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.

What is it about 4-H girls, and Iowa, for that matter, in terms of providing faces for the modeling industry? "Those Scandinavian blonds," says Mary, "those chiseled, crisp features. The Midwest is considered one of the big places for gorgeous people."

But as lunchtime nears, it looks more like the Midwest is a gorgeous place for big people. As more and more students pass the Genesis table, a kind of theater becomes evident: Men and women glance at the Genesis Model Search display, and within view of the Clarkes and Kirchner they visibly carry themselves a bit taller, lift their chins, straighten their shoulders.

Discover me.

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

Mary sits up in her chair, peering through a glass partition into the food court next door. "Did you see that guy?" she asks Jeff.

Neither Jeff nor Aaron has noticed the tall, lanky guy in the flannel shirt with the wild nest of blond hair, but both trust Mary's instincts. Jeff is up and running, Mary following behind.

Their prey, the unknowing Jefferson Peak, sees a large black man barreling down on him but doesn't act too alarmed. He walks calmly back to the commons with Jeff, smiling. Soon he's posing for Polaroids.

Peak grins and says, "Hey," as Jeff shoots him. He has a strong jaw and broad face; those sharp cheekbones; a thick, arching mouth; and gray eyes.

"Aren't you glad you're brave?" Mary asks him. Peak just grins some more.

He's an undergrad from Kansas City, studying to become an elementary or preschool teacher. No, he's never thought about modeling, but what the heck -- he'll check it out.

"What's cool with him," says Mary, "is he's so at ease. He said his mom's name is Mary."

A girl with a broad face, wide eyes thick with eyeshadow, drops her Barbizon composite with Jeff. After she's gone, he takes a look at it and shakes his head.

He estimates these photos cost her at least $1,000, and she's not going anywhere with them. Barbizon is a national modeling school, with a branch in St. Louis. The local branch does not give interviews.

Mary and Jeff have seen hundreds of girls and boys with composite cards -- a.k.a. comp cards -- such as this.

"It's better not to show these pictures to anybody," says Mary. "Is there another industry that sells dreams? There are agencies that still work by the old-school mentality of not caring, not seeing models as individual people but seeing them as a commodity in which to make money with little regard in the life you're having an impact on.

"Just look at these agencies' Web sites, or look at the kids' books, and you know they have no idea," she says angrily. "They're making money selling a 5-foot-3 girl a $2,000 package, but nobody has respect for these agencies."

Three pairs of eyes lock on a young man walking briskly by the table. He's gorgeous. Blond hair, sharp cheekbones, full mouth -- the three watch and stare. He's gone in a second, and Mary snaps her fingers with disappointment: "Too short."

A handsome African-American man with closely cropped hair and a broad smile comes up to the table and starts asking questions: "What do you guys do?"

Mary explains that they're scouting for Next, that the photos they take are sent directly to the Next New Faces board. "It's all about finding a new face," she says. "Then, if they make a decision to represent you ..."

"Do you guys have anything to do with Model Search weekend?"

He's been through the wringer. When he was a teenager, he took part in a regional model search, paying a lot of money to do so. He showed up and was impressed by glamorous portfolios. He was 15, without anybody to inform him what was a scam and what wasn't. Now he's an undergrad at Mizzou, and he's still interested in the business. He posed for a fraternity calendar this year.

Mary tells him New York might not be his market. There might be possibilities for him in Chicago or Kansas City or St. Louis. "You've got a great personality, and personality is important," she says. "You've got a great face."

"Thanks," he says, somewhat drolly. Then he notices his own tone. "I'm not trying to be sarcastic. I mean, thanks.

"I always feel like I get suckered every time."

Mary tells him to call any reputable agency and ask about Genesis: "I understand how you feel. My advice is, you shouldn't give up." She makes the analogy of finding a good coach who takes an athlete to a higher level. Jeff takes some snapshots.

A stockily built guy in a wool cap strides aggressively toward the table. "I don't believe any of you are models," he says dismissively.

Mary tries to engage him in conversation. He turns his back:

"You're right up there with Barbizon."

Mary shrugs her shoulders. She's not Barbizon, not even close.

She's not stealing beauty.

On a cold day in March, to enter the glamorous world of international fashion the initiation includes a walk up eight flights of stairs. The elevator is broken in the Fashion Square Building, located on Washington Avenue. The toilet is backed up. A mother walks around looking for a garbage pail in which to drop her lunch bag.

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