Modeling 101: So You Want to Be a Model


So people have been telling you, “You are SO pretty… you ought to be a model” since you were two years old.  You’ve memorized all the names, personal statistics, and public travails of America’s Next Top Model, and you’re thinking to yourself, “Wow, I could SO rock that.”  Or maybe you responded to an ad from a “well-known” modeling school or a so-called “Model Manager” who told you that with your looks (and their help), success in modeling was just a few hundred dollars and a couple of classes away.  Fame, fortune, a glamorous lifestyle, and the easiest job you can possibly imagine—standing in front of a camera looking just like you do naturally… what’s not to like?

Ahh, if only it were so easy.

Realistically, though you’re probably not that naïve.  You know that nothing that good is ever that easy, and you’re smart enough to know that the super-model salaries and cover-girl fame that make the headlines are rare.  You’re realistic; you’re not asking to be a superstar.  You don’t expect to walk the runway in Milan.  You just find the business interesting and you’d like to consider the possibility of making a decent living as a model.

Fair enough.  As the compulsive gambler, Boog, observes in the old movie, Diner, ”If you don’t have dreams, you got nightmares.”  So in the spirit of helping you to embrace your dreams (and keep them from turning into nightmares) this series of articles is designed to help you train a critical eye on the modeling business, on yourself, and on the possibility that there might be a place where the two can realistically line up.  In order to do that, we have to first ask some hard questions:

1. Why do you want to be a model? That might seem blatantly obvious, but surprisingly few of us ever ask the “why” question about any major decision in life.  Wanting to do something seems like a sufficiently self-explanatory answer, but it usually isn’t.  Why modeling instead of, say… gardening or dog-walking?

Do you have a big personality that loves the spotlight, or are you a self-confident person who enjoys collaborating with other strong-willed people?  Or maybe, honestly, you tend to be a timid person who’s a bit insecure, and you’re hoping that having your picture taken professionally will make you feel better about yourself.  Maybe you love fashion and its wildly expressive nature, and modeling seems like your best option to participate.  Or maybe you’re an intense, artistically inclined person who likes the idea of being able to collaborate in the creation of some really cool images that are going to be framed and hung on a wall somewhere (maybe yours).  For some people, modeling—especially nude modeling—is a way of revealing an uninhibited nature and positively expressing a personal philosophy about the human form that might differ from the mainstream.    Maybe you’re serious about wanting a career, or maybe you just want to have some fun.  They’re both viable reasons for wanting to be a model, but they’re not the same thing.

There can be multiple reasons for doing almost anything, including modeling, and being honest with yourself about why you’re interested in an activity often goes a long way toward determining how successful you’ll be in participating.  The big question is: do you want to do it for money or for fun? Answer that truthfully, and you’re halfway to making a good decision about how to handle the modeling question.  If you know that you’re only interested in modeling if you can be assured of making a good living at it, you also need to know that only a very small fraction of people ever earn a full-time income from modeling.  Why set yourself up for failure trying to do something you’re neither passionate about nor suited for?  Before you do anything else, ask yourself the why question, listen to the answer, and then choose your path accordingly.

2. What kind of modeling are you suited for? If you did a good job of answering #1 above, you already know what you want from modeling, and now what you need is some straight talk about what the modeling industry wants from you.  You need good information about the various genres available and the expectations/requirements for each.  Oh, and you need to not take it personally when you discover that who and what you are isn’t what the industry is looking for.  If you’re over 19 and under 5’8”, you can forget about starting a career as a runway model.  Heavily tattooed?  Cross commercial modeling off your list.  Need your boyfriend’s permission?  Cross everything off.  Modeling is a no-excuses, profit-driven business and you need to understand up front that unless you’re already famous for some other reason, the industry won’t make exceptions for you.  In the next article, we’ll present you with a lot more specific information about genres and requirements.  Read it and take it to heart.  If what you’re interested in isn’t what you’re suited for, you’re not just wasting your time, you’re setting yourself up for a lot of rejection and self-doubt.  Which brings us to:

3. How strong is your ego? Can you handle rejection? Are you ready to face, say, a 90% rejection rate?  That’s responding to a hundred calls and getting told ninety times, “Sorry, you’re not what we’re looking for.”  Can you keep your confidence up when your agency hasn’t called about a job in a month?  Two months?  Can you handle the landlord knocking on your door every day to remind you that the rent is overdue?  If you’re really confident (and if you’re not, you’re seriously looking into the wrong business) it’s natural to have a brief snort at all those people who are just too blind to recognize your extraordinary worth, but if you let that turn you angry and bitter, you’ll keep missing the point—it’s not personal.  Remember that; we’ll repeat it later.

Even after you get a job, you’ll still find your confidence being tested.  Can you take criticism?  Most people can’t.  Most people either get angry and belligerent, or slip away to a quiet corner to have a good cry.  Modeling isn’t a democracy, and if you’re not the one paying for the session, you’re not the boss.  People WILL tell you what to do, and they may or may not be polite about it.  No one has the right to abuse you on a job, but no one has the time for you to be a drama queen either.  Photographers, stylists, and make-up artists will tell you, either explicitly or implicitly, what’s wrong with your face and your body and what they’re going to do to fix your “problems”.  Some days will be golden, and some days the ad agency representative and the photographer are going to pose you and repose you like a mannequin until you feel like a complete idiot who can’t do anything right.  It’s nothing personal, it’s not a comment on your general competence or private worth; it’s just that the modeling business is all about embodying an image that somebody else created, and you have to be willing to adapt to whatever the image requires of you.  Here’s the key thing you have to remember, especially for commercial modeling: your job is to display a product that someone is trying to sell.  The product is the star, not you, and experienced models casually refer to themselves as “clothes hangers.”  That’s the business, and if it offends you, this is a good time to reevaluate your goals.

But what if your preferred niche is nude modeling, either glamour or fine-art?  Aren’t you the focus of the image then?  Aren’t YOU the product?  No, still not.  If you’re modeling for Playboy Magazine, the product you’re selling is Playboy and the lifestyle it represents, which—let’s be direct about this—is unapologetically sexual.  The sets, the make-up, the poses, and the attitude are all going to be selected for you by a stylist for the express purpose of selling sex as a commodity that may or may not be consistent with your self-image.  Fine-art nudes, on the other hand, are often formal studies designed to illustrate basic compositional elements like light-and-shadow, lines and curves, inner forces and surface textures; or they’re intended to evoke certain elemental feelings about our human nature in general and sensuality in particular.  In art modeling, you’ll likely be expected to embody an archetype rather than an individual.  That’s still not a broad stroke for your ego, if being the recognizable star of the image matters to you.  If you want to be the subject of the picture, find a good portrait artist, and pay him/her to focus on you.  If you want to be a model, be prepared to disappear into a concept.  We can’t emphasize this enough: you’re going to get rejected more often (probably a lot more often) than you’re going to get accepted, and even when you do get a job, you’re often going to feel more like a lump of unattractive clay than a human.  Think hard about how well you handle rejection in your personal life, and then ask yourself if you really want to make a career out of it.

4. How disciplined are you? Sure, every now and then a superstar is discovered in a Burger King and zooms straight to the top of the modeling profession.  Somebody has to win America’s Next Top Model, be the next American Idol, the next dancing star… Somebody has to be the last person Donald Trump doesn’t fire.  For the rest of us, whether we’re singers, dancers, executives, photographers, or models, having a viable plan and the discipline to execute it is the best way to improve our chances to succeed.  It’s not about rigging the game, winning the lottery, or charming the viewing audience into picking up their phones and voting for you; it’s about creating opportunities for yourself by consistently managing those things you have control over in order to improve your odds.  Above all, it’s about understanding professional behavior and treating your modeling experience like a real job, with a full commitment to a strong work ethic that potential employers will recognize and respond to.  As a photography studio that works with dozens of models each year and is contacted by dozens more, we can promise you—not one model in a hundred actually is disciplined enough to learn the ropes and work the system to create opportunities rather than simply waiting around for them to materialize out of thin air.  If you are that one—that rare bird who’s willing to learn the trade, including adult communication skills that go beyond adolescent textspeak, and pursue it consistently, every day—your odds of getting viable modeling jobs with serious professionals who are looking for other professionals to collaborate with will be exponentially improved.

That’s the job.  If you’re agency-represented, your agency is going to work hardest to place those models who work the hardest to support those placement efforts.  If you’re representing yourself and you don’t know how to approach potential employers in a professional manner, don’t know how to communicate like a responsible adult, or make—and keep—commitments, then get ready to join the 99% of the modeling workforce that never works.

Anyone can learn the skills, but having the discipline to integrate them into a functional work ethic and practice them consistently is a matter of character and will.  The people who succeed in any profession aren’t necessarily the smartest or most talented; they are, however, always the most disciplined.  We’ll provide a lot of information about professional presentation, communication, and management strategies here in the series, but only you know how hard you’re willing to work to be a professional.

Now, if you’re still with us, welcome to the wacky world of modeling.  Read on.

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  1. Palm Desert Boudoir July 25, 2014 at 3:57 pm #

    I wish more people who model would read your article. Great job.

    • Bruce J July 25, 2014 at 4:29 pm #

      Me too, PDB, me too. Thanks for reading and for the comment.

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