“Uh, Mom? We have a problem.”
This is not my son talking, but one of the stylists on set who has come to fetch me because something has gone wrong.
I’m not allowed to watch my 4-year-old’s photo shoots because I’m distracting. I can see what’s going on from behind a monitor if I want, but I can’t step on set unless they really need me. And in our two years of doing this, I’ve only been called on set twice.
Even before I step behind the tall curtains meant to shield the models from the rest of the room, I can hear him. Laughing maniacally, making funny sounds and otherwise screeching over the pleas of the photographer and wrangler (yes, that’s really his title) to please just smile at the camera! In other words, he’s acting like your average 4-year-old who doesn’t want to have his picture taken. Except this 4-year-old’s job is to have his picture taken.
We fell into all of this mostly by accident. After a local parenting magazine asked for volunteer models, my then-5-year-old daughter’s picture was spotted on Instagram. We were invited in for an interview with an agent and all three kids were signed amid a whirlwind of paperwork and explanations about “entertainment work permits.”
I initially thought having my kids try modeling would be a bit of fun. Maybe I’d get a good picture or two of them, since I could never manage to capture one on my own camera. The idea of getting paid for it was just a bonus ― a lucky addition to their previously neglected 529 college savings accounts. (That’s life as a family of five!)
Then my son hit on the incredibly lucky combination of being the right age at the right time with whatever they were looking for at a casting for Old Navy only a few months in. We found ourselves thrust into the major leagues of modeling, and his picture was suddenly in stores across the globe and online for anyone to see.
Before his brother or sister had booked a single job, my son’s career began to snowball. Videos for Lego, the launch of Allbirds’ kids shoes, even a short film entry for the Cannes Film Festival ― if I hadn’t been so busy playing chauffeur I probably would have walked down the street carrying printed copies of his latest headshots for everyone to see like Auntie Lindo in “The Joy Luck Club.”
By landing such large campaigns so early on, we inadvertently found ourselves surrounded by kids who had been doing this a lot longer with parents who were much more invested in it. Some of them, like the mom who filmed her daughter’s every musing to upload to social media, clearly had designs on their child becoming a star. Others, like the dad who couldn’t stop gushing to his daughter about the $300 she was making from the day’s shoot, saw modeling as an investment.
I quickly realized child modeling isn’t only about having a cute kid with a pleasant attitude. Child models are successful because they have parents who treat it like it’s their job, too.
It’s a job that requires you to constantly be on call, ready to drop everything with a day’s notice and drive, sometimes, hours away for a five-minute casting. It’s a job that requires you to juggle babysitters for siblings, appointments and the rest of your family’s life around one child’s schedule.
And it’s a job, as I discovered, that sometimes requires you to try to coax your child to put on a smile and do their job when they’ve had to sit quietly backstage for four hours before getting into hair and makeup. (Yes, even toddlers get makeup. Most of them love it.)
“I’m sorry,” I reflexively apologize to the entire crew for my son’s behavior. “He’s just tired.” They all nod understandingly as I bounce his baby brother in my arms, trying to keep him quiet so as not to draw attention to the fact that I have brought two cranky children to set today.
“So can we give him some cookies for energy?” the stylist asks, holding up a handful of Oreos. Understanding is one thing. But they still have a shot to get.
Whether the sudden infusion of sugar in the late afternoon will cause my son to crash on the way home, thereby keeping him ― and his siblings ― awake all night is not of consequence to them. If he can’t perform, they have another kid backstage waiting to take his place. I’ve seen children sent off set (nicely, of course) and not called back again. It may sound cutthroat, but it’s nothing personal. They have a business to run.
So I agree to the Oreos, watching silently from the corner of the set as assistants stuff cookies into the open mouth of my child whose eyes are now half-closed. I think of Judy Garland, who was given “pep pills” as a child to keep pace with her grueling acting schedule, only to be given sleeping pills at night to counteract the effects. I’m being overly dramatic, of course. But watching my son lift his head to be fed water after slowly eating each cookie leads me to wonder: How many steps away am I from accidentally creating the next Lindsay Lohan?
I’ve tried to preserve my son’s innocence about the whole thing. Instead of speculating whether his photo will end up in stores, we devote our energy to discussing the finer points of each client or location’s buffet offerings. (His favorite: pineapple. Mine: tacos.) To avoid the pressure and (frequent) disappointment of castings, we call them “mini photo shoots” and take turns assembling different outfits from his closet.
Most importantly, I never ever refer to modeling as a “job” while he’s within earshot. To him, it’s a fun activity I’ve signed him up for, no different from the way other kids go to soccer or music classes. He meets friends, eats snacks and plays with toys. Seeing his own picture later almost always comes as a surprise, as he’s usually long forgotten about the day he shot it.
Of course, this means the burden falls to me to make responsible decisions about both his present and future. Because while he likes modeling, he doesn’t fully understand all that it entails. And what kind of responsible parent lets someone stuff their kid’s face with cookies just to get a photo?
Ultimately, the Oreo bribe worked and the photo from that shoot went on to become a very large billboard of sorts ― which, I’m not going to lie, was very cool. But the decisions I face can only grow more complicated from here.
What happens when cookies are not enough of an incentive and he doesn’t want his picture taken at all? Or, now that he’s in kindergarten, what happens when I have to choose whether to have him skip a day of school for a job?
For now, I’m trying to focus on the fact that he enjoys modeling and not overshadow it with my worries. And when the day comes that I have to decide whether to give him a push, I just hope it’s in the right direction.