Of course you've heard of Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford, and Brooke Shields. They were the world's first supermodels, after all. But if you’re wondering how to become a model, a lot has changed since the ’90s—not least the introduction of the internet and Instagram. Modeling is still a highly competitive field, but these days, there are opportunities for people of all shapes and sizes to break into the industry. We consulted agency heads, casting directors, and professional models to create an in-depth guide to becoming a model—whether you want to become a fashion model, a fitness model, or anything in between. You’ll learn how to find a modeling agency, what to expect at your first model casting call, and how to build a modeling portfolio that slays.
- What does it take to become a model?
- What are the different types of modeling?
- What modeling terms should I know?
- How do I create a modeling portfolio?
- How do I get my first modeling job?
- How do model castings work?
- How do I find a modeling agent?
- How can I tell if an open call or modeling agency is legit?
- How do I make a living as a model?
- Do I need training to become a model?
Modeling is an industry about beauty in all shapes, shades, and sizes. It’s not only about being traditionally “good-looking”—MSA Models’ Los Angeles agency director Francis Arden takes a more holistic approach. “If you have a quirky personality, we want to know that,” he says. “You’re not just a pretty face. We want to know who this person that we’re sitting in front of is. Yes, she’s got the right measurements, but what’s in there? What’s her purpose? What drives her?”
Modeling is also about representing—and, in many cases, selling—a product. You should feel excited by the prospect of being the face of a new fashion line, makeup brand, or hot tech gadget. Natural ease and confidence in front of the camera are also key.
“You’re not just a pretty face. We want to know who this person that we’re sitting in front of is. Yes, she’s got the right measurements, but what’s in there? What’s her purpose? What drives her?”
You should be prepared to maintain a healthy lifestyle of eating well and exercising regularly in order to meet the physical demands of your line of modeling. You’ll also need patience and stamina to stay fresh through a long day of auditions or photoshoots. Models don’t have a regular 9-to-5 schedule, so expect to be called into work at all hours. A client needs a night shot for their product? Expect to be shooting at midnight. If you thrive on routine, life as a professional model may not be for you.
In the end, your passion to succeed should be at the forefront. That means being realistic about the different forms success can take. Just like acting, a modeling career isn’t something that happens overnight. “Passion is definitely one of the key deciding factors because that motivates the individual to want to do what it takes,” says Jack Maiden, director of Mavrick Models at Mavrick Artists Agency. “If they want to pursue it, they’ve gotta get out there and find out if there’s an agency that suits them. They’ve gotta go for it.”
You may be surprised by how many different career paths there are for professional models. The supermodels of the world walk the Paris and New York Fashion Week runways and strut their stuff at the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, but there are also commercial models you’ll find in video and print ads for major retail brands—everything from Target to T.J. Maxx to Macy’s. Understanding what casting directors are looking for in each market is key, says Cheyenne Brink, a print agent at LA’s Bella Agency. “Are you in the right market, submitting yourself to the right stuff? How is a company going to envision you in their ads?”
Runway modeling: Though many dream of walking the spring collection for Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs, it’s the ultimate destination of very few. It’s not the easiest pill to swallow, but it should be said: You’re either born to be a fashion model or you’re not. Traditionally (and we hate to say it!), female models who are signed by major agencies and jetted to fashion weeks around the world are a size six or smaller, between 14 and 20 years old, and between 5’9” and 6’ tall. Male models tend to be 6’ to 6’3” tall and have a 30’’ to 32’’ waist.
Commercial and print modeling: You can still make a living as a model even if you don’t fit the physical template above. Commercial models, in particular, are meant to reflect the everyman and everywoman. While fashion modeling is generally limited to the body types that fit into designer clothing, commercial casting directors have fewer restrictions: “On the commercial side, it’s more like, ‘We want brunette hair and great smiles,’ ”Joe Thompson of Abrams Artists Agency explains.
Parts modeling: Are your slender fingers and immaculate nailbeds your calling card? Consider hand modeling. (That career path wasn’t just good for a punchline on “Seinfeld,” we promise!) The same can be said for foot models—if you’ve got the ankles, might as well put them to use.
Fitness modeling: While other sectors of the profession may call for a slender figure, you’ll want to bulk up and hit the gym more regularly than the average person if you’re pursuing a career in fitness modeling. The hard work can certainly pay off and prove lucrative across commercial modeling gigs for sportswear ad campaigns, fitness videos, underwear and lingerie gigs—the list goes on.
Like all professions, modeling has its own set of industry jargon—and it’s important to be familiar with the most commonly-used phrases before your first “go-see.” We’ve listed a few of the most important below:
- Book: Another term used for a model’s portfolio.
- Cheating to the camera: When the model slightly turns his or her head and eyesight away from an object or the other model and closer to the camera. This gives the illusion that the model is looking straight at the other person or object but also allows the camera to see more of the model’s face.
- Composite sheet (comp card or zed card): The model’s business card. Unlike an actor’s headshot and résumé, a composite sheet shows a variety of the model’s photos along with his or her stats (height, eye color, hair color, etc.).
- Go-see: A model’s audition. When a model is contacted to attend a go-see, he or she goes to a photographer’s studio or a casting facility to be looked over.
- One-plus-one: When a model is booked for a one-hour modeling job with the possibility of working an additional hour. Models must hold the additional hour in case the shoot runs longer than expected.
- Square to the camera: The photographer will make this request when he or she wants the model’s face and body positioned straight into the lens.
- Tear sheet: A copy of a commercial modeling ad. This proves the ad was published.
- Test shot: A photo that’s not being used as an ad, but instead for a photographer’s or model’s portfolio.
If you’re looking for a traditional job, you’ll need a résumé; if you’re trying to become a model, you’ll need a portfolio (also known as a “book”). To create your modeling portfolio, start with a headshot. These can be can be taken from the waist up, or show just your head and shoulders. Avoid heavy makeup or elaborate styling, since agents and scouts are interested in your natural look.
That said, modeling headshots do tend to be more artistic than acting headshots. “They say less about who a person is and more about how they are capable of appearing,” explains L.A. headshot photographer and Backstage Expert Marc Cartwright. “There is a greater emphasis on the mood, lighting, and artistic merit of the photograph. Makeup, lighting, composition, and retouching are used to creatively flatter the subject and remove the flaws.”
You’ll also need a full body shot. Generally, your outfit should be simple and form-fitting—a tight white tank or T-shirt paired with dark skinny jeans or tailored pants. Women should wear heels, while men can slip on casual dress shoes.
When it comes to finding a photographer, start by doing your research. Ask your peers for recommendations, or search the Backstage Yellow Pages. Once you've come up with some options, figure out how long a session lasts, how much they charge, and how many photos you’ll walk away with. Sometimes this information can be found on their website; other times you may just need to give them a call. It’s also important to find someone who will make you feel comfortable during the shoot. “I have watched many headshot sessions crash due to the same thing: the wrong mixture of personalities,” warns image consultant and Backstage Expert Tom Burke.
If you’re worried that a professional photoshoot might be out of your budget, make the most of Instagram. Aspiring models often use the app to connect with new and emerging photographers who are actively looking for subjects to practice on. “No one has to pay anything, [so it’s] beneficial to both parties,” says Bella Agency's Cheyenne Brink. And be sure to keep your profile curated and up-to-date, she adds. “Instagram is such a huge factor now. It’s an extension of your portfolio.”
Your headshot should be featured prominently on your literal calling card, known in the industry as a “comp card” (or a composite card, z card, zed card, or sed card). It should also include three to five additional photos from spec shoots or previous professional work, as well as your basic measurements, your modeling agency info if applicable, and your own contact information. Just like with an actor’s headshot, a model’s comp card is the best way to make a great first impression in the casting room.
Particularly as an early-career model, it’s going to be difficult to land high-profile work without an agent. But for those early credits that will give you experience in front of the camera and on the runway (and, ultimately, increase your chances of snagging an agent), an online casting platform like Backstage can be an excellent resource. The Backstage Yellow Pages can help you find a headshot photographer in your area; our database of talent agencies helps you narrow down your options for representation; and Backstage’s Community Forum makes it easy to connect with other aspiring or established models for advice.
But, most importantly, subscribing to Backstage gives you access to our online casting notices. Each one is broken down by type of production, compensation, location, the age range for talent sought, etc. Search results can also be filtered based on your preferences. Once you find a project that interests you and fits your type, check the notice for information on how to apply—or, if in-person go-sees are being held, timing for the open call or additional information on how to schedule a time with casting will also be available.
Unlike acting auditions, where talent can impress with singing and performance skills, there’s often no dialogue at a model casting—or “go-see,” in industry parlance. “Industry professionals decide if you’re right for the job simply by looking at you, which means it’s important to dress the part (without going overboard),” says actor and Backstage Expert Aaron Marcus. “If you’re attending a go-see for a part as a doctor, you don’t need a stethoscope around your neck, a tongue depressor in your pocket, and paper booties over your shoes. But do wear something appropriate that will allow the people who matter to envision you as a doctor, like a dress shirt and slacks.”
Often, models are asked to wear fitted jeans and a fitted tank to auditions. Casting may also request that you bring along your modeling portfolio, or “book.” Books are increasingly presented as digital files on iPads, but a printed binder is also perfectly fine.
Typically, model castings don’t have set appointment times. Instead, there will be a sign-in sheet that dictates the order in which models have their photos taken. “Don’t sign in until you are 100 percent ready,” Marcus notes. “You don’t want to be in a situation where you sign in, start doing work on your hair or makeup, they call you, and you have to tell them you’re ‘almost done.’”
Once you’re fully prepped, add your name to the sign-in sheet. You’ll probably be asked for your agent’s contact information and your wardrobe sizes, as well.
Just like with acting, strong choices matter. “Don’t ever try to play it safe by giving a generic look in order to avoid giving the ‘wrong’ look,” Marcus says. That kind of approach to auditioning never works well. Even if you’re not provided with a ton of information, pick a specific look based on what you do know. That ability to decide and commit will give you a tremendous advantage while attending a go-see.”
Professional feedback, particularly in the early stages of your modeling career, is vital. So is practice! Get all the experience you can in front of a camera before approaching an agent with your headshot and DIY portfolio. Even if you’re an unsigned model, you should try to work with a professional photographer for test images. Without external feedback, models don’t necessarily know their best angles, poses, and facial expressions. Practicing in front of the mirror is important, but having someone on the other side of the lens telling you “yes” or “no” will bring you up to speed on what works and what doesn’t. “That’s the stuff that you can’t really teach someone until they actually are doing it,” MSA Models’ Los Angeles agency director Francis Arden says.
The next step should be to research agencies and know what they look for in prospective clients. For instance, Jack Maiden, director at Mavrick Agency, noted that most female models he signs are 5’8” to 5’11” or just under 6’ in height. He usually looks for male models who are 6’ to 6’3”.
Pro tip: One of the best ways to see what modeling agencies are in your area is through Backstage’s Call Sheet resource. All you have to do is check the modeling categories that interest you, type in your desired market, and filter for preference from there.
Once you find an agency that interests you, it’s time to show them what you’ve got. Many agencies’ websites will include online submission forms that usually require a modeling headshot and three-quarter to full-body photo. Requirements differ depending on the agency—for instance, JAG Models co-founder Gary Dakin told Backstage that interested parties should “send digitals of just your face without makeup and one full-body in a bathing suit, preferably, and your hair pulled back.” Agencies will also include open-call information on their websites, which generally happen weekly.
The modeling industry is notorious for taking advantage of young, inexperienced talent with inflated promises of success and glamour. “Bait-and-switch is a common technique used by scam artists,” casting director and Backstage Expert Lana Veenker says. You may be promised one thing from an ad or open call, but when you show up to the proposed talent agency, “no one seems interested in your background or skills (or alternatively, they rave about how amazing you are without knowing much about you). Their true goal, you discover, is to sign you up for expensive ‘talent competitions,’ classes, or photo packages. They use the lure of fame and fortune to cloud your judgment and get you to open your pocketbook.”
Below, Veenker breaks down some specific ways to recognize a scam:
- Reputable modeling agencies are highly selective. If you show up and they’re immediately willing to sign you regardless of your experience, question their motives—especially if they ask for money.
- Bona fide agencies don’t require you to take their classes or use their photographers. They may provide a list of recommended coaches or photographers in your area, but they shouldn’t pressure you to use a specific one or try to sell you something in their agency agreement.
- Legitimate agents make a commission off the gigs they find for you. If they engage in hard-sell techniques for classes, photos, contests, or representation, beware. That’s how they’re making their money, not by finding you work.
When thinking about making “a living” as a model, we’re primarily talking about how to make financial ends meet. You probably won’t be making a livable wage as a model straight out of the gate. That’s where the appropriately-titled “survival job” comes in. Waiting tables, walking dogs, tutoring, nannying—it’s unlikely these are your passions in life, but having a flexible schedule is key to finding time for photoshoots and go-sees.
When searching for the right survival job, you’ve got to consider wages and hours, sure, but also where your natural talents lie. “What other skills do you have? Is there a job (or two or three) you can do that makes you happy (or at least that you can tolerate) while you are pursuing your dream?” asks acting coach and Backstage Expert Matt Newton. “To achieve this might mean some creative thinking.”
Even if you do have a steady survival job and are getting in front of casting directors, you may still find yourself pinching pennies. The first step to financial success is knowing how much money you need to make ends meet. To find your “make-or-break” number, add your bare-bones cost of living for one month (housing, food, public transit), then add another 10 percent to that number “because life is always more expensive than you anticipate,” personal finance author and Backstage Expert Stefanie O’Connell says.
Straightening out your finances and finding a survival job that best fits your needs are essential steps in making a living doing this modeling thing. Unfortunately, models aren’t protected by a performers’ union like actors and dancers—but organizations like the Model Alliance are working to change that.
Models are divided on the necessity of training, although there’s no harm in taking acting classes or hiring a coach so long as they’re reputable.
“Modeling is truly an art form, and you have to respect it and do the research and the work,” says Liris Crosse, a leading plus-size model and former Project Runway winner, who also runs a model workshop and masterclass. It’s not enough to be physically attractive, she explains—you have to understand how to look good on camera. “I think it's important, especially for new models, to get information from people who have actually done it. I see people who offer classes and I'm like, ‘I've never seen you in an ad.’ I have the actual credentials to back it up. And I'm still working, so I'm continuously backing it up. I'm giving you the shortcut of what took me over a decade to get myself.”
Denka Obradovic, a NYC-based curve model represented by Wilhelmina Models, said she learned by doing—paying attention to what was going on at castings and by doing test shoots. “My first job I was like, ‘What's happening? What do I do?’” she says. That said, she recommends taking a runway class ahead of a shoot.
Ready to get your catwalk on? Check out Backstage’s modeling listings!