Part 8: Making Plus Modeling Work on the Local Level
The majority of my columns to date have been devoted to talking about what the business is about in the “upper echelon” of the plus modeling industry (i.e. the “signed” model) but few people ever talk about how to make your career work from a local/regional standpoint or “The Underground” as I like to call it. Let’s face it, the vast majority of aspiring models won’t make it beyond the local level and that can be because of a number of factors. The reality of the business is that maybe 25% of aspiring models will reach that brass ring that’s known as “the signed model”. The other 75% will either quit or remain working at a local level.
I signed a contract with Wilhelmina Models in 1995 but before that I had been honing my skills on the local level since the 80’s. I worked in church fashion shows, nightclub fashion shows, model competitions; I joined modeling groups and entered beauty pageants as well. These experiences definitely helped prepare me for “life in the big leagues” (lol) as well as making it possible for me to travel all over the US, the Caribbean and even Europe! I took the years of working locally as an opportunity to “fill up my bag of tricks” until the right time came along for me to use them.
Many of you are not aware of the differences between working as a signed agency model and an unsigned model working locally. The signed model has the resources and backing of her agency behind her while the unsigned model is a sole proprietor. Trust me when I tell you this; you CAN thrive as a model working locally but the rules of the game are different and that’s what I want to talk about this month.
Basic Requirements – Ahhh…now THIS is the beauty of working locally! Most if not all of the strict standards (height, weight, etc) imposed on agency models do NOT apply here. This is where the petite plus gal, the size 20 or larger model, the 6 foot 3 model and the sister with that big bold blonde Afro or those beautiful red locks can thrive. When doing local shows the emphasis is generally on putting bodies in the seats (i.e. filling up the room) rather than having everyone looking the same or be a certain size. Because of the emphasis on getting the venue sold out, a new producer will more than likely get as many models as he or she can because they have to find a way to pay for the show they are trying to produce. The upside of this is that an aspiring model with little or no experience can use this as an opportunity to learn some new skills but unfortunately, you will probably have to sell some tickets.
Selling Tickets – I know a lot of aspiring models who turn their noses up at the mere thought of having to sell tickets, many think it’s beneath them. Selling tickets is a way of life in the Underground and there are certain types of shows where you might even have to bring your own clothing to wear in the show! (Lol we all have to start somewhere). Well, I hate to break the news to you but if you are just starting out and no one knows who you are and what you can do….you will probably have to sell some tickets just to get in the show, that’s just how it goes. Once you build up your skills and/or reputation for being a show stopper (and please know that doing 2-3 shows will probably NOT make you a runway diva overnight!) then you can begin to negotiate to either get a percentage of what you sell or omit the ticket selling completely. Most producers want to keep the model that everyone leaves the show talking about (in a good way of course) or the model that brings the crowd to their feet each time she graces the runway. It all depends on you and what you bring to the production. Will you have to sell tickets forever? Most certainly not, but if you are not blessed to be signed with an agency immediately – and you are just starting your career, you probably will have to do it for at least a year. When I entered the Maybelline Model of The Year Contest in 1995, the first thing all the contestants were told was that it was mandatory for each contestant to sell 10 tickets (at $15.00 each), there was absolutely no negotiation on this point; if you didn’t sell the tickets or buy them outright you could not enter the contest. I was very fortunate to have a sponsor who dressed me and supplied me with all that I needed but I STILL had to either sell or purchase those tickets (I bought mine outright and then resold them to my friends and family). The upside for me was not only did I recoup the monies I laid out because my family & friends scooped up those tickets quickly but I became the first plus sized model to ever win that title and my prize was a trip to Paris, France a place I had dreamed of visiting since I was a child!
One more thing: Don’t be surprised if the number of tickets you sell determines how many appearances you make on the runway. Unfortunately, this is the way that it works in the Underground; if you are given a quota of 10 tickets to sell and you only sell 1 or 2 but another model sells the allotted 10 and then asks for 10 more – chances are the person who sold the most tickets will have more wardrobe changes. I have seen producers make wardrobe edits the night after all ticket monies have been turned in and a person who started out with 5 changes will arrive on set to find that she now only has 2 changes because she didn’t fulfill her end of the deal. Some producers will actually cut you from a show if you don’t sell ANY tickets. It’s usually not personal, that’s just the way it goes.
Application and/or Submission Fees – Okay, I will admit it – I don’t like paying these either but I HAVE paid a fee in the past to submit my photos for a contest. I have read on several plus modeling forums that anyone who asks you to pay an application or submission fee is not a legitimate company or they are not on the level. I have to disagree with that advice somewhat. I have worked behind the scenes on many a “starter” production and I understand that there is an overhead that comes with putting on a fashion production. A lot of the producers are first timers and usually have good intentions but little funding. What the producer will do to try and keep from bankrupting their company is to try and find a way to offset some of the overhead costs to you. I don’t really think that’s unfair as long as the “fee” is not some ridiculously large amount of money. It does cost quite a bit of money to put on a production. Studios and rehearsal spaces cost money to rent and staff will sometimes need to be hired to handle the high volume of model traffic. Keep in mind as always that even on a local level you should ALWAYS treat it like the business it is– NO ONE is putting on fashion shows out of the goodness of their hearts! The universal goal of ANY producer is always to make money – remember that!
When I entered the BBW Cover Model Search back in the 1980’s, I had to send in an application fee with my photos in order to be considered. The fee was a small one (maybe $20 dollars) I had a very good job at the time and I figured what the heck…you only live once! I even waited until the last day to submit and wound up having to FedEx my photos to make the deadline. Imagine my surprise when I received a call from the magazine a few weeks later informing me that I was one of the semi finalists and I would be flying out to Las Vegas for the final competition! As you might imagine that experience changed my life, so in my opinion spending that $20 dollars was well worth it to me.
I do, however, draw the line at application and/or submission fees that are $50 to $100 dollars and up to submit yourself, that’s when the situation starts to “smell funny” to me. Start to ask yourself questions: Have you been to or seen a production by this company before? Have any of your friends? Are they well organized or are they’re castings and shows totally chaotic? Do they have a website where you can check out some of their past shows? What venues are they using to put on their productions? Use your instincts here – if your gut is telling you that something is wrong – walk away because it usually is!
Honing your skills – One of the greatest gifts that I got from working in the Underground was all of the many skills that I acquired. I was in the prime of my youth when I began modeling and I did it mainly for the thrill of walking the runway, getting the enthusiasm and approval of the audience and (most of the time) wearing some of the most beautiful clothing I had ever seen. Back then there were a LOT of fashion shows happening on the East Coast and I worked steadily. Even then a smart producer/designer KNEW the importance of having at least 1 or 2 plus sized models in their shows. We were small in numbers but we were always the show stoppers! It was during those many shows and rehearsals that I learned how to fine tune my “strut”, I learned when to apply a straight “couture” walk and how to add a little “razzle-dazzle” when necessary. I learned how to “strike a pose”, “Chanel” turns, the classic “lean”, half turns, full turns, multiple turns, entrance and exit poses, how to put on and take off a jacket properly, how to “work” a reversible garment, how to walk in an evening gown with a long train WITHOUT tripping all over it – the list was endless! I learned how to do my makeup at a moment’s notice because you just never knew when the makeup staff would be overwhelmed or if someone didn’t want to do my makeup. I learned how to apply false eyelashes. Hair was never my strong suit but I learned enough about hair and wigs to be ready if I needed to do it myself. I pored over my pictures and videos from shows and learned how to work my face and body so that my pictures almost always came out good. I was so incredibly focused back then and because I loved it so, I never took a moment of the work for granted. It was here that I began to fill up my “bag of tricks” to pull out at a moment’s notice. I came to the table with so much to offer to a production that designers and producers began making special requests for me to be in their shows.
Knowing what to keep and what to toss – Mastering this is what truly makes you a “Runway Diva” in my eyes. The best thing about working in the underground is that a model that’s really on top of her game will know what to omit and what to keep as she ascends in the fashion industry. I saw some things in fashion shows back then that I just knew instinctively shouldn’t be done on a runway; other things I learned to omit by watching the responses of the producers and/or the audiences and then there are things that you can only use at certain types of shows. If you stay on top of your game and keep yourself informed about what is going on in the fashion industry – the dos and the don’ts should become obvious to you.
Working for free – The truth of the matter is this – IF you are not fortunate enough to have the strength of agent or agency backing; and you have zero or minimal skills – you WILL have to work for free for a little while – if you want to work. Some of you will probably find the thought of this distasteful but be honest with yourselves for a moment – you can’t honestly think that you can walk into an audition and demand top dollar for your services but you have no skills at all – that just doesn’t make sense in ANY area of life. To make the medicine go down a little easier I suggest that you look at it as a temporary bartering arrangement – the producer gets your services and you learn the skills that you need to progress in your career. The more skills you have mastered will determine how quickly you will become “in demand” as a plus model.
Alternate forms of payment – As your career progress and you find your presence being requested in various productions – that’s your tip off that you are on the right path. Depending on how long you have been on the “circuit” and the relationships you have cultivated with different producers/designers can help you determine a fair amount to charge. Keep in mind that often times a producer or designer is working with a limited budget and can’t afford to pay everyone cash – a lot of the newer productions barely break even these days. Perhaps you can work out an agreement with a designer to work in exchange for clothing. I had a closet full of “designer exclusives” for years because they either couldn’t afford to pay me or the amount they offered was so small that I got more out of getting 1 or 2 pieces of clothing. You can work for pictures also (but before you do that – you need to find out if the photos that you will get can actually be used in your book!). Sometimes I will do a favor for a “friend” or do a benefit or fundraiser and in lieu of my fee all I ask is that the producer pays for my transportation to and from my home – in a taxi. If the producer insists upon keeping you on set for 6-7 hours, you are well within your rights to ask to that lunch and/or dinner be supplied as well. If you KNOW you are a master at selling tickets or you come from a huge, supportive family or have a large amount of friends– after a few shows try to begin to negotiate with the producer to get a percentage (usually about 5 to 10%) of each ticket that you sell. If you are a strong ticket seller, a good producer will usually try to accommodate you to keep you. When I worked with Gwen DeVoe on Dangerous Curves…The Tour! She did this with her models and it worked like a charm – it was a great incentive for the models, it kept the house filled with folks, everyone was happy and no one went home feeling like they had been “pimped”. Everything is negotiable – it’s all up to you but know that you will have to “pay some dues” before the pay day begins.
Some of my greatest memories and strongest relationships have come from the men and women that I worked with in the underground when I was just starting out. I have had the pleasure of working alongside women who graced the runways of some of the biggest names in fashion and I have had the honor of working with some of the baddest plus sized sisters that you have never heard of and I learned immensely from watching them all do their thing. Back then it was less about business and more about simply feeling beautiful and enjoying what I was doing. But even then I was smart enough to know when it was time to begin to request payment for my services and when I had out grown the circuit and it was time to move on. So to my sisters working it out and thriving “underground” – I salute you! Keep on keeping on and never give up on your dreams. I encourage you all to continue to be brave and blaze a trail for others to follow because the world is changing as we speak. Continued success!
“Don’t let the fear of the time it will take to accomplish something stand in the way of your doing it. The time will pass anyway; we might just as well put that passing time to the best possible use.” ~Earl Nightingale