Maybe you've dreamed of gliding down the catwalk in Milan, flashbulbs popping all around, hundreds of people focusing their attention on your grace and beauty. The closets of your Paris apartment are stuffed full of expensive designer clothing, and tomorrow you fly back to New York just in time to catch a party attended by your good friends, Kate Moss, Keanu Reeves, and Ben Affleck. Nice dream. Now wake up.

First things first: you've taken the trouble to do a little research, so you're not a moron. That's good. Regardless of prevailing stereotypes, you need smarts to break into modeling. Those same smarts will also help you realize that your chances of becoming the sort of supermodel who lands multimillion-dollar endorsements are only a little better than your chances of being killed by a charging rhinoceros - even if you're beautiful. The success stories are few; even models represented by the best agencies in the world often take other work to supplement their income. Now, if you're still reading, congratulations. You aren't easily discouraged, and you're gonna need that kind of pluck to endure the rejection which is part of every model's stock and trade. There are several different types and levels of modeling, and if your expectations are realistic, you needn't feel discouraged.

For some firsthand modeling tips, take a look at this video, which will have you sashaying down the runway in no time.

WATCH THIS HOW-TO VIDEO

1. LEARN ABOUT THE INDUSTRY

There are many different kinds of models, including child models, plus-size models, and parts models (whose hands you see in all those diamond ring ads). Fashion models must usually conform to rather rigid physical criteria, but there are others models called "real-life models," who are often also actors. They are just what the name suggests: ordinary looking people used in catalogues and commercials to represent someone the average consumer can identify with. The white-haired guy with the potbelly on the Golf Resorts billboard is a real-life model. If it turns out that you aren't quite what they're looking for in a fashion model, consider this sort of work (or consider becoming a character actor). There are other paths to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

For the purposes of this SYW, though, we're focusing on the model that gets all the attention: the cat-walking high-fashion model.

What it takes to be a fashion-model

If you're female . . .

  • You should be somewhere between 15 and 22 years old, though probably closer to fifteen. Models don't have careers that last as long as say, doctors, so agencies tend to want to invest their time in someone young.

  • You should be tall, long-legged, and lean. The minimum height is usually about 5'8", and average weight for a model is 108-125 lbs. These characteristics are partly aesthetic and partly practical: this type of frame looks good on the runway and in front of the camera (which, they say, adds 15 pounds); and a somewhat scrawny build drapes clothing nicely and ensures a good fit in the standard wardrobe. There are always exceptions to the rule, of course - Kate Moss is 5'7" and Gabrielle Reece is a giant 6'3" - but, in general, the closer you are to the industry norm, the better your chances.

If you're male . . .

  • You can start out a little later, roughly between the ages of 18 and 25. They won't want you to look too childish. The good news is that a man's modeling career usually lasts longer than a woman's, and since ten-year-old boys more often dream of blowing things up rather than strutting the Hugo Boss runway, this side of the biz tends to be less competitive as well.

  • Average dimensions for a male model are a height of 5'11"- 6'2" and a weight of 140-165 lbs. You should also be fit (not bulging with muscles, but definitely healthy).

All right, so let's assume you've got all of these qualifications. You are, for example, a willowy 16-year-old girl who's on the basketball team, could squeeze her body through a set of prison bars, and causes old men who shouldn't be ogling you to stumble over their walkers. That's great. On top of that you have clear skin, perfect teeth, and your own brand of je ne sais quoi. Fantastic. It's time for the next step.

2. MAKE YOUR BREAK

Although there is a little bit of freelancing in the business, almost all models work through an agent. Your agent is responsible for getting bookings and ensuring that you show up on time, no matter how hungover you may be. Good agents will also advise you about clothes and hair, and generally guide you through the various stages of your career.

There are several tactics you can employ to get an agent:

  • Many successful models started their careers effortlessly. They were strolling through the airport with mom and dad on the way back from Disneyland, when a scout from a top agency spotted them, recognized their potential, and gave them a business card. Must be nice. Since you probably haven't been quite this lucky, proceed to the next method.

  • Periodically, agencies open their doors to hundreds of local hopefuls. This is known as an "open call." You herd together in the hallways of an agency with all your competitors, you wait and wait for a turn, and when you finally do get to see someone, it seldom takes more than 30 seconds for the pros to size up what they consider to be your potential. Welcome to the world of big-league rejection. And the good news is that open calls are almost always free. Dress casually in form-hugging clothes so the agent can see what your body is like. Keep the hair simple, and the makeup naturally minimalistic. They want you to present a blank canvass to them-not your glamour look. Don't waste money on professional photos. If you want, you can just bring in a few informal snaps: full body shots (in a conservative bikini or trunks) from a few angles, one nice head shot, and a casual clothed shot.

    Here are some of the top agencies (all of which are based in New York):
    Elite
    111 East 22nd Street
    New York, NY
    Phone: 212-529-9700

    Ford
    142 Greene St, 4th Floor
    New York, NY
    Phone: 212-219-6500

    IMG Models
    22 East 71st Street
    New York, NY
    Phone: 212-529-9700

    Metropolitan
    220 5th Avenue, Suite 800
    New York, NY
    Phone: 212-989-0100
    Email: MetroModel@aol.com

    Next
    23 Watts Street
    New York, NY
    Phone: 212-925-5100

    Boss Models (mostly for male models)
    1 Gansevoort Street
    New York, NY
    Phone: 212-242-2444
    E-mail: newyork@bossmodels.com
  • You don't have to wait around for an open call. If you get on the phone and the agency tells you their open call is six months off, ask if you can just drop by. Don't stop at one; go around to as many of the top agencies as you can.

  • Several large agencies tour the country with a model search, a beauty contest with the purpose of finding the next Christy, Tyra or Claudia. Thanks to events like these, all the seemingly gawky Betty Sues out there can get a shot at proving their exotic supermodel potential (they never would've got off the farm if the fashionistas hadn't come to Pig Snout, Nebraska). As long as there's a reputable agency behind it and the entry fees aren't too extravagant (most, though not all, model search contests will have entry fees), a model search is a good way to at least meet people in the industry.

  • The most expensive option is to attend a modeling convention. Entry fees tend to be high, but you get the opportunity to meet representatives from several different agencies all at the same time (and the chance to learn more about the industry in general). If one of these should happen to open in your city, by all means, check it out.

  • Register with www.modelsandtalent.com on the net. This is a well-respected service through which model scouts browse. It's a place to post an electronic profile so that the pros can check you out. Also try Minx Models.

Once the agency gets a look at you and decides it likes what it sees, an agent will arrange for you to have portfolio pictures taken, a composite card printed, and a résumé put together. Again, you must remember that you are trying to make money, not spend it (see Step 3), so don't waste cash on portfolios until you get signed up with a manager. The agency will probably have a specific look in mind for you anyway, and they'll want to start from scratch. A portfolio (or "book") is what you take along to modeling job interviews, called "go-sees." In your portfolio are a series of shots taken by an agency-recommended photographer, and it reflects the agency's marketing strategy for you. Composite cards, or comp cards, are what you leave behind with the prospective employer: a single printed sheet of photos to help them remember you.

3. AVOID SCAMS

There are really two modeling industries: the legitimate one that pays models a fair price for their services; and the evil one which preys on the hopes and dreams of foolish young people (a.k.a. "suckers"). To avoid getting snookered, you have to remind yourself again and again that you're getting into modeling to make money, and not to give it away. This is business, so be stingy. There are lots of con artists posing as photographers, and there are lots of shady organizations calling themselves "agencies" and "schools." So here's what you have to watch out for:

  • Photographers who try to sell you expensive portfolio shots before you approach any agencies. This is a common one. They tell you that you'll never get anywhere with an agency unless you have a professional portfolio to show. Not true. Agencies are connected with photographers who understand and express a particular style, and they usually just end up trashing any pictures you walk in with. That's why snaps are best. Let the agency you sign up with arrange all the portfolio photography for you.

  • Fly-by-night "agencies" that charge so-called "registration fees," and are more interested in getting you to pay for expensive portfolios than finding you work. In such places, the phones aren't ringing as they should be, and the pictures on the walls are of models that have no connection with their business. So when you approach an agency, check them out, make sure they've been around for more than three months, and have a nice big ad in the Yellow Pages. Contact the Better Business Bureau to see if there have been any complaints levelled against them.

  • Modeling schools. Some people believe that they are an outright scam, while others believe that they're a pretty good way to gain a little experience, so long as you have money to burn. It's your call to make. Just don't let anyone tell you that you must go through a school (which always seems to be, coincidentally, their own in-house school) before they'll even consider you. No one absolutely needs to go to modeling school in order to become a successful model.

  • Sleazeballs. Flattery, promises to get you working immediately, unusual fees and high-pressure tactics are all signs of a sleazeball operation. When they ask you to pose naked or to have sex in exchange for jobs, then you'll know you've hit rock bottom. Alert the authorities. And keep in mind that, although this sort of thing is more common in less classy operations, it is not altogether unknown at a higher level. Recently, two executives (President Gerald Marie of Elite Europe, and Xavier Moreau, head of the Elite Model Look Contest), were compelled to resign after a BBC documentary caught them treating their business as a sex farm. Yes, this was rather idiosyncractic, but it proves that you should be aware.

4. BUILD YOUR CAREER

You finally got yourself an agent . . . good for you. That's nine-tenths of the battle. It's sometimes said that if you're serious about modeling, you should pack your bags and go straight to New York, and that's partly true. New York City is the U.S. jump-off point for the modeling world's Grand Tour, and most supermodels live in the Big Apple for at least part of the year. That doesn't mean, however, that a couple of years in Miami or L.A. are gonna kill your career. Hard work, charm, connections and luck all play a part in where you end up. No matter where you're based, if you sign with a big agency that's based in New York (as most of them are), there's a good chance that you'll end up there. But also keep in mind that there is still a demand for models in secondary markets such as Chicago, Philadelphia and Phoenix.

So as you get ready to embark on your career, keep the following points in mind:

  • Be prepared to spend your mornings schlepping burgers at McDonald's. Well all right, maybe it won't be that bad, but the fact is that most models (even at the higher levels) need a supplemental job to pay the bills. In addition to that, the average model can't expect her career to last more than eight years, so don't skip college! Parties, money in pocket, and a busy schedule make it very tempting to bypass the standard education route, but if you get hit by a bus and one leg becomes 8 inches shorter than the other, your modeling career will be in the toilet and you'll be stupid. So stay in school. Linda Evangelista may be earning millions a year well into her thirties, but you probably won't. Make sure you have contingency plans in place.

  • The actual work is never quite as romantic as the dream. Think endless hours in airports, rushing from appointment to appointment, shoots that seem to drag on forever, and chaffed thighs from changing into eighty different swimsuits in two hours. Yes, there's a lot of great partying. (For some strange reason models seem to get invited out a lot.) But there's an obvious potential downside to unlimited fun: the collapse of your career and a stint in the Betty Ford Clinic.

  • If your agency uses a contract, take the trouble to have your own lawyer look at it before you sign. Also, find out what unions you may be required to join, and whether or not you are free to sideline at a different agency. Consult an accountant about which receipts you should be saving, and keep careful track of the money you earn. A little attention to business now will save you many headaches later on.

And those are the essentials. Memorize them, get out there, and take your own personal shot at runway nirvana. The 21st century needs a new face - it could be yours. Be smart, be brave, and be beautiful.