Yes, it's exciting to have a kid in showbiz. But should young children be working?
Gina Kaysen Fernandes: As the economic crunch takes its toll on working families, saving for college has never been more stressful. Along with your 401(k), your child's 529 funds are probably drying up faster than a drought-parched desert. Many parents are turning to child modeling as a way to pad the college account. Your kid doesn't have to look like Dakota Fanning to get a job. "It's better if they're not too cute," says Karissa Corday, whose daughter works as a model several times a week. "Companies want 'real' kids, so beauty is not what it's all about."
Corday's daughter, Scarlett Isabella, got her first gig at 6 months old, and her career is still going strong today at the age of nine. "Everybody told me, 'You have the Gerber Baby -- if you don't sign her up, I will,'" recalls Corday. After finding Scarlett an agent, she began booking commercials and print ads. Corday brings snacks and toys on set to keep the tantrums at bay. It also helps to have a good-natured child, and to schedule work around sleep time. "I made sure she got booked between naps," says Corday.
While it may sound extreme to put babies on the payroll, it's legal and heavily regulated.
Infants as young as two weeks old can work up to 20 minutes a day, as long as there's a nurse and teacher on hand. The on-set staff is expected to watch the clock to make sure the shoots don't run long. Once a child is 7 months old, only a teacher is required, and the baby can work up to four hours.
The monetary rewards are quite lucrative. Print jobs pay a few hundred dollars per shoot. National commercials can net up to 20 thousand dollars plus residuals, which can keep trickling in for 24 months. If your child can land a recurring roll on a TV show, they could nab the same kind of financial windfall as the Olson twins. "But you have to do this for a while to see the payoff," says Dawn Osbrink, vice president and head of the Youth Print and Commercial Department at the Osbrink Agency. "It's not for everybody. The children who succeed are the ones who are bugging their parents to get involved," said Osbrink.
There are some upstart costs to consider if your child is over 4 years old. They'll need professional headshots, called zed cards. If they're under four, at-home digital photos work fine. "Any reputable agency only charges commission based on the jobs you get," says Osbrink. Corday bought her daughter a whole new wardrobe, with clothes that are only used for auditions. But Osbrink says that's not necessary: "Never dress them in their Sunday best. They should look casual, in a Gap-type outfit."
The real cost is time. Parents who embark on this added revenue stream need to have a flexible schedule. "Sometimes you have to head out the door on a moment's notice," says Corday. She adds, "The ideal situation is to be at home or have very flexible work hours." There's also the commute time to consider, especially if you live in areas with heavy traffic like Los Angeles. Driving is Corday's number-one complaint. "You need to have a lot of energy and patience because of all the waiting around. Ninety-five percent of the work is waiting, five percent is work," says Corday. While places like New York and L.A. have the most work, there are child modeling jobs in all major U.S. cities.
There's also your child's time to think about. Corday (along with another mom, who didn't want to share her name) admits to pulling her kid out of class now and then for a job. "I used to take her out of school between kindergarten and 2nd grade. But there's always a teacher on set to help with homework," says Corday. Modeling should be considered an extracurricular activity, like soccer or ballet. "They need to be professional when they go to a job, like they would for a sports competition," says Osbrink. And they have to be willing to make sacrifices. "Sometimes I'd hope she wouldn't get called back because she'd have to miss out on something fun," says the off-the-record mom.
While most agree that the child has to want to work, there are the "stage moms" who give the industry a dirty name. These parents have been known to drag their kids on the road to auditions for weeks at a time, often leaving their non-working children at home. Photographers cringe when a pushy parent rides them on shoots, making sure they get the best shot. "It's somebody who will push their kids at all costs," says Corday, who insists she would never let her daughter work if she felt sick or had a prior commitment. "My main objective is to make sure she's having fun, or else we won't do it."
When she's not in school, Scarlett Isabella works basically full time, if you factor in the audition days. Corday says her daughter is humble about her success, and doesn't brag about it to friends. Corday has two older daughters who are not in the industry. She sometimes wishes they were interested in it too. "I've seen moms lug up to four kids to auditions at the same time. That's the jackpot! You have three more chances of getting the job."