My week in and out of modeling schools

A fearless reporter bares the facts behind the beauty boom: who goes to modeling school and why, how much it costs and how much glamour the money buys. Here is the closest thing in print to a seven-day charm course, as ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN blissfully recalls

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN September 12 1959

My week in and out of modeling schools

A fearless reporter bares the facts behind the beauty boom: who goes to modeling school and why, how much it costs and how much glamour the money buys. Here is the closest thing in print to a seven-day charm course, as ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN blissfully recalls

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN September 12 1959

High among the top ten dreams of today’s teenage girls is the one about being a model—poised, polished, a bit mysterious, moving in a world of big money, French poodles, admiration and exciting clothes, without being too pressed by hard work. Ready to give the dream some point of contact with reality are about forty modeling schools throughout Canada.

As poised, polished, well-paid models do not appear at anything near the rate at which short, shy, plump girls join modeling schools, it’s easy to jump to the conclusion that these schools are cashing in on hopeless dreams, but it depends on whether the school misleads applicants into thinking that fame and fortune will automatically be theirs on graduation.

The good schools don’t do anything of the kind. They offer a basic course, at an average cost of around a hundred dollars, which provides twenty to thirty hours of instruction in poise, walking, figure control, make-up and hair styling. This is called a “personal development” or “self-improvement” course. After this, you can take “advanced” or “finishing” courses, at an extra forty to two hundred dollars for juniors and seventy-five to three hundred dollars for adults, depending on the school, and how finished you want to get.

You may think that self-improvement can’t be dealt with on such a cash-and-carry basis, but thousands of girls think it can. At a Toronto modeling school I talked to one pretty twenty-one-year-old ash blonde who had taken sixty lessons at a cost of from three hundred to four hundred dollars (I don’t know which, because I don’t know whether she got the teen-age or the adult rate). She had taken a basic course, an advanced modeling course, and a high-fashion course, and I got the impression that she would have taken more if there were more courses. She spoke about it in such terms of praise that I would have thought she had been planted on me if I hadn’t picked her myself without warning from under a hair drier. She said that when she started she had been overweight, nervous and withdrawn.

“I had a terrible inferiority complex. I couldn’t speak to anyone. I used to be so nervous I couldn’t get on a streetcar. I came in for help and they gave me my personal analysis. I lost eighteen pounds and my personality improved vastly. I became a lot more confident.

I don't know how she was before, but as she sat talking to me she was a quietly assured, well-spoken and charming young woman. She said she didn’t want to be a model; but her reasons were purely personal, involving a boy friend, and she was getting another boy friend.

The fascination these courses hold for some girls approaches the mystic, and some schools are not above exploiting this fascination without shame. One successful, experienced Toronto model told me that once she and another model decided to look into the possibilities of opening a school themselves. To put it in her own words: “There’s a hell of a lot of money in it. I wouldn't mind some of the suckers' dough." She and her would-be partner started their reconnaissance by briefing a girl they knew and sending her around to some of the schools for information, literature and prices. When the scout reported back, she sheepishly confessed that she had signed up with three of them. They had told her she showed great promise.

“Even knowing what she was doing," the model told me, incredulously, “she was carried away. She was pregnant, too.”

One seventeen-year-old youngster without a hope of ever becoming a professional model was asked by a friend who was in the business why she kept signing up for courses. She thought for a minute and said. "It's better than the Girl Guides.”

At the end of the basic course, at most modeling schools, girls who have been okayed by the school as promising material can sign up for a more advanced course. Usually at the end of the basic course, parents and friends of the girls are invited to watch them do their stuff. I attended one of these evenings, sitting in a long, pleasant room on a folding chair watching the girls come out onto a small stage and walk past me on a runway to soft record-player music. It was very quiet. Across from me a boy of about sixteen, whom I judged to be the brother of one of the graduates, sat with his arms tightly folded across his chest, an agonized smile on his face, looking as if he were about to explode. A father who had told me earlier, with gruff modesty, that he thought his daughter had a "certain something," tensely chewed the earpiece of his glasses. The girls wore very attractive clothes, swirled, pirouetted, did that quick professional turn, hands on hips, that always looks to me as if they are rounding indignantly on some gay follower. A few girls were quite pretty and professional looking, some were awkward, one walked as if she had an ironing board strapped to her back, some looked as if they were going to giggle.

At intermission I talked to one of the fathers. He was a high-school principal and thought it was wonderful experience for his daughter.

"I've been doing the exercises myself, and they work. My daughter took an inch off her legs,” he said. He was full of praise of this particular school. “They don't get them to wear that heavy makeup or make floozies out of them. They teach them to be ladies. I tell you, my daughter will never get on the back seat of a motorcycle or wear a leather jacket.” He paused and added. “Of course, she wouldn't have before she took the course. I wouldn't let her.” He told me of another modeling school which his daughter had wanted to join. He had put his foot down. "They teach them to roll their hips,” he said.

The next day I visited the school he had accused of teaching girls to roll their hips and told an official there of the charge. She took the news calmly. We were alone in a big, quiet, broadloomed corner office. She stood up to demonstrate to me. She was an extremely attractive young woman. She was wearing a wide straw hat. She told me that what I was thinking of was the Marilyn Monroe walk and asked me if I'd like to see it. I said I would. “We call it the egg beater,” she said. She went to a corner of the office, went into gear and walked toward me, looking me right in the eye as if daring me to look where I wanted to look. I looked. It was absolutely amazing. Then she showed me the way her school taught girls to walk. She explained the difference, but I forget what it was.

She told me that all the models at her school wear girdles, and that eighty percent of women I see don't wear girdles, which gives a sloppy line to their clothes and makes them rump-sprung. "We tested a group of nurses. There was far less backache among the girls who wore girdles." She said that most girls who seriously wanted to be models could make the grade and that there were very few hopeless cases. "It's not what you've got. It's what you do with what you've got,” she said.

When a girl graduates from the advanced modeling course she is qualified to join the school's model agency. She signs a contract for five years, agreeing to pay the agency ten percent of her earnings. Most of the people I talked to spoke as if almost any girl can make money as a model if she is serious about it and goes out and looks for work, which struck me as optimism bordering on self-hypnosis until I mentioned it to a girl who has been a professional model for years. She pointed out that the big question isn't whether a girl can get a few jobs, as most of them can, but whether they can get them often enough to make a living. I also learned that modeling covers a wide field, including modeling in wholesale showrooms for retail buyers; a bread-and-butter end of the business in which most girls can get work if they’re determined enough.

Many housewives can and do make extra money this way. The work pays twelve-fifty a day for juniors and fifteen dollars a day for experienced models. The top brackets of the profession, which most girls think of when they decide to be models, are runway modeling of fashions, and modeling for photography (including TV) of either fashions or "hard-goods”, a trade term for the kind of modeling where a girl stands smiling at a television set or demonstrating a detergent. Beginners in these fields earn ten dollars for the first hour, seven-fifty for subsequent hours; experienced models get fifteen dollars and ten. An experienced, full-time, well-known professional model in Canada in these fields can earn from ten to twelve thousand dollars a year, but one model, within Canada’s best-known ten, said that she didn’t know of two newcomers to this rarefied level within the past five years.

Every modeling-school operator I talked to felt that any girl would benefit from the basic course. However, all stated emphatically that if an applicant obviously had no chance of becoming a model, the schools discouraged her from thinking of it as a career. "I discourage them so much,” one operator told me, "that it surprises me that they come back.” At the same time two operators told me that when they refuse to sign up a girl as a model, it’s a common occurrence for the girl to shop around, find a school that will take her, then come back and flaunt her contract. A woman who hires all the models for the fashion shows held by one of Canada’s biggest department stores, said that she can hardly believe her eyes sometimes when she sees the girls some of the schools send her.

"They sit there like little mice," she said, indicating a bench outside her office, "clutching their diplomas in their hot grubby little hands.” She cited two who had appeared in her office the previous day. "One of them had a babushka over her head. They just sat there as if to say. "Here I am. When do I start?"

She thought, however, that good modeling schools offered something the country needs. "When I went to school, any good private school taught deportment. Now we get girls from private schools who haven’t got a clue. You've got to learn somewhere. A model school seems the only place.”

I sat in on one class where four girls were being taught "visual poise." The instructress, a rather annoyed - looking smartly dressed woman with jet - black hair, kept up a running commentary as each girl came out on a small stage and walked down a short flight of carpeted steps.

“Go back and come in again with some expression." she told a sober-looking girl who made some stiff gestures with her hands, including one of snapping her hand back to her shoulder and pointing to the ceiling as she turned.

"I’d like you to come down the stair again. Because you thought you were through, you were bouncing all the way. You thought I didn’t see you, huh? You should do that all the time, even if no one is here.”

A pretty dark girl came out, walked past me looking straight into my eyes with a cool, professional smile.

The woman who had been acting as my guide said beside me, in imitation of a big buyer. "I'll take six."

"That’s too casual." the dark woman said, watching a turn the girl made. “That would be better for Lila. I want something more sophisticated from you."

A girl with a vestal-virgin look came down the steps with downcast eyes. “Could you look like you’re enjoying it a little more?" the dark lady said. "You'll have to work on your expression. You don’t have to be scared. And turn like you’re meaning to show something."

We went into what was called the color class to watch the application of make-up. Four rather bewildered-looking youngsters of fifteen or sixteen sat at a make-up bench in front of a long wall mirror, wearing protective toweling over their shoulders, all staring at me in the mirror, while the instructress, a husky brunette, announced clearly over the sound of piped-in music, "When we start the application of make-up, we use three dots . . . one here, one here and one here. We're not to put it on so it looks like a chimney on fire. Now, girls, do you see what we mean by a triangle? The purpose of rouge is to frame your eyes in such a way as to make them sparkle.”

I asked each of the girls if she wanted to be a model. Three of the four said they did. The fourth, who apparently, like other students I spoke to, was taking the course just to cover all bets, said she wanted to write magazine articles. The reasons given by the others for wanting to be models were: “I like fashion and clothes and all that quite a bit." "I love clothes and I can’t buy them myself." “I like changing to different dresses." This last reason was given by a small, shy girl who spoke in such a low voice that I had to lean over the make-up bench to hear her.

A little later I asked a girl in another class why she was taking the course and she said. “I’m practically going in for everything.”

Many schools have practically no age limit and will take children as young as four years, but some model schools are against taking children on the grounds that it spoils them. "They become smart Alecky,” one operator told me. "By the third day they’re asking, ‘Do you think I’m beautiful?’ ” The schools that take children claim just the opposite: that it’s the child models without training who are in danger of being spoiled. An untrained child model accidentally gets a laugh, suddenly realizes the possibilities of the job and from then on hams it up for his public.

The children at one modeling school I visited are taught to open doors for their mothers, never to open doors without knocking. They take seats at a card table, which is set for a meal, and are taught not to fiddle with the tableware or eat crumbs off the tablecloth. They're to leave the crumbs for the waiter. They are taught how to eat fruit, how to eat a baked potato, and how to ask. “May I be excused, please.”

Out in the waiting room I watched a group of proud mothers and one proud grandmother brush, comb, primp and fuss over a group of little girls and boys. The boys all had their hair slicked down and sat silently on benches with their legs sticking straight out in front of them. All the mothers I spoke to wanted their children to be models. When I asked one woman why, she said. "I think it’s nice clean work and better than working hard."

Yawns, grimaces and hesitation

In another school I watched five disinterested little girls and one boy go through a routine of “visual poise” as if sleep walking. One little girl dragged a fashionable parasol behind her like a dead animal. The little boy exasperated the instructress with unfashionable little gestures. Once he stopped suddenly and dug his finger straight into his ear as if suddenly wondering what he was made of inside. A little girl painstakingly executed a professional turn, looked at herself in a mirror and yawned. The little boy went to a chair, narrowed his eyes to two slits, screwed up his face, opened his mouth and studied me from behind this very effective ambush. One little girl industriously untied her shoes and the teacher of visual poise had to stop and tie them again.

“You have a pretty dress. You could lift it up and show us," the instructress chanted at one little girl. "You have a pretty collar. You could show it to us."

The little boy was told to get up on the pedestal. He mounted the couple of steps slowly, head down, knees sagging, everything drooping, which rather fascinated the instructress and completely baffled her. “A lot of this is for your benefit.” my guide told me.

Another little girl got to the very edge of the pedestal before she started to pivot. She stood with her toes over the edge, staring at her feet and the hopelessness of the situation, then obviously forgot what she was trying to where she was, who she was or who the teacher of visual poise was, as the latter raced to catch her before she fell.

I had a long talk with the woman who operates one of the best-known and most widely recommended schools. She is a poised, dainty woman with a dimpled chin who was at one time one of the busiest and best models in Canada. She opened a model school when, as an experienced and reliable model, she was asked repeatedly by department stores to get together fashion shows for them.

When I came in she had a girl walking up and down to music. "Walk now without smiling,” she said. Later I heard her tell the girl. "You’re not going to enjoy living as much if you're self-conscious all the time. It’s not that bad.”

She explained to me afterward that it was a girl who when she smiled, showed all her gums. The girl was worried about it. She told me of one short, hopelessly plain young woman who came into her school one day and announced rather dejectedly that she wanted to be a model. She asked the girl why. The girl said. "Because I've been a dishwasher all my life and I'm sick of it."

Although she runs a very active model agency, she said that the main objective of her school was not to turn out models but to teach self-improvement. "Clothes and make-up and hair styling are only superficial things. You can do surface things or deep things. You get a girl who is awkward and self-conscious; you teach her confidence. She can forget herself and start to listen to others. She makes a better person. There's nothing conceited about wanting to improve."

She said that nine out of ten women are self-conscious and have no idea how to be graceful. A lot of women are swaybacked which makes them flop their feet. "A poor walk will offset make-up and hairdress and clothes. If a woman walks well it gives her a feeling of confidence. I get women who have raised their families and who haven't spent as much time on themselves as they'd like. They feel heavy and not as smart as they should be. They come in nervous and depressed. These women need a lift. I re-do their hair and teach them how to walk and the next time they come in they're gay. They feel good. They tell me their husbands have started kidding them. My friends tell me I'm a born psychologist. I enjoy every minute of it."

I told her that all the professional models I'd spoken to were completely cynical about modeling schools and that one of the objections was that the people who do the teaching have never been models themselves.

"You can say the same thing about tournament golfers." she said. "You don't find tournament golfers teaching golf. Teachers teach people to play golf."

I told her that the models I'd talked to, some of whom had gone to modeling schools, said that everything they'd learned they had picked up after they left the school, the hard way, by working at it, watching other models, developing a feeling for fashion.

“They were old-timers," she said. "That was ten years ago. Things have changed. Who wants to wait that long? A girl who wants to be a model has to have drive. She has to get out and work, take her pictures around. She can't just sit around thinking she's a queen. But a girl today doesn't want to spend five years learning.”

I was to hear the expression, "Who can wait that long?" in another context later the same day, when I talked to a photographer who has seen, worked with and talked to thousands of models, helped many make the grade, and worried about many more who didn't. He thought modeling schools were for the birds. He looked a bit sad about the whole matter. “Okay, when are you a model and when aren't you a model? I tell a girl. ‘Honey, you'll never be a model.' Sometimes she comes back, a model. These girls get some work. They do a few jobs. But they can't relax. They never will. They think I'm going to beat this thing.’ Maybe. But I can't wait that long. A good model is sensuous. She feels her body, feels her moods. She's languid, yet there's a hard core of drive. She's different. She's terrific. She gasses me." His voice trailed off. Then he summed up the unique quality of a woman who can pose in extreme clothes, heavily made up, with startling features and a gaunt figure, and carry it off with dramatic effect. "If you're going to stand out there with mud on your face, man, you've got to have it!" ★