Thousands of children are on the books of model agencies in South Africa .
These appealing poppets appear in adverts, magazines and catalogues, and marketers would be hard-pressed to promote their products without them. Barbara Mowatt looks at the pros and cons
Child modelling and beauty pageants can be big business for youngsters. Boys and girls, from newborns and toddlers to teens, work in the advertising, film and modelling industries. As with any other profession, there are upsides and disadvantages to their participation.
'The kids enjoy castings - trying on the clothes and having their pictures taken,' says Renee Arlow of Kidz 2000, Cape Town, who has on her books about 300 children who do photo shoots mostly for overseas catalogues and TV adverts. 'The younger ones don't know the difference between a casting (the initial selection) and work. They just see it as having fun with their friends,' she says.
In the spotlight
One youngster who has enjoyed his time as a model is Peter Steele, the boy who rides a horse in the Spur advert shown on TV. He's had a long stint modelling, having started when he was just 18 months old, when his mother registered him at an ad agency after his older brother James was cast for an advert. He has done all kinds of work, from photo shoots, ramp modelling and films to ads. He's now 13 years old and started high school this year.
When asked how enthusiastic he is about the work, his mother Esther Steele says, 'I take my cue from him. If he doesn't want to do it, I don't push him. I give him the choice. I tell him what the assignment is, what he has to do and how much money it is, and let him decide.
'Kids have to like it. They have to have the personality it has more to do with personality than good looks.' Peter enjoys the recognition, she continues. 'It does a lot for his self-esteem it's a great boost. He also loves meeting new people at shoots.'
Confidence is definitely the key to an enjoyable modelling experience. 'Confidence is the main thing,' said Renee Arlow. 'When a child walks in, the client tends to know when the child is shy. If a child is reluctant, the client can usually see this straightaway.' Clients prefer to have willing and confident children because they are easier to work with. Renee said that even a 'naughty' child one who is lively and responsive is easier to work with than one who is reticent.
Children love working on photo shoots for local magazines, particularly those that their peers read, because of the recognition and exposure when all their friends see them in the magazines, says Renee Arlow. A spin-off is that it builds confidence.
Renee gives an example of one young girl on her books whose home language is not English and she was finding the classwork and socialising difficult at her English-medium school. After starting modelling, when her pictures appeared in local magazines, her school mates saw her in a different way and her popularity increased, which was a big boost to her confidence. The result was an all-round improvement not only in her self-image, but in her schoolwork.
Competition and conflict
'The recognition can affirm the child's popularity but if there is too much pressure, the child will not be able to manage the fame,' says psychologist Marc Kahn. 'It all depends on how the parent relates to the child. If they relate in a healthy way, it can benefit the child and be a good influence on them.'
Children start modelling often because their friends are doing it. However this can lead to competition mostly between the parents. 'If one child gets more work than his friends,' says Renee Arlow, 'the parents may question why their child is not doing as much work.' And if the child does not have a lot of work, it's the parents who often feel rejected, not the child.
Working on commercials is time-consuming for parents - the moms complain about having to sit around while the children work. If you can afford the time, it is fine, says Esther Steele. Her son dislikes going to castings that take a long time sometimes more than an hour and these days he prefers to go to castings for which he's been short-listed. The work also involves a lot of travelling, so if the parents work full time, it can be difficult for the child to get to assignments.
Modelling and photographic work is one area in the working world that child labour is permitted. A child can make anything from R1 000 a week, or R20-25 000 in a season. A television ad can pay as much as R24 000. 'The money is good,' confirms Esther Steele, whose son has put a lot of his money away and has also bought things he wanted, such as toys.
Kahn sounds a word of caution, though, on how to handle the money. Financial rewards accrue to the parents and, unfortunately, there's a danger that they may see the child as a cash cow, which can lead to problems.
The child may earn thousands, but they may also not benefit from that money. 'If the child is vivacious and attractive, it can create very different pressures,' he says, 'because the parent may encourage the child to enter the glamour world to supplement the family's income.'
Royalty for a day
Former child model Cassilee, now 17, who her family say has always been vivacious and extroverted, had very positive experiences with her modeling and participating in beauty pageants.
'If it is a fun experience,' she says of beauty pageants, 'it is very good because the child can gain self-confidence. Whether I won or not didn't matter; I had a lot of fun and it helped me to grow up. I also met a lot of people.'
The pageants netted her prizes of 'lots of girly stuff', from toys, jewellery and clothing vouchers, to a modelling contract. She entered many pageants, had a lot of modelling jobs and worked in television and adverts. One ad for a large clothing store, for example, was reproduced as a huge poster and was on display in her local shopping centre. She was thrilled not only at seeing herself on the poster but that lots of people recognised her. 'I liked the attention,' she says.
Cassilee did point out, though, that one downside of beauty pageants is the amount of time the children have to stand around waiting to go on stage. For instance, at the Little Miss SA competition, which she entered in the early 1990s, there were so many contestants and they spent about six hours backstage during the final, but, she says brightly, 'Once we were on stage, I loved that.' And when she won the Little Miss Balfour competition in 1994, 'I loved the crown.'
On a more sober note, Cassilee adds that sometimes competitions are taken too seriously and contestants can become bitter if they don't win.
'Entering beauty pageants is not necessarily unhealthy,' says Marc Kahn, 'but it does depend on the child. If the parents put the child under a lot of pressure, it can be very destructive, and the body is objectified at an early age.
'It is the parents who must determine the seriousness of entering competitions,' he says. 'If the parents' expectations are high, they may be very disappointed in the child's performance in competitions and the child may think they have failed the parent. The child is not in control of the experience.
'It is very rare for the child to enter themselves in competitions, unless they do so because their friends are entering. If the child is entered in competitions to fulfill the parents' desires, it can result in the child not being seen for who they are, but are rather judged on what they can do for the parent. The parent may be trying to live vicariously through the child by pressuring them to compete.
'However,' he continues, 'entering pageants can be constructive because if the child does well, they often appreciate themselves more.'
Pat MacEwan of Eighteen Below Modelling and Casting Agency says that one of the reasons she does not approve of beauty pageants for youngsters is that there is only one winner, whereas with modelling, 'all my children are winners. Many children enter but only one can win a competition.' They also learn to pose in an artificial way, and clients, particularly those from overseas, who use children in commercials want normal, natural-looking children. Another negative was that the mothers take it too seriously, which can be damaging to the children, she said.
Renee Arlow also commented on the bitchiness, primarily from parents, backstage at pageants and the amount of money spent. 'Some dresses cost R500 or more and they don't want their child to wear the dress more than once,' she says. 'Entering pageants is not a healthy way of letting children grow up'.
Children who start modelling young seldom continue after they reach adolescence for a variety of reasons, one being that the novelty starts to wear off. The boys often become self-conscious if they have problem skin in puberty, and the girls tend to gain weight, which also leads to lack of willingness to continue in the industry.
However, that's when other teens start showing an interest and sign on at the agencies. They have the interest, confidence, looks and independence to do the work.
Advertising agencies, film companies and magazines are on constant lookout for new faces. They're looking for children who are suitable for the assignment, who fit in with what the client (advertiser, magazine, or catalogue) wants.
To get started, call up an agency (or send photos by e-mail), take the child in and the agency will assess whether the child has the personality for the work and will give the parents advice. No fee is charged to sign on at an agency. Photographs are taken and the parents pay for the Z card, which gives details on the child such as age and hair colour - Kidz 2000, for example, charges R150 for 40 cards. Z cards are distributed to clients in the preselection process. The agency makes its money from the work it contracts.
Film and advert work is seasonal, especially for overseas clients, and agencies generally interview new youngsters from June to September. The majority of the film, catalogue and advertising work is done from October to March, and it's fairly quiet for the rest of the year.
Is your child suitable?
Parents should ask themselves why their child is entering competitions or doing modelling, says psychologist Marc Kahn. 'Does the child have the type of personality that would enjoy that level of attention? If you're unsure, make an appointment with a psychologist for assessment of the child and, in one or two sessions, it can be ascertained whether the child will be able to handle the level of stress.'
Stress is not only negative, Kahn points out. Good stress can be a positive experience to help the child grow in a better way. 'If you consult a psychologist, you don't have to guess,' he concludes.
Marc Kahn is a registered clinical psychologist and organisational consultant in private practice in Cape Town . He is a member of the Cape Town Society for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and vice-chairman of the South African Institute for Psychotherapy. He also does corporate training in psychological skills.
Words by Barbara Mowatt