When I was fifteen, I received a postcard in the mail from a popular modeling school. It invited me to a local audition. At the time, I was only semi-interested in modeling, but I was very interested in acting, which they offered classes for. I begged my dad to take me. It was probably the girliest thing I ever wanted to do when I was that age.
We went to the audition which was held in a hotel conference room. I interviewed with the owner of the franchise. She asked me about any previous acting or modeling history. I told her about the local after-school reality show I used to be on when I lived in Arkansas. She looked at my hair and my hands. I was too short for runway modeling, but she said I had a lot of potential for character modeling or acting. She wanted me in.
The total for all the classes and supplies would cost $3,000. My dad & I didn’t have $3,000. I became visibly dejected. After some thought, the owner offered me a work study agreement. I could work for her to work off the tuition, and then I was able to attend. I gratefully accepted and began classes right away.
The school was held in a very old victorian-style home that had been converted into the business. There was the front lobby, which either led to the back where the runway stage and makeup room was, or up the stairs to some offices and additional class rooms.
I was taught a lot of things that I still think about today. A few of those include:
I learned about standing and walking posture. Put your shoulders back, your, chest up, stand up straight! Pretend a string in the core of your head is pulling upward as you walk forward. Practice walking up and down stairs with a book on your head. Don’t let it fall.I learned how to sit. Cross your legs at the ankles, not your thighs. It does a better job at protecting “the view” from being seen if you have a skirt on. It also helps avoid varicose veins.I learned about table etiquette (though I pretty much forgot most of it). I do remember how absurd I felt when I was told I was supposed to pinch off some bread and dab some butter on it.I learned how to walk a runway even though my height didn’t qualify me for it. Walk forward, foot in front of the other. Always look forward.I was taught grooming and makeup tips (so many things I was totally new to, since I grew up with no mother or sisters).I even had to try freeze modeling. When you’re told you can’t move your body for long periods of time, suddenly everything gets itchy.
For my work study, I had my own office on the first floor, past the runway stage room, near the restroom. It was very tall with high ceilings, but it felt claustrophobic nonetheless. I would have to cold-call leads (other girls and the occasional boy) to talk to them about their interest in modeling or acting, and then talk to their parents about booking them for an upcoming audition.
It was mentally draining. This brought me back to the stresses of my terrible telemarketing job I had before. Lots of parents were not only mad at me for calling, but I could even hear the parents get angry with the poor lead for even entertaining such an idea.
I was only “paid” if the lead successfully booked and attended the audition. Of course, I wasn’t ever really paid. It was all just going toward the debt. As you can imagine, with “no” after “no” after “no” after “no” after “don’t ever f…ing call my daughter again!” — it seemed I would never pay off the debt.
At some point, I was moved out into the lobby to do my work there. I was now also a receptionist. So now I had more tasks that didn’t even earn commission, like accepting guests, putting stamps on the post cards (the same one I had received), and answering the phone. Then I was also given tasks like reorganizing the makeup counters or acting as a teacher’s assistant. None of these tasks were helping me pay off my debt. They only distracted from it. But I found the business side of modeling schools fascinating, so I did it anyway. I suppose I thought of myself as an apprentice of sorts. It did feel like she was training me to run a modeling school, rather than training me on actually modeling.
One day, one of the staff members said “come see this!” and I followed her past the offices and found a small room with a kitchen and a sofa bed. I was shocked. It looked really cramped and disheveled. The owner had always seemed so glamorous to me, and I assumed she lived in a white marble mansion somewhere. Now I realized that this was not really the case. She was squatting here with her boyfriend. And it was a wreck.
I kept this information quiet for some time, but eventually the owner ended up confiding in me that she lived there. She said it was temporary. She even invited me in her living space to watch television while putting more stamps on post cards (she had a huge stack of thousands of post cards). I asked her how she got the leads’ names and addresses, and she changed the subject. I then asked her how I was supposed to work off the tuition if I wasn’t working through the call list, and she changed the subject again.
Over the course of the year, the owner grew more and more harsh with me, and became verbally abusive. She told me I would never make it in the modeling industry. She even started accusing me of stealing makeup. (As it turns out, it was the staff member who had revealed to me about the owner’s living situation).
The owner also kept demanding more and more hours from me (much more than should have been expected of a 15 year old girl) and none of these hours of work amounted to working toward my debt. It was basically free labor. I started to feel like a slave.
My dad was friends with an attorney. She was also half-Korean like me, so she began to spend some time with me. She took a special interest in my situation because she knew it had me crying and angry so much. She wrote a check for the remaining amount along with a stern letter to them, saying they should have considered my debt paid long ago (after all the hard work I had done for almost a year). I no longer had a debt to work off. I was so relieved. And I stopped coming in to work.
The last scheduled class involved a photoshoot to create a portfolio of head shots and full body poses, and the sets were in three different outfits. I arrived with my bag of clothes and makeup, very excited to get my photos taken.
The owner saw me come in and said, “Oh no, nuh uh! No way. Don’t even think about it!” I started crying in front of all the other girls, and the attorney who was with me said something quietly to her. Suddenly I was allowed to do the shoot. I wiped my tears, fixed my makeup, and got my photos taken. I ordered my selected headshot, and I hugged a lot of the girls that I had been attending the school with. This was the end of a long year. I was going to graduate a modeling school!
Blurry photo of the contact sheet. The faint red outline seen on the fourth photo down on the right most column was the chosen shot.
A couple days later, I came to the school to pick up my certificate that I had worked so hard for. I rang the doorbell.
I knocked loudly.
I walked over to the window and peered in.
No one was there.
The owner was gone.
The furniture was gone.
Another woman pulled up in her car, and went to the door and rang the doorbell. I told her what I had discovered. The woman scowled. “You’ve gotta be f…ing kidding me. I’m calling the Better Business Bureau!”
I slowly walked back to my dad’s car, sobbing. I felt so defeated. I was scammed.
After all the hard work and tears I realized that it was all for nothing. I never got my certificate. I never graduated.
By the way, I do not think all modeling schools are scams. And I learned a ton from going to that school. But this woman and her boyfriend… yeah, I guess they were.
A couple years later, I decided to do something very unlike myself. I had never gone to dances, or done anything that the popular kids did. But it was my last year of school, so I decided to give it a shot: I ran for homecoming during my senior year of high school. A woman who had won the title, “Miss Nashville”, began working at our school, to help out with the dance and cheerleading teams. She ran the homecoming competition like a Miss America pageant. We had a talent portion, a dance number (how embarrassing), a speech, and of course the pageantry. There was one part where we had to wear a dress and walk down a runway to Madonna’s Vogue. I decided I would show off one of the runway moves I had learned.
When it was my turn to walk, I walked down the runway, one foot in front of the other, in a perfectly straight line. Eyes forward. Get to the end of the runway, stop, and in one move, clasp my hands behind my back and widen feet out into the “straddle stance” — then while continuing to look forward begin walking backwards for three paces, then pivot and walk the rest of the way back. And as I did this, the three paces landed right on the lyrics “vogue… vogue… vogue…” — it could not have been better timed. Everyone jumped up and cheered. I think they thought it was planned.
I didn’t win Homecoming Queen, but I did win Senior Court. That was good enough for me.