Flip through any magazine, channel-surf on any given night, even drive by any stretch of highway billboards, and there they are: adorable, wide-eyed babies showing off the latest in kiddie couture or helping hawk everything from juice to Jeeps. If you're like most parents, the sight of these pint-size models inspires three responses: first, "Aww!"; then, "My kid's cuter!"; and, finally, "How can I get my child a job like that?"
For an inside look into the world of baby models, Parents spent a day with 17-month-old Katie Lahey as her mom took her to visit a casting agency and pose at a photo shoot. We also asked industry insiders what it takes to win a spot in front of the cameras. What we learned about the business is informative—and sometimes surprising. Katie's job isn't all fun and glamour but actually a lot of hard work. If you think your child's a definite head turner, too, here are the steps you should take.
Your first point of contact with agencies should be through their online submission form, like this one for Wilhelmina Kids & Teens, which requests three photos (a headshot and two full-body photos will work), your contact information, and your child's age and height. They don't have to be professional shots; just take them yourself. But play it straight—no funny hats or pictures of your little one with chocolate cake all over his face. Include your child's name (and yours), his age, clothing size, height, and hair and eye color.
Child modeling agents aren't after a specific look, nor do they necessarily want the most gorgeous kids. "Many advertisers actually prefer an average-looking, kid-next-door child," says Charles Ramsey, former owner of Product Model Management in New York City. Children who wear certain popular clothing sizes—3, 5, and 10—also get more work. The top criterion, though: Models should ideally live within reasonable traveling distance to an agency's headquarters, which is likely to be in New York City, Los Angeles, or Miami, though some leading firms have offices in smaller cities like Cleveland or Phoenix.
"It's crucial that you're available at a moment's notice, we usually only have about 24 hours notice for an audition," says Shannon Escoto, director of the children’s division at JE Model Management, Inc. in San Francisco. "You have to be willing to do the drive. Clients don't care where you live, they just need you to be on set on time."
If you don't live in a major metropolitan area, modeling opportunities can be limited, though local agencies may be able to book your child small jobs for nearby department stores and companies.
A good agency will try to get back to you within several weeks, sending either a polite rejection letter or an invitation for you and your child to make an appointment. If the agents like what they see—namely, a committed parent and a good-humored, charismatic child who seems capable of handling the demands of photo shoots—you may be invited to sign an exclusive contract. But before you do...
Steer clear of scams. Sometimes it's hard to spot a shady business, but experts agree on one dead giveaway: "Asking you for money up front is a red flag," Escoto warns. Most reputable agencies don't start collecting fees until your child has already worked (in which case, they usually take a cut of about 20 percent from you for setting up each modeling job and the same sum from the company that hires your child).
Use caution on social media. "Anyone can make an Instagram account and pretend to be anyone else," Escoto notes. "Anyone who contacts you on Instagram, you refer them to your agency." And if you haven't signed with an agency yet, Escoto encourages parents to fact-check any information. "Trust your instincts, and don't be swayed by flattery," she says. "If anyone is saying they’re from JE [or another agency], call and double-check."
Another trick to beware: Sometimes fly-by-nighters won't ask for money outright; they'll say they need you to spend many hundreds or even thousands of dollars on videos or fancy photos of your child, which they claim they'll then send out to potential clients. Most reputable agencies usually want no more than regularly updated home snapshots or, at most, a set of professionally shot composite cards, which feature a collection of several small photos of your child.
Prioritize face time. "If a potential agent wants to sign you directly from Instagram, and doesn't want you to come in for a meeting, that's weird," Escoto says. "You should be called in for a formal meeting and have that whole, real connection."
To be safe, check out the agency with your local Better Business Bureau. And follow your intuition, which may prove to be the best guide of all.
Be prepared to interact with clients. Once you sign on with an agency, the real work begins. Clients will look at your child's portfolio online and may then call you in for a go-see: a brief meeting with representatives of firms who may be interested in hiring your child and want to look him or her over. "Nowadays, we are seeing probably as much as 25% of jobs are direct bookings from a child's portfolio, meaning you aren't going into a casting," Escoto explains. "Some of our clients will request digitals or a video in lieu of a casting or a go-see. Still, a majority, you'll go in for a go-see."
If you do end up heading to a go-see, "you're in and out in about 15 minutes, but if there's a wait, it could be an hour or so," Escoto shares.
Also factor in the time it takes you to travel to and from the site. (You can deduct the travel expenses on your tax return.) But go you must: "Your child is going to work only if you're committed," he says. You may have as many as two go-sees a day, then none for weeks. And your child could get hired right away, or it may take 10 or more tries to catch a would-be client's eye.
If your child does get selected, you'll be contacted by your agent. "You'll be put on hold for the job, which is the step before they actually book you," Escoto explains. "They're figuring out what direction they're going to go on, maybe picking outfits for each child, and then they will send confirmation, and the night before the shoot, your agent will get your call time."
Be realistic. Though you may have visions of millions rolling in from your child's modeling, this is rarely ever the case. Some child models might get only two or three jobs a month, and young kids usually work no more than two hours at a time.
"Kids make an average $150 an hour," Escoto shares. "It depends on the job and the client, but that is a standard rate. If they’re using [the shoot] for billboards or buses or ballparks or packaging, then the rate's typically a bit more." She points to clients who were on the Downey bottle or Pampers baby wipes packaging who made a higher rate, as "their image was out there more."
That said, different markets have different rates, Escoto says. "San Francisco has higher rates for some reason," she says. "A lot of the print work in L.A., it can be $100 an hour." Editorial work for magazines may be even less lucrative, ranging from $25 to $75 an hour. (Parents pays child models $50 hourly with a two-hour minimum.)
Experts also note that it may be the most prestigious-seeming client or job that pays the least, but the paycheck isn't the main incentive. Ivana Firestone, a mom of three child models and a former model herself, explains that her daughter recently did editorial work for a well-known publication. "It paid nothing," she shares. "But the tear sheets that you get out of that can get you your next job."
And that next job may very well be more profitable. TV gigs can yield bigger payoffs, though you'd have to go through a talent agency or an agency division that specializes in television. The process is much the same: the snapshots, contracts, and go-sees—all for the chance to be in a commercial (or, more rarely, a TV show).
"Commercial work can yield as little as about $475— if the spot is filmed but never airs—all the way up to $100,000 for a national commercial that runs for several years," says Marilyn Zitner, a talent manager in New York City. Many commercials starring children under 4 years old are filmed several times with several babies: Only the child whose segment is selected ends up making the big bucks. (If your child is listed as a dependent, you'll need to report her earned income to the IRS if it's more than $4,300 per year; ask an accountant for advice.)
That said, TV work is definitely a gamble that you may come to determine is not worth it. "If you want your kids to do commercials, it's a very big commitment," shares Firestone, whose children stick to print work. "Because commercials are normally first with a casting director and then you'll get a callback when you'll meet the producers. Then you'll have your fitting and your shoot days. So, that's four commitments before you've even made a dollar."
Don't take rejection to heart. If you do decide to help your child pursue a modeling career, prepare yourself for this certainty: At some point, someone's going to reject her. It may happen right away, in the form of an email, or later at an agency interview or go-see. Don't let it bother you.
Remember, modeling agencies and their clients don't always look for the most beautiful or perfect-looking child to sell a product or represent a story. They may want anything from a tiny brunette with a spray of freckles across her nose to a gap-toothed boy with curly red hair. And "more and more clients" have been embracing and looking for kids with disabilities or special needs, Escoto points out. "So, don’t be shy if your child has Down syndrome or Cerebral palsy or is in a wheelchair," she says. "If you think you’d be up for it, by all means, submit and see what happens! It's definitely worth a try."
In the end, if the answer for a job is "no," your child may simply be the wrong shirt size, or she may even be too cute. Communicating this to your L.O. is easier than it may sound. Olya Hill, creative director at Living Notes and a mom of seven children who model, explains, "As a parent, I need to make sure it is [about] having fun—and if they didn't get the job, it's okay, and someone else was a better fit," she says. "Getting them into that mindset is important."
It's a bright morning as Katie Lahey awakens in her parents' New York City apartment. Mom Cathi gives the toddler a bath, feeds her breakfast, then dresses the sandy-haired girl for the day, which will include visits to a casting agency and her modeling company as well as a photo shoot. For now, though, it's Cathi who's doing all the work—packing a bagful of her daughter's toys, snacks, and a change of clothes.
Does Katie know what's going on? "She does get excited," Cathi says. "She's a happy-go-lucky kid. I would never do this if she didn't have the temperament." Or, as we will soon see, if Cathi herself didn't have the stamina and patience.
After a bus ride across town, Cathi and Katie arrive at Utopia, where they meet with several booking agents. The agency represents top children's photographers, who shoot advertisements and catalogs for such clients as GuessKids. The session is brief: "They just wanted to see Katie's disposition," Cathi explains.
Booking agents use this time to make sure the child is comfortable with strangers, attentive, and able to be engaged by a photographer. One of the agents asks Cathi what other modeling jobs her daughter has done, and Cathi runs through some highlights of Katie's 60-odd gigs to date, including a print ad for Baby Gap's holiday line and several fashion shoots for Parents. The agents take some Polaroids of Katie, who shines. "She knows the camera. She'll be a ham and smile and pose," says her mom. (The toddler's stellar performance notwithstanding, when Parents checks in with Cathi six weeks later, she tells us that Utopia never called to book Katie for a modeling job.)
Cathi and her toddler take another bus downtown to the headquarters of (now-closed) Product Model Management, the agency that represents Katie. It's a small office with a staff of three: "very family-like," Cathi says. "We always get personal attention here." She has swung by to pick up vouchers, invoice forms that must be presented at Katie's modeling job later that afternoon. (Clients use these forms to process payments to the model and agency.) The tot will be posing in a car seat for a toy catalog. Cathi chats with Charles Ramsey, the agency's owner. "They haven't seen Katie since she started modeling, 11 months ago," says the proud mom, though she sends the agency updated snapshots every six months. Ramsey suggests getting professional shots of Katie to send out to clients. Soon the ladies are on their way again.
Cathi and Katie arrive at the studio where the toy shoot is going to take place. Luckily, no audition was necessary to land this job—Katie has worked for the toy brand before, and the company simply called Product to book her again. They wait for Katie's turn at hair and makeup. Then a stylist dresses Katie in a new outfit and dabs some powder on the little girl's face to conceal a few minor blemishes. So far, Katie has displayed supermodel poise, but an attempt to put away her Winnie-the-Pooh doll and place a barrette in her wispy hair provokes an uncharacteristic torrent of tears. Her mom immediately steps in and persuades the stylist to give up on the hair-clip idea. "If Katie ever gets upset about something on a shoot, I don't let them do it," Cathi insists.
On the set, the little girl snuggles into a car seat as the bulbs flash around her. The photographer enlists the help of a baby wrangler, a high-energy professional whose sole job is to draw the tiny model's attention to the camera lens. She hovers next to the camera waving Elmo dolls and puppets and playing peekaboo with Katie. The effort to elicit happy, photogenic grins is successful. After about 35 minutes, it's a wrap. Unlike jobs involving grown-ups, which can grind on for many grueling hours, baby photo shoots are about as short as their subjects' attention span.
The day's work is over. Katie's fee for two hours of modeling (about half an hour of shooting and 90 minutes of prepping and waiting) is $150, of which Product gets 20 percent. (The toy brand will be paying another 20 percent to the agency directly.) Mom's fee for hours of shuttling? Not a cent.
"It gets us out of the house," says Cathi, a former PR professional and special-events planner. What's more, Katie, who's had a busy career, has so far earned several thousand dollars toward her college fund. "I never push Katie," Cathi says. "For her, it's live entertainment—all the photographers, baby wranglers, and other children there amusing her. I think she'll love looking at her scrapbook someday."
Is there an end in sight to Katie's modeling days? Perhaps it will arrive when her new siblings do: Cathi and her husband are expecting twins. Toting one baby around town is hard enough. What will this energetic mom do once there are three? "Uh," says Cathi, looking down at her growing belly, "I may have to reconsider."