July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:29 PM
"In many ways, Sara Streight and Heidi Lee are just like a lot of other Whidbey Island teenagers. At 15, Sara has a boyfriend, a special teddy bear and a closet full of clothes. Heidi, who will soon be 13, goes to school dances, shoots baskets and walks around the house in fuzzy blue kitty slippers. But ...Pull out a camera, and the two typical teens are transformed. All of a sudden, as if a switch had been flipped, they stand a little taller and move more elegantly. Their eyes vie for the viewfinder's attention and their smiles provide a flash of their own.It's no accident. Sara and Heidi are preparing for careers as professional models. They want to travel the world, strike poses in designer clothes, walk the high-fashion runways and move with style and snap to the rhythm of a photographer's camera clicks.Though some might question such a profession for girls so young, top modeling agents say they are just the right age. The truth is that, by the time they reach 20, a lot of models' careers are over.Modeling itself is a profession idolized by some and reviled by others. Is it the ultimate glamour job or is it a form of exploitation based solely on physical beauty?Or is it, as some models will tell you, hard but rewarding work, highly competitive and an excellent way to build self-esteem? Though Sara and Heidi came to modeling along different paths, they both say they see it as an achievable dream.I like to be noticed, said Heidi, who at 5 feet 10 inches already physically stands out from her seventh-grade Coupeville Middle School classmates. I was always the one who raised her hand and wanted to be the center of attention. This allows me to do that.By the time she was 4, Heidi was already a dancer. When she was 8 and 9, she modeled in a couple of fashion shows and in a Tri-Cities dress store window. By 11, she had moved to Whidbey and by 12, she had performed in two musicals at the Whidbey Playhouse.Sara was born on Whidbey but, as a member of a military family, has lived in many places since. She returned to the Penn Cove area in 1998. Currently homeschooled, Sara said she never considered a modeling career until a day in Philadelphia when a modeling school flier arrived in the mail.Some little girls have the dream of being a model. I didn't have that, she said. I didn't have a lot of self-esteem and I just wanted to do something.At 5 feet 7 inches, Sara falls slightly below the standard fashion-model height requirement, but she signed up for modeling classes anyway and a few small jobs followed.I started to care about myself, she said. There aren't a lot of things I enjoy doing but, I seem to be able to fully express myself through runway and my pictures.This summer Sara and Heidi will head to New York to take part in a special new-model convention where they hope to get their big break.The classes and trips are not cheap. Patty Streight, Sara's mother, estimates it will cost about $5,000 before it's all over. She admits it's a high price to pay for something that comes with no guarantees.Nevertheless, she supports her daughter's goals. She said the classes and experience Sara has received have been life-changing and worth the time and expense.We move around a lot, breaking up friendships all the time. This is something just for her, Patty said.REALITY CHECKThe lure of beautiful clothes, travel, good pay and glamor makes the modeling profession a big draw - particularly for young women. But the reality is that few make it and only a handful of those last for more than a few years.It's a world constantly full of rejection, said Kristy Meyers, president of the well-established Seattle Models Guild. If you have no self-esteem it's a hard place to be.The rejection starts early. Some modeling agencies make it almost impossible to get past the reception desk. It's not because they don't like you; it's most likely because they already represent more people than they need for the work available.Meyers said her agency alone represents 400 to 500 models in a variety of ages and sizes. Even so, the agency holds open calls every Monday afternoon where prospective modeling candidates can present themselves and get a short personal interview with an agent. We take about one out of every 100 people we see, she said.What it boils down to, said Meyers, is strictly business.It's whether I think they can pay my salary by being here, she said. If we have any hesitation, we'll usually pass on them. But that doesn't mean they can't go on to a successful career somewhere else.Despite the odds, Meyers said her agency adds about 75 new faces each year to their roster of talent, often to replace models who have retired or dropped out.Rejection doesn't stop when you sign with an agent. You still have to audition and compete with other models for each job. Many professional models find they have to work non-modeling jobs as well in order to make a living. Meyers said that about 20 percent of the available models do about 80 percent of the available work.Even if you're one of the lucky ones, you'll find the work isn't always filled with glitz and glamor.On a recent job Heidi found herself in a display at the Washington Sportman's Show.I sold dog food for nine hours straight. It was hard, she said.It's a rough business. It seems glamorous, but it can take an emotional toll on people, said Janet Barrett, a popular Pacific Northwest model during the 1980s and now a makeup artist for movies and TV. Barrett said the modeling work is often physically strenuous and requires a lot of patience and self control. She said it helps if models possess more than a pretty face.Modeling is 90-percent attitude and the other 10 percent is having the physical qualities. You have to develop a sense of self, she said.BE YOURSELFThat's something Sara and Heidi seem to have learned already.I rarely wear makeup, said Sara. I'd rather have you see me as I am. I look older with makeup, but its not me.Heidi's mother, Paulette Lee, said school and time to be a kid still come first. Summer vacation and school breaks are the time for modeling jobs.She can't give up her education, Paulette said. She has her priorities.Heidi said she doesn't starve herself or mold her image and attitude to fit into modeling. Modeling, she says, fits with who she is and what she wants to be.I love doing unique things, trying unique makeup or wearing unique clothes. I love setting trends, she said. I won't be a model forever. When my modeling career is over I want to get into fashion designing. GETTING STARTEDModeling schools and programs like the one Sara and Heidi chose are a popular and easy way to learn about the modeling profession and get specialized training in everything from makeup techniques to acting. But they can be expensive, ranging from about $500 to several thousand for a complete program.But Meyers said you can also test the modeling waters for a lot less. For Seattle Models Guild's open calls all you need is a set of homemade snapshots showing your face and body.If you want to take it to the next level, you can start hiring professionals. It will cost about $50 to $125 per roll to have a professional photographer take your pictures, Meyers said. A hair and makeup pro should cost somewhere between $75 and $125 and a clothing consultant or stylist will cost another $60 to $120.Meyers questions the true value of modeling schools, which she said can teach techniques in self-improvement but can't make a person a model.I don't think it can be taught, she said. I do think there is a place for modeling schools but they shouldn't be called modeling schools. They should be called self-esteem schools.Barrett agrees.If they promise you anything, you're in trouble, she said. All they can offer is training. Everyone needs to know how to stand up straight and wash their hair - none of those skills can hurt you. But find someone who doesn't promise you the moon.Though they hope for the best, Sara and Heidi say they're prepared to press on with their careers even if things in New York don't work out.There will be other opportunities for me. A lot of people want to be a model but never do anything about it. You have to start somewhere, said Sara. Her mother, Patty, said that no matter what happens in New York, Heidi's and Sara's talents and positive attitudes will take them far.I just know the people in the business are going to notice them, she said.Show me the moneyWhat kind of money can you make as a model? Here's a quick look at the going rate.Seattle area: $150 to $187.50 per hour, $1,000 to $1,500 per day, depending upon experience.A top Seattle-based model makes about $150,000 a year. Regularly working Seattle models make $30,000 to $50,000 per year. A top model based in New York makes up to $750,000 per year.Modeling agencies usually take a 20-percent commission out of what a model makes on a job. In other words, on a $1,000 job, the model gets paid $800 and the agent gets $200. Models work as independent contractors and are responsible for producing and paying for their own promotional materials.Can you do it?Do you qualify to be a model? It depends on what you want to do. Modeling agencies often have several divisions that cater to special needs. They range from a children's division for kids under 12 to a division for women over 50. The kind of work varies. There are print models for magazines, catalogues and advertising; TV and film models; models who work for clothing manufactures; fitness models; and parts models who specialize in hands, feet, hair, lips or other body parts. Fashion and runway models have some of the most stringent qualifications. Women need to be 5 feet 8 inches to 6 feet tall. If they are 13 to 15 years old they can be as short as 5 feet 7 inches. Men need to be 6 feet to 6 feet 3 inches tall unless they are aged 15 to 20, in which case they can be an inch shorter."