Karlie Kloss has sauntered down innumerable Fashion Week runways in impossibly high heels. She has grown accustomed to walking past a newsstand and seeing her face on the cover of a glossy magazine. Some say she could be the next American supermodel. But she's still a sixteen-year-old girl from Webster Groves, and if there's a trampoline in the back yard, she's going to jump on it.
On a hot and sunny August Saturday, Kloss has come to Dardenne Prairie to spend a few hours with her agents, Jeff and Mary Clarke, and three other St. Louis models: Katie Fogarty, Cat McGrath and Kayla Travers. The four girls spent the morning eating sausage-and-mushroom quiche, comparing notes on the first week of school and commiserating with Fogarty over her "devil child" yearbook picture. The photo, they agree, is an aberration, and they blame the photographer.
Soon all of them (save McGrath) will be in New York for Fashion Week. They'll spend their first few days in a flurry of casting sessions and fittings, and another week modeling the spring collections. Depending on how many casting directors they impress, they could find themselves working sixteen-hour days.
"I can't believe it's already here again," exclaims Kloss, a veteran of three seasons on the modeling circuit. During Spring Fashion Week in New York last February, she walked in 31 shows. "I just try not to fall," she says.
This will be Fogarty's first Fashion Week: "I'm pumped," she declares.
It's been just a few years since Jeff and Mary Clarke discovered these girls in St. Louis supermarkets and shopping malls. The girls were tall and gangly. Fogarty and Travers still had braces. The Clarkes groomed them for the New York modeling market. "We have a talent for spotting talent," says Mary.
After nearly twenty years in the business, they've built an extensive network in the fashion world and a reputation for taking good care of their girls.
Mary emerges from the house, where she'd been chatting with the girls' mothers, and watches as Kloss, McGrath and Travers continue jumping and shrieking. Their long, skinny arms and legs flail through the air. "They're kids," she says. "Tall, beautiful kids."
She considers it her job to make sure they stay that way.
It is no accident that the Clarkes named their agency Mother Model Management.
In the modeling industry, a mother agent is the scout who discovers a model, usually in her hometown, and then introduces her to bookers in large fashion markets. The bookers arrange the girl's work schedule — everything from magazine spreads to fashion show appearances — while the mother agent remains chief advisor and collects 10 percent of her earnings.
Jeff and Mary Clarke, though, take the term "mother" more literally than most other agents. "You get the sense that each girl is a part of their family," says Stephen Lee, a booker at Next Models, a well-respected New York modeling agency. "Jeff and Mary nurture their girls."
"I was a little hesitant when I first met them," recalls Fogarty. "You hear all these horror stories, how agents rip you off. But Jeff and Mary really care. They took an interest in me beyond wanting to get their cut. They're almost like family."
Mary, 46, and Jeff, 34, have been married nine years and have four children and a granddaughter between them. They work out of an office in their basement. She deals with other agents, the clients and the parents, while he handles the scheduling and travel arrangements. They communicate in verbal shorthand, almost like code, and at times through apparent mental telepathy.
Most other agents in St. Louis concentrate on providing models for local advertisers. The Clarkes, says New York agent and producer Michael Flutie, are the only agents in the Midwest who scout models for the international market.
"Jeff and Mary may live in St. Louis," he says, "but they represent the eyes of global beauty."
"There's a great desire for American girls," Mary explains, "and not a lot of good, reliable sources. Most agents don't understand what the New York agent is looking for. They send typically pretty girls. We're looking for someone beautiful, with an edge. Our girls wouldn't be the smiley girl in the Sunday supplement."
Kloss' androgynous face and McGrath's curly auburn hair, for instance, are distinctive enough to attract attention in New York, but too offbeat to get them much work closer to home.
"She doesn't have the Midwest look," notes Mary McGrath, Cat's mother. "In Chicago, they're looking for blonds, the classic girl next door."
Mary Clarke has spent fifteen years honing her eye for beauty, first in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and then in St. Louis, where she and Jeff moved in 2001. Before Kloss, her most celebrated discovery was Ashton Kutcher, whom she met in a bar in Iowa City in 1997. Originally the Clarkes, like most traditional agents, arranged photo shoots and fashion shows, but they realized their true talents were elsewhere. (See Eddie Silva's "Field of Schemes," May 8, 2002.)
"We scout and manage," Mary says. "That's our thing. We're not meant to book."
Mother Model Management is a boutique agency. The Clarkes don't charge the models for start-up costs, like test shots and portfolio pictures. "We want to stay small to help as many people as we can," says Mary.
Now that their own kids are older, they travel with their girls. This month, they will fly to New York, Milan and Paris. "It's a lonely business," Mary explains. "It's nice for the girls to have family and extra support. It wouldn't be the same if we weren't available."
"They all have a connection to home," Jeff adds.
Currently, Mother Model Management has 25 models, mostly from Missouri and Iowa, placed with bookers in the major fashion markets.
The Clarkes are careful about who they decide to represent. Just ask Flutie, who recently spent two weeks traveling with Jeff and Mary across the Midwest scouting for contestants for his new show, MTV Model Makers.
"We were at the state fair," he recalls. "It was surreal. I saw this beautiful girl, about five-ten, screaming at her parents. I said to Mary and Jeff, 'Look at that!' But Mary wouldn't even approach her. She thought the girl was conveying the mannerisms of disrespect. Mary said to me, 'We have the liberty of handpicking who we want to work with.'"
Almost every model's first encounter with Jeff and Mary Clarke goes something like this:
You're a young girl, thirteen or fourteen. You're skinny and flat-chested and tower over everyone else in your grade — "a tall, awkward thing," says Karlie Kloss.
One day you're out running errands with your parents at Schnucks or West County Center, or you're working at the Dairy Queen, or walking through the airport, when you notice someone staring at you. You feel slightly uncomfortable, but decide you're being paranoid. And then someone yells, "Wait! Stop!" You turn and see a motherly looking woman with curly red hair and a burly black man with a beard and an armful of tattoos running after you.
"We're not stalkers," they say. "You're so beautiful. Have you ever thought about being a model?"
"My parents thought it was a scam," Kayla Travers remembers. "I did some research on their website and was like, 'Look how legit they are! They discovered Ashton Kutcher!' My dad said, 'We'll talk to Mary. She sounded really nice.'"
"We want to be careful and respectful and honest," Mary says. "That's why we meet with the parents."
"We had all the old conceptions of the industry, the eating disorders, the fast life," says Mary McGrath, Cat's mother. "Mary and Jeff assured us from the beginning they would keep a close tab on her. I don't feel like I'm fighting with them about things that are important."
The Clarkes keep in touch through phone calls and occasional meetings. "It's not a whole lot of time," says Cat, "maybe a few hours every few weeks. They usually come to us. They taught me stuff I never thought about, like how to hold myself, the different angles, how to use the light, to keep my mouth slightly open."
"Modeling is acting in still," explains Travers, who has been performing in community theater productions since she was six. ("Yeah, I know," she laughs, "two of the most fickle industries.")
"I had to learn poses and face looks," McGrath says. Does she give them nicknames, like the male models in the movie Zoolander? "No, no names." She won't demonstrate one, either, even though her ten-year-old sister Clare looks on hopefully. "They don't like me to smile. High fashion is more serious."
"If you do happy-smiley," Travers adds, "after a while, your face starts twitching."
The girls do test shots, or practice photo sessions, and walk in local fashion shows. "I did some bridal shows," says Travers. "I kept thinking, Why am I in a bridal dress on a runway? But it was low stress. I had nothing to compare it to."
When the Clarkes decide a girl is mature enough to work, they send pictures to agents in New York. "We expect agencies to trust our judgment," Mary says. "When we get a lukewarm reaction, we get frustrated. It's like, What are you not seeing? If we believe in someone, we keep going. We don't give up until we're exhausted."
"They send great girls," says Next's Stephen Lee, "girls who are ready for the market."
"I went to New York with my mom for the first time this summer," McGrath recounts. "We were there for ten days. It was crazy. We were constantly running around from the agency to photo shoots. We learned the subway system really fast."
"The biggest misconception is that it's all glitz and glamour," Travers says. "It's a business. You have to treat it like a business."
"I love America's Next Top Model," McGrath says, "but it's much harder than they make it seem. It can take two or three hours just to do your hair. They yank it and it hurts. And then there are the high heels. It gets painful. I'd rather play volleyball."
Travers was chosen for the Marc by Marc Jacobs show during Spring Fashion Week last February. Jacobs is her favorite designer and she was thrilled, but she discovered that runway shows are difficult.
"During the fittings, they made me walk [the runway] 100, 150 times in heels," Travers recalls. "My feet got calluses. For the show, I walked just once. Right before I went on, I thought I was going to die."
"It's kind of scary," Fogarty confesses. "You've got 25-year-old guys hitting on you — because we look like we're in our 30s after they do our makeup and hair."
"It's such a big transformation," McGrath says. "I love being all made up." She slowly flips through some test shots taken earlier this summer. In the photos, the makeup artist has lined her eyes in heavy black mascara and purple eye shadow, and wild curls blow across her face.
Today, she wears no makeup and her hair is pulled tightly back into a braid; she has just come from volleyball practice. She stares at the pictures, bemused, her thoughts almost audible: Is this really me?
There are other surprises. "Jeff called me a few weeks ago," Travers says, "and said, 'Guess who's in Teen Vogue?' I said, 'I don't know, who's in Teen Vogue?' He said, 'You are!' I was at a friend's house, but he brought it over to show me. I had a full page. It was very exciting." The photo leads off the magazine's fall fashion section and shows Travers strutting around backstage at the Marc Jacobs show last spring, barely able to contain her excitement.
Travers and Fogarty have fallen in love with modeling. "I don't know how much I could work, though," Fogarty says. "I'm only allowed to be absent fifteen days a semester, but my principal told me, 'There's no way I can tell you you can't go. It's the opportunity of a lifetime.'" McGrath is more ambivalent. "I'd like to keep doing it," she says, "as long as it doesn't conflict with other things."
"It's a good summer job," Mary McGrath says firmly.
Is Cat worried about a volleyball hitting her in the face and ruining her career? She laughs. Her mother explains: "She's more concerned about twisting her ankle walking around in those heels and not being able to play volleyball."
Karlie Kloss just turned sixteen. In the past year, she has been on the covers of Teen Vogue, Korean W, RUSSH and Alive. Steven Meisel shot her for Italian Vogue. She appeared in an ad campaign with Lauren Hutton. She has modeled evening gowns and ripped jeans, a clown costume and an enormous pair of false eyelashes.
She has played the tuba, cuddled a baby liger — a cross between a lion and a tiger — and held a pair of live chickens upside down by their feet, one in each fist, for ten long minutes, until the birds calmed down enough to be photographed. In the rankings of the world's top 50 models at models.com, Kloss is No. 26. Earlier this year when she switched her agency from Elite Model Management to Next for a reported $200,000 bonus, Elite threatened to sue.
The Clarkes won't say how much money she's earned so far. But, says Mary, "She's in a position to have an extremely lucrative career."
Last February, New York magazine declared Kloss Spring Fashion Week's No. 1 model. She walked the runway for Gucci, Valentino, Calvin Klein, Marc Jacobs and every other major designer. By the end of the circuit, from New York to Milan to Paris, she appeared in 64 shows.
Then it was back to Webster Groves High School, where she was just another freshman — albeit a five-foot-eleven-inch tall one who did a lot of class work online.
"It's been crazy," Kloss says. "I'm only sixteen. How did I fit it all in?"
She's become enough of a celebrity to attract negative attention, though not enough of a celebrity to ignore it. During one Fashion Week show, Tyra Banks mimicked Kloss' runway walk, which New York described as "a kind of stoned death stare." In January, a celebrity gossip website published an unsubstantiated rumor that she had gone to rehab for anorexia.
"I was devastated that someone would write that about me," Kloss says. "It's a vicious lie. Anyone who knows me knows I can't go ten minutes without a snack." Indeed, at the conclusion of this interview, she makes a beeline for a bag of grapes lying on the Clarkes' kitchen counter.
"Of course it hurt her," Mary Clarke says. "She cried. But it was amazing to watch her bounce back. It showed real strength of character. I couldn't be more proud."
Kloss first met the Clarkes when she was thirteen and auditioning for a charity fashion show at West County Center. "I had no clue," she remembers. "I didn't think you had to be tall. I didn't know there was such a thing as a runway walk. My mom and I went to the bathroom to practice walking so I wouldn't be nervous. Then, after I walked, I went to the food court and got a hot-fudge sundae."
The Clarkes remember that day much differently.
"She had a long body," Jeff recalls, "even when she was only five-six or five-seven. And she had this walk."
Mary joins in: "I said to Jeff, 'Look at that little girl walk.'"
Jeff rubs his arms. "I have goose bumps now just thinking about it."
Says Mary: "We said to her, 'Don't change anything.'"
Kloss was a natural in front of the camera as well. "I don't have any training," she says, bending over to shake out her dark blond hair before straightening up and striking another pose. "I just do it."
But there are plenty of tall, beautiful, photogenic girls who can walk down a runway, including the three currently sprawled on the Clarkes' trampoline. No one, least of all Kloss, seems to know what makes her such a star.
"She's a classic American beauty," Mary ventures. "And she's sweet. The business is full of self-centered people. It's refreshing to be around her."
"Her timing is impeccable," says Michael Flutie. "Fashion is about a moment, a season, and you jump on that moment. She came in at a time when the photographers, the hair and makeup people, the stylists were looking for a 1960s English/French kind of girl. She portrays that girl. She's lanky and tall and has a non-intrusive, quiet beauty that's more subtle.
"And she's loved by the photographers," he continues. "People like Steven Meisel, Patrick Demarchelier, they all talk to each other. It's a small group, but they have a lot of influence. The casting directors say, 'We like their judgment.' And then suddenly you have a new 'It' model."
Kloss is uncomfortable discussing her It-ness. Ever so tactfully, she avoids demonstrating The Walk and deflects compliments on her outfit, a gray tunic belted over black leggings. "This is my sister Kimby's," she says. "I stole it from her. She's so stylish. Every interview I go to, I'm wearing something of hers."
She will allow that modeling has taught her some useful things, like the best places to find hot chocolate in Paris and Milan, and that she's a sucker for gift bags. But she doesn't get to attend many industry parties. Everywhere she goes, she is accompanied one of a rotating assortment of relatives.
"My family is so supportive," she says. "There's nothing they wouldn't do for me. I'm very lucky. I don't know anyone with a family like mine, except for Jeff and Mary. I've talked to other girls and they say it's difficult to find people to go with them. I have a surplus."
Someday, when her modeling career ends, Kloss wants to open her own bakery.
Every week or so, Jeff and Mary Clarke go on a scouting expedition. The food court at West County Center is one of their favorite haunts. "At lunchtime, you see a lot of girls in their school uniforms," Mary explains. From anyone else, this might sound vaguely unsettling.
The Clarkes peer into a few stores where teenagers tend to hang out, like Abercrombie & Fitch and American Eagle. They're looking for a head that towers high above the racks.
The Clarkes zero in on very specific things: A girl should be between five-nine and six feet tall. She should be thin, no bigger than a size four. She should be young, between thirteen and nineteen. And she should be photogenic — that intangible quality that Mary describes as looking comfortable in her own skin.
And, at least in recent years, she should be white.
"I don't get it," Jeff says. "As a person of color, I find it frustrating. We've found great black girls, but if they're not mixed or don't have light skin, no one wants them."
"In the '90s, we could find girls who were really unusual-looking and quirky," says Mary, "but after 9/11 there was this big shift. Maybe it was the economy, I don't know, but people were less willing to risk using an exotic girl. But these things are cyclical. The pendulum is swinging back the other way now."
"I've been hearing from New York that there's a desperation for black girls," Jeff adds, "ever since Italian Vogue did that all-black issue last month. And if you can find an Asian girl who's five-ten, you've got it made."
The Clarkes won't recruit anyone they don't think can make it as a model. "We don't want to give anyone false hope," Mary says.
"The girls have to know what we want and if they can fit in a healthy way," Jeff explains. "Some girls who are a size nine will never be a size two and be healthy."
"A curvy woman can be just as beautiful," Mary continues, "but modeling requires a certain body type. It's like the NBA. A long, elegant woman's body with extended arms and legs is like a sculpture. You want to capture that long, beautiful line. It looks really pretty."
The media never tires of discussing anorexia among models. This past summer, eighteen-year-old model Ali Michael wrote an article for Teen Vogue about how she stopped eating in order to stay thin. Her hair fell out and her period ceased. After she gained five pounds, the casting directors Paris shows refused to hire her because her legs had gotten too plump.
The St. Louis girls have been luckier. "If I ever got to that point, my parents would notice," says Fogarty, who read the article. "I kind of pigged out last summer. Too much chocolate cake and not enough veggies. So I gained a couple of inches. Jeff and Mary measured me and said, 'If you want to, you can lose it.' They never yelled, 'You're fat!'"
The Clarkes recently took on a new client, a girl named Hilary Shanks from Ozark, Missouri, just outside Springfield. Jeff found her by scanning the listings on models.com. The evening before the scouting expedition, Shanks drove to St. Louis with her mother for a photo shoot to fill her modeling portfolio.
Shanks is eighteen and has green eyes, sculpted cheekbones and glowing skin. At the shoot, she molded her body to the photographer's direction as though she were made of Silly Putty. The Clarkes will be sending her to Miami. At the moment, she's about five pounds too curvy to work in New York.
"Yeah, I know," Mary says ruefully. "But Miami is more accepting. A fifteen-year-old is too young for swimsuits and lingerie, but an older girl is able to make her own choices."
The younger girls have been instructed to call their bookers if anything about an assignment makes them uncomfortable. McGrath once left a shoot that required her to wear a bikini. "They didn't let me know until the last minute," she explains.
"I was concerned," says her mother. "When she walked out, I thought, 'Well, that's the end of modeling for Cat.' But Jeff and Mary were good about saying she shouldn't do anything she's not comfortable with."
"I haven't had any problems," says Travers. "Most people know I'm young. My parents would say, 'You don't need this; you can do other things.' Unlike other models, I don't have to depend on this for food or college. There's no pressure on me to make money. I appreciate that."
Recently, some of Mary Clarke's models from her Iowa days set up a reunion group on Facebook. "It's so funny!" Mary exclaims. "They've posted pictures of me with big '80s hair! And some of them are married now, with kids. It's so strange."
The Clarkes have taken some of these girls into their home, bought them clothes and looked after them when they had problems with their parents. Modeling didn't work out for all of them, but Jeff and Mary don't see that as a reason to exclude them from their family.
"I just got a really nice e-mail the other day from this girl I knew back in Iowa," Mary says, leaning forward in her chair in the food court. "She wrote, 'You saved me.' Her name was Jenny Johnson. She was beautiful. She came from this small town in Iowa and all the other girls just hated her. They spray painted 'model bitch' on her driveway.
"She went to Paris and was working and doing well. But then something happened on a train. A man physically attacked her. She never told me the details. She'd just had it with modeling and wanted to come home. I met her plane. She was wearing Tasmanian Devil slippers, I remember. She was like a little girl. I held out my arms and I loved her. I just loved her."