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Mother Model Management is a boutique agency. The Clarkes don't charge the models for start-up costs, like test shots and portfolio pictures. "We want to stay small to help as many people as we can," says Mary.
Now that their own kids are older, they travel with their girls. This month, they will fly to New York, Milan and Paris. "It's a lonely business," Mary explains. "It's nice for the girls to have family and extra support. It wouldn't be the same if we weren't available."
"They all have a connection to home," Jeff adds.
Currently, Mother Model Management has 25 models, mostly from Missouri and Iowa, placed with bookers in the major fashion markets.
The Clarkes are careful about who they decide to represent. Just ask Flutie, who recently spent two weeks traveling with Jeff and Mary across the Midwest scouting for contestants for his new show, MTV Model Makers.
"We were at the state fair," he recalls. "It was surreal. I saw this beautiful girl, about five-ten, screaming at her parents. I said to Mary and Jeff, 'Look at that!' But Mary wouldn't even approach her. She thought the girl was conveying the mannerisms of disrespect. Mary said to me, 'We have the liberty of handpicking who we want to work with.'"
Almost every model's first encounter with Jeff and Mary Clarke goes something like this:
You're a young girl, thirteen or fourteen. You're skinny and flat-chested and tower over everyone else in your grade — "a tall, awkward thing," says Karlie Kloss.
One day you're out running errands with your parents at Schnucks or West County Center, or you're working at the Dairy Queen, or walking through the airport, when you notice someone staring at you. You feel slightly uncomfortable, but decide you're being paranoid. And then someone yells, "Wait! Stop!" You turn and see a motherly looking woman with curly red hair and a burly black man with a beard and an armful of tattoos running after you.
"We're not stalkers," they say. "You're so beautiful. Have you ever thought about being a model?"
"My parents thought it was a scam," Kayla Travers remembers. "I did some research on their website and was like, 'Look how legit they are! They discovered Ashton Kutcher!' My dad said, 'We'll talk to Mary. She sounded really nice.'"
"We want to be careful and respectful and honest," Mary says. "That's why we meet with the parents."
"We had all the old conceptions of the industry, the eating disorders, the fast life," says Mary McGrath, Cat's mother. "Mary and Jeff assured us from the beginning they would keep a close tab on her. I don't feel like I'm fighting with them about things that are important."
The Clarkes keep in touch through phone calls and occasional meetings. "It's not a whole lot of time," says Cat, "maybe a few hours every few weeks. They usually come to us. They taught me stuff I never thought about, like how to hold myself, the different angles, how to use the light, to keep my mouth slightly open."
"Modeling is acting in still," explains Travers, who has been performing in community theater productions since she was six. ("Yeah, I know," she laughs, "two of the most fickle industries.")
"I had to learn poses and face looks," McGrath says. Does she give them nicknames, like the male models in the movie Zoolander? "No, no names." She won't demonstrate one, either, even though her ten-year-old sister Clare looks on hopefully. "They don't like me to smile. High fashion is more serious."
"If you do happy-smiley," Travers adds, "after a while, your face starts twitching."
The girls do test shots, or practice photo sessions, and walk in local fashion shows. "I did some bridal shows," says Travers. "I kept thinking, Why am I in a bridal dress on a runway? But it was low stress. I had nothing to compare it to."
When the Clarkes decide a girl is mature enough to work, they send pictures to agents in New York. "We expect agencies to trust our judgment," Mary says. "When we get a lukewarm reaction, we get frustrated. It's like, What are you not seeing? If we believe in someone, we keep going. We don't give up until we're exhausted."
"They send great girls," says Next's Stephen Lee, "girls who are ready for the market."
"I went to New York with my mom for the first time this summer," McGrath recounts. "We were there for ten days. It was crazy. We were constantly running around from the agency to photo shoots. We learned the subway system really fast."
"The biggest misconception is that it's all glitz and glamour," Travers says. "It's a business. You have to treat it like a business."
"I love America's Next Top Model," McGrath says, "but it's much harder than they make it seem. It can take two or three hours just to do your hair. They yank it and it hurts. And then there are the high heels. It gets painful. I'd rather play volleyball."
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