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.

"We're going to kick people in the kneecaps who keep selling impossible dreams to young people.

"But another event? We can't do it."

Part of the Clarkes' decision comes out of sheer exhaustion. The Clarkes and Kirchner have been putting in 80-hour weeks to make this event go. Genesis has labored mightily in St. Louis without the aid of the Iowa mom squad.

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

But Mary has been questioning her motivation as well. For too long, she's felt too close to the shadow side of the fashion industry. Sure, the Genesis events are more specialized, give kids more opportunity than they'd get at IMTA or Model Search or Pro Scout, and the agents see more promising talent.

But she and Jeff are still out there cajoling parents and children to participate, to fork over close to $1,000 for an event. More than a few mothers have mentioned how many times Jeff kept calling. How much is being done to secure the kids, and how much is being done to secure their business?

What does she need to cast aside to maintain her stance as the one who does things the right way?

The quiet in the room is broken by a call in a thick British accent:

"Let's drink some beer!"

Women take the seats in the front row along the runway reserved for Ginger Bay Salon Group. They look as if they drove into Dallas from West Texas for a big night.

The seats begin to fill with St. Louis' stylish set. A woman's plunging neckline exposes her proud bronze boobs. A joke goes around that if she paid for them, she should be able to show them.

Dressed in designer clothes, their hair designer-styled, the crowd is pumped up, a little tipsy, ready to hoot and holler as the boys and girls take the stage.

Mary, dressed in pinstriped pants, works the crowd as emcee. She could be hosting the Rosie O'Donnell Show.

The agents introduce themselves. They're backlit at the foot of the runway, giving them a prosecutorial air.

IMG, Q Management, Flash in Milan, Unique in Chicago, New York Model Management, Next, Agence Presse Tokyo, Why Not in Milan, T Management, Kim Dawson in Dallas, Elite New York and Chicago, Wilhelmina.

They've all made the trip to see the odd beauty hidden in the Midwest.

The guys and girls make their way up and down the runway without a hitch. One Mizzou man with Brad Pitt good looks cracks up when the Ginger Bay women let out a few yelps as he passes by. Models go by in pink nighties and white stockings. Many of the boys, so young, look just like boys who've been dressed by an older sister -- the one who played fashion show when she was a girl.

Children walk costumed down an aisle of grownups, who whoop and shout with drinks in their hands.

At the end, there's a huddle of giggling, relieved teenagers in the center of the floor, swaying to music that was recorded before they were born.

The morning after, the agent from Agence Presse stands by the freight elevator -- the only elevator working -- asking, "What's your number? What's your shoe size?"

Parents and children return to the eighth floor and listen to Mary as she tries to prepare them for the anxiety of callbacks. "There's a lot of personalities in there," she says of the assembled agents. "Don't overanalyze." She tells the parents to stay away "unless called upon."

She warns that the agents aren't always Midwestern polite. "Tony Perkins will look at a book, close it and say, 'Thank you.'"

"If you don't get callbacks," she emphasizes, "don't throw in the towel. This is one step in the journey."

The agents appear for a question-and-answer session. Dan Hollinger, with the Kim Dawson Agency, was a model himself for 10 years, and he looks it. He is the most animated of the group. The greatest misconception about the modeling business? "It's easy money without working for it," he says. "It all happens instantaneously.

"You don't start as a partner in a law firm. You need to learn to work with photographers and clients."

Books have been written criticizing the fashion industry for the body images it perpetuates, but Hollinger dismisses them. It's all a matter of discipline, he says.

"Modeling standards tell thin girls to get thinner but do it the right way. You have to lose a few pounds, but do it the right way. You need to work with a trainer and a nutritionist. You need to do it in partnership. You can lose weight very quickly, but it will come back."

Stefano Ghirimoldi, with Paolo Tomei Models in Milan, catches everyone's attention with his Italian accent. He gets down to the dollars-and-cents issues of the model/agent relationship.

For example, he warns models about cutting their hair without consulting with their agents. "It means you must change your whole portfolio. If somebody asks you to cut your hair for a $2,000 job, you don't do it. If somebody wants you to cut your hair for a $200,000 job, you do it."

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