Want to strut your stuff on the streets of New York as a model? We spoke to some of NYC’s top models for an in-depth guide on how to start your career in one of the world’s most glamorous—and competitive—markets. Whether you’re searching for modeling auditions or looking for a list of the top modeling agencies in New York, we’ll walk you through everything you need to know to become a model in NYC.
(For advice from modeling agency heads, plus a crash course in key industry terms, visit Backstage's guide for early-career models in any city.)
- What is it like to be a model in NYC?
- How do I start modeling in NYC?
- How do I find modeling agencies in New York?
- What are the top modeling agencies in New York?
- Is it possible to be a freelance model in NYC?
- What should I expect at a model casting call?
- How do I build a network as a model in New York?
- Is it hard to make a living as a model in New York?
- How should I deal with rejection?
As an aspiring model in NYC, you’ll have access to world-class opportunities across a range of markets. (New York is one of the fashion capitals of the world, after all!) The flip side is that the competition can be fierce; you’ll need to be at the top of your game to book the job.
New York is an epicenter for advertising and the nexus for modeling in the United States. That means there are countless opportunities for both emerging and established models—you’ll have the chance to break into a wide variety of markets, from commercial to editorial (even hand modeling!). Whether you want to work the runway wearing next season’s haute couture, showcase fitness gear in an ad campaign, or be the face of a product in a glossy magazine, New York is the place to be. Many of the world’s biggest modeling agencies are headquartered in Manhattan, including IMG, Elite, Ford, and Wilhelmina, as well as dozens of smaller boutique operations.
“You have to have thick skin. You're going to be turned down more than you're going to be hired for the job, and that's just a part of the world.”
But you’ll be a small fish in a big pond if you start your career in New York. “Some people feel more comfortable [in a smaller market],” says Liris Crosse, a leading plus-size model and “Project Runway” winner. “Sometimes it's good for you to be the king or the queen bee in your area so that way you're already coming to New York with those tears in your book.”
People assume that it’s more difficult to model in New York—which can be true, says Denka Obradovic, a curve model from California who moved to the city in 2009 and has worked with Playtex, Eloquii, and Hanky Panky. “But there’s a lot of work. There’s a lot of girls. I think it's just important to speak up as a fine model, not take things too personally, and advocate for yourself. People expect that from somebody in New York; I don't think we're known as a quiet bunch.”
To make it as a model in New York, passion and perseverance are of the utmost importance. “You have to have thick skin. You're going to be turned down more than you're going to be hired for the job, and that's just a part of the world,” says Sharlene Rädlein, a commercial model who’s done campaigns for Athleta, Lord + Taylor, and “Project Runway All Stars.” “You're going to be competing against 20 girls that look just like you, but you can't focus on that because that will overwhelm you at times.”
If you’re wondering how to start modeling in NYC, the first thing you need is a portfolio (also known as a “book”). Potential clients and agents want to see what you can do, so having a collection of previous work or of professionally shot images is key to success. When they’re not done for clients, photoshoots (or “test shots”) can be great training for an early-career model. “That really made me more comfortable in front of the camera,” Obradovic says. “If you don't like the photos, they're not going to go in your book, but at least it's practice.”
An agent can suggest top photographers to work with, though those pictures will probably be pricey. Both Obradovic and Rädlein suggest working with friends who are photographers, or finding photographers on Instagram and working in trade. “Get in front of them and start posing, or come up with your own photoshoots,” Rädlein says. “I did that my entire life—I literally would just put on different outfits, grab a camera, and take million photos of myself at home.”
If you’re submitting your book to a potential agent, read the agency’s submission guidelines carefully. And, although it may seem obvious, don’t send images with Instagram filters.
Although we’ve all heard stories about elite models getting scouted at malls, bars, and even airports, the chances of getting spotted by an agent while hoofing it through Midtown or waiting on a subway platform are slim. Still, Obradovic says she was scouted while working as a waitress at a diner in New York—although she had to go through several people at the agency before she was put in touch with its curve modeling division. “Before, I got a lot of ‘Oh, if you just lost 20 pounds.’ To lose 20 pounds just seemed so outlandish to me… and I didn't know about plus modeling,” she says.
Rädlein’s experience was also a combination of hustle and good timing. During a trip to New York to see family, she made a last-minute decision to visit a handful of modeling agencies—without setting up any appointments in advance. “I had no idea what I was doing. They wouldn't even let me in to see the agents, I ended up just seeing the person at the front desk,” she recalls. As it turned out, the very last agency she visited happened to have a casting session going on. “The agent was like, ‘Listen, your book is horrible but you're really cute. So we're going to offer you a contract. When are you moving to New York?’” Her intention had never been to move to New York—she was planning to relocate from her native Miami to Los Angeles to pursue modeling and acting, instead—but she didn’t tell the agent that. She’s lived in the city for seven years since.
Hard work and preparation are also key to securing representation. Like many aspiring models, Crosse was obsessed with the industry and studied it diligently. She checked out books from the library, watched television shows about modeling, even attended conferences in New York—all of which “inspired me to then move to New York and really pursue my dreams.” She first signed with Wilhelmina Models and appeared in magazines such as Vibe Vixen and Honey, in a Jay-Z video, and in the movie “The Best Man.”
Crosse encourages new models to hit the books, as well.“If you are really passionate about something, whatever it is, you need to research.” Start by searching for top agencies and boutique firms in New York (Backstage’s Call Sheet is a great place to start), then checking out smaller firms through the Better Business Bureau. Cross also suggests connecting with other models on social media and message boards to learn about their experiences with an agency. Most agencies will post their client list on their websites.
The top-tier modeling agencies in NYC include Ford, Wilhelmina, Elite, and IGM. But as a new model, you should focus on agencies that are committed to nurturing emerging talent. We’ve pulled together a list of the best modeling agencies in New York for early-career models, including DNA, Fenton, and STATE.
Crosse encourages new models to sign with the agent (or “booker”) that’s most excited about their career, rather than simply going with the big name. “You can sometimes be signed to a big agency and get lost within that agency because they have so many girls on their [talent] board,” she says. “Your booker should be so excited about you [that] they want to work their butt off to represent you and get you work,” she adds. “You're not in business for them, you’re in business with them.”
Rädlein also says it’s important to connect with your agent on a personal level. “If you do not have an agent that really believes in you, and has [as] clear [a] vision for you as you have for yourself, it's going to be very difficult for you to be successful in this industry.” Each agency also has its own reputation and client relationships, she adds, which will influence the work you get.
Take meetings, and make sure you like your booker before signing on. “I think oftentimes we get excited just to be there,” Obradovic says. “But if you get a weird vibe, go onto the next one. Trust your gut feeling and don't be afraid to ask questions like, ‘Who are your clients? What do you see for me?’”
One final piece of advice: Agents, and other decision makers in the modeling world, frequently shift between agencies in big markets like New York—which means you’ll probably encounter them again in a different setting down the line. That means it’s vital to maintain positive, professional relationships, especially with people who have turned you down for work or representation.
If you don’t have representation, it’s still possible to make it as a professional model in New York City. “I have friends who aren’t represented, and they work sometimes more than I do,” Rädlein says. “The thing about that is, you're doing everything yourself. It's not impossible to work as a free agent in New York, but I would say it's harder because you’re going out and hustling to find these jobs, scouring the internet, and so on.”
Backstage, a top casting platform for more than 60 years, is one place to find modeling work as a freelance model. Hundreds of casting calls are posted online each day, and you can filter them to search specifically for modeling jobs and auditions in NYC. What’s more, casting directors often consult the public profiles on Backstage when booking talent.
A strong online presence is key for free agents—sometimes large companies will scout talent on social media for specific campaigns featuring “everyday women” or “teachers with great style,” Crosse says. Even offline, building a strong personal network is important if you don’t have an agent. Rädlein’s friend, an unsigned model, managed to book the same shoot as her (with tech giant LG) because she knew someone who knew the commercial’s casting agent. New York may be a huge market, but it’s still a small industry.
All that being said, it can certainly be more difficult to secure high-profile clients without an agent who can champion your talent and make valuable connections with casting directors. Larger clients typically use a casting director or photoshoot producer, who in turn reaches out to agencies. When it comes to New York Fashion Week, for instance, “There are some agencies that are able to have a private casting with the designers ahead of time, and it takes out a certain amount of spots professionally,” Crosse says. “Everyone else is getting the leftover spots.”
Models go on innumerable casting calls—also known as “go-sees”—where a prospective client will review your look and possibly take photos. You’ll often be asked to wear a fitted tank top and jeans and bring a printed book (or present your portfolio on a tablet).
Because there are often many talented models at castings, it’s important to let your personality shine through. Although it’s important to research the client, Obradovic’s advice is not to worry about dressing to fit their brand. Instead, she encourages models to wear bright colors—as long as they’re comfortable with that look. “You stand out by being yourself because, at the end of the day, you're being booked for the job for you,” Rädlein says. “There’s certain jobs that I've booked just because I love the product that I'm going in for, and I will rave about it because I'm genuinely happy to be there.”
Keep in mind that your behavior at casting calls can affect your career months—or even years—down the line. Rädlein once went on three castings for Target in a row, only to be booked seven months later. Another time, a director who’d worked with her six years earlier decided to cast her again. “She booked me because she was like, ‘Oh my goodness, I worked with her once before and she was awesome. Let's work with her again,’” she says. “This industry is so small…Everyone wants to work with somebody who’s enjoyable to work with.”
While modeling can seem like a lonely, dog-eat-dog profession—maybe even more so when you’re working in a notoriously competitive city—it doesn’t have to be. Castings can quickly become chatty and friendly. In fact, that’s how Obradovic was able to learn the ropes when she started modeling a decade ago.
Back then, she says, “I had no one to talk to about it, no guidance whatsoever.” That’s not the case for aspiring models these days, however. “There's so many more resources now, even on Instagram. I've had so many girls DM me asking me [questions about modeling], and I respond to them. How else will you know unless you ask?”
Social media—and Instagram in particular—can be a great tool for models to build their brand and get work. “There are a lot of girls who freelance and get a lot of their clients through social media, people who are brand ambassadors and influencers,” Crosse says. “It's possible to have that career, you just have to put out quality material and be consistent with your content. No one should be able to promote you better than you.” Although she encourages models to use hashtags, she also cautions them not to over-tag agencies or products.
New York is notoriously expensive, and not just when it comes to rent. The cost of food and drink is higher than other cities, hair care costs are often elevated, and you’ll probably be spending money on cabs, cars, and subway rides to some of those early auditions—all of which means you’ll likely be working a second “survival” job when you first start out as a model.
Obradovic worked as a waitress for a year before modeling became lucrative enough to be her full-time career. Rädlein has been modeling full-time for seven years, but early on had the benefit of living with family. She also made the decision to take on lower-paying jobs in order to pay rent and was willing to live frugally in order to pursue her dream career.
“I'm not a partier. I don't drink, I hang out with friends every once in a while, but when I moved here I didn’t know anybody. So for me, it wasn't a huge deal to spend my Friday night at home,” she says. “I was more focused on my goal. So eating ramen noodles and Cheerios for weeks on end didn't bother me, as long as I was doing what I loved to do.”
Consider developing skills that build on your modeling experience, as well. Could you host or promote events? Could you help train other aspiring models? Could you create (and monetize) a blog about your modeling experiences? Being well-rounded is imperative for a model, says Crosse, especially if you want a lengthy career in an industry that prizes youth and fresh faces. She believes it’s wise “to show the multifaceted sides of who you are.”
If you’ve chosen a creative profession, you know that rejection comes often. This is particularly true in the world of modeling. “If you don't book something, don't take it personally,” Obradovic says. “There's so many factors involved and they see you, so they might use you again. Oftentimes it's like, ‘Oh, they wanted a blonde. Okay, well, that's out of my control.’ You did your best, so leave it at that, and go to the next one.”
Client preferences tend to shift over the years, Rädlein adds, noting that her ethnic ambiguity and curly hair were much less in demand when she began modeling seven years ago. She also pointed to a fellow model she met during a shoot for Lord + Taylor. Although the woman was in her 50s, she was working significantly more than when she was in her 20s. “It's going to be in cycles. And if your cycle is not in focus right now, it could be five years from now,” she says. “It's a constant evolution that you're going through. Know the type of clients that you can get through your age, how you work, and have a good support system.”
It’s also important to stay flexible and be receptive to change. “That means being hungry about what you want, being hungry about your career, being available to go to those castings, being able to do the test shoots that they need you to do, and being open to critique,” Crosse says. “They may say ‘Hey, we need you to dye your hair, we think this may bring you more clients.’ You need to be open to it.”
Rädlein also encourages models to pursue a hobby. “That is so important to keep your sanity in this industry, because it's so cutthroat, because it's so out of your hands. When you can celebrate mini-victories through your hobbies… you will see how much better your career will be as a model.”
And while New Yorkers might be (unreasonably, depending on who you ask) known for being brusque, all of the models we interviewed stressed the importance of being humble, gracious, and polite. Modeling is collaborative and requires hard work from stylists, make-up artists, directors, and photographers—all of whom would rather work with someone who isn’t a diva. Your reputation will precede you, and you’ll likely work with the same people on a casting or shoot multiple times.
Check out Backstage’s modeling listings!