Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Debbie Reed Fischer on the Modeling Industry

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Debbie Reed Fischer is no stranger to the modeling industry, having worked for many years as a booker for a modeling agency in Miami, Florida. She grew up in a sleepy Florida town and has lived in England, Greece and Israel. Visit her website at http://debbiereedfischer.com/.

Girl Week trivia: The idea for Girl Week was initially started when I read Debbie's book back in June. So if you like it, you have her and Braless to thank. (More info on this will come later in the Week.)

Could you give us a little bit of a biography, how you got started writing, and your road to publication?

Sure! First of all, thank you so much for having me. I really enjoy your blog and I’m happy to be here.

Steph: No, thank you.

I always knew I wanted to write, ever since I was little. I’m an Air Force brat so we were always moving every two years. I was a good-but-not-great student, loved English and drama, loathed math, PE and science. I coped with classes I hated by sitting in the back row and writing stories, poems and notes to my friends. Also by being a smart aleck, but never to the point where I was disrespectful to the teacher – just enough to get the class laughing and mess up the lesson plan. (For all you teachers out there, don’t worry, I wound up becoming a teacher and was paid back in spades.)

In high school, I was active in drama and musical theater, Forensics and the school newspaper. I also had a giant perm that resembled a Chanukah bush. After graduating from the University of Miami’s screenwriting program, I had planned on writing scripts for film and TV, but as fate would have it, fell into the business end of film and TV as an agent for actors and models. I booked talent in everything from major motion pictures to German clothing catalogues. It provided great inspiration for my book BRALESS IN WONDERLAND, but after a few years, I wanted more time to write, so I went back to college and became an English teacher. I loved it, but I had even less time to write with all the papers I was grading.

After I had my kids, I quit teaching and poured all my energy into my family and my writing. After about a year of toiling away, I realized A) that I was stuck, and B) it was terrible, so I took a workshop at a local library led by a YA author. It was then that I realized how much I still had to learn. I joined a wonderful critique group, started attending conferences, met fellow YA writers and really dedicated myself to my goal. I’ve been an avid reader of middle grade and young adult fiction since I was a middle grader myself. I’ve never stopped reading books for kids. That’s actually why I had kids, to give me an excuse to read children’s books. I met my agent at a writers’ conference, and we started corresponding. He liked my first manuscript, SWIMMING WITH THE SHARKS, and signed me. I wrote my second book, BRALESS IN WONDERLAND, while waiting for SHARKS to sell.

How did you come to work at a modeling agency?

I fell into it – or rather it fell onto me. Literally. It was a college internship and my first day on the job, I opened all the drawers in a floor-to-ceiling filing cabinet, which fell over and nearly landed on me before it knocked over five other cabinets, domino style, until the last one crashed into the wall (think of the bookcase scene in that film The Mummy). They had to hire a moving company to lift them all back up. Then they hired me, which just tells you how crazy the business is. At the time, that agency was the largest agency for TV and film in the Southeastern US. They hired me as an apprentice for a year, then fired the woman I was working under and put me in her place. I didn’t know until years later that I’d been an economic decision. The woman they’d fired was making more than twice what I made for the exact same job. They were underpaying me big time. When I found out, I left and went to a more fashion-oriented agency, which doubled my pay.

What were your responsibilities as a booker? Also, could you give us a run-through of what your typical working day was like?

A blur was what it was like. As far as a booker’s responsibilities, aside from having a certain eye for that elusive quality models have to have, plus the eye to know which niche of the business they’ll be able to make money in, a booker has to have a pretty good head for negotiating, plus an artistic and marketing ability for putting together composite cards and portfolios that will sell the model, and most important, be able to do all of the above while talking on the phone with a client from Paris while having ten calls from L.A. and NYC on hold waiting for you. Not to mention you have to keep your models out of trouble! It’s pretty nutty.

Plus, every day in the agency is a race. You’re racing other agencies to get the best models before anyone else signs them, you’re racing to get models to see clients on time, you’re racing to make sure the model arrives at her booking before the photographer loses light. Every situation in the modeling business is a deadline situation, just like publishing. It’s excellent preparation for doing any well under pressure. It’s also a very creative, artistic environment, which inspired me a lot. It was a no-time-for-lunch-or-bathroom-breaks, I need it yesterday, stress/pressure/insanity every second kind of job. I mainly booked women with my forte being film and TV, but at different times in my career, I worked with models who didn’t speak English, little people, animals, body parts models, drag queens and fashion model divas who made 5,000 dollars a day. A typical day was like being in a John Waters movie. The man at the desk next to me wore Liederhosen and used the ladies room. I worked with a female bikini model who walked off the set of a $5,000 per day job because she said she found God in her bag of bagel chips. I worked with Donna Rice (Gary Hart’s mistress) right before the scandal broke. I worked with a male model who happened to be the heir to a very famous chain of high end hotels, and he left a movie set to run away with the Hari Krishnas.

What would you say is the biggest misconception out there about the fashion industry?

The most common belief is that models are stupid. They’re not stupid. Many are just really young, from small, rural towns, very wide-eyed at the glitz and glamour of it all. When people ask me if models are dumb, I answer, “How smart would you be if you were a teen making $1500 a day, in a city for the first time, away from your family and on your own?” It’s true that many young models do miss out on a college education, but there is no shortage of intelligence. I repped models who had been accepted to Harvard, who were law students, who had their own businesses at the age of eighteen, who were painters and poets. Models are a varied bunch; they just happen to have the right height and bone structure, as well as that illusive “X” factor, the mystery gene that makes them photograph well. The college issue is not an easy choice for some of them, though, and it’s something that definitely inspired a lot of BRALESS IN WONDERLAND.

What’s the difference between an agent and a booker?

Both labels cross over these days, but the old school vernacular was that an agent referred to film and TV, whereas a booker handled strictly print jobs.

What’s the run time for most models? As in, how long do most last in the business?

Lifestyle models can work forever. Fashion models are typically done by their late twenties. Child models are done once they hit the awkward stage, aren’t cute anymore or don’t fit into kiddie sizes. It’s not a child-friendly environment. Photographers could care less about a child’s self esteem. They just want to get their shot.

What were the best aspects of the modeling business? The worst?

The best aspects are the creativity and the people you meet. The worst aspects are the stress and the people you meet.

How frequently do models come into the business through scouts? In the same note, how old are entry-level models usually?

Since modeling has gotten so much exposure and become such a popular career in recent years, most models these days come through the agency doors on their own, although scouts still do bring in some. I used to scout at high school basketball and volleyball games looking for models, but more often than not, I’d find them in places I didn’t expect, like getting on a ride at Disney World or serving me fries in a restaurant. The feet were really important to check. When a 13-year-old girl would come in the agency all giraffe-like and gangly but not quite tall enough yet, I’d check her feet. If they were big, it meant she was going to shoot up and we’d keep an eye on her.

Allee, the character in my book, was discovered by a scout at a shopping mall. It happens. But beware any kind of modeling contest. Most of the time those mall thingies are scams. Once in a blue moon, though, they aren’t. Ashton Kutcher was discovered at a mall model search. Never EVER hand over money to any agency or contest though. If they require a “processing fee” or something, it’s BS.

As far as your average age for entry-level models, I love this question because there is more than one answer. Lifestyle (also known as commercial) modeling has no starting age or age limit. With advertising available on so many different media now (hundreds of new cable channels with advertising, the Internet, more magazines, etc) it’s more in demand than ever. I literally started off some models in their 60’s and they were pretty successful. Some fashion models with the right look can cross over into lifestyle modeling and have a whole new career beginning at age 28 or so. Fashion is trickier. I’ve started girls as young as 12 who were 5’ 10” already, but I think 15 or 16 is more common. People don’t realize that when they’re looking at a high end fashion magazine, that the sophisticated, chic model wearing the nine thousand dollar sweater s really a 13-year-old from Skokie.

Behind the scenes, what is the typical model attitude toward food and their own bodies? Are all those stereotypes about eating disorders and drug/substance abuse as true and as extreme as people make them out to be?

In some cases, yes, in some cases, no. There is no blanket answer here. A friend read my book said to me, “Why do you have to write about models who take diet pills?” I answered that while it’s true that not all models pop pills, it would be dishonest to write a book about the modeling industry and not include a model who takes appetite suppressants. There are models in my book who starve themselves, models who eat healthfully, models who are very balanced as regards fitness and diet, models who yo-yo diet, bulimics and laxative poppers, as well as some who eat tons of pizza and fast food, yet remain wasp-waisted goddesses. All types exist in the modeling world, and even though my book depicts many positive and funny aspects of modeling, I don’t pull punches with the negative side effects of the industry either. It has to be said that it’s a business that puts extraordinary demands on women and girls where weight and body image are concerned. It’s an extraordinary business in many ways, unfair, and not always a healthy environment.
Thanks, Debbie!

For the comments section: Any thoughts on what you just read?
Girl Week is a week-long event here on the blog celebrating strong YA heroines and feminism. Find out more about it here.

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Anonymous said...

Wow.. what a career. I think it's great that you can use your life experiences and write stories that let us little people just what it's really like in the modeling world. haha. Must be so exciting.

I think it's great that you tried to put all types of models into your books, without falling on just the typical and stereotypical images that we usually have about them. =)

Thanks for a great guest blog.

ellie_enchanted said...

With all the competition, jealousy, and health problems (physical and mental) that I've heard about the industry, I don't understand why anyone would want to model at all. Besides, you know, the fame and money.

Anyway, it's always interesting to hear about different aspects of things.
Thanks as usual for getting a great interview.

Amee said...

I wonder how often the girls in the print ads really are 13. You see a lot of young girls in teen magazines. In other magazines though, the models usually look older. Debbie's comments make me wonder if they really are older or are just made to look older for the audience being targeted. I had never thought of it before!

Shooting Stars Mag said...

I've never idolized models or wanted to be skinny enough or pretty enough to be one...I can't see why you'd really want to model for a lot of reasons, but I guess it IS like any other job. It's just awful how much pressure these young girls and guys are under!


Shalonda said...

This was a fun and informative interview. When I was younger I wanted to be a model/singer/actress/fashion designer (I guess basically a Beyonce or Mandy Moore).

I never had much luck with the model or fashion designer parts. I guess designing didn't work because I can't draw. And after reading this, maybe I didn't make it as a model because they were checking out my size 7 feet (not quite big enough), so they knew I wasn't gonna grow any taller!!!

Liv said...

Wow...that's so crazy. I don't think modeling would ever be for me. I don't know how models do it!
This was a great interview! :)

Carolina said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Carolina said...

This was a very informative interview on the fashion industry--makes me want to check out her book and try to guess the real age of the model's that I see in magazines.

Beth Fehlbaum, Author said...

Great interview!

Beth Fehlbaum, author
Courage in Patience, a story of hope for those who have endured abuse
Ch. 1 is online!

Sarah Woodard said...

Great interview. I need to check out her books soon.

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