By Sam Levin
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A group of lanky girls festooned in disco colors huddle together, shivering. The heat isn't working either. One girl dressed in a traffic-stopping-short miniskirt rubs her bare arms. She looks as though she's turning a deeper blue by the minute.
Mary choreographs the "management" group -- those girls who are veterans with Genesis and with other modeling agencies -- on a dramatic entry down the runway for tomorrow night's show. Some 20 agents are flying into St. Louis from New York, Dallas, Chicago, Milan and Tokyo to see the talent the Clarkes and Kirchner have found in Iowa and Missouri over the last few months.
About 80 young men and women, ages 13 to 23, are dressed in the crazy garb Mary has grabbed from thrift stores. "I know these clothes may seem strange," she assures them, "but I know how these agents think."
Behind tall flats that function as a partition to the backstage area in the industrial loft space, a group of girls emerge as if out of a fog to the sound of '70s rock & roll bounding from a boom box:
I'm your vehicle, baby. I'll take you anywhere you want to go....
Then two more girls enter aggressively, flanking the group.
Observing placidly from a folding chair is Jane Hinson. She's come from Des Moines, part of a considerable Iowa contingent here. Dressed in black with smartly styled gray hair, Hinson says her daughter Piper has been associated with Genesis for three-and-a-half years. Before meeting Mary, Jane and her daughter had considered the lure of the IMTA, but, Jane says, "I thought this makes more sense. I trusted Mary immediately. She's a warm and lovely person."
Piper struts down the runway in loud pink hotpants and a flimsy white shawl. Jane says Piper participated in four Genesis shows before she was signed, which is not unusual -- the skyrocket fame of Ashton Kutcher is an anomaly.
Piper first signed with Elite of Chicago, but, her mother says, "She didn't match the market. She was too editorial for them. They like the girl next door." Piper has long brown hair and a face that looks more sophisticated than her 17 years.
Piper has since signed with T Management in New York and Natalie in Paris. "She's still a junior in high school," says Jane. "I go with her wherever she goes. The agencies are really nice -- mostly women, well run."
Despite the horror stories of glamour destroying young lives -- the drug and alcohol addictions, the eating disorders, the bad-boy rock-star boyfriends -- Jane talks about how modeling has positively "affected Piper's motivation. She is such a hard worker academically."
An all-state violinist who also sings jazz, Piper is looking for a college in New York City -- NYU, Fordham or Columbia -- where she can major in music, and she hopes to keep modeling through school. "Her time-management skills are fabulous," says the proud mom.
Jane describes the benefits of the often-maligned fashion industry:
"It becomes less labor-intensive as you go along. It's not easy when you first start. You get a list from the agents, giving you places to go." The list leads to as many as five or 10 interviews in a day in New York City, for instance.
"They learn to prioritize. They learn a lot of skills. There are a lot of personal-growth benefits. I'm gregarious," says Jane, "but I don't know [whether] I could do that."
The rehearsal session is over, and girls are coming to Jane to deliver their $30 costume fees. Participation in the Genesis show is not cheap: Registration is $550, and a photo shoot with a top photographer costs $350. For those who must travel to St. Louis, there are hotel expenses as well. Jane says these fees are reasonable compared with those levied at the large events run by companies such as Model Search America and Pro Scout -- and at the Genesis event, the agents see a select few, rather than thousands walking in a line.
Yet another tall, thin girl, this one with long, straight blond hair, looks for her name on a rehearsal sheet. For a brief moment she panics, then spots her name:
"For a minute I thought, 'I've got to go back to Texas. I really suck.'"
With the sun fading in the windows and the room getting colder, one girl worries about the sight of her purple skin under purple lights. "We'll look like bologna," she frets.
Joan Berquist watches one lanky girl after another practice her walk early Saturday morning, the day of the show.
Walking is not easy. Those who have it manage to achieve a straight line down the back, keeping their shoulders straight, yet add a bit of a sashay of the shoulders and hips. Joan's statuesque daughter Elizabeth says it's a matter of "attitude and confidence, like walking with confidence on a tightrope."
Elizabeth is a dark-skinned Asian-American with shiny black hair and long, strongly built legs. "She's a very tall ballerina," says her Scandinavian mom. A 5-11 girl does not fit well in the ballet world, so, Joan says, "We're looking into this as an alternative."
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