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.

Two months after she approached him, seven agents flew into Cedar Rapids from around the world, making offers. "I was almost scared for him, it happened so quick," Mary says. "I took him to New York City in July. It was his first plane ride." A week later, the native of Homestead, Iowa, was shooting with renowned fashion photographer Bruce Weber for Abercrombie & Fitch.

In January 1998, Kutcher was offered parts in two pilot series, That '70s Show and Wind on Water, an adventure show starring Bo Derek and her posse of surfer cowboys -- horses were costumed with giant holsters to carry surfboards.

Maybe it was Kutcher's Midwestern good sense that told him to say no to Bo.

"Give me your all today," Mary Clarke implores the aspiring models. "Stay focused. Be here. Be positive."
Jennifer Silverberg
"Give me your all today," Mary Clarke implores the aspiring models. "Stay focused. Be here. Be positive."
The international modeling agents sit down to a Midwestern potluck in the Genesis studio, which is adorned with the photos of talent the Clarkes and Kirchner have discovered.
Jennifer Silverberg
The international modeling agents sit down to a Midwestern potluck in the Genesis studio, which is adorned with the photos of talent the Clarkes and Kirchner have discovered.

Reinvigorated by Kutcher's success, Mary went back to assessing her role as giant-killer. Just as she did as a child, she decided to put on a show. With her good name in the industry as the draw, she invited agents from the most prominent modeling firms in the world to fly to Cedar Rapids to see the talent she'd uncovered.

Mary visited thrift shops to dress the prospective models -- "Salvation Armani," the joke goes. She enlisted a league of stalwart Iowa moms to help out. Because there was no haute cuisine in Cedar Rapids to offer the jet-setters, Mary cajoled the moms into making good ol' Midwestern potluck: scalloped potatoes, ham, brownies, fried chicken, biscuits, three-bean salad.

It was April 1998. Tornadoes near Chicago pushed flights back six hours. Twenty-five modeling agents finally arrived, shaky and bleary-eyed; before the show could go on, they devoured the potluck. Emily Scott, an agent for T Management in New York, recalls that dinner fondly: "The mothers cooked the most delicious food for us."

For those who left behind "the glitz and glam of a place like New York," as Scott describes it, Cedar Rapids was "exotic" -- not a word typically affixed to the urban Corn Belt.

Charmed by the biscuits and the homely ambiance, the agents also feasted on the talent Mary Clarke had found. "It was mind-blowing," says Scott. With 135 models walking the runway in thrift-store clothes, 97 percent of them were called back the next day to talk to agents from New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Paris, Milan and Tokyo.

Mary brought the fashion industry to the Corn Belt and delivered the beauty.

Beauty comes delicately packaged, however, or may change into a form that the standard-bearers don't need: A girl's bust develops into a D-cup. A boy needs braces.

Or the standards change. Full lips are fashionable now. Thin lips will be fashionable tomorrow.

Mary has witnessed the bright side of the industry. And its dark side.

She speaks so stridently against the latter because no matter how responsibly she acts, no matter how much care she gives, she can't be immune from the shadows.

The Clarkes moved their business, Genesis, to St. Louis in 2001, looking to situate themselves in a larger market but not one with the intense competition they'd find in Chicago. Air travel was also a factor -- St. Louis is more convenient to the international fashion centers than Cedar Rapids. Jeff, who grew up in Wentzville, has family here.

They hired Aaron Kirchner to act as a third scout and help with the business. He met the Clarkes after attending one of the Cedar Rapids shows. The blond, fresh-faced Kirchner shares the enthusiasm of his partners: "I couldn't imagine doing anything else. Being as young as I am, finding something that just fuels me -- I wake up every morning and so love doing this every day."

Genesis set up an office in a Washington Avenue loft space and began scouting. However, they immediately confronted St. Louis skepticism, so different from the wide-eyed Iowa openness to which they were accustomed.

St. Louis has several modeling agencies and modeling schools. Ads run on the radio for model searches almost every weekend. National agencies such as Barbizon and John Robert Powers have offices in St. Louis, advertising for jobs with clients such as Coca-Cola and Nike.

Those jobs don't really exist. Read the fine print of a recent Powers ad in the Post-Dispatch and see that they need models for "companies like" (italics added) those above.

Instead of Chicago competiton, Genesis ran into the St. Louis wariness of parents and children who'd already been burned. One mother told Mary, "I've learned not to trust anybody in the modeling business in St. Louis."

St. Louis has little modeling work, but it has lots of kids with the aspirations to be the next Elle or Cindy or Ashton. The May Company, which books talent for ads for Famous-Barr, will only work with three local agencies: Talent Plus and its modeling division, Centro; Prima; and City Talent for children.

So how do all the other agencies make money?

They profit from kids' desires. They sell dreams.

"Girls want to be models," says Erin Lundgren, an agent for New York Models, "and if someone tells a girl that she can for $1,000 more ..."

When 15-year-old Tracy Dupilka and her mother, Mary Dupilka, try to estimate how much the single mom has spent on Tracy's modeling pursuits in the last four years, the daughter's wide eyes grow considerably wider. As the tally gets into the range of $7,000, Tracy pleads, "God, don't even say that!"

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