This guide has been bubbling in my head for years. After spending my late teens/early twenties modeling for fun and profit, I realized there were more misconceptions about the fashion industry than big egos inhabiting it.
You can bet your Manolos that modeling is far less glamorous than it seems. But perhaps the worst deception of all is the idea that everyone who isn’t “agency standard” (5’7 or taller, thin, young) will never find work.
Well, surprise: You absolutely can have a successful modeling career even if you don’t look like Gisele Bundchen.
If you want to create otherworldly images like those in Dark Beauty or Faerie Magazine, but don’t know how to get started… or just like the idea of being paid to dress up, this article is for you.
Before anyone spends their life savings on a ticket to Paris, it needs to be said that making modeling your job is not easy. It’s usually wiser to pursue it for side income or as a hobby.
But first, let’s dispel some rumors and make sure it’s something you really want to do.
A Beautiful Illusion
Shows like America’s Next Top Model do not reflect reality. They’re made to entertain. Look at any Top Model winner and you’ll find 95% of them have moved on to other things.
The modeling industry is both cutthroat and insular. If you have the right proportions and a unique look, you might be able to join an agency, but the competition is immense. Even now, many girls are “harvested” from Eastern Europe due to their naivety and willingness to work for less. There’s a good documentary on this called Girl Model.
Having an agency is no guarantee of success. Even signed models struggle. Their faces may be on Elite’s website, but representation is just that—a key to opportunities that don’t always pan out. It’s the models’ responsibility to actually book gigs.
With the advent of social media, on the other hand, even self-made Instagram stars and celebs “famous for being famous” are getting hired. Why not, since their fans buy anything they endorse? Sadly, times change and people are fickle, meaning these models’ popularity wanes.
Don’t Get in It for the Cash
A model’s wages aren’t anything impressive unless they’re in the top 1% of the industry and booking big fashion campaigns. Regular models typically make a living through lesser-known, less glamorous avenues like fit modeling or catalog work.
This is surprising to many who imagine big brands showering models in cash. It’s laughable, really. Most models who work with top designers get paid in trade (clothes), a pittance or the cold comfort of “exposure” (which may or may not result in actual paid jobs).
Foregoing an agency and paving your own path isn’t rainbows and roses either. For a nontraditional model to create a career, it takes hard work, confidence and marketing skills to get things off the ground.
Thanks to the internet, modeling has become more accessible than ever, even for those who aren’t (and I say this lovingly) giraffes. If you think this is something you’d enjoy, I absolutely recommend giving it a shot, if only to meet interesting people and grow as a person.
Here’s how you can stay safe, get paid and make pretty pictures.
How to Start Modeling
A site called Model Mayhem is your entry point. It gets a bad rap, but it’s where I began, and it’s truly the most comprehensive modeling site in existence right now. It offers an incredible opportunity to build connections and your portfolio for free.
In addition to hobbyists and independent professionals, there are agency models and photographers on MM, and that’s not even including those who got their start on MM but had to take their accounts down due exclusivity agreements after getting signed.
The first thing I recommend is uploading a handful of good quality photos. You can include images with makeup, but most photographers like seeing newbies with barefaced shots as well.
People in this world understand models don’t look the same before and after makeup, so it helps to present a “blank slate” before the glam goes on. Agencies take Polaroids of their models for the same reason.
I started with several close-ups of my face, along with two full-body shots in a swimsuit. Since I’m short (for agencies, at 5’5), I picked photos that made my figure look longer than it actually is. Proportions are more important than height for independent models, so you’ll need to determine which angles work best for you.
Fill in all your measurements, and once again, be accurate. Considering some shoots may involve fittings, don’t fudge your stats or you’ll end up wasting other people’s time and your own.
Lastly, write something in your profile description. Be clear and friendly. State your objective (i.e. “I want to create beautiful images for professional businesses and photographers”) and what your preferred genres are.
What Type of Modeling Should I Do?
All models need to know what sort of image they want to portray before setting up a shoot. Genres define what area of the industry you’d like to play in. While you can dabble in several, focusing on one or two segments will create a stronger portfolio.
If you’re an unconventional model, you will likely not deal with the following agency-related categories:
Commercial models are those you see working for JC Penny, Old Navy and so on. They can be attractive or surprisingly “plain,” as their aim is to portray the every(wo)man. These models do commercials, ads and catalog work. Although it’s not as exciting as high fashion, commercial work is more consistent and pays better.
It might seem this would be a less stringent genre, but commercial work is still largely reserved for lanky agency models with measurements that match common sample sizes.
Fit modeling is a subsection of this, which involves designers using you to “fit” their work, essentially turning you into a living mannequin for the industry standard size 2, 4, etc.
In large markets like New York it’s possible there may be enough work to go around for you to delve into niche markets (such as being a fit model for petite or plus sizes), but these opportunities are rare.
Working in fashion is the stuff of most models’ dreams, involving couture/avant-garde shoots and lots of pouty looks. Models require agency representation for this unless they have a special relationship with insiders or are a celebrity. Related magazines are Vogue, Elle and Harper’s Bazaar. Runway modeling is wrapped in this category.
As mentioned earlier, the pay is nowhere near as fabulous as the clothes unless you’ve found a hot market or are an actual supermodel (a dying breed).
Now let’s explore opportunities it’s easier to break into as a nontraditional model:
Glamour models do pin-up, swimsuit, lingerie and nude shoots. Height doesn’t matter if you’ve got a nice figure and sex appeal.
Here’s the thing: This genre pays. The money is on par with commercial modeling and definitely better than fashion modeling.
The good news is that you have a variety of options available if you take this route. You can find work with men’s magazines, swimwear/lingerie designers and hobbyists creating public or personal collections.
If you’re comfortable being naked but want to do something less sexual, you can also sign up as a model for art schools. Having varied body types to draw is a plus, so there typically aren’t measurement requirements.
Glamour models can work with agencies (which provide access to “music video vixen” castings and related events, depending on location), but they often have successful independent careers and command rates of up to $200+/hr.
A word of caution: Even if you work under a pseudonym, which I recommend, always assume photos will be linked back to you. This can negatively affect your opportunities in different careers. It’s frustrating—your IQ doesn’t magically drop with your clothes. But unfortunately, it’s how the world works.
Be aware of the drawbacks this genre entails and proceed carefully. If you eventually want to enter a “mainstream” career that might view such images in a negative light, do not pursue this course.
Want lucrative gigs that don’t require you to strip down? Welcome to promo modeling.
This is not “modeling” in the typical sense, since it rarely involves photoshoots. What it does require is for you to be the face of a business. As a promo model you act as a brand representative at trade shows, events or conventions while entertaining customers.
Companies will book you to do some sort of work aside from looking pretty, whether it’s as simple as handing out flyers or as in-depth as presenting products.
If you’ve ever heard of “booth babes” you might have an idea of what’s in store, but that’s the seedier side of the industry—most gigs don’t require you to don a bikini.
Promo modeling agencies are typically more accepting when it comes to models of varied heights and body sizes. They run the gamut from low quality scam fests to well-organized businesses. I got into a solid promo agency thanks to my MM portfolio, and had access to gigs from the likes of Microsoft, Nintendo, Razer, car dealerships and major football teams.
The pay ranges from $15/hr to as much as $90. It largely depends on how long the companies need you (i.e. higher rates if the event only runs 2-3 hours) and the quality of the event/company represented.
As with all self-represented modeling, keep in mind that you’re acting as an independent contractor and will need to earmark 15% of your earnings for taxes if you’re in the U.S. Don’t forget to factor in money required for gas, styling and any makeup needed. (Yes, you can write these off later.)
I’m not the biggest social butterfly, so interacting with people all day was draining, but it offered flexibility and extra money when I wanted it.
Important: Always bring a change of clothes so you can relax after work. Most importantly: a pair of shoes. I will never forget the day I worked on my feet in 5-inch heels for eight hours and literally had to limp back to my car. I drove home barefoot as my feet swelled and ached like dying toads.
Also consider taking public transit to events instead of driving, especially in big cities. It saves you from having to deal with traffic and being “on” at the end of a long day.
Now comes the genre fantasy fans adore: alternative modeling. It’s the bastard love child of fashion and art. Like fashion, you get to dress up in gorgeous outfits and go hog-wild with makeup and styling. Like art, the requirements for your measurements are lax and “unconventional” models are sought after.
Unfortunately, the pay leans toward the paltry sums of fashion modeling. While alternative businesses mean well, they rarely have large budgets due to their niche appeal.
While I had a great time doing alternative modeling and met some of the kindest, most creative people I’ve ever known, you shouldn’t expect to make a living out of it. In fact, I went unpaid for several shoots that ended up published in magazines, but I knowingly did so for the love of the theme/people involved.
Even big names in this genre like Mosh and Sabina Kelley don’t survive through modeling alone, often running their own businesses on the side and/or performing at events. (Many also do more typical glamour modeling with an edge of alternative, a la Suicide Girls.)
Organizing a Shoot
Scheduling a shoot is as simple as messaging a local photographer on MM (or responding to a classified ad) and asking if they’re interested. Be sure to mention you’re new so they know what to expect. If they’re receptive, hash out the details regarding time, place and what sort of clothing and makeup you should bring.
Make sure the photographers you contact are willing to shoot “for trade,” meaning you’ll both work free in exchange for building your portfolios. You’ll get folks messaging you directly as well. Respond based on the quality of the photographers’ work and the “staying safe” requirements below.
If you’re not interested, a “Thank you for getting in touch, but I’m following up with a few other people right now. I’ll keep you in mind for a potential shoot later on!” will suffice.
There’s no set period for when you should transition from doing trade shoots to paid work. If I had to throw out some arbitrary numbers, I’d say do at least 5 shoots and have 10+ high quality images in your portfolio.
By then you should feel comfortable posing, but stay open to trade work with skilled photographers who could improve/diversify your portfolio.
Staying Safe and Dealing with Creeps
Model Mayhem is not a dating site, but there are times when assholes make it feel like one. Among the majority of respectful professionals and hobbyists, you’ll run into a whole host of “GwCs.”
GwC stands for “guy with camera,” and it refers to the slippery breed of idiots who wield cameras for the sole purpose of leering at and taking advantage of women.
They’re the guys who will push your boundaries (“I know we didn’t talk about it before, but could we take some shots without your shirt on?”), make you uncomfortable (“Let me adjust your bra for you, it’s okay.”) and out-and-out harass you (“Oh yeah baby, those legs would look even better around me!”)
In the worst case scenarios, these situations can lead to violence and assault.
You don’t need to feel terrified every time you step into a stranger’s studio, but your safety is priority number one, and all models should take precautions.
Here’s how you can reduce risk and ensure a safe, fun experience for everyone involved:
1. Check references.
Models can leave references for photographers in the comments or credits section of their profiles. Some photogs will even helpfully list references so you can get an idea of what it’s like working with them.
Don’t see any references? Look at their portfolio and message the models they’ve worked with. This is not “weird,” and in fact a common practice.
Keep it short and sweet. “Hi So-and-So, I was planning to work with Cool Photographer in the near future, and I saw you took some great shots together. Would you mind sharing what it was like working with him/her? Thanks!”
While you might not get a reply, most models look out for one another and will be more than happy to tell you about their experiences.
2. Bring an escort.
I highly recommend taking an escort for your first couple of shoots. It’s exactly what it sounds like—someone who travels with you to a shoot and is present during the action, or nearby enough that you could call for help.
Different photographers have different thoughts on escorts. Most of the good ones don’t mind them, but some do, and I understand their reasons. A few photographers I know have horror stories about escorts who distracted models, yelled at them for imaginary slights and even broke expensive equipment.
The moral of the story is: Ask politely and pick a respectful escort. (“I’d like to work with you, but this is still really new for me. Would you mind if I brought my friend/parent/partner for support? I promise they won’t interrupt during the shoot.”)
This gives you extra peace of mind when you’re getting started. A good compromise for a lot of photographers is to bring an escort, but don’t have them present at the shoot proper. Your escort can wait just outside the studio or go have lunch nearby while you work, then come pick you up at the end.
If you must travel alone, at least let a close friend or family member know where you’re going and when you plan to be home. Even if you perform all due diligence, things happen, and you don’t want to be stuck without anyone knowing where you are.
3. Set your boundaries
You don’t have to discuss this with photographers upfront, but it’s important to keep professional boundaries in mind.
If someone is directing you during a shoot, there’s no reason they need to touch you. If they want to physically move you, they should ask first.
You should be able to get changed in a private area. (This is less relevant if you’re a nude/glamour model, but it’s all about your comfort level.) You have the right to ask photographers to stop making comments if they’re causing you stress, no matter how “harmless” they seem.
If anything feels wrong, trust your gut and leave.
I don’t care if the photographer or client is paying you.
I don’t care if they’re well-known.
I don’t care if they’re saying creepy things but not touching you.
I don’t care if you’re getting a weird “vibe” but they’re not talking.
I don’t care if you spent a lot of time and gas/flight money reaching them.
Do not, ever, stay in a situation that makes you nervous.
Remove yourself from immediate danger, go to a public location and call a friend or family member. Your safety takes precedence over everything else.
What to Expect During a Shoot
Shoots progress differently depending on who’s behind them. Some photographers run a tight schedule and will get you in and out within an hour, others are more experimental and fly by the seat of their pants. What matters most is that you know what to expect going in.
The things I’d ask were:
- What time and place are you shooting (in a studio, outdoors, different landmark)? How long will the shoot run?
- If taking an escort, can they be present during the shoot or does the photographer want them elsewhere?
- Are you going to have hair/makeup/styling on location or should you come pre-styled/with a makeup kit? If so, what sort of makeup and clothes do they want to shoot? How many looks should you plan for?
- How long will it take for the photographer to deliver final images after the shoot, and how will they provide them?
- Does the photographer require you to sign a contract?
Note: Be careful with contracts. Photographers rarely require them during trade shoots, and if they do, they normally state you both have the right to use the resulting images for promotional purposes, but not sell them. Some photographers will want the right to sell your images, and if so, you need to know why. Do they plan to sell them to a stock site or a porn site? It seems extreme, but worse things have happened and you don’t want your image abused.
When you reach the actual shoot, you might have a full team styling you or you may be handling it yourself. Some photographers will be very hands-off and let you pose and change things up, where others will want to direct you.
The ideal fit is somewhere in-between. It’s more fun and natural to be able to move how you want and come up with your own poses, though when a photographer interjects, “Nice, relax your shoulders,” or “Would you lower your chin a bit?” it helps ensure you’re getting good shots since they can see the results.
The first photographer I worked with was on the far end of the “hands-off” spectrum, and while I appreciated his trust in me, as a complete newbie I was a little lost and stiff. Thankfully, we developed a good relationship and after I came back with a few more shoots under my belt, he remarked on how much I’d improved.
The posing “flow” is something you learn and practice as you go along. Don’t feel stupid working on poses/angles in front of a mirror or studying other models, as it will help you improve your game.
Feel free to suggest things to the photographer, too. Asking, “Can we do a few jumping shots?” or, “What if I leaned against that tree?” can result in unexpectedly great images.
Of course, remember to be reasonable. If you’re taking catalog photos and need to shoot 50 different shirts for a designer, the photographer needs you to keep it tame so everyone can deliver on time. In comparison, you have much more freedom to do your own thing during a high concept shoot wearing fairy wings in a forest.
Be Nice and Have Fun!
Despite the obsession with appearances, keep in mind that personality still plays a huge role in this biz just like everywhere else. Especially when you’re freelancing. No one wants to work with a sullen or arrogant model.
Always remember to thank your photographers for their time and effort after a shoot (whether it’s paid or not), as well as anyone else who helped you. A little gratitude goes a long way and can be the difference between a follow-up job and never seeing that client again.
In the end, setting up a MM profile and getting yourself through that awkward first shoot will make the biggest difference in your confidence level and pave the way for a well-rounded portfolio. Don’t let anyone tell you that your goals are out of reach.
Now go find a photographer and make some magic!
Banner image by Grace Allmera.
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