Four Days in the Skin Trade

updated 12/20/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 12/20/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Three hundred young women, the pride of towns from Springdale, Ark. to Hillsboro, Oreg., were gathered in the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. Battered suitcases in tow, they descended on the desert town with an old dream of hitting it rich—not at casino tables but by facing even longer odds. This was the first Western Models and Talent Competition, a kind of comely crapshoot in which aspiring Cheryl Tiegses and Christie Brinkleys try to catch the eye of star-makers like John Casablancas and Tichka of the Eileen Ford agency, who jetted in from New York.

The contestants arrived by more humble means. Karin Manson, 17, of Tempe, Ariz, earned the $250 entry fee working for Marcia Fine, director of a local modeling school. "She was so gorgeous when she arrived to sit with my kids that I knew I had to get her into classes," Fine remembers. "She helped pay for her classes by sitting for my kids." Manson's resolution paid off: She agreed to join the classy Manhattan agency Wilhelmina. Another hopeful, Karla Kempf, 18, of Las Vegas, exceeded her wildest hopes by attracting interest from both Casablancas and Tichka. "I can't believe it!" she gushed, tears tumbling on the mink she had borrowed from a friend for the runway competition. But after she chose to sign with Casablancas' Elite agency, the recent high school grad had second thoughts about the life she was leaving behind. "What about school?" she said, hugging her foster mother. "Oh gosh. What am I going to do?" She will soon find the answer on Fashion Avenue.

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