By Joan Leotta
Mae West once said, “A model’s just an imitation of the real thing.” If that’s true, then an encouraging trend is taking place both in the real world and in media representations: a rising profile for people with disabilities.
Take the January 2012 Target Corporation circular featuring Ryan Langford for example. Ryan, a six-year-old boy with Down’s syndrome, is just one of the happy crowd in an advertisement that has been hailed as “wonderfully inclusive.”
Doris Stinga of FunnyFace Today, Inc. (FFT), the New York City modeling agency that books jobs for Ryan, says that over the past six years, use of models with disabilities has been increasing. According to Stinga, children with disabilities are in demand for both corporate advertising and other print outlets such as school books. “The current market in print advertising is for children with obvious disabilities that are visible in photographs,” she states. When ads feature these children, companies can communicate a clear message of inclusiveness.
Target’s use of Ryan in its recent ad campaign underscores the company’s accepting attitude toward differences. “Target is committed to diversity and inclusion in every aspect of our business, including our advertising campaigns,” says spokesperson Jessica Carlson. “Target has included people with disabilities in our advertising for many years and will continue to feature people that represent the diversity of communities across the country.”
Irv Field, talent agent and co-owner of Elen’s Kids, another New York–based agency that works with FFT, says that any child is a potential model. A child simply needs a happy personality and the ability to follow directions.The FFT agency, which specializes in print and commercial modeling, has a division devoted to children and encourages participation from anyone regardless of disability status. “I solicit advertising agencies and companies on behalf of my clients,” says Stinga. Among the child models she handles are those with Down’s syndrome, some who use wheelchairs, and little people.
Although modeling as a profession has a reputation for promoting unhealthy body images, in the case of children with disabilities, the pursuit has often proven to be a self-image booster. In fact, some parents view modeling as another way to advocate for their children. Their view is that the more often children with disabilities are seen as participating in normal life, the stronger the message becomes that they are individuals not defined by disability.
Paula Ukema, mother of six-year-old model Kyrie Ukema, explains, “I want my little one to open up a magazine and see other faces like hers—to know that she can do anything. I want her to be happy and I do not want people to see disability as the first thing they notice when they see her.”
Kyrie’s positive involvement with modeling began at a very young age. “We belong to the National Down’s Syndrome Society and heard through that about a modeling opportunity for a child with Down’s between ages of newborn and 18 months,” Ukema relates. “At that time Kyrie was just under 18 months old. We sent in some snapshots and were selected. I loved the excitement of it and so did Kyrie.”
Ukema says, “For us, the modeling—as with everything else that we do—is all about being an advocate for our child.”
Amanda Langford, Ryan’s mother, explains her motivation for Ryan’s modeling is to give him an opportunity “to participate in an activity where he is on a level playing field with the other children who are competing.” For Ryan, the job suits him. “He is cute and he can compete,” says his mom. “He is cooperative and has a good time on the shoots. It’s not about the money. It is about having something that is all his own. As long as Ryan enjoys it we will do it.”
“We’ve loved every shoot that we have been on,” Langford, adds. Everyone on the set “treats the children with respect,” she relates. “Ryan has a lot of fun.”
Langford appreciates that times are changing for the better in terms of visibility for people with disabilities. “I love the fact that the modeling industry and even Hollywood is becoming more and more open to people with disabilities,” she notes. “There is the girl who plays Becky on Glee. All of this shows the public that disability does not define the person who has it.”
Sacrifices of Modeling
Introducing a child to the world of modeling requires sacrifice for any family. For example, before a first assignment is given, families pay costs for getting photos taken and going to auditions, called “look-sees.”
Travel expenses are not reimbursed to and from a booked shoot, generally held in cities with major advertising agencies like New York, Chicago, Miami or Los Angeles. Langford drives her son from New Jersey to New York City, a long commute. For Ukema, the drive is four and a half hours from her upstate–New York home into the city. Neither Ukema’s nor Langford’s other children are interested in modeling, so arrangements must be made for them each time the modeling child gets a call. Calls can come as late as the day before a shoot, so notice is often short. Finally, the photo shoots usually take place on weekdays, so parents must pull the child model out of school.
When the assignment is given and the child is paid, sometimes the photos are not used. And when that payment is made, it is often a relatively small amount. Modeling is not a way to ensure future financial stability for a child, Ukema reports. “On one shoot we got $245 dollars—just enough to pay the parking ticket and gas to and from downtown New York City to our home.” Still, she says, “I try to put a little aside to buy things Kyrie wants. Now we are saving for a swing set for her.”
Talent agent Irv Field agrees that “modeling, for children, is not about money. It is about making forever memories with a fun experience.” It’s also an occupation that’s easy to take up. No special classes or training are necessary.
A good agent makes sure that all state child labor laws are considered. Modeling has more relaxed requirements than working on stage, radio or television, and for this reason offers a more welcoming opportunity for children looking to break in to the entertainment industry.
Modeling is just one of many ways that parents of children with disabilities can fill their children’s lives with good memories and a sense of self-worth. For example, Ukema has also followed Kyrie’s interests and given her a worthwhile pursuit by starting a dance group for her. As Sue Thomas, whose life story as a deaf lip reader for the FBI was made into a television series, says, “The more opportunities you can find to have your child excel at whatever he or she enjoys, the better it is.”
Thinking about Modeling for Your Child?
The sources contacted for this article specialize in print media. However, Doris Stinga of FunnyFace Today (FFT) has this advice for parents considering any type of modeling for their children: “Do not listen to someone who comes up to you in a mall and wants to take several hundred dollars worth of pictures to get your child started in modeling.” Legitimate agencies are licensed and bonded and will not charge a fee for photos. While not all agencies belong to local Better Business Bureaus, parents should check to see if there are complaints against an agency before signing up.
Even infants are being used as models. And while of course, the better the photo, the better a child’s chances will be, a reputable agency will use most of the photos sent in to consider the child as a model. Both Amanda Langford and Paula Ukema sent their agents photos they had taken themselves of their children. However, for professional photos, a good agent can connect parents with a reputable photo service.
Paula Ukema tried to act as her daughter Kyrie’s agent when she started out, looking around for opportunities in her area with manufacturers of baby products and the like. However, she soon decided that using an agent was worth the cost. Print agents charge a commission of about 20% or more on a shoot. The agent does a lot of work for this money, calling around to advertising firms and companies to find work for the child model.
Families who do not live in an area with large advertising firms, can try calling local magazines and publishers of small parenting magazines to see if there are any who take their own advertising photos. (Author’s note: I once exchanged the fee for writing an article for a magazine cover opportunity on a small local parenting magazine for my two children. More than twenty-five years later, my daughter still recalls the fun of being a model for a day and of being on the cover of a magazine.)
Once jobs start coming, parents should keep “tear sheets” (copies of the ads in which the child appeared) and prepare a résumé that lists each jobs the child has had.
Those who are serious about a career in modeling will eventually need professional headshots or a composite photo card containing 5 photos.
Classes in modeling for older children are always useful, but all of the agents we spoke with said that the only requirement for young children is that the child is happy and can follow directions. A child going on to stage, TV or film opportunities usually does need acting classes.
A reputable agency will be aware of applicable child labor requirements and make sure that a child does not work longer in one day than the state allows. Several reliable agencies with children’s divisions are FFT, Ford, Wilhemina, Product and Elen’s Kids. Most require you to submit photos that will not be returned. Many will not acknowledge submissions unless they are interested in using the child. But with some diligence, a happy spirit, and a smile, your child might enjoy the life of a model, too.