How to Become a Model - Insider Information on Modelling, Portfolios and Model Agencies
The following is based on years of experience as a professional photographer in London. It applies mainly to the UK - I know less about the modelling industry in other countries.
Make Money Modelling - Where to Start
Fashion modelling is a highly competitive industry. The reality is, much like with actors, a tiny percentage of models hit the big time and make tons of money, while everyone else struggles to make anything at all.
To get anywhere in the fashion world, you need to get signed by a model agency. (Some people manage to make a living full time modelling freelance but the majority of the work is art nude and glamour.)
Getting signed by a legitimate model agency is extremely difficult, because so many people want to become a model, and there's always someone younger and skinnier and taller and more beautiful coming along.
Could You Be a Model?
Many people watch shows like America's Next Top Model and think they have a chance but haven't done any research. The fact you're reading this is a good start!
So there is a lot of desire to become a model from people who are ignorant as to what the fashion industry actually wants. As a result, a lot of dubious companies have sprung up to take advantage of them - scam agencies and 'model support' companies whose entire business model depends on misleading people as to their actual chances of making any money modelling.
How to Approach Model Agencies - The Golden Rule
If you're approaching agencies in the UK, there are a lot of dodgy ones. The golden rule is, if they ask for payment for anything, in any form, such as a ‘refundable deposit’ or they offer pay-for services such as portfolios, walk away, it's a con. (No matter how great your photos are, they'll claim they're not good enough so as to try to charge you £2,000+ to take photos themselves!)
The same thing goes if they’re pushing you towards doing a photoshoot with a particular studio or photographer; they make all their money via a kick-back from those studios.
I heard of one ‘agency’ recently telling people they had to book a shoot with one of the worst rip-off studios in London, saying you had to go to them because they’re “accredited photographers” with a company that a little Google searching showed doesn’t even exist! They don’t want you to work with other photographers because then they don’t make any money from you. It’s a complete con.
Legitimate vs Scam Model Agencies
Legitimate agencies make money by taking a commission from jobs they get you; you never need to pay them anything. Treat any agency as highly suspicious until they've proven themselves to be legitimate. Do your research. If you Google "[the agency name] scam", then you'll see if other people have had bad experiences with them. The bad ones change their names every few years so it’s harder to find the bad reviews.
There’s also a new breed of 'model support' companies that aren't quite claiming to be an agency, so basically you're paying them for 'training', 'advice' or 'exposure' with the implication that it will lead to modelling work, which it is extremely unlikely to help with at all. Or if they claim to be doing it for free, then they'll push you hard at a particular photo studio so they can make money from you that way instead. Same goes for anything that appears to be a competition - everybody who applies 'wins' and then ends up having to spend money.
Legitimate agencies are bombarded with hopeful models every day. They never offer photoshoots - that's not their job. They never need to do model searches or advertise on Google. Anything you see online saying “models needed urgently” or “new models required” makes all their money from the ‘models’ (and they’ll take on almost anyone). Those places will never get you any paid work despite what they may claim, because a fashion company looking to hire a model will go to a legitimate agency, not one of those places.
The way the scam companies work is to make you feel like you've been chosen specially, and they'll ask questions that make it sound like they're being highly selective. Then when they finally pick you (as they do with everyone) you're so excited about it that you go along with whatever they tell you, which usually involves paying a huge amount of money for badly taken photos that won't help you in any way.
If you want a proper portfolio, go to an established photographer who specialises in photoshoots instead. And make sure you are clear about the costs up-front - many quote one price for the photoshoot but then hit you with a charge per photo that means you end up spending hundreds of pounds more than you expected.
How to Get Signed by a Model Agency
You'll need to do some internet research to find legitimate agencies and see which are suitable for you. Each will have their own way they prefer to be approached.
After carefully establishing they're legitimate and not a scam, look at their website for their requirements and follow them – don’t just send a cut and paste email to all of them. That's rude and lazy and they’ll just ignore it.
At all stages in applying to them be suspicious, and remember that anything that seems to good to be true probably is. If you get any hint of 'pushy salesperson', it's not a legitimate agency.
The top UK fashion agencies in my opinion (and ridiculously difficult to get with) are Storm, Premier, Elite, Select, Wilhelmina, IMG, Models 1 and FM. The reality of the legitimate agencies is they are brutally selective because so many people want to be models. Most fashion agencies won't even look at girls who aren't aged 13-19, over 5'8" (173cm) and dress size 8. Men need to be over 6" and ridiculously good looking (almost every guy feels he could almost be a model - it's a male ego thing). Other agencies might be slightly more flexible, but it's still insanely competitive.
Even with the lucky few who break through and make it, the average career length of a successful model is only 3-4 years and it’s serious hard work with multiple castings a day, early starts, endless rejections, relentless pressure to lose weight, and so on.
There are agencies that take on slightly more mature or shorter models. It tends to be called 'commercial modelling'. Or plus-size models, which tend to have specific agencies that cover them. But both still have extremely high standards.
Makeover Studios - How Not to Make a Modelling Portfolio
First of all, a portfolio of professional modelling photos is not essential - top agencies feel they can spot a future superstar just from simple clear phone shots. But obviously it doesn't hurt if you can show them impressive fashion shots of you taken by a professional photographer (not a gimmicky makeover studio!)
Makeover studios vary but for the most part take a factory line approach where everyone gets the same make-up, the same sets and poses. It's about volume, getting as many people through the door as possible, rather than client satisfaction. I've heard of several hiring student photographers and/or student make-up artists, just to maximise profits, as if the quality of the photography was irrelevant.
Instead of good photography, they rely on gimmicky sets. A circular hole in the wall to sit in looks interesting the first time you see it, but once you've seen it done a hundred times (as model agents have!) then it just looks cheesy. If you look at the image board of any of the top model agencies, you'll see the photos are simple and classy with a plain background for the most part. It's obvious they were taken by a professional photographer and not at a makeover studio.
For an experience day or fun birthday day out, a makeover studio might be fun, but don't expect great photos or confuse it with anything that could help with a proper modelling portfolio.
Most of them are also very misleading with their prices, hitting you with a £80+ charge per photo and using high pressure sales tactics to push you into spending more than you're comfortable with. Many use a Groupon style approach where they lure in customers with an irresistible looking deal ("94% off! Only £15 for a photoshoot!") but then count on bullying people into spending at least £700 on the day.
I've said for years that these places are 'a Watchdog special waiting to happen', and there actually was an episode of Rogue Traders exposing one of them not long ago.
Make a Modelling Portfolio with a Professional Photographer
If you decide to book a photoshoot, choose a professional photographer instead. Look at several and pick one whose work you really love. The total price should be clear when you book, with no additional costs per image.
If you're based in London, feel free to consider my work as I specialise in photoshoots, but please also look at other photographers as it's important you pick someone whose work you connect with. Or of course you can try your luck at approaching agencies directly with whatever photos you already have.
A good starter portfolio is 6-8 photos, and only as good as the weakest image. Much better to have just 4 amazing images and leave an agent wanting to see more than to bore them with 20 very similar ones.
For visiting model agencies in person, take no more than 10 best images professionally printed at A4 size. A cardboard folder is fine; you don't need a physical portfolio book as they'll probably give you a branded one if they sign you.