More Than Beauty: The Big Business of Supermodels

Imagine: One day, you're a gangly 14-year-old girl scarfing a Big Mac at McDonald's. The next, you are the highest-paid model in the world, stalking the runways of New York, Paris and Milan, Italy; yours is the face of everything from Dolce and Gabbana to Victoria's Secret to Apple computers; you're dating mega-hunks like actor Leonardo DiCaprio and quarterback Tom Brady. It happened to supermodel Gisele Bundchen.

Didn't it?

Yes and no. There were many, many steps in between burger and hunks. And even for the most beautiful, the most outgoing, perfect young woman, the odds are far better at the lottery counter. But still, every year, some women do make it. It isn't impossible. So how does a pretty teen girl go from nobody to supermodel?

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A handful, like Kate Moss, take the express route. She was a 14-year-old in JFK Airport when she was first spied by an agent for London's Storm Model Management. Others, like Victoria's Secret angel Adriana Lima and Australian sensation Gemma Ward, accompanied a friend to a modeling contest, only to end up being the discovery.

"It's the girl who never thought she could who gets discovered. The prettiest girl in school doesn't always make the best model," says Ivan Bart, a top agent with IMG Models, which reps Bundchen, Heidi Klum and Kate Moss.

But for most others, the slog up the ladder follows a routine path. Girls send photos into a local or national modeling agency (only a Polaroid is needed) or show up for an open casting call. Agencies generally hold them once a week. Victoria's Secret's Alessandra Ambrosio took a modeling class in her hometown of Erechim, Brazil, then urged her mother to move with her to São Paolo, where she was scouted by a local agency. Soon she won a modeling contest sponsored by Elite, one of New York's biggest agencies.

Modeling conventions, where local agencies can introduce promising models to bigger agents, are another possibility. Model Amy Wesson, Maybelline face Jessica White and former male model Ashton Kutcher were discovered at the International Modeling and Talent Association convention, held twice a year in New York and Los Angeles.

Once a girl is signed with a big agency (in New York, where the biggest are located, this would include IMG, Elite, Next, Women and DNA), she is sent on what is called "go-sees" — castings for photographers, editorials and runway shows.

During Fashion Weeks in New York, Paris and Milan (held in spring and fall), a model can be sent on as many as a dozen go-sees a day for six weeks. It's this grueling and low-paying internship process that determines whether a model can burst out of the anonymous pack.

Getting cast in an important designer's show, like that of Marc Jacobs or Prada, can instantly launch a career. Not getting cast at all can mean a one-way ticket back home. Depending on her experience, a model is usually paid $250 to $1,200 an hour for runway work. But a beginner model takes home little or nothing. Everything from cabs to airfare to the agency's 10% fees (20% if the girl is still signed with a local agency) is deducted from her salary, and many designers don't pay at all.

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