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Flipping through a magazine, going online or turning on the TV reveals scores of gorgeous men and women demonstrating the wonders of all kinds of products. Our culture is fascinated with models, who not only lend their images to ads for clothes, razors, cars, medicine, banks (the list is almost endless), but whose career aspirations are the subject of reality TV shows like "America's Next Top Model" and "Make Me a Supermodel."
The easy assumption is that models live glamorous lives and earn astronomical sums. But the media rarely conveys the realities of most models' working lives. To wit, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the federal agency that tracks employment data, classifies models not as entertainment or arts workers but as sales workers.
And their earnings are typically very modest. The median hourly wage for models was $15.83 in May 2010. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $9.53 and the top 10 percent made upwards of $28.86 per hour.
Moreover, the hours tend to be unpredictable and the work unsteady. As the BLS' Occupational Outlook Handbook points out, "Most models have periods of unemployment." Consider also that modeling is a relatively tiny occupation: the BLS counted just 1,400 models in the United States in 2010. By 2020, that number is projected to rise to 1,600.
Part of that has to do with how few people meet the criteria of modeling agencies and their clients. Though they sometimes require images of older people or heavier people, the vast majority want to burnish their products or services with images of youth and slenderness. The modeling industry trades for the most part in young, fresh faces, and models' careers tend to be short.
At the very high end, the work they do is pretty glamorous: walking runways in Milan or Paris, or doing photo shoots for glossy magazines like Vogue or Marie Claire. Bear in mind, though, that many models do work that is much more run-of-the-mill.
Besides high fashion and runway modeling, there is also modeling for petite or plus-sized clothes, catalog modeling, commercial modeling and showroom modeling (a category that can overlap with product demonstration, a related sales job). Body-part modeling requires only hands, feet, knees or, in the case of one model we know, a single eye (for an ad that demonstrated medical equipment for ophthalmologists).
Working regularly in any of these areas can be a challenge. In the early stages of their careers many also have to shell out a considerable amount of their own money to create the kind of professional-looking photos that can attract an agent's interest.
These costs can be steep, but some newbie models manage to avoid them by seeking the services of a photographer looking to create a portfolio of his or her own. (Sometimes models and photographers can connect online via websites like modelmayhem.com -- of course, use caution when enlisting the services of any stranger.) It's also wise to avoid agencies or classes that charge exorbitant fees. Reputable modeling agencies generally don't charge anything up front, instead making their money by taking a percentage of what a model earns on a particular job.
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