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LAST UPDATE: Tuesday February 10, 2015 01:10PM EST
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This Is Robin Jones, and These Are the Eager Prospects in the Waiting Room of the Dolly Dean Modeling School in Baton Rouge. They All Want to Be the Next Paulina, but Only Robin Knows How Slim Their Chances Are
You're about to dazzle Robin Jones, director of scouting for Elite, the world's top modeling agency.
You stand there and smile. She looks up and says nothing. She is too polite. There is a word in her mind. You cannot imagine it applying to you:
"The ones who come to see me," says Jones, "are usually not the ones."
If you've been called Princess all your life, Jones is the dark side of your fairy tale. Mirror, mirror, on the wall. "Look," she says, "I'm going to be honest with you..."
At the same time she is gentle, as soothing as a volunteer in a charity hospital. She will look empathically at a 5'2" teenager with a haystack of hair and say, "Honey, you're a little bit below the height requirement of 5'9"." She never tells girls they cannot be models. She tells them they cannot work for Elite. They take it well. Their mothers take it harder.
"I've had parents yell at me, tell me I'm wrong," says Jones. "They say, '...but she has this, but she has that, but she's beautiful.' I tell them, 'I never said she wasn't beautiful. I said she wasn't an Elite model.' "
Beautiful girls go to the prom. Elite models go to New York, Paris, Milan, Tokyo. The very good ones make a quarter million or more. The supermodels like Christy Turlington and Linda Evangelista, the ones who can jump-start fashion trends, make up to $10,000 a day. "They have what the market dictates," says Jones. "I don't dictate." But she can enumerate: "Feminine, modern, pouty lips, long legs, not vulgar but still sexy." She hates fat ankles, loves pretty mouths. Age discrimination is a given. If they haven't gotten started by age 20, "You got to bury them."
She understands her quarry, having once walked in their pumps and having been buried herself, seven years ago, at 21. She never forgets an interview she once had with the Wilhelmina agency. "They told me to go home, because I would never be a model," she recounts. "I was mortified." Wilhelmina was wrong, but perhaps Jones was a bit unlikely. A horse-crazy Lincoln, Nebr., teenager, she had been encouraged by her parents to enroll in beauty school at 17. "I was the class joker, I was always skipping to go hang out at the barn," she says. But, lo and behold, by 18 she was walking runways for Elite in Japan. She worked by day, partied with Adam Ant and Huey Lewis and the News by night. She eventually gave it up to enroll at Columbia University and, upon graduation, entered the business side of modeling.
It puts her on the road three or four weeks a month. She could travel less—and please her long-suffering fiancé more—but there are so many places to search: modeling schools, beaches, restaurants, airport lounges, buffet lines, campuses, malls. She would rather look at 200 girls and find none than miss the right one. She looks for the girl who decorated the float but wasn't ornamental enough to ride, "the tall, lanky girl with the long, long legs standing in the corner who doesn't like her looks."
These are the ones who don't come to her. She goes looking for them.
Jones is riding down a Louisiana highway in a gold Mercedes-Benz on the way to the Dolly Dean Modeling School, a branch of the Dolly Dean Modeling and Career Network. The license plate reads: DOLLY-D.
Dolly Dean Martinez, a dark-haired version of singer Peggy Lee, wears matching lipstick, rouge, nail polish and sunglasses. To her school come hopefuls who pay $1,125 for a 20-week training session. For the very significant occasion of Jones's visit, Dolly Dean has selected 19 of her most promising students. They will appear one by one, wearing little black dresses, the Communion suits of the modeling schools.
The first girl to come before her is Carmen Cruser, 19, 5'10". Sultry lips, pale skin, green eyes. Jones likes her enough to snap a Polaroid to show to the decision makers in New York City. This is akin to making the finals. Still...
"...the only thing I'm questioning is her nose," Jones says after Cruser has left the room.
"We haven't found it to be a problem," counters Martinez.
"It's crooked," says Jones.
"That is not a very good shot of her nose," summarizes Martinez.
If Carmen is signed by Elite, Martinez will earn 5 percent of her pay for the next three years.
There is a huff in the air.
"I mean the whole thing would be that she could never be shot straight on," says Jones, seeking a diplomatic solution of sorts.
Carmen is in Polaroid purgatory. Her photo will be submitted, although not without concerns. A few days later, the model-management crew in Manhattan will decide that Carmen is very beautiful indeed, but they await more photos. Of the nose.
Lauren Gurvich, 20, has eyes the color of the Caribbean, a veritable Linda Evangelista face.
And a tan.
"Is that real sun or a fake-and-bake?" Robin asks. Hmmm. It seems Lauren spent her vacation in the Florida sun. Tans mean dry skin, freckles, premature aging lines. Dolly is not pleased. "We darn near killed her last week," she says, as Lauren sinks in her chair. "You just can't tan!"
Still, Robin snaps a Polaroid. Elite, it will turn out, wants to send Lauren to Tokyo.
Enter Esther Jones, 21, a star sprinter for LSU. "She is very dignified, very classic and has refined African features," Jones summarizes after Esther departs. Later, however, New York is cool. ("The Polaroids didn't do her justice," says Jones.)
More hopefuls are led in. Slight double chin. Sorry. Face a little full. Next. Very nervous. Thank you. Jessica Cullen, 17. Hmmm. She is 5'10", with a very full bust. "The Japanese won't quite know what to do with that," observes Jones. Jessica has promise though. The Polaroid flashes. What about the bust? "Oh, that's fine for New York City," says Jones.
To be picked for New York is a good sign. Only the mature go to Europe; Japan sometimes takes girls under 5'9". In New York City young models can live at the chaperoned Elite Models Apartments. Mothers sometimes ask how closely these chaperones look after their daughters. "I tell them it certainly is not like having a parent there," Jones says.
The next morning, as she is checking out of the Courtyard by Marriott, racing to catch a flight to Detroit, her black pumps come to a screeching halt near the breakfast buffet. She drops her luggage, pats down her straight blond hair, walks over to a table where Lindsay Smith, 5'7" and 13 years old, is eating and growing. Jones introduces herself to Lindsay's mother. They have never heard of Elite. No matter. Within minutes, Jones has given them her business card and a standing order for Lindsay's future hair care: no more perms. The Smiths are overwhelmed and a bit suspicious.
In Detroit the first stop is the downtown loft of photographer Lisa Spindler, 28, a part-time independent scout who last year found two girls, now 17-year-old high school seniors, who were signed by Elite. Before she leaves town, Jones will have dinner with the girls. "You've got to try to make them feel special—they have young little egos," Jones explains. "But we also have to see how the weight is. We have heard that the weight is a little bit up on these two."
First Spindler has a request. Recently she discovered a promising 15-year-old, Tanya Tomyn. But Tanya's mother remains wary. Would Jones call to try to win her over? With a snapshot of Tanya in hand, the scout sits down and begins to dial, then looks up from the photograph. "The nose has got to go," she says. "I don't think I'll bring it up on the phone, though...
"Oh, hello, Mrs. Tomyn? This is Robin Jones from the Elite Modeling Agency. How are you?" Soon she's accelerating into her pitch. "I realize she is really young, so I'm sure you don't want to push her into anything, but I just saw these pictures, and I think she is amazing, and I think she has incredible potential. I was wondering if there was any way I could meet her?" Jones invites Mrs. Tomyn to bring Tanya next day to a mall where Jones will be screening young hopefuls. "Love to...see you tomorrow at the mall. Bye!" She looks at Spindler. "I'll bring up the nose very, very quietly."
The next day Jones judges open calls at two malls in suburban Detroit. She is chauffeured between them in a white Lincoln Continental by Bemadette Strickland, the owner of two modeling schools franchised by John Casablancas, the CEO of Elite. Strickland has placed radio ads offering a free 20-week modeling session and portfolio photo shoot to the two girls Jones declares most promising.
At the Lakeside Mall in Sterling Heights, the first hopeful is 5'2". "Do you think you're going to grow?" Jones asks tactfully. "Because if you do grow in the future, give us a call. But thank you for stopping by."
They come in all sizes, shapes and ages, 90 in all. Marygrace Trentacoste, 14, is 5'10" and very pretty, but she has a scar above her nose. The scar worries Jones. A striking 15-year-old is told, "I don't mean to freak you out, because you're a very pretty girl, but you definitely have to begin losing weight." Kathy McBryde, 16, has a dyed, permed hairstyle so suggestive of a French poodle that Jones cannot allow her to leave without dire warnings. "Honey bunny, you're only 16 and you're already dyeing it? You're going to be bald!"
"Please don't sit in the sun," she pleads with an apparent tanaholic. "Think of the wrinkles, honey, and the sun spots you're going to have."
The winner of the first scholarship is Johanna Sist, 17, blond with startling blue eyes. She is only 5'8", but she is so beautiful that Jones decides she will grow.
For the afternoon open call, 150 girls have shown up at the Tel-Twelve Mall in Southfield. This is Big Hair Territory—permed and teased to the sky—and Jones can't understand why almost every girl possesses a hairstyle found in no leading fashion magazine. She asks Angela Cyr. Speaking for all girlhood, Angela replies, "The guys really like it."
There are such long waits to see Jones that a line forms. The girls don't mind. They spend the time fluffing up their hair.
Tanya Tomyn, the promising 15-year-old with the problematic nose, shows up with her mother. Jones is relieved—in person, the nose is fine. In fact, Tanya looks remarkably like cover queen Cindy Crawford. If Tanya's mother agrees, Jones will recommend that her daughter come to New York City.
The search for the winner of the second modeling scholarship does not go well. A 13-year-old astounds Jones with her naturally curly red hair. "You mean it isn't a perm?" No. "Unbelievable." Jones sends her off with some encouragement but privately is doubtful. "She has really short legs." The girl will grow, but her legs will not keep up.
Jones interviews each of the 150 women (and a few men and kids) who have shown up. Things are looking dismal. Then, out of the corner of her eye, she spots a girl heading into a shoe department, slurping a frozen yogurt. She leans toward PEOPLE'S reporter. "Who is that girl?" she says, pointing. "Go fetch her." Dragged back is Kathleen Ronzi, 17 years old, 5'8", a naturally wavy-haired brunet. Jones opens the conversation by warning Kathleen, who has just returned from spring break, to lay off the rays.
She appears interested in modeling. "It sounds like fun," she says. Jones corrects her: "Well, it's fun only after you do a lot of work." She takes a Polaroid ("Sit up straight") and leaves her with a parting message: "I'll kill you if you get a perm." Kathleen is declared the winner of mall search No. 2.
Are you calling me a wuss!" shrieks Kristen Zang to Ivana Milicevik. They are sitting with Jones and scout Lisa Spindler at dinner at the center table of Les Auteurs in Royal Oak, a fashionable restaurant outside Detroit, playing the "wuss" game. They give each other high-fives. They call each other wusses. They do this many times. They are 17 years old and Elite models, a volatile combination. Spindler discovered Kristen walking into a local fast-food restaurant, Ivana in a fashion show at ClubLand, a downtown Detroit bar. For this dinner they are wearing little black dresses and lots of eye makeup; the eye makeup covers more than the dresses. Ivana, a finalist in Elite's Look of the Year contest in 1990, is 15 lbs. overweight. She is eating ravioli. Kristen, who needs toning but hates to exercise, is having lasagna. Although they go to different schools, they are close. They love to pore through fashion magazines and stroll through boutiques together. "Get this," says Ivana. "Our parents won't give us charge cards. They said we would be reckless with them."
Jones says little until the conversation drifts to Kristen's close, close friendship with Michael Hutchence, 31, lead singer of the Australian rock band INXS. Kristen has told Jones that no hanky-panky went on.
"I don't believe that," says Jones.
"I didn't," vows Kristen.
"We're virgins..." proclaims Ivana.
"...from hell," jokes Jones.
At the end of the evening she gives the girls a motivational weight-loss lecture, hugs them both and wonders what it must be like to bring up kids like these, ones with attitudes that make photographers swoon and mothers faint.
Now is not the time to find out. She is going back on the road. Sure, too many girls out there seem to be styling their hair in the front seat of a Pontiac Trans-Am or toasting themselves in tanning salons. But somewhere out there is an undiscovered, unadorned beauty making decorations for the dance, a pouty-lipped, 5'9" Cinderella about to meet her fairy godmother.
November 23, 2015
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