Modeling is undoubtedly a dream job: glamorous, exciting, and for a few lucky ones also fantastically well-paid. But there’s a lot more to it than just being born with the right face.
Want to know what it really takes to pursue a career as a professional model? Read on.
For many people, initial interest in taking up a career in modeling is often sparked by friends, family, or a partner telling them that they are so fantastically gorgeous that they “look like” or “should be” a model.
However, while such encouragement and flattery is undoubtedly good for the ego, unless it comes from somebody with a genuine understanding of the modeling or fashion industry, it probably shouldn’t be taken as sound career advice.
Sure, if your mother happens to be a casting agent, or your boyfriend is, say, Mario Testino, then by all means listen to what they have to say. Otherwise, you should probably take suggestions of this kind with a rather large pinch of salt. This is because the average “normal” person’s idea of what it takes to become a professional model is hugely inaccurate: usually hinging on whether or not they personally find the individual in question physically attractive.
Let’s be absolutely clear, natural beauty is only one of several characteristics that may – or may not – make a person potentially suitable for a professional modeling career. To be sure, many models do indeed coincide with our classical notions of beauty – especially those geared towards the more commercial end of the industry.
Just as equally though, plenty of very successful models deviate massively from conventional beauty ideals, possessing an altogether different form of charisma and physical allure.
There are certain faces and body types which, following cultural convention, most people will agree are physically attractive. Often these will be young men and women with prominent cheekbones, strong jawlines, an athletic build, and an overall healthy look. Although there is certainly work to be had for models fitting this description, in actual fact there are rather a lot of people in the world who look like this.
Girl- or boy-next-door good looks may make you one of the most popular kids in school, but it won’t necessarily lead to a successful career in modeling.
Indeed, when it comes to the high-fashion sector, often it is the more shy and introverted kids who had not fully blossomed at school age who later find success as catwalk and editorial models. This is because fashion casting agents are frequently looking for more unusual faces and body types: the kind of kids who maybe felt like they didn’t fit in at school, because they didn’t conform to the popular pin-up looks worshipped by their peers.
In fact some people who you might not take much notice of if you passed them in the street can look absolutely amazing when in a photograph. Bumping into Liya Kebede on the subway dressed in an old hoody and sweat pants, most people might not give her a second glance. But if Kebede is now one of the highest-paid models in the world it’s because somebody somewhere recognized that her incredible bone structure and easy natural charm would totally shine once sent down the catwalk or put in front of a photographer’s lens. It often takes a highly trained eye to spot modeling potential of this kind.
Nonetheless, this fact shouldn’t be allowed to discourage more classically beautiful people from pursuing a career in modeling: as we’ve said, there are many different markets, all requiring quite different looks. It is however intended to encourage those who – due to the fact that they don’t look anything like either Gigi Hadid or Zayn Malik – may have never considered becoming a model. It really does take all types.
Ultimately it is the market that will decide whether or not you have what it takes to model professionally. Either you’ll get signed to an agency and/or booked for jobs, or you won’t.
Having said this though, there are still certain minimum height and other body dimension requirements that you’ll need to fulfill in order to be in the running for specific modeling careers. This is especially true for runway models, who will need to be of a body type that shows off clothes well in real-time in front of an audience (i.e. without the help of photographic enhancement). Although, we envision a World where runways will strive for diversity.
Typically a female fashion model will be between 5 ft 8 in (173 cm) and 5 ft 11 in (180 cm) in height while male models will be slightly taller at anything from 5 ft 11 in (180 cm) to 6 ft 2 in (188 cm). Although there have been several notable exceptions to this rule, including pint-sized ‘90s model Devon Aoki, and even Kate Moss, who is just 5 ft 7 in.
It’s important to gain a good understanding of where you might fit in to the modeling industry. If success as a model ultimately comes down to a high degree of good fortune, you can at least improve your luck by targeting the sector of the industry you are most suited to working in right from the outset – rather than wasting time and energy barking up the wrong tree.
Realistically, those with a quirky face and the naturally very skinny are not going to get booked for swimwear catalogs or the cover of Men’s Health magazine. Here models with classically beautiful faces and more athletic or curvy body types will likely find the most work.
Just as equally though, don’t expect to see glamorous Kardashian-curves or buff and sporty beefcake striding down the runway for Dries Van Noten or Marni any time soon.
Research the market carefully to gain a clear understanding of where you might fit in.
This underlines the importance of gaining a clear understanding of your strengths and weaknesses as a model early on, so as to work out which areas of the industry you are most suited to from the start. Once again, asking the opinion of friends, family, and lovers will likely not be helpful here. Instead, if you can, seek advice from photographers, stylists, agents, and others with genuine fashion industry experience.
However, it’s important to realize that just because a certain look has worked for another model in the past doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for you now. In the same way that clothes come in and out of fashion, there are also trends governing the kind of models the industry is searching for at any particular moment in time.
You might have seen someone with a similar look to your own establish a very successful modeling career just a couple of years ago, but if the fashion industry has since moved on, you may not enjoy the same degree of good fortune as her/him. In fact, because having a unique image has become more important to making it as a model than ever before, looking like another model – successful or otherwise – would probably be more of a hindrance than a help.
Like it or not, but in order to be successful today, anyone whose career depends on maintaining a public profile has to conduct themself as a “personal brand”. This means positioning yourself in a way that aligns with your market. The way that you dress, and the cut of your hair, play a big part in this.
If you are certain that you’ve got the build and bone structure for a career as an edgy editorial model, an Instagram account filled with duck-faced pouts and shots of yourself in Kardashian-branded sportswear might not be such a great move: it just doesn’t say “underground” or “alternative.” Instead, you should reinforce your position as an editorial model by only uploading pictures that precisely fit this image. This extends not only to the content of the photos you share on social media but also to the style and quality of those photographs.
Having said this, you will likely also want to offer a variety of looks within your chosen field. We won’t go so far as to say that people are stupid, but certainly, some clients may need a little guidance in order to be persuaded that you could potentially be right for a wide range of jobs: “Well, we mostly saw you wearing streetwear in your book, so we gave the Chanel campaign to someone else!”
Leave prospective clients in no doubt that you can assume many different roles by regularly showing yourself in different looks, ideally with some radical changes to hair and makeup – thus further demonstrating your versatility. Just be careful to keep all these changes of image fully on-brand and relevant to your market.
For more advice on this topic, take a look at our in-depth guide to finding your style as a model.
To the average person, it may appear that models are just paid to sit around all day with nothing better to do than look good. In reality though, a lot of hard work goes in to appearing like you have nothing better to do than sit around all day looking good: a professional model needs to know how to “pose.”
However, the word pose is between quotation marks in the last sentence because this term is responsible for a lot of misunderstanding – particularly when it comes to inexperienced models. It’s a word that seems to suggest stiff and exaggerated mannerisms; moving from one fixed and dramatic posture to another; all the while pouting glamorously and narrowing your eyes for sexy effect.
Sometimes this is indeed what will be required of you. More often than not though, a client or photographer will be looking for something altogether more relaxed, casual, and above all natural. Indeed, every photographer has a different way of working. And every editorial shoot or campaign will require a different approach.
As a professional model you will need to be comfortable adapting to the different requirements of each job: sometimes awaiting precise instructions from the photographer with regard to every element of your posture: at others being asked to improvise, strutting around in an arrogant burlesque; or instead required to behave more subtly. Sometimes you may have to repeatedly carry out an action, or effectively act out a role, as if in a movie.
What’s more, all the while that you’re doing this, you’ll be expected to project compelling energy and charisma for the camera. Often having to keep this act up for hours on end.
You may have looks to die for, and a metabolism that keeps you effortlessly trim no matter how much chocolate cake you guzzle, but if you’ve got about as much presence as a tree stump when put in front of a camera, you might want to reconsider a career in modeling.
Models who get repeat booking are models who know how to work with the camera.
For more in-depth advice on this topic, see our separate guide to posing for fashion models.
Being a successful model means running a successful business. Like any successful venture, this calls for dedication, resilience, and lots of hard work.
International flights and long train journeys; depressing budget hotel rooms; boring jobs where you don’t really know anybody and there’s no vibe with the rest of the crew; cold nights far from real friends and loved ones. Despite the glamorous image, modeling can sometimes be a very lonely profession indeed.
Sure, it’s not all tedious hard work. There’ll be plenty of opportunity for partying and just hanging out; lasting friendships to be made; amazing places to visit; dream jobs to do; and a whole lot of fun to be had.
But in order to get to that position, you’ll need to take the work side of things very seriously too.
This means remaining professional and patient even when things become a drag, or when people you work with turn moody or difficult. It means always showing up on time for castings and jobs. Knowing how to get on with people and generally being a fun person to have around; but just as equally understanding when you should quit fooling about and get down to work. it means being flexible; but also knowing when, and how, to say no.
The old cliché that it’s not what you know, but who you know, is as valid in modeling as in any other business. In order to be successful, you will need to learn how to network and build up connections within the industry. This means being outgoing and sociable even when you don’t feel like it. It means staying in touch; and promoting yourself on social media.
And in order to be able to do all this well, you need to learn about the industry itself – its history, who are the great designers, photographers and stylists – and become cultivated about the arts more generally.
Finally, staying healthy and looking after yourself properly are part of your basic job description as a model. This means eating and sleeping well, getting regular exercise, and not going on massive nights out until dawn when you’re booked to be on a location from 8am.
Very few models manage to sustain a profitable career for more than a few years. Of course, it’s great while it lasts. And if you are lucky enough to be given the opportunity to model, you should absolutely seize the chance while you can.
But don’t expect it to last very long, nor count on it making you rich.
And when it all grinds to a halt, what next?
Despite widespread stereotypes regarding dumb models, modeling is a profession that attracts people of all intellectual capacities. If you had to quit school to pursue a modeling career, you should seriously consider continuing to study on your own while you model. Just because you’ve chosen this path now, doesn’t necessarily mean that you won’t want to return to formal studies later on. In which case, you will likely find it a lot easier if you’ve manged to keep on top of your studies as much as possible in the meantime.
Of the countless young women and men who embark on a modeling career every year, only relatively few will ever see major financial rewards. And for those with their hopes set on becoming a model, there are many arbitrary and uncontrollable influences that may dictate your chances of success; timing, luck, and even something as simple as having the right hairstyle can all make or break a model’s career.
Modeling is a rollercoaster ride of ego-boosts and harsh criticism; frantic periods of back-to-back bookings, and then maybe weeks with absolutely nothing happening at all. The pressure – both psychological and financial – can be huge. Personal rejection is a daily occurrence, and you’ll need to develop a thick skin if you are to come out of the experience free from psychologically scars.
Unsurprisingly then, this is not an industry for people of an overly sensitive nature. Consider carefully whether you have the kind of personality that can deal with the constant stress and rejection. You need to come into modeling psychologically prepared to fail; but ready to make the most of it if instead it works out. This means staying well grounded and balanced; never losing sight of the things that really matter in life (clue: it’s neither Balenciaga sneakers nor Louis Vuitton handbags).