By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
By Bill Conroy
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
In the third-floor office space of his University City home, Jeff Clarke wears a headset as he listens to Tony Perkins complain about how many girls he saw in Miami and Santo Domingo over the last week while looking for the new J-Lo girl.
Perkins didn't see a one worth Puffy's ex.
Jeff, a tall, broadly built African-American man with eyes that betray a sense of mischief, nonchalantly tells Perkins he found a girl just this last weekend -- in Iowa City, no less: "I'm going to send her to you right now."
A photo of her, shot with a Polaroid late at night outside a college-town bar, fills Jeff's computer screen. She has long light-brown hair, sharp cheekbones and a wide-mouthed smile; from some angles she looks not unlike the young Carly Simon.
Within minutes after the e-mailed image arrives, Perkins, an agent for the international modeling firm Next, is back in Clarke's ear, chatting excitedly from wherever he may be at this moment, Santo Domingo or Fayetteville or Joplin -- he's on the road 288 days a year, scouting beauty.
Perkins is very interested in this girl. He wants to see more. By the next day, most likely, the Next New Faces board will be looking over these pics, deciding how drastically this young woman's life may change in a few hours.
Once Perkins is off the line, Jeff chuckles to himself: "Tony Perkins sees thousands of girls in Puerto Rico and can't find one. I drive five hours to Iowa City...."
Take that drive to Iowa City, cross into Iowa from Missouri over the Des Moines River -- where a retired couple takes the 35-cent toll from your hand -- and drive between high fields of corn and wide acreages spotted by squat little lean-tos big enough for hogs to recline to avoid the sun.
After you pass through the tired-looking towns of northern Missouri, Iowa towns sit up with purpose. Square-frame houses are freshly painted, the porches swept clean, and these descendants of hard-working, dour Lutheran Swedes might ask you to take your shoes off and leave them in the entryway for the sake of that polished wood floor.
Mary Clarke lived in the Iowa hamlet of Marion, near Cedar Rapids, retreating to the Grant Wood landscape after seeing the worst of the modeling world. She'd seen the International Modeling and Talent Association convention where thousands of kids and parents go every year in the hope of being discovered after spending at least $5,000 on photos, on modeling classes, on travel, on lodging in New York.
She saw what amounted to a cattle call, with those kids and parents going home, dreams destroyed, and the IMTA and its surrogate agencies going home having pocketed a profit. "You see kids with hopeful eyes who've spent thousands of dollars to be there," Mary says. "You're sickened by it."
Mary was never a model herself. She's more like the baseball scout who couldn't hit a curveball, yet travels the back roads and finds raw, major-league talent. She put on fashion shows when she was a girl -- "I drove my mother crazy." She dressed up friends in high school and marched them down a makeshift runway. She got a job producing Miss Teen Iowa.
Mary was sickened by the exploitation she witnessed, but the fashion industry was too deep in her blood to leave. And too dear for her to not try changing it: "There was something inside of me that was really disturbed by what I saw happening in the modeling industry and I decided to go my own way -- be the David against the Goliath, be the little person in Iowa."
When Mary speaks -- and she confesses that she is regarded as a chatterbox -- it is anything if not heartfelt. She's a mom with four kids, three with her husband, Jeff -- whom she scouted as a model before their solely professional relationship turned to both marriage and business.
Her hair is a shock of red above pale skin, interrupted by the black lines of sharp eyebrows. She's not afraid to get on a soapbox -- "Every kid in the industry needs to be protected" -- nor does she shy from mentioning her faith in Christ, which doesn't hinder her relationships with those Iowa moms any.
She knows she has a gift for seeing the model in the 4-H girl or the unpopular back-row geek. Tony Perkins has worked with her for at least a decade and many times has flown into Iowa on a moment's notice to see a girl or guy Mary has discovered.
"There are not many that have her eye or her vision," he says. "She knows they're going to be right for somebody somewhere."
Her biggest find came in March of 1997, when she walked up to Ashton Kutcher in the Airliner bar in Iowa City and told him, "I think you should be a model."
"The week before I discovered him, I thought I didn't want to do this anymore," Mary recalls. At the time, the star of That '70s Show was considering dropping out of the University of Iowa. "In one of his classes," says Mary, "students had been asked to write their wildest aspirations. He wrote he wanted to be an actor and live in Hollywood."
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 Showand 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.
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!"
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.
"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.
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."
"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.
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.
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.
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."
The Berquists met Mary in Marion, Iowa, and attended a Genesis show. "We thought it was really awesome," says Joan.
Joan keeps a close watch when Elizabeth is being fitted with a new wardrobe. "We're very conservative," she explains.
Joan admits she's concerned about food issues and modeling, but since Elizabeth has been pursuing the idea, she says, "She's given up pop and junk food. In many ways, this is good for my daughter. She's not eating crap; she's eating nutritious stuff."
Joan betrays anxiety over the whole situation: "It's a matter of how hard Elizabeth wants to pursue it. I really don't know what to expect if they get signed. I'm not in my comfort zone, but then I used to be like that with ballet: You go where your kids go."
But Joan isn't too sure how far she and her husband can afford to go. Later in the weekend, when an agent tells the girls about the importance of finding part-time work -- they're not going to live off modeling earnings for a while -- Joan says it is the best advice she's heard. She hopes her daughter hears it, too.
Out on the runway, another blonde sways out from behind the partition like an expert driver accelerating on a curve.
Some of the clothes have yet to be pinned, so the girls must hold them together as they walk before something embarrassing happens.
A call goes out: "Has anybody got any black hotpants?"
Sherri Evans and Julie Bliss sit together in the warm morning sunlight coming in the east windows. Their daughters -- Aubrey and Amanda, respectively -- are both "pros," laughs Julie. Both mothers are of that obviously Scandinavian strain of Iowan that seems to produce models.
Aubrey is tall, slender and remarkably pale, with long wheat-blond hair. "Mary found my daughter in a drugstore when she was 12," recalls Sherri.
She still doesn't know what Mary saw in her daughter, all wet and tired from a swim meet, but since turning 16, Aubrey has appeared in Seventeen and worked in runway shows in New York and Italy.
"She was a very shy person before this," says Sherri. "The work has given her confidence and self-esteem. Mary and Jeff are wonderful. They encourage kids to be drug-free, alcohol-free. I like that they add a mothering aspect to their work.
"If we stopped today, we'd be happy."
But there's not much of a chance the Evans family will be stopping today. The apartments the agencies provide in New York and Milan and Rome are not rent-free. Debts accrue. The agencies make an investment and expect a return.
Mary stops the rehearsal. She's pissed. She gathers the kids together for a rant.
"Give me your all today," she barks. "Stay focused. Be here. Be positive."
She pauses, looks over the now-silent teenagers: "You guys all have to change again, and I don't want to hear anybody complain. Wardrobe fees need to be paid. Nobody sees an agent until that is paid."
She hits what is obviously a sore spot with her. "No editorial comment about how your hair is done or what you're wearing -- and that includes parents," she admonishes. "We know what we're doing. Trust me and be there for us.
"Whoo," she sighs, and the tension goes out of the room. "I feel like my mom's talking to me."
As Mary goes over the music list -- "Vehicle," "Renegades of Funk," "Ode to Billy Joe," "Somebody to Love" -- Julie says the rant is typical at this stage of the day: "I've never seen a problem with the show."
This is the third Genesis event for Amanda. She and her mother have been to New York twice and have signed with Tony Perkins at Next. Amanda has frail, waifish features and reddish-brown hair. "We've gotten some traveling out of it," her mother says.
The Iowa moms laugh about their experiences with New York rats, New York mice and New York roaches. "For Aubrey," says Sherri Evans, "the hardest thing for her was seeing people sleeping in the streets and people begging on the subway."
Both mothers stop to listen as Mary calls out some directives. "Mary is giving orders," says Sherri. "That's a good sign."
The agents arrive and sit down at round dining tables in the Genesis office, on the sixth floor. They begin filling up on spaghetti, chili, fried chicken, green salad and a wide assortment of cookies.
Mary interrupts the luncheon chatter to say a few words, and a couple of the agents chuckle at the idea of Mary speaking just a few words.
She talks about how ever since she and Jeff came to St. Louis they've heard radio ads calling for models "ages three to 70. The challenge is that here, everyone knows about modeling scams. It's been harder to gain trust here."
Then she announces that this will be Genesis' last event: "We're not going to give another one."
The jovial air in the room stills. "No more events," says Mary, "but we're not stopping. We're working on a video to tell the truth about what should and shouldn't be happening in the industry. Our new goals are to create the video, sell it over the Web site, speak in schools.
"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.
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."
A mom asks, "Who pays for what?"
An agent from IMG responds: "It's not free. They [the agencies] get you an apartment, but it's taken out of your account. We're not making anything off the money we advance."
It's not all beauty, Hollinger tells the rapt audience. He emphasizes personality: "If you start out naturally as a shy person, are you going to work at it? Can you push yourself? Clients need to hear a girl who is outgoing and willing. There's a significant charm factor in the business."
To close the panel, a mother asks -- but gets no answer -- "What happens when you're overweight and old?"
In the Clarkes' airy three-story home in University City, Jeff talks about Matt Sheldahl -- a gaunt-looking, Scandinavian-faced Iowan -- who just got back from New York. "We placed him with Q in New York and in LA and Why Not in Milan, just to start."
Mary arrives and is asked about Jefferson Peak, the guy Jeff chased down at Mizzou. Peak couldn't afford the evening runway show and couldn't come to the one-on-one callbacks with the agents.
"Jefferson didn't do as well as we thought," she says. Mary thinks things might have turned out differently if he could have met with the agents. "He'll have to learn how to hold his mouth. He has a slight overbite, which is something you notice on film. He could work maybe in Chicago and Atlanta, but not New York. New York's the hardest place."
Tony Perkins of Next met with Peak. "He liked him, but he wasn't 100 percent sure. Tony is a nose guy. The nose is always the deciding factor with Tony, and Jefferson's nose is on the pug side."
Elizabeth Berquist didn't get a single callback. "I'm telling Elizabeth's mom you've got to be patient," Mary says.
But Joan Berquist has other concerns. She doesn't like hearing how much weight the agents think her daughter should lose.
Mary goes through a group of swimsuit shots of Rebecca Toben to send to New York.
Mary says Rebecca, a striking brunette with a heart-shaped face, "has hung in there. She got braces at 19. They had to pull her eyeteeth down."
She holds a photo up for Jeff: "How's her body look there?"
"Her stomach's pooched out."
Aaron and Jeff are constantly getting e-mails from agents, requesting photos of models. Jeff talks to one agent and then another without pause.
Mary's relieved to be approaching strangers as a scout without talking up a Genesis event. She admits she felt somehow culpable in the less appealing aspects of the business.
"I used to think having a great little event would affect the big picture, but we could only affect the people we came in contact with. Our new goal is to be more vocal, to blow the roof off," she says.
Genesis will become MODELTRUTH.
"Genesis was the event company," Mary says. "It was a great ride, one that was needed, but we know our real ultimate vision has always been to lead us to this place."
They intend to continue scouting, developing and placing models. They're good at it. They're successful, and the industry always needs new faces.
But now Ashton Kutcher has offered to produce a video for them, one that shows how the fashion industry works, and doesn't work, one that exposes and informs.
"We're going to launch the MODELTRUTH concept in New York during the IMTA," Mary says, grinning. She repeats a line a hotel doorman once told her: "It's not sneaky. It's savvy."
She can't believe her good fortune, the way this has fallen on her.
Like the way beauty befalls an unsuspecting girl, too innocent to understand its power and its danger.