Model children: Taking a behind-the-scenes look at the world of youth modeling

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributor To The Japan Times

In a set design that could double as a Mad Hatter’s tea party, 10-year-old Kiina Matsunaga sits wrapped in a pink blanket pouring tea for a white rabbit. The tiny blue cups match the color of her psychedelic hair. A photographer puts down her camera and huddles with the stylist before spending a few minutes adjusting Matsunaga’s wig and then her blanket. Unperturbed, Matsunaga preoccupies herself by carrying on with the tea party.

Everybody resumes position and the photographer cycles through shot after shot. As photo shoots go, this one is a doddle for Matsunaga. She’s been modeling literally all her life, since before she could walk.

Kiina Matsunaga poses for a photo to add to her portfolio (an example of which can be seen right) at Moffy Photo Studio in Osaka.
Kiina Matsunaga poses for a photo to add to her portfolio (an example of which can be seen right) at Moffy Photo Studio in Osaka. | J.J. O’DONOGHUE

The photo shoot that is scheduled the next day for a bicycle manufacturer will be much more routine. Hundreds of shots will be taken of Matsunaga and her younger brother, Aito, on bikes alongside her “mother,” a model from the Ukraine, and her “father” from Canada. An ad director will then select a few shots of the model family and their bikes.Today’s photos are for her portfolio, and she’s relaxed and enjoying it. At one stage she turns to her mother and tells her that this is the hair she wants.

Every weekend as parents across Japan ferry their children to piano lessons, baseball practice, swimming or cram school, another group of parents are ferrying their kids — babies included — to photo shoots and auditions. Some of these auditions could involve a role call of hundreds; for others, directors might have already whittled down the numbers.

The goal of an audition is virtually the same each time: to win a spot on a catalog or a commercial.

In Japan, the modeling industry for children is a well-oiled machine and there’s no shortage of youngsters who want to be models. Or, perhaps more to the point, there’s no shortage of parents who want their kids to be models for any number of reasons.

That said, modeling as a child rarely leads to a career in the industry and, for many kids at least, modeling peaks at around 130 centimeters.

From a parent’s perspective, modeling essentially commits them to doing the same thing as many other parents over the weekend — namely, ferrying kids from place to place, waiting around and chaperoning them during activities.

Getting in

Most modeling opportunities for children can be found in photo shoots for catalogues, which take three or four hours to complete.
Most modeling opportunities for children can be found in photo shoots for catalogues, which take three or four hours to complete. | COURTESY OF SUGAR AND SPICE

There are many ways of getting into modeling in Japan, but it often starts with a compliment.

Lynsey Mori, a British mother who lives in Kyoto, recalls that people kept telling her that her daughter could be a model.

“I brushed it off, thinking that all babies are cute and it’s just something people say,” Mori says.

However, Mori’s baby kept receiving the compliments and so when she stumbled across an ad for a modeling agency, Mori decided to look into it.

Julia Matsunaga, Kiina’s mother who is originally from Canada, had a similar experience: People constantly told her that her newborn son could be a model, so much so that it piqued her curiosity.

“In my head (I thought) it would be fun to have my kid on a poster once in a lifetime,” Matsunaga says. “That was about it.”

In some cases, it’s advantageous to have a foreign appearance. Browse through any brochure for Babydoll or Miki House, a couple of prominent kids and baby wear Japanese fashion brands, and you’d be forgiven for thinking Japan is as multicultural as a United Colors of Benetton advertisement. Both brands feature mixed and foreign models heavily in their catalogs.

In this regard, the fashion industry is itself an advertisement for the modeling industry.

Paul Carroll, an Irish father living in Osaka, says he signed his son and daughter with a modeling agency after seeing an advertisement online. His daughter was 8 months old when she landed her first assignment.

“I thought it would be nice to have them in a couple of magazines,” Carroll says. “That was basically the main aim.”

Carroll’s daughter, now 6, has since “retired” from the industry.

The gatekeepers

Young at art: The modeling industry for children in Japan is a well-oiled machine and there
Young at art: The modeling industry for children in Japan is a well-oiled machine and there’s no shortage of youngsters who want to be models. | COURTESY OF SUGAR AND SPICE

Myriad modeling agencies exist in Japan, but the management of their operations varies considerably.

Some agencies are run on a skeleton staff and, because they’re stretched so thin, agents rarely leave the office. One mother says it was years before her daughter’s agent finally met her face to face.

Valentine Bourreau, a manager at the international division of Sugar and Spice, an agency in Japan that specializes in child modeling, says parents usually find the agency online.

After making initial contact, Sugar and Spice will schedule an appointment to meet the parents and explain what is involved. Following that, a composite card of the model is made. The next point of contact, usually to inform parents of an audition, is done by email.

Bourreau typically tells parents that if they are dedicated — and attend auditions regularly — they will increase the chances of being called back.

Young at art: The modeling industry for children in Japan is a well-oiled machine and there
Young at art: The modeling industry for children in Japan is a well-oiled machine and there’s no shortage of youngsters who want to be models. | COURTESY OF SUGAR AND SPICE

Sugar and Spice staff, many of whom are bilingual, try to attend as many photo shoots as possible, but the sheer number makes it difficult to be at every set.

Agents who belong to smaller agencies rarely or never come, and so parents are often required to act as a go-between on a set and coordinate stylists, photographers, producers, the client and, of course, their child.

Julia Matsunaga, whose four children have all modeled at one stage, says she typically sends a detailed report to her agent after each shoot. It’s time consuming, she says, but it helps to plug any gaps that might arise later.

Agencies often charge different registration fees depending on nationality.

Sugar and Spice imposes a registration fee of ¥1,000 for children of mixed ethnicity and children born to foreign parents. By comparison, it charges a registration fee of ¥40,000 for children born to Japanese parents.

“With Japanese kids there’s more competition and they need more professional pictures, which requires renting a studio, photographer and stylist,” Bourreau says.

The terms of the contract can also include variations depending on the nationality of parents. A lot of agencies insist on exclusivity, especially as far as Japanese children are concerned. There tends to be a bit more leeway for foreign kids and children of mixed ethnicity.

Model behavior

Young at art: The modeling industry for children in Japan is a well-oiled machine and there
Young at art: The modeling industry for children in Japan is a well-oiled machine and there’s no shortage of youngsters who want to be models. | COURTESY OF SUGAR AND SPICE

“It can be a positive experience,” Southwick says, noting that there’s a social side to modeling.Janica Southwick, an American fashion and beauty consultant, runs a small casting agency in Tokyo. Her three children — who are signed to a few different Tokyo-based agencies, including Sugar and Spice — occasionally audition for modeling jobs, previously modeling for clients such as Nintendo, Uniqlo and Ralph Lauren.

“They get to dress up (and) meet other kids,” Southwick says. “They have to follow instructions and it can help with overcoming shyness.

“When the money comes in, I save some for them but also give them a little,” Southwick says. “They can buy something but also they can see their immediate rewards.”

As an agent and a mother of kids who model, Southwick has the benefit of seeing things from both sides, and she recommends that agents and parents communicate with each other as much as possible.

She says parents should confirm start and finishing times, as well as the timetable for each photo shoot. Adults are generally higher in the pecking order and, as such, tend to be photographed first. It’s also worth making sure you receive the final product, whether it’s a catalog or a poster featuring your child.

Most modeling opportunities for children can be found in photo shoots for catalogues, which take three or four hours to complete.
Most modeling opportunities for children can be found in photo shoots for catalogues, which take three or four hours to complete. | COURTESY OF SUGAR AND SPICE

“Before (a shoot or audition), parents can do a little practice with their kids,” Southwick says, adding that it’s worth getting their child to try out a few poses or smile on cue. Once a shoot begins, things get pretty chaotic.

Parents also have to be ready to the step in to the melee of stylists, clients and managers in order to rescue a situation.

Miki Laird, a Japanese mother living in Osaka, recalls a shoot in which her daughter froze up when she was instructed to hold hands with a boy she had never met before. On a separate occasion, Laird recalls, her daughter cried during the shoot and she never received another job offer from that client.

Southwick advises parents to ensure their child’s last name is not published on any website displaying a complete roster of children that have registered with an agency, especially if a photograph is included with the listing.

“There’s too many weird people on the internet and that side of me is the really ‘protective mom,'” Southwick says.

Short-lived activity

Young at art: The modeling industry for children in Japan is a well-oiled machine and there
Young at art: The modeling industry for children in Japan is a well-oiled machine and there’s no shortage of youngsters who want to be models. | COURTESY OF SUGAR AND SPICE

For child models who persist, the end starts to arrive at 120 centimeters; by 130 centimeters, opportunities more or less vanish as clothes sizes shift toward adult proportions.

While modeling is generally part-time and occasional work, for a small minority it could be the start of segueing into other areas of the entertainment industry.

Megan Clements, 11 — and 145 centimeters tall — from Osaka has modeled for catalogs, magazines and, more recently, a web video. She wants to transition into acting and has started taking acting classes at PolarStar Tokyo Academy.

Clements’ two siblings are also models and she’s been lucky enough to travel in Japan on modeling shoots, including to far-flung places such as Okinawa.

Clements’ mother, Manna, has increasingly become her daughter’s manager. A key part of that is helping steer Megan in the right direction.

Kiina Matsunaga’s mother, Julia, says that after years of modeling and hundreds of shoots, her daughter has a good idea of what she wants to do, but it’s definitely not acting. She has had a few interesting experiences doing creative fashion shoots, and that’s an avenue she might explore.

“She has other dreams,” Julia says. “She actually wants to be a rhythmic gymnast, so she’s also working very hard on that. She has her own future vision.”

‘Don’t treat it as work’

Young at art: The modeling industry for children in Japan is a well-oiled machine and there
Young at art: The modeling industry for children in Japan is a well-oiled machine and there’s no shortage of youngsters who want to be models. | COURTESY OF SUGAR AND SPICE

Many parents of children who model will argue that it’s best not to treat the experience as “work.”

That said, there’s no escaping from the fact that businesses pay for a child’s time.

Shoots for TV and web commercials can take eight to 10 hours to complete, with a child receiving up to ¥100,000 for such an effort.

Most modeling opportunities for children can be found in photo shoots for catalogs, which take three or four hours to complete. A child can receive up to ¥30,000 for this work, although the average rate is probably somewhere in the range of ¥20,000 to ¥25,000.

Payments obviously vary between each agency, and agencies generally take between 50 and 60 percent of what the client is billed.

However, you can understand where parents are coming from when they entreat others not to treat modeling as work. Children don’t work in developed countries. In fact, it’s all but illegal except in a few industries such as acting and modeling, and modeling isn’t really work — at least not in the same sense of sending children into a mine or putting them a clothes factory. Modeling involves putting on a smile and some clothes — or, in some cases, quite a lot of clothes.

At Sugar and Spice, Bourreau says as well as abiding to Japanese labor laws, they also follow guidelines drawn up by the Japan Modeling Agencies Association, ensuring that there are plenty of breaks and time for naps where needed.

Under the association’s guidelines, the ideal shooting time for a baby less than 1 year old is two hours; for child models under the age of 6, it’s up to three hours.

“We try to make it as easy as possible on the kids and organize the shooting with clients in a way that doesn’t disturb the kids’ routine,” Bourreau says.

Even if you treat modeling as an activity rather than work, your children may not always agree.

Matsunaga, whose four children all tried modeling, says her second son didn’t appreciate being told what to do. She recalls a photo shoot in which he was dressed in a kimono and instructed to act like a samurai. “He just really didn’t want to do it,” Matsunaga said, recalling that she thought he might quit modeling on the spot at that moment.

A photo from Kiina Matsunaga
A photo from Kiina Matsunaga’s portfolio | COURTESY OF JULIA MATSUNAGA

Other children, however, really enjoy the experience. Matsunaga says Kiina enjoyed the social interaction as a toddler and loved getting dressed up for shoots.

“The bigger she got, the more she’s enjoyed doing it,” Matsunaga says.

It’s natural for parents to worry about what their children think of modeling and what effect, if any, it may have on the development of their personality.

There’s also anxieties about what other people may think or, as one mother says, the judgment she receives, which run the gamut from questions of taste — “How can you let your child dress up like that?” — to moral issues such as “How can you objectify your children and not feel any shame?”

What’s more, the competition between the kids at the auditions can be intense, not to mention the competition between the rival parents.

Model parents

On set, the role of a child model is straightforward — posing, jumping, smiling — but, away from the camera, parents have to do a bit of everything, including helping with costume changes, cajoling, being a “general goofball,” as one mother put it and doling out sweet treats — but only at certain times. And in keeping with human nature, parents typically do their best to keep an eye on the competition.

From talking with parents, auditions can be anything from painless to being stressful. The good thing is that they’re usually fast. Sometimes the audition process is skipped if a client picks models based either on a past shoot or on their composite photos.

As to how to handle auditions that don’t work out? Parents typically try to play down the result.

Southwick generally gives her kids a few kind words when an audition doesn’t work out, and she might take them to the ¥100 shop. However, she says, “I don’t make a big deal about it.”

However, modeling does open parents up to scrutiny, from people outside the industry, and also from parents of other models. It’s fair to say that parents sensitive to the criticism will need to develop a thick skin.

“Modeling can be a fun, occasional experience,” said Lynsey Mori. “But I would not recommend trying to make a career out of it for any kid, unless they are begging to do it. For me, it’s just a fun, occasional experience and a little bit of pocket money.”