Field of Schemes

Mary and Jeff Clarke feed beauty to the tough world of high fashion. Hard to do from the cornfields of Iowa. Harder still in St. Louis, where too many parents and kids have their dreams exploited for money.

In the third-floor office space of his University City home, Jeff Clarke wears a headset as he listens to Tony Perkins complain about how many girls he saw in Miami and Santo Domingo over the last week while looking for the new J-Lo girl.

Perkins didn't see a one worth Puffy's ex.

Jeff, a tall, broadly built African-American man with eyes that betray a sense of mischief, nonchalantly tells Perkins he found a girl just this last weekend -- in Iowa City, no less: "I'm going to send her to you right now."

Jennifer Silverberg
Mary and Jeff Clarke and Aaron Kirchner, the three person team that runs Genesis, now dubbed MODELTRUTH
Jennifer Silverberg
Mary and Jeff Clarke and Aaron Kirchner, the three person team that runs Genesis, now dubbed MODELTRUTH

A photo of her, shot with a Polaroid late at night outside a college-town bar, fills Jeff's computer screen. She has long light-brown hair, sharp cheekbones and a wide-mouthed smile; from some angles she looks not unlike the young Carly Simon.

Within minutes after the e-mailed image arrives, Perkins, an agent for the international modeling firm Next, is back in Clarke's ear, chatting excitedly from wherever he may be at this moment, Santo Domingo or Fayetteville or Joplin -- he's on the road 288 days a year, scouting beauty.

Perkins is very interested in this girl. He wants to see more. By the next day, most likely, the Next New Faces board will be looking over these pics, deciding how drastically this young woman's life may change in a few hours.

Once Perkins is off the line, Jeff chuckles to himself: "Tony Perkins sees thousands of girls in Puerto Rico and can't find one. I drive five hours to Iowa City...."

Take that drive to Iowa City, cross into Iowa from Missouri over the Des Moines River -- where a retired couple takes the 35-cent toll from your hand -- and drive between high fields of corn and wide acreages spotted by squat little lean-tos big enough for hogs to recline to avoid the sun.

After you pass through the tired-looking towns of northern Missouri, Iowa towns sit up with purpose. Square-frame houses are freshly painted, the porches swept clean, and these descendants of hard-working, dour Lutheran Swedes might ask you to take your shoes off and leave them in the entryway for the sake of that polished wood floor.

Mary Clarke lived in the Iowa hamlet of Marion, near Cedar Rapids, retreating to the Grant Wood landscape after seeing the worst of the modeling world. She'd seen the International Modeling and Talent Association convention where thousands of kids and parents go every year in the hope of being discovered after spending at least $5,000 on photos, on modeling classes, on travel, on lodging in New York.

She saw what amounted to a cattle call, with those kids and parents going home, dreams destroyed, and the IMTA and its surrogate agencies going home having pocketed a profit. "You see kids with hopeful eyes who've spent thousands of dollars to be there," Mary says. "You're sickened by it."

Mary was never a model herself. She's more like the baseball scout who couldn't hit a curveball, yet travels the back roads and finds raw, major-league talent. She put on fashion shows when she was a girl -- "I drove my mother crazy." She dressed up friends in high school and marched them down a makeshift runway. She got a job producing Miss Teen Iowa.

Mary was sickened by the exploitation she witnessed, but the fashion industry was too deep in her blood to leave. And too dear for her to not try changing it: "There was something inside of me that was really disturbed by what I saw happening in the modeling industry and I decided to go my own way -- be the David against the Goliath, be the little person in Iowa."

When Mary speaks -- and she confesses that she is regarded as a chatterbox -- it is anything if not heartfelt. She's a mom with four kids, three with her husband, Jeff -- whom she scouted as a model before their solely professional relationship turned to both marriage and business.

Her hair is a shock of red above pale skin, interrupted by the black lines of sharp eyebrows. She's not afraid to get on a soapbox -- "Every kid in the industry needs to be protected" -- nor does she shy from mentioning her faith in Christ, which doesn't hinder her relationships with those Iowa moms any.

She knows she has a gift for seeing the model in the 4-H girl or the unpopular back-row geek. Tony Perkins has worked with her for at least a decade and many times has flown into Iowa on a moment's notice to see a girl or guy Mary has discovered.

"There are not many that have her eye or her vision," he says. "She knows they're going to be right for somebody somewhere."

Her biggest find came in March of 1997, when she walked up to Ashton Kutcher in the Airliner bar in Iowa City and told him, "I think you should be a model."

"The week before I discovered him, I thought I didn't want to do this anymore," Mary recalls. At the time, the star of That '70s Show was considering dropping out of the University of Iowa. "In one of his classes," says Mary, "students had been asked to write their wildest aspirations. He wrote he wanted to be an actor and live in Hollywood."

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