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.

Tracy's working through Centro now, and whenever she or her mom mentions the name of her agent, Christina Klobe, both smile appreciatively.

Tracy attends Francis Howell High School in St. Charles County. "If Dillard's has a shot at 3 p.m.," says Mary, "we can go if Tracy's only missing one class, but otherwise Christina won't push for us to interfere with Tracy's school."

Tracy's a beauty, all long arms and legs that curl around her on the white ottoman in the Dupilkas' orange living room. Before they met Klobe, that beauty got taken. At age 11, Tracy attended classes at John Robert Powers.

Agents have flown in from around the world to see the odd beauty hidden in the Midwest.
Jennifer Silverberg
Agents have flown in from around the world to see the odd beauty hidden in the Midwest.

"They made you pay money every time you went there," Mary says bitterly.

Tracy says one course consisted of each student taking a walk down the runway, stopping, saying her name and walking back. That lesson cost the Dupilkas $75.

By the time they were done with the John Robert Powers education, they'd spent $4,000, yet Tracy had gotten no work. Another $2,000 went into "special classes" with the local agency M International. Tracy started getting a few jobs, but then M folded.

At last, with Klobe and Centro, the Dupilkas have found an agent and an agency they can trust. But that's not an easy thing to do in St. Louis.

When called for a comment about this story, a representative for the local John Robert Powers agency said, "We're a 'character' agency," supplying the entertainment industry with character actors -- not a modeling agency.

Yet an ad in the Post-Dispatch reads: "We're looking for models/actors. Accepting applications for our new Faces Div. of John Robert Powers Entertainment Co. with placement by Images Agency."

The ad calls for "all sizes, heights, ages (3 mos.-75 yr.) for ads, catalogs, films for companies like Sears/CPI, Anheuser-Busch, St. Louis Zoo, Six Flags, Gateway Computers, Bugle Boy, Coca-Cola, Nike, First Foto, etc."

The key word in the above sentence is like.

One former model with 10 years in the business, who began her career in St. Louis, chooses to speak anonymously. Like Tracy, she experienced the modeling-school scam at the beginning, shelling out $3,000 for classes at the now-defunct John Casablancas school when she was 13. She moved to John Robert Powers when she was 14, she says: "They got me a job -- a fashion show in a bar."

She cautions parents and kids to avoid agencies that call for money up front. Blue Model Group, for example "charges $1,200 to get someone started. They piqued my concern because they didn't care or know who May Company was."

The woman says to look at pictures of models an agency says it represents. Don't sign on if the agency claims Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell.

"Ask agencies who their clients are," the former model says. "Here, it's May Company, Dillard's, A-B, Neiman Marcus. If they name Marty's Bar & Grill and talk about promo work, it's not a modeling agency."

The problem of scams is especially egregious in St. Louis, she says, because there is so little work and so many people interested in modeling: "The legitimate agencies don't have time to call everybody back."

The others make profit on the dreams.

On a scouting visit to the campus of the University of Missouri-Columbia, Mary Clarke runs down her imaginary checklist: "What about their nose, what about their lips -- you dissect, and I hate to even say that, but that is what you do, because if you're going to initiate contact, you'd better be sure."

Tall girls are popular now, but not too tall: 5-foot-8 to 5-11; guys go from 5-11 to 6-3. Mary always asks about shoe size: "One guy couldn't work because he had a size-15 shoe."

When students walk up to the Genesis table in Mizzou's Brady Commons and ask, "Do you think I'm pretty?" -- and they do walk up and ask -- the height issue serves as an easy way to let kids down. You're not ugly, just too short or too tall.

"Do you guys take size 9's?" a pretty African-American woman asks. Mary tells her, with empathy in her voice, that the models Genesis is looking for are rarely larger than size 4. Mary, with four kids, hasn't been that size herself in years, so she's sensitive to the body issues of the beauty industry.

Models, essentially, are bodies to drape cloth over. "You have to be the perfect size to be fitted," Mary says, especially for the high-end fashion clients she's looking to provide. This special division of the industry is referred to as "fashion editorial," meaning magazines that run ads and fashion spreads featuring clothing lines by companies such as Prada, Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger, Ralph Lauren, Versace, Armani, Abercrombie & Fitch.

Candidates for the high-end fashion industry are few and far between this morning in Brady Commons, which allows time to look through the Genesis scrapbook. Models Lindsey Hesseltine and Kari Tiedt, whom Mary discovered in Iowa, appear in a newspaper article on the Iowa State Fair.

Dressed in overalls instead of Versace, they're grooming their heifers and hogs, respectively. Hesseltine spent last summer modeling in Japan. Tiedt is emerging as one of the more popular working models in the business.

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