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Not every parent wants a model child

by Julian Ryall

I had noticed the woman in the shop, but hadn’t really thought anything of her. She was watching me as I tried to keep an eye on Alex, my hyperactive 2 1/2-year-old son, while at the same time picking my way through the kids’ section to find a new jacket for him.

She drew a little closer, I noted out of the corner of my eye. She was in her mid-40s, I guessed, wearing a smart trouser suit and carrying a leather bag on one arm. And she was definitely following me round the store.

Now, I’m not of a nervous disposition, but this was unsettling, to say the least. After all, as far as I know, I’ve never been trailed by a middle-aged woman. But the papers nowadays are full of the oddest stories, so I called Alex out from behind one of the racks of clothes and we prepared to escape.

Which is when she made her move.

“Alex. What a handsome name,” she purred in English.

I automatically put my hand on his shoulder and smiled a wary greeting.

“I have been watching you having fun in and out of the clothes,” she said, fishing into her bag as I sized up our chances of escape.

She handed me her card and introduced herself with a big smile — and I instantly perked up. Her card described her as a talent-spotter and scout for models and, she said, Alex had caught her professional eye.

It’s probably unfashionable to say it, but I have to be honest: The surge of paternal pride practically lifted me off my feet. My son — she had picked out my son from all the other kids in the shopping center that day because she thought he was good-looking enough to be a model.

I didn’t even flinch when she made it quite clear that he was the only one of this father-son combo in whom she was interested.

Today, Gap in Yokohama — tomorrow the world. Alex could grace the cover of GQ magazine, appear in advertisements for expensive cars, accompany the next generation of supermodels down the catwalks of Paris and Milan and — dare I think it? — land the lead in the big-screen all-action blockbuster of 2020.

(I once read that a sure sign of middle-age is when you stop dreaming of achieving outlandish goals for yourself and start envisaging them for your children. How true.)

And while my mind was romping unsupervised through “what-if?” land, the lady from the agency was squatting down and speaking to Alex, all the while sizing him up from different angles.

She gave a final nod of approval and stood up again.

“It wouldn’t take long to take all the photos that we would need for his portfolio,” she said, handing me a brochure about her company’s success stories with child-superstars and a map to her offices. With a breezy “see you soon” and a final, lingering smile — at Alex — she was gone.

It took, I’d say, 20 minutes for the reality to sink in.

Alex is not yet 3; he could be required to do a shoot in the wee hours of a January morning, drop everything to fly to Hokkaido to show off a hat for half an hour, spend school holidays being pancaked in makeup or do something embarrassingly daft on TV (have you seen those poor boys who are required to dance around with toilet air-fresheners on their heads?)

Sure, they’re worst-case scenarios, but other parents I know who have signed up their children with agencies confirm that it can happen.

At his age, shouldn’t children be just that — children?

After kicking the idea around with my wife, we decided that we’d like Alex to continue scraping his knees as he falls off his bicycle in the park, to keep on making mud-pies, getting filth under his fingernails and stains on his clothes. We want him to be able to play with his friends whenever he pleases.

In other words, we want him to have a normal childhood.

We never called the agency, and — who knows? — maybe we have denied him the opportunity of being “discovered.” But I think we made the right call.