A supermodel is born, barring teenage acne

FIVE tiro models lined the start of the catwalk dressed in the tight, black, long line of the autumn. Proud parents broke into rapturous grins: this was the climax and the highlight of a child-model workshop by the agency Truly Scrumptious. Their offspring had been transformed in only two days.

Down the catwalk they came, some lanky, some still bearing puppy fat; eyes down, concentrating on their steps, trying not to look at Mummy. Their baby brothers pointed and clapped. And then, into this scrumptious but essentially homely scene, there suddenly stalked a creature from another species: an endlessly tall, thin column in long black Lycra, a mass of dark hair spinning around slanted cheek bones.

Every inch a mixture of gangliness and grace; like a baby giraffe not yet certain how best to place its tangle of limbs. Here was a rare and unmistakable sight. Models are an unusual breed, delicate-faced, elongated, fragile- limbed. This was that breed at foal stage, taking her first steps. An ear-ring fell off; she caught her father's eye and the fine-boned face split in a smile. Victor Lucas, from Southgate, north London, smiled warmly back at his daughter Erika. She is 5ft 7ins tall. She is 12 years old.

When the agency saw her cheekbones, they signed her up. These days modelling starts at birth. Vanessa Brown, a partner at the agency, was styling the show. She clutched her pregnant stomach. 'Yeah,' she said. 'He or she'll model.'

Linda Evangelista, queen of the supermodels, was a child model at six. By 12 she was a baby-faced beanstalk, set apart from her classmates by her gangling height. By the time she was on Paris catwalks she was boasting that she didn't get out of bed for less than dollars 10,000. The news of the fabulous wealth on offer has not been slow to filter down to primary school playgrounds. The 30 or so 12- to 16-year-old girls at the Scrumptious workshop may have been decorated with fluffy boas, but they were far from feather-headed.

Practising the Paris turn in the studio were blonde-haired, blue-eyed, identical twins from Dagenham. They were 13. Why were they there? 'We want to be a model,' said Amanda and Donna Smith, smiling angelically over their lacy tops. And why was that? 'Cos it's a lot of money.' Why did 12-year-old Erika want to model? A shy glance. 'It's the money.'

There is not so much money in child modelling. The rate ranges from pounds 30 an hour to pounds 85, before the agency fee. Vanessa Brown estimates the likely earnings for one of the popular faces on her books to be only about pounds 4,000 a year. The chance of fortune comes only to those who make it to the next, adult, stage - and they are few. The children in this Islington studio were being shown the unfair and uncontrollable real world. In this world, inequality is celebrated.

Two 15-year-old boys, Martin Donnelley and Oliver Davies, from Watford, worked on their steps with an impressive intensity. Both were taken on to the books of the agency almost as soon as they stepped through the door. 'They've both got potential,' said Sharon Obee, director of Truly Scrumptious. 'And if they've got the determination to come along, specially with lots of girls here, they're half way there.'

But faint signs of the strains to come already blew in the air. Martin already had girlfriend trouble: she had a vision of him surrounded by beautiful rivals. 'I decided I wasn't going to take another girlfriend until this was over,' said Ollie, with considerable gravitas. 'She might get in the way. Or you might meet other girls.' And they had already begun to look at themselves in an unaccustomed way. Both are 5ft 6ins. They have no hope of a future in adult modelling - an averagely successful male model earns between pounds 30,000 and pounds 40,000 a year - unless they grow to 6ft in the next few years.

Wayne Greening, choreographer of the show, paused by the tape machine into which he was inserting early Seventies hits, and gazed as thoughtfully as a dog-show judge at a basket full of puppies. 'They have got very big feet,' he said. 'That's hopeful; but they'd have to have 40-inch chests, 30-inch waists, good teeth, good skins. They have to be physically perfect.' He looked around the room. 'There are one or two girls here,' he said. 'But . . . see that girl?' he said. 'She's pretty, but when she smiles her lower jaw juts out.'

Rehearsals were over. It was time for the show, to demonstrate to parents who had paid pounds 35 for two days' professional instruction in modelling what had been achieved. Without much more than a few murmurs, their children had, for example, submitted to putting on clothes that most of them did not seem to like at all, in a way they never would at home. It was the autumn collection of Hot Bod, based on the Sixties; see-through crochet trouser suits and Lycra tubes, worn with chain belts and CND signs.

'My nan used to dress like this,' said Keetha Allaway, 15, from Holloway. 'Minis and high boots.' 'I think,' said the girl standing next to her, 'that my taste is rather more sophisticated than this.' But on the hour, as their parents took their seats, they wore their grandmas' period clothing with grace. They pointed and wiggled their hips, and their eyes took on a far-out, dazed look that went with the clothes.

Afterwards their mothers and fathers were also dazed, particularly Victor and Audrey Lucas, both PE teachers, parents of Erika. On the catwalk had appeared a mysterious beauty whom they knew to be, in fact, a very shy 12-year- old with a penchant for netball. 'She's always wanted to do some sort of modelling,' said Audrey Lucas in baffled tones. Mrs Lucas has only recently become used to having to look upwards when addressing her child. This latest metamorphosis seemed to come as an equal shock. 'I suppose - as long as she continues her education - if that's what she wants to do . . .'

Ollie, Martin and Erika, Truly Scrumptious's latest recruits, climbed back into their jeans and towards the door. Almost anything could stop them going through the next barrier: a bad outbreak of spots, not growing tall enough, growing too tall, remaining too shy. And if they make it, they will at once begin to worry about growing too old. Ollie slumped against the door jamb. 'I feel really tired,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)