General

PICTURE THIS

Raising model children

by Frank Crabtree

From a fairly early age, my two children have done modeling work. They’ve posed for clothing catalogs, appeared on magazine covers and in J-pop videos, rubbed elbows with TV celebrities. They aren’t mini-supermodels or chaidoru (child idols) — thank God — just your garden-variety kid models.

My son and daughter are, in case you were wondering, “hafu” (literally “halves”). It’s not the nicest term, but one that’s regularly used to describe a genetic mix, in this case of East and West. (I’d prefer to call them “doubles,” but whatever.) Yes, they are kawaii, which is what most people squeal when they see their big eyes and long eyelashes.

Of course, they are my pride and joy, but I don’t carry 8 x 5 glossies of them or instantly bring them up in conversation. Hence the pen name above — lest I be accused of trying to drum up publicity.

Another reason for my reticence to come out as a father of child models is the common assumption that these kids are bound for anorexia, heroin addiction and embarrassing haircuts.

I want people to know them as just kids, not show horses. As Yeats wrote in “A Prayer for My Daughter” — “May she be granted beauty and yet not/Beauty to make a stranger’s eye distraught” — I am happy that they are special, but I sometimes fear the consequences of too much attention.

This fear hit close to home last month. While we were vacationing in Kyushu, a hair-stylist spotted my daughter on the street and identified her by name. She and I were flattered, and we blushed in sync. But there was also a mutual uneasiness. Our cover as ordinary people had been blown, and I didn’t like it. I don’t think my daughter did either.

Like the offspring of so many binational couples here, my kids were spotted on the street by modeling-agency scouts. (I wouldn’t be surprised if these people stake out in delivery-room lobbies). And we learned the hard way that some outfits will bilk proud, gullible parents for outrageous portfolio fees. Consider yourself warned.

We eventually found an agency we could trust, but my first encounter with the kid-modeling world — a magazine shoot — wasn’t so encouraging. Before accompanying my son to the venue, my wife told me that our aisatsu was crucial, that a vigorous greeting to the studio’s staff would ensure a solid rep. Right. We’re talking about a 3-year-old here, and his very shy father.

Sure enough, we mumbled our aisatsu, and the shoot itself was a disaster, amusing only in retrospect. His best trick was to swat his young partner with a bouquet of flowers, reducing her to unprofessional tears. The cameraman and crew did their best; I retreated to the corner.

By age 5, though, my son had miraculously learned the ropes. When I went along to another shoot, he startled me with his “OHAYO GOZAIMASU!” and he was flirting with the makeup girls in no time. When the cameraman yelled, “Hai, pozu,” my son turned on the wattage, effortlessly. Who taught him to smile like that? Had he figured out he was getting paid for this?

A shock of a different sort came when his imaginary family was assembled, all decked out in crisp, pastel-colored pajamas. “Is there some kind of mistake?” I wanted to ask when I saw the creamy complexions and blow-dry coiffures of his stand-in parents. “I am his father,” I said silently, “and his sister isn’t little Goldilocks.” It looked like my son was having a blast, but I had to go out for a smoke while the happy family mugged for the camera.

In the years since, I’ve learned to cope with their virtual lives, the roles they’re asked to play. There have been quite a few. My daughter was the flower girl-for-hire in a wedding (a real one, but shot for a bridal magazine). For a TV program, she was a child chef who concocted natto dishes for her natto-hating father. (Yes, they forced me to eat it.) Her personal favorites were a high-tech, futuristic fashion show, in which she got to roller-blade down the catwalk, and a Spitz video, for which she dressed as a hippie chick. My son’s experiences have included playing a slick-haired dandy in a suit and tie (ugh), and a sports jock — trying to strike natural athletic poses while displaying the brand logo just so.

Together, they’ve shouted out “Dreamcast!” for a TV commercial, interviewed the creator of “Gumby” and danced behind idols on “Kohaku Utagassen,” NHK’s yearend music jamboree. All cool stuff, right?

But it is also work, which requires juggled schedules, travel, lots of waiting and, many times, rejection. While my wife and I haven’t pushed the show-biz angle, the agency has called our kids to numerous such auditions. One of my daughter’s first, at age 7, was for “Annie” — the holy grail of child performers. The place was swarming with little Shirley Temples, who’d been taking tap/acting/charm lessons since they were toddlers. My wife instantly knew it would be for naught, but they went through the motions anyway.

I always worry about the post-audition trauma, but my daughter once assured me it’s no big deal. “If I don’t pass an audition,” she told me, “I know it’s because I’m not the type they were looking for.” But I still worry.

I realize that as members of an agency, models are company property, merchandise that is hyped or dumped on the back shelf. And the image business has rules. Kid models are discouraged from changing their hair length or style. The usual playground scrapes can cancel a job. Work outside the agency’s domain is practically taboo.

I know it’s a business, but when I hear talk of the agency’s ichiban no urekko (most popular child), I cringe. Do my children wonder what their ranking is? What happens when they see themselves as products?

It can get uglier when the parents take the same attitude as the agency’s. Many of the mamas, and occasionally papas, within this pressure-cooker biz are everything you would imagine — preening, fretting, back-biting. Naturally, this gets passed on to their children, who become anorexic and addicted . . . You know the story.

So yes, there are drawbacks, but I try to keep them at bay and focus on the benefits: the experiences they might not otherwise have and rewards, both tangible and intangible.

Last year, my daughter decided, at 12, to buy herself a laptop with savings from her own bank account (the balance remains a secret to me). And through the agency’s hip-hop dance lessons, she found a true passion and a circle of good friends. My son chucked out his dancing shoes a long time ago, but he has definitely become comfortable with meeting new people and is even cooperative with adults. (Now if he would only pose for my camera . . .)

To be honest, I don’t know how long this will continue. It’s a diversion, one facet of their lives, but not a long-term investment. If they quit tomorrow, it would be fine with me. At least, I’ll know they had fun along the way.