Five children, in brightly colored T-shirts and wrinkled jean shorts, chattered in an eighth-floor office in Manhattan on a recent June day, taking breaks to lick ice pops and play with Spider-Man dolls. It looked like an all-American play date, the type you may see depicted in a magazine.
And that’s exactly the point.
It’s summer in New York, and that means aspiring child models (along with, most often, their mothers, who aspire to be parents of child models) have traveled from all over the country to the city for a shot at stardom.
Melia Breuer, 11, and Grace Nelson, also 11, said they were excited to be hanging out in New York office buildings, even as their friends back home in Cincinnati are spending the summer swimming, attending soccer camp and playing foursquare in the driveway. The girls moved with their mothers to New York City for seven weeks of auditioning. The four live together in a studio apartment in Chelsea.
Although both girls have budding Instagram accounts, summer in New York offers something even more alluring than online “likes” and hearts. “I want to be in a real magazine that people actually read, like at the hair salon,” Melia said.
She and her peers will need patience, a thick skin and good karma. But most of all, they will need an agent, which is why they arrived early at the office of Charlie Winfield, the Popsicle provider and director of operations at FFT/FunnyFace Today Inc. Model Management.
He spends a few months each year traveling to small-town conventions across the country, scouting young models who might want to travel to New York for the summer.
“Summer kids,” as they are known in the industry, aim to secure auditions and jobs in the most competitive modeling market in the nation.
The average child model working year-round could potentially make $20,000, according to Joey Hunter, the former co-president of Ford Models who founded the kids division there. But for these children, success may mean earning $13 an hour as a TV extra, if they’re lucky.
As is the norm with most agencies, FFT doesn’t guarantee work to young models who make the pilgrimage, and the agency doesn’t advance money. Agents are paid a percentage of what the models make.
The kind of career-building effort that brings throngs of children and their parents to New York is not cheap, and returns aren’t guaranteed. Melia’s mother, Julie Baker, is divorced from Melia’s dad and works as a manager at a shoe store in Cincinnati. She is on medical leave for knee surgery, and is taking her recovery time in the city.
She estimates she has spent between $7,000 and $10,000 on modeling costs in the past year for Melia, who has made between $300 and $500 during that time. To pay for this trip to the East Coast, Ms. Baker created a GoFundMe page and hosted a going-away party, where friends and family gave money.
Grace’s mother, Valerie Nelson, who works in a cardiac catheterization lab in Cincinnati, estimates she has spent $13,000 to $15,000 since her daughter began modeling two years ago.
How much has Grace made so far?
“Zero dollars,” Ms. Nelson said. “That’s not a hard number to figure out.”
But she stands behind her investment in this career. “People pay for private school, which is more expensive than that, and don’t come out with life skills like that,” she said.
At the FFT offices, the children learn from Mr. Winfield. He has a way with kids, and a setup well suited for them: one bookshelf is covered in Spider-Man memorabilia, and on his desk sits a large plastic container covered in smiley-face stickers and filled with candy.
Still, Mr. Winfield is running a business, and he speaks frankly to the children. “You know how your parents have told you, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover?’” he said to the children, who fidgeted in chairs as they listened. “Well in this industry, because this is film and TV and modeling, that’s the first thing that people are going to do. They’re going to judge a book by its cover. So your job is to make a good first impression.”
New York has always been a summer destination for children who aspire to modeling careers. But the number of dreamers has been growing.
Reality television and social media are the cause, said Marlene Wallach, president of Wilhelmina Kids & Teens, a modeling and talent management company. “Everyone watches these reality shows and everyone wants to be a star,” she said. “A favorite ‘mommy and me’ pastime was ‘America’s Next Top Model.’”
With 33 families settling in the city this summer seeking child modeling opportunities with FFT, Mr. Winfield delivers the same speech during a number of sessions.
A few weeks earlier, Catrina Black sat in a similar orientation meeting, taking in the same words. She had traveled from Birmingham, Ala., with her daughter Erin Black, who just turned 11. Erin has earned a first-degree black belt in taekwondo and has studied dance for seven years. She has hazel eyes and giggles often.
Ms. Black is proud of the opportunity she’s providing for her child. When she was 18, she said, she had the opportunity to go to New York to be a model. She was packing up, getting ready to leave Birmingham, but her father and stepmother talked her out of going.
“That’s a regret I still have today, and I’m 46½ years old,” she said. “When Erin had this opportunity, I said, ‘I’m not going to let her have regrets the rest of her life like I had.’”
Ms. Black took a part-time job selling homeopathic diet supplements so she could afford to travel with her daughter.
People have said to her, “You can’t live your life through your daughter,” Ms. Black said. But she’s quick to rebut that view: “I’m not. She’s the one who’s going to be modeling, not me.”
Some “summer kids” carry not just the expectations of their parents with them to New York, but those of their communities back home.
To afford taking two months off from her waitressing job in Buford, Ga., so she could escort her daughter Shyann Walker, 12, up north for the summer, Sharon Harris asked for help from relatives and friends. Shyann, who is entering eighth grade in the fall, keeps their supporters updated on their New York adventures through videos she posts to her Facebook page.
“Today was an awesome day,” she said in one video from the end of June, titled “Day 24 almost the end of the month it went by so fast.” She reported: “I have an audition on Monday for another Toys ‘R’ Us, and I think I’m going to do pretty, pretty, pretty good at it.”
By mid-July, Shyann still hadn’t booked any jobs, but she remained upbeat. “Have a dream,” she said, recounting what she would advise other young hopefuls, “then go follow it.”