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.
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?
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.
"I have no idea how much I make," says newcomer Edythe Hughes, 17, a teen scouted in a Columbus, Ohio, mall two years ago. (Forbes followed Hughes around for a day. See "A Day In The Life of A Young Model.") This season, she strutted the runways in New York for Vera Wang, Rebecca Taylor and Jill Stuart.
Hughes is advanced $150 a week for expenses and probably won't see much more than that. But she doesn't mind: "Before this, I was working as a librarian, making $8 an hour." Last season, Hughes worked as an "exclusive" model for Calvin Klein and banked $9,500 for one show (and 15 hours' prep time). Of that, she thinks she netted about $5,000, but she isn't sure. With luck, Hughes will get a better grip on her finances this year. She's hired an accountant.
Runway may not pay, but it can pay off. It's here that a model can be scouted by the star makers of the industry — editors, photographers, cosmetic company executives. It's here that front-row fixture Anna Wintour might take notice of a girl and put her in the pages of Vogue. The new face of Estée Lauder, Hilary Rhoda, was spotted at a New York fashion show by Balenciaga's lead designer, Nicolas Guesquiere, who then brought the unknown catwalker to the attention of his friend Aerin Lauder, Estée's granddaughter and the company's creative director.
Rhoda, a 20-year-old from Chevy Chase, Md., joins a long line of faces who became ubiquitous on billboards, commercials and beauty counters the world over, thanks to the cosmetic giant. Karen Graham was its first contract model, and she lasted 15 years (this before retouching). In the 1990s, the brand made Paulina Porizkova one of the most famous faces on the planet. It also launched the modeling career of Elizabeth Hurley, who, at the time, was known primarily for being Hugh Grant's girlfriend. Next came supermodels Carolyn Murphy and Liya Kibede (who is being phased out this year).
Contract models for larger cosmetic brands are generally paid $300,000 to $2 million a year, depending on exclusivity and the amount of days the model is expected to work. Murphy, who models for other brands, earned an estimated $5 million last year. Rhoda raked in $2 million.
Estée Lauder's models are chosen by its top four executives, including Aerin Lauder. Candidates are brought in for a photo shoot and put in mock-up ads. They interview with the executives, who want to make sure the girls are well spoken and can handle store and media appearances. Group President John Dempsey claims that, when it comes to making a final decision, there's never dissension in the ranks: "Everybody's eyes go to one girl."
Rhoda, says Dempsey, was chosen for her healthy all-American look and her maturity: "She has the presence of someone five or six years older." The models are required to be a "positive role model" and have a "morals clause" in their contracts. No wonder the brand tends to eschew Hollywood starlets. The face of its new fragrance, Private Collection, is 37-year-old Aerin Lauder herself.
At Victoria's Secret, which has made superstars out of dozens of models, including Gisele Bundchen, Adriana Lima, Heidi Klum, Tyra Banks and Alessandra Ambrosio, executives don't have to rely on personal preference to pick their next faces. They can measure a girl's potential in cold hard cash.
"Some girls sell incredibly well," says Chief Marketing Officer Edward Razek. Computers track each photograph in every catalog. Not surprisingly, girls who move merchandise end up moving up the corporate ladder to supermodeldom.
As for girls like Edythe Hughes, only time will tell if she'll end up a supermodel or back in Ohio. Keeping her hopes high, but not too high, she says her goal would be to work with a photographer like Steven Meisel or become a popular editorial model like Gemma Ward. "There's not too many Tyra's anymore," she says.