From cradle to catwalk

Like thousands of teenagers, Katherine wants to model. She is nearly six feet tall; she is also 14 years old. So what should her mother do next? Tamsin Blanchard hears the case for and against
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If there is one commodity that the fashion industry craves incessantly, it is fresh blood. Agents and magazine editors all want to discover the Next Big Thing: the graduate designer whose show will make headlines, the brilliant photographer with a distinctive eye, or a new model. New models are usually young models, and they seem to be getting younger all the time. Last month, Rachel Kirby was signed by the model agency Select - at the age of 12.

The competition for these teenage stars is ruthless. As soon as a 6ft 1in Jodie Kidd has made it to the pages of Vogue at the age of 17, a new girl is snapping at her heels and photographers will be clicking their shutters at her. But the world of fashion modelling is not for children. Those who become part of it mix with older girls and have to take responsibility for a professional working life; they are forced to grow up quickly.

There are pressures that young girls may be more vulnerable to than their older colleagues. If a model is booked for catwalk work, inevitably there will be a few glasses of champagne before and after the show; the hours can be exhausting; the pressure to smoke is likely to be greater than at home. And those are the least of their worries. For the models who are never going to make it big - the majority of them - life is not all glamour. A single spot can mean days of hell. The slightest weight gain (fish and chips the night before a job) could result in the humiliation of not fitting into a pair of minuscule sample size trousers. And the days in between are spent trekking from agency to magazine to photographer for castings alongside 20 or 30 other young hopefuls.

Nevertheless, teenage girls are seduced by the gloss. And when parents are confronted by a teenage daughter who wants to become a model, what are they to do? Judging by the hundreds of letters received by model agencies and teen magazines from adolescents keen to follow in the footsteps of their favourite supermodel, the dilemma is a common one.

Katherine is 14, but at 5ft 10in she towers above her mother, Anne. At the age of 12, she was 5ft 7in. For some time, friends have been telling her she could be a model. A few months ago, after being told by an advertising executive, a family friend, to contact a few agencies, Katherine announced that she would like to give it a go as a way of earning some money over the summer holidays. Her mother would not mind her working part-time, as long as it is for a reputable agency, but she does not know how to proceed or what pitfalls to look out for.

Apart from being the tallest girl in her class, Katherine is an ordinary schoolgirl; good at French and English, she hopes eventually to combine the two subjects to teach English as a foreign language abroad. In her pink bedroom there is a collection of dolls, a hi-fi system with CDs by Blur, a television, a picture of Brad Pitt stuck above her bed, and a photo of her friends, all of whom look younger than Katherine. There is also a pair of bathroom scales, although as her mother points out, Katherine "eats like a horse".

In June, Anne will take Katherine and her older brother to Knebworth to see Oasis. Since finding out about his sister's modelling plans, he has taken to calling her "Cindy". She reads Just Seventeen and Looks and is interested in fashion. A few times a year, her mother takes her to London to go clothes shopping with money saved from Christmas and her birthday. In her free time, she likes playing sports such as squash and going to the cinema. Occasionally she will go to a pub with her parents, where she will drink Coke or a spritzer. In short, she leads a relatively sheltered and protected life.

Katherine's parents want to do what is best for their daughter. They do not want to say no to her and risk being told in years to come that they prevented her from doing something she really wanted to do. However, they are well aware of how Rachel Kirby was seized upon by the tabloids for looking sexy and provocative before her time.

"If Katherine modelled for people her age, in clothes that a 14 or 15- year-old would wear, I wouldn't have a problem," Anne says. "I'd be happier if she was with a children's agency, rather than a grown-up one that might try to make Katherine into some sophisticated lady."

The problem is that Katherine is too tall for most children's agencies, and with careful make-up, she could pass for 18 or older. What parents don't realise - and are not told - is that when a girl is taken on to an agency's books, she is there to make money for herself and the agency. A 14- year-old is not in a position to pick and choose her jobs; if she looks older than her years, she will be expected to take the jobs that come her way. It is impossible for parents to have total control over how their daughter is being photographed. "I don't want to get into something and not have any control over the situation," Anne says. "You can't take chances like that with your children."

Anne and Katherine have discussed the pros and cons of working as a model. Katherine, ahealthy looking girl who is long and lean, but by no means skinny, has asked her mother if she might have to go on a special diet. It is not something that Anne would have suggested herself.

"If modelling becomes a serious proposition, I would go to see the doctor and plan a nutritionally balanced diet for Katherine," she says. And she would encourage Katherine to exercise rather than diet. But she would not be happy if a complete stranger, a model booker, were to tell Katherine she needed to lose weight. She herself does not diet. Besides, she says, "this thin waif look doesn't look healthy. Those models look gaunt. Look at Jodie Kidd - how that can sell clothes I do not know."

But however well-balanced and emotionally mature a 14-year-old is, plunge her into the world of fashion where looks are everything and where models have been known to be sent home from shoots because they do not fit the size eight samples, and there is no doubt there is more risk of an eating disorder than if she were to stay at home in the company of her normal and various-sized friends.

Anne spoke to a booker at Kate Moss's agency, Storm, and decided that rather than traipse around the agencies with Katherine in person, where she might face rejection, she would send some pictures by post. A few weeks later, she received a letter saying Katherine's "look" was not right for Storm but to try another agency. Model agents will rarely give a straight "no, you are not right" reply because, understandably, they do not want to be responsible for giving the girl a complex or, at worst, making her feel overweight or unattractive.

For Katherine's mother, the realities of a modelling career are staring her in the face. Modelling is not a quick way to earn some money over the holidays: it might take the whole summer just to get a portfolio of pictures together. Clients will want to see what Katherine looks like in print as well as in the flesh. And Anne is aware that Katherine would have to look and act older than her years. "In the winter, I watched Katherine outside playing snowballs with her friends. And she recently came home from a friend's house covered head to toe in paint. That's the sort of thing 14-year-olds should be doing," she says. "I like to see her acting her age."

Katherine might still be undeterred by the thought of working through her summer holidays, but her mother is not going to let her rush into anything she might regret. In July, there is the annual Elite Premier Look competition, which has launched the careers of many young models. Katherine and her parents still have a lot to discuss and think about before photographs are posted off to join the hundreds of entries that are piling into the offices at Elite Premier every day.

But even after her mother has spelt out the downside of modelling to her, Katherine is as excited as she ever was: "I'm still willing to give it a try."


The agent's response (1)

Helen Garner, manager of Tiny Tots to Teens, one of around 60 child model agencies in London, receives hundreds of letters each week. Her agency has child models from birth to 15 and 16. Children can earn pounds 50 an hour.

"5'10" is way too tall for Tiny Tots. If a client is looking for a 5'10" girl, they won't come to us. If I was Katherine's mother, I would say No, wait until she is 16 and then go around the agencies. There will still be time left then. She won't be too old. What worries me is the adult world may get hold of her now and if they want her, they won't be interested in her for just a few weeks over the summer. She could try laying her cards on the table at an agency like Models One and telling them she intends to go to university and wants to model part-time. But she'd need to have her eyes wide open."

The agent's response (2)

Paula Karaiskos, Storm agency. "I think it's going to be a disheartening experience. When a model starts out, she has to do tests and it could take weeks before she gets decent pictures. Modelling is very demanding and it takes ages to get anywhere. Katherine sounds as if she's got brains - she should just get a part-time job in a boutique or a burger chain. Summer holidays aren't a time to be working. We wouldn't usually take on 14-year-olds but we might ask her to keep in touch every year and send pictures. We like them to finish their GCSEs so they have something to fall back on."

The magazine editor's response

Fiona Gibson, managing editor of Just Seventeen, receives countless letters from readers inquiring about modelling.

"Height-wise, Katherine fits the bill, and at 14 she's probably old enough to be taken on by a 'grown-up' agency rather than a children's one. I imagine she would be most likely to get editorial work on magazines like Just Seventeen. We see and use girls of this age, and we're only given access to certain girls during school holidays. I'd advise Katherine to take someone - preferably a parent - when she visits agencies and goes on castings. She shouldn't try to hide her own 'look' - we like natural, confident girls our readers can relate to."