Wannabees follow in steps of superstar models: Dreams came true for 13 girls-next-door when they became 'superstar' models - for a night. Roger Tredre reports

LAST MONTH she was signing on back home in Cardiff. This week, she was a superstar model, for a night at least, striding the catwalk before the television cameras and the probing eyes of a thousand fashion industry guests. It was a dream come true for Dena Khazragi, 19, a finalist in the British round of the Look of the Year contest.

Two hours before the event, Ms Khazragi was shaking with nerves backstage. She sat on the steps of the fire escape at the Cafe Royal in Regent Street, central London, and fiddled with her shoes. 'I just went to the toilet to calm down. I had such a bad panic attack I thought I was going to throw up,' she said.

The Look of the Year, organised by the Elite Premier modelling agency and held in Britain for the first time this year, is every teenage girl's chance to make a million.

The event was the launch pad for names like Cindy Crawford and Stephanie Seymour, both million-pound earners in the model world. Elite Premier has most of the world's top names on its books, including Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell and Claudia Schiffer.

Before the make-up artists and stylists had done their work, the 13 contestants were 13 girls-from-next-door, complete with spots and pimples. Most of them had read about the competition in the Sun, and had no professional modelling experience.

Georgina Cooper, 14, from Charlton, south-east London, was the youngest. She was hoping to find modelling work during her school holidays. Her mum would come with her on test shoots, she said.

Shelley Ross, 16, from Brighton, was concentrating very hard on not smiling. She did not want to talk much either because the act of talking obliged her to open her mouth and show off a set of sparkling braces.

As the girls queued to have their hair teased into shape, they were reassured sotto voce by a series of expert young men. Gavin Boardman, the booker responsible for the youngest girls at Elite Premier, said: 'I've spent the last two days talking to the girls and their parents. They've all got my home phone number.' And he was off again, cooing and stroking and flattering. 'You look gorgeous, darling. You're going to be wonderful.'

This was a squeaky clean vision of the modelling world, scrubbed free of exploitation, anorexia, jet lag, and drugs. The contestants were wannabees still free of problems; their only concerns were aching feet and fatty foods.

Melanie Boon, 16, said: 'It's a pain being on a strict diet, all salads, fresh fruit and mineral water. I set myself little targets - just one chocolate bar a week, at the weekends.'

There are 20 women who earn more than pounds 1m a year from modelling, followed by several dozen who can earn more than pounds 100,000 if they work hard enough. Heather Stewart-Whyte, 23, one of the judges of the Look of the Year, is in the million-pound rank.

Ms Stewart-Whyte, from Eastbourne, started modelling at 17 and retired at 19. 'It was the best thing I ever did. There are a lot of bad influences for young girls in modelling. I started again when I was 21 and felt more in control.'

So how did she pass her time during the two years off? 'I took my money and built a house.'

The contestants were dreaming of house-building, and much more besides. The winner of the Look of the Year final to be held at the Plaza hotel in New York in September, is guaranteed dollars 150,000 ( pounds 78,500) worth of work.

Elite Premier, the biggest agency in Britain, was founded last year as a joint partnership of Elite in New York and Paris, and Premier, the British agency run by Chris Owen and Carole White. The agency has 300 girls on its books, with 100 working round the world at any one time. Turnover last year was more than pounds 3m, according to Mr Owen.

Alex Childs, 17, thought modelling for Elite Premier would be a perfect way to earn a living. 'If I won, I'd buy a little island, find some gorgeous hunky male, and live there happily after.'

It was a nice idea, but Ms Childs did not win. First place went to Helen Millet, a 16-year-old from Bournemouth, who promptly burst into tears.

John Casablancas, director of Elite International, gave a short speech about priming 'great new beauties'.

He said there were seven, eight, maybe nine, girls who would be invited to 'pursue a career with us'. And what about the rest? Back to the dole queue in Cardiff, perhaps?

The competitors smiled frozen smiles at the winner and trooped backstage. Mr Boardman was ready, oozing sympathy.

'Now I've got to do my rounds. There are a few gutted ones out there. And if that Helen doesn't stop sobbing, I'm going to strangle her.'

(Photograph omitted)