articles and features that isn’t advertising.  If the local city-profile magazine is doing an article on female executives, they might interview and photograph a real executive or they might hire a model to pose as a generic example of an executive.  In that case you wouldn’t be selling a product (advertising); you’d be illustrating a story (editorial).  Since magazines themselves draw a formal distinction between advertising and editorial content, keeping that distinction for modeling has some merit.  On the other hand, some sources simply attach the word “Editorial” to other categories as a means of indicating that the modeling, whether it’s “Feature Editorial” or “Advertising Editorial,” is being performed for publication in a magazine.  You can always assume when you see the word “editorial” attached to a modeling job description that it means the target display is a magazine, whether print or online.  You can’t assume, however, that it is not advertising related.

“Advertising,” when used as a specific category, generally refers to modeling that involves wearing a product or demonstrating a service in print media, including magazines, newspapers, brochures, point-of-sale displays, or on packaging.  The products being advertised may or may not be considered fashionable, and most advertising modeling wouldn’t be considered by many in the industry to fall under the “Fashion” category.  On the other hand, if you’re wearing Donna Karan in a Vogue ad, no one would argue that you’re not modeling fashion.  And if you’re sporting a sexy bra in a Victoria’s Secret flyer, you’re cross-modeling elements of Fashion, Glamour, Commercial, Catalog, and Advertising, with a bit of the Lingerie specialty thrown in for good measure.

To make it even more confusing, there are various niches such as Junior, Plus-Size, and Parts (or Product), which cross over the categories however you distinguish them, and become categories in themselves.  A Plus-Size model, e.g., can easily work in Fashion, Commercial, and Glamour, and her statistical requirements are defined by the Plus-Size description rather than the modeling categories.

You get the picture.  The boundaries that define the various modeling categories aren’t that rigid, which is why a model whose personal stats don’t fit the typical expectations occasionally slips into a category she doesn’t seem to be suited for.  But that’s rare; there are plenty of models available who do fit the standards, and the industry just doesn’t need to take a chance on an exception.  Still, now that we’ve suggested it can’t be done, we’ll try to describe the Big Three—Fashion, Commercial, and Glamour—in definitive terms that will help you figure out where you can apply without needing an exception just to be considered.


Let’s face it—when you say “modeling,” this is what most people think about.  Nobody dreams about being a spokesmodel for Ace Hardware; girls who grow up with modeling fantasies imagine themselves walking the runway at Couture Fashion Week in NYC or being fussed over by a team of stylists for a $5000-a-day Pierre Cardin ad in Elle or the cover shot of Vogue.  Unfortunately, fashion modeling is by far the most competitive and least accessible.

That height/weight standard is real: you have to be able to fit the clothes and the clothes are designed for tall beanpoles–at least 5’9” and v-e-r-y slender with a long, graceful neck.  Curves are non-essential (36″ hips, max), and a C-cup is usually too big.  Lips are the only place where “full” is helpful and they should open to a set of beautiful choppers.  Why so restrictive?  Couple of reasons.  One, these are original creations and the designer isn’t going to waste time and money making a variety of sizes just in case some gorgeous short gal shows up; and two, fabric drapes better on long frames, and the larger picture a 6-foot body creates just reads better in the back row of the auditorium.  You want fairness?  Get into something that lets you compete for a government contract.  You want to be a fashion model?  Be really tall and really skinny.  By the way, if any guys are reading this, 6’0” is your minimum, and if you plan to stand next to any 6’ female models, taller still would be still better (but not taller than 6’2″).  You need a good head of hair, and a jacket size of 40-42.  And if you’re starting to feel like the star of a cattle auction by now, get used to it.

What about that local fashion show for Dillards?  Those aren’t original designs; those are off-the-rack finished clothes, and they will have something to fit your 5’2” frame.  They also won’t pay you, at least not more than a token fee and a thank you.  The simple truth about haute couture fashion modeling is that very few models can actually make a living at it, and the jobs that pay real money only happen in a handful of places in the entire world.  In the U.S., that’s almost certain to be New York or maybe Chicago, with a slim possibility of work in secondary markets like Miami or L.A.  Sure, Eugene, Oregon’s Nike might need models for a shoe campaign, but they’re probably working through a New York ad agency.  Here in the Northwest, pickings are slim- to non-existent.  The bottom line: if you want to make a living as a high fashion model, you need to live where the livings are being made, and if you’re not willing to relocate, this is not your genre.

One more thing, maybe the most  important of all: virtually all fashion work is booked through a modeling agency, and the biggest jobs go through the biggest agencies.  This is not a genre you can tackle on your own.  If you want to work in fashion, your first job is selling yourself to a well-connected agency with an actual office in or strong ties to one of the big markets.  Local agencies can find you local work, but unless they have some sort of “farm team” relationship with a large-market major, they do not have the clout to place you in high-end work.

In summary, Fashion may get all the glory, but it’s a small fraction of the work being done in the modeling industry.  Don’t fit?  Don’t worry, most working models don’t.


That’s because the vast majority of mainstream modeling happens in the Commercial genre.  Commercial modeling is about selling things through advertising and marketing, and most, though not all, commercial modeling jobs will result in an advertisement.  The ads may appear in print or the web-based version of print, or in live performance on a television commercial.

By the way, you may be wondering, why is this different from Fashion modeling?  Isn’t that about selling?  Well, yes, of course; it’s just that Fashion is such a specialized branch of commercial modeling with such a rigid set of criteria that it has become a unique category all its own.  That department-store runway show we mentioned above that you did in the local mall?  Not really fashion modeling.  That’s commercial, although it might be, confusingly, referred to as “commercial fashion.”  The products you’re modeling are off-the-shelf and the audience is local and low-visibility.  When Gucci shows product at Fashion Week in Milan, what they’re really selling (and the models are modeling) is the Gucci brand.  When the local Dillard’s store asks you to model Gucci, they’re trying to sell handbags and shoes.  In many ways, that’s the fundamental difference—Fashion sells image; Commercial sells product.

Take the famous Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition as an example.  Hoping for a boost to their typically poor sales during the slow winter sports season, in 1964 the magazine decided to produce a swimsuit article featuring beautiful women in bikinis on a warm beach in February.  For the models, this was classic feature work—illustrating a magazine article for the narrowly defined purpose of boosting sales of the magazine.  Originally, the only thought given to image was damage control—most thought that a blatant appeal to sex would cheapen the image of a sports magazine.  Now, of course, the swimsuit edition is not only Sports Illustrated’s best selling issue, but it has become a phenomenon in its own right, spinning off documentary television programs, numerous videos, and calendars. The swimsuit edition is often credited with validating the bikini as legitimate beach apparel, which of course also means it should be credited for creating the swimsuit-model genre as a distinct offshoot of its lingerie cousin.   If you’re a bikini designer, having your designs appear in SI is the equivalent to demonstrating them on a runway at Fashion Week.  For models, appearing in the SI swimsuit edition has become the definitive route to elevating a career to supermodel status.  In short, the annual swimsuit edition has now become a major fashion event and getting selected to model in it is the pinnacle of a swimsuit model’s achievement.

The same narrative could be spun for Victoria’s Secret.  What started out as simple commercial catalog work for the models has now been celebritized enough to make the release of each Victoria’s Secret catalog a fashion event, spawning television shows and Internet presentations and transforming a few VS models into supermodel celebrities.  This is not the Sears catalog, and modeling for Victoria’s Secret is no longer just about selling bras—it’s also about reinforcing the cheeky brand VS has created for itself.  If you’re in the catalog, you’re modeling Fashion, not Commercial.  Sure, your layout may sell some product, but that’s not really the point anymore.

Other than the fact that Fashion is just higher profile than Commercial with an important difference in its selling objective, you probably don’t care what title your modeling has, as long as it pays.  You should, though, because one key difference for models is that the criteria for getting selected are much looser for Commercial work.  In fact, there’s a place for virtually every age and body type in Commercial modeling.

Being pretty never hurts, but, probably thanks to Miller Lite’s decision to use retired pro football players in its advertising 20 years ago, the dominant trend in non-fashion advertising has been to feature models with “average” looks.  Advertising is vastly more sophisticated now than it used to be, primarily because consumers are more savvy.  By the time we reach buying age, we’ve all seen thousands of commercials on TV and been bombarded by clumsy advertising in every medium.  We’re mostly immune to the straight, naked pitch, and advertisers have to be a lot sneakier to get our attention.  One way of doing that is to tell a story, effectively transforming a sales pitch into a narrative that we can relate to, and most of us don’t relate to supermodel looks.  What does an hour-glass figure and a button nose have to do with selling Toro lawn-mowers?  That ad is more convincing if it features someone who looks like your own crabgrass-hating neighbor.

Do you look like a nerd?  A sweet grey-haired old lady with a wicked gleam in her eye?  A small child with freckles and spikey red hair?  Can you be goofy, quirky, interesting?  Somewhere an ad agency “creative” is working on a concept for a campaign that needs a model who looks exactly like you. The dominant consumer market for the past 40 years has been the Baby Boomer generation, most of whom are now turning 60.  Hint: luxury cars, fine jewelry, designer clothes (and Viagra) aren’t pitched to teenagers.  If you’re a fit, average-looking middle-aged guy with some acting ability who can deliver a credible line reading on camera, agencies are looking for you.  You have natural marketing appeal for the biggest target out there.  In short, the range of work available in the Commercial sector is extensive, and the appearance qualifications are similarly diverse.

The line reading thing, by the way, is important—in addition to television, there is also live modeling work, greeting visitors and handing out products at venues like trade shows and shopping malls.  Think of it as “modeling in motion,” and if you can walk and talk at the same time, your stock as a commercial model goes up considerably.  Not glamorous enough for you?  Trade show models—often referred to as “greeters”—routinely earn $400-600 a day.  No, it’s not glamorous, but this is the business of modeling.  Do you want to wear a title or do you want to wear a name tag and earn a paycheck?

One key similarity between Fashion and Commercial modeling, however, is that virtually all paying jobs are delivered through an agency.  Whether the campaign is generated by the corporation’s internal marketing department or an external advertising firm, if it requires models, nobody’s going to go looking for you on Craig’s List; they’re going to call an agency.  You don’t have an agent?  You don’t have a career.   The good news is that while Fashion work is almost exclusively restricted to a few major cities, Commercial models are doing paid work in every reasonably sized urban market, and local modeling agencies can be effective without needing any major-market connections.


If you’re getting the idea that trying to model without an agent is impossible, you’re mostly right.  The one exception is Glamour modeling, which mainstream agencies rarely represent.  Although the term as applied to a specific modeling genre is fairly new, the practice of depicting attractive women in various stages of undress with an erotic intent has a long history.

Not surprisingly, given the popularity of the nude as an art subject since the first caveman decided to decorate his walls with pics of his mate, some of the first subjects photographed after the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 were risqué nudes.  The early 1900s saw the debut of the “naughty French postcard” and other art of that period exhibiting the kind of opulence and even decadence that you might expect as one cultural era comes to an end and another begins, including frankly erotic subjects.

Hollywood Glamour - Jean Harlow By the late 1920s, Hollywood had begun to understand the marketing potential in its glamorous reputation, and the film industry began to publicize its stars with sensual portraits photographed in a dramatic style that has come to be known as “Hollywood Glamour.”


Betty Grable's famous WWII poster




An offshoot of that—the “pin-up” photo of a scantily dressed woman in a playful pose—had been around for some time, and was an extremely popular poster subject during World War II.  Betty Grable’s famous pinup in a bathing suit was so popular with American GI’s that it was featured in Life Magazine’s “100 Photographs that Changed the World” issue.









Marilyn Monroe_1953 Playboy Cover Not featured in Life, but equally foundational in defining the modern notion of glamour as a frankly sexual genre and popularizing it for a mainstream audience was the debut issue of Playboy Magazine in 1953.   Having the good sense to use the world’s most recognizable Hollywood starlet as its first nude centerfold instantly catapulted the magazine past its more conservative rivals.

Marilyn Monroe_Playboy Pictorial 1953When asked what she had on during the photo session, Marilyn Monroe famously answered, “the radio,” and because of her immense popularity, no one gasped.  Modern glamour was born, and Playboy essentially defined its parameters for most of the next 50 years.





So what, then, is Glamour modeling?  Sexy, yes—that appears to be a given—but does it have to be nude?  If it’s neither Fashion nor Commercial and agencies don’t place the models, then who’s the client?

Although the sheer numbers of people working in the field guarantee some squishiness in its definition, Glamour is generally considered to be sensual imagery that HINTS at sexiness, but draws the line at depicting actual sexual acts.  Squishy, right?  Comes with the territory, frankly.  It might be easier to discuss what Glamour modeling is not.

First, by almost everyone’s definition, Glamour is not pornography.  Although the subject matter is usually adult, think of it as PG- or R-rated rather than X-rated, romantic and/or sexually alluring rather than overtly sexual (yep,  still  squishy—just roll with it).  The model may be fully or semi-clothed, and any apparent nudity is usually of the “implied” variety where the nipples and genitalia are concealed behind fabric or posing tricks, such as the notorious “hand bra.”  To be sure, Glamour modeling can include nudity, but that is generally further segregated into a “Glamour nude” sub-category.  You have to consider the venue; if you’re modeling for Playboy, you should assume your Glamour assignment will require nudity; if the client is one of the new “lad-boy” magazines like Maxim and FHM that specialize in romanticized implied-nude imagery, probably not.  If it’s the amateur “garage glamour” photographer down the street, it’s best to clarify the point long before you get to the session.  More on that below.

So who’s the client?  Well, first of all, Glamour is almost exclusively a photography genre, although there have been a few well-known painters along the way whose style established a characteristic illustration look that is often emulated.  Alberto Vargas, in particular, achieved international fame as a regular contributor to Playboy Magazine throughout the 1960s.  His work was so definitive that the term “Vargas Girl (or Nude)” is a self-explanatory description for anyone working in the field, including photographers like Robert Alvarado, whose pin-up work evokes Vargas’s signature illustrative style.  Since the ratio of artists to photographers is something like 1 to a bazillion, the odds are good that your Glamour modeling client is going to have a camera in his/her hands.

And until recently, most glamour photography was intended for some sort of commercial presentation, including calendars, pin-up posters and postcards, and, especially, men’s magazines.  The Internet has now added a new wrinkle to the established print magazine market, with a proliferation of online subscription sites that feature “sets” of glamour imagery.  These are groupings of glamour photos of the same model, shot to various degrees of nudity and sexuality, depending on the focus of the site.  A few, like the genre-originating Domai, aspire to a fine-art standard; others are noticeably less fastidious, with an overtly sexual orientation that can reasonably be categorized as soft- or even hard-core porn.  Buyer (and model) beware.

The most interesting—and potentially most lucrative—development for glamour modeling is the explosion of amateur photographers practicing what has come to be known as “garage glamour,” a reference to the frequent location of the sessions.  This is clearly a technology-driven development, since, until recently, the extreme lighting and specialty retouching requirements, as well as the exorbitant expense of the film required to practice long enough to be good at it, had always restricted model photography to the professional whose commercial contracts could justify the hefty investment.  Now however, the proliferation of affordable digital cameras with their extreme low-light capability, reusable recording media, and reliable automation, as well as readily available retouching software have all combined to spawn an underground modeling market that could never have existed before.

Another factor in the rapid expansion of the glamour photography and modeling market is the proliferation of online photographer/model networking sites like Model Mayhem, One Model Place, and numerous others.  The sites enable would-be models and photographers to create and maintain free online portfolios, and then arrange appointments for photo sessions.  Every urban area in the U.S. has a sizable number of both, generating a groundswell of model-photography activity and, in essence, creating an entirely new genre: Internet Modeling.

Although some successful models do book Commercial work from the sites, the vast majority of paid activity is in the Glamour field, and a large portion of that is nude work. We’ll compare the various sites and discuss how to leverage the opportunities they present in more detail, both in their own article and as part of our discussion on professional behavior; the thing to note here is that for the amateur photographer, the online portfolio is not only a way to meet and schedule models, it’s also a place to “hang” the finished art, thus making Internet Modeling a viable subject to shoot—and pay for—in itself.  There’s no comparable activity—where the photographers actually become the client and shoot for themselves—in either Fashion or Commercial modeling.

The physical requirements for Glamour?  Not as restrictive as you might think.  Obviously you need to be attractive, with natural curves, and a willingness to show some skin.  There are virtually no height restrictions.  This is also one of the few areas where body modifications aren’t necessarily a barrier (see below).

Specialty Modeling

Juniors.  Junior models are usually age 13-19.  Height requirements are less than for Fashion models, and the work includes editorial and commercial, usually catalog and local advertising, and usually for products or services pitched to teenagers.

Plus Size.  Plus models are usually defined as size 14-18 and include the 18-30 age group.  They also model editorial and commercial, including catalog and other advertising, usually for products and services aimed at a similarly plus-size demographic.  One important note: Plus Size does not mean obese.  Successful Plus Size models fit the same appearance criteria as other Commercial and even Fashion models—they’re fit, attractive, and well-proportioned; they just happen to be bigger gals than their petite counterparts.

Swimwear and Lingerie.  Models who specialize in this genre, whether the focus is Commercial or Fashion, need to be noticeably fit with natural curves and even skin tones.  Bust-size, not surprisingly is usually expected to be 34B (the long-time standard for lingerie) or larger, particularly if the modeling is in the Glamour field.  You can thank Sports Illustrated and companies like Victoria’s Secret and Fredericks of Hollywood for turning this into a specialized genre of its own.

Parts (or Product) Modeling. Parts models are people with a particular feature that stands out.  If you have unusually graceful hands, long shapely legs, or a face with perfect bone structure and flawless skin, among other traits, you may very well be able to find work that features your particular, well… part: gloves, nail polish, and jewelry for a hand model; make-up, jewelry, and hair products for the perfect face, etc.  If you’re interested in this type of specialty modeling, talk to your agency.  This is one of the few opportunities for non-standard models to work in Fashion.

• The Male Model. A final note about male modeling: we’ve given short shrift to the guys here.  Most of the advice for female Fashion and Commercial models holds true for men as well—tall and lean for Fashion and versatile for Commercial.  The one key difference is Glamour modeling, which has so far been virtually non-existent for males outside of the gay-porn market.  That culture may be changing as women become more comfortable in expressing an appreciation for beefcake images.  The proliferation of “Men of Firehouse 13” calendars has been an interesting development in recent years, while the overtly heterosexual and unabashedly egotistical spokesman in the recent Old Spice commercials (“Ladies, I’m the man your man could smell like”) is a surprisingly daring departure from the robotic action hero or beer-crazed idiot that usually pitches products for men.  A male brazenly flaunting his body as the sole basis for his attractiveness is, well… female.  Fashion has been pushing the sexuality envelope for men for a long time, but Glamour has been slow to follow, and whether the Old Spice man becomes a trend or not remains to be seen.

• Body Art. It’s not a modeling specialty, but it is a special concern for models.  With body modifications so prevalent these days, it’s important to consider the effect that prominent tattoos and piercings may have on your marketability.  In fact, we consider it important enough that we’ve devoted an entire article to discussing it.

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  1. Abbie R.Hale November 24, 2014 at 11:23 pm #

    Thanks for this advice. This give me more idea about modeling career. Also I just want to share this article, it is very much like this about genres of modeling, hope it will also help you in finding genre that suits you. Check it here

    • Bruce J November 29, 2014 at 7:12 pm #

      Happy to be of service, Abbie, and thanks for the additional link.

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