In this installment of “Love, Recorded,” baby Grace explores the modeling industry and Matt writes about selling and scams and the monetary value of babies.
A friend of ours lends us a car for President’s Day weekend, and my wife wants to drive to the mall. The mall is high on her list of places we haven’t been in a while due to lack of wheels. We also buy groceries, and fruit (separately), and baby and cat things. It as if we have our old lives, back in Korea with the possibility of escape. Though soon after this feeling comes the realization that we have spent my entire paycheck.
At the mall, Grace is a model baby. She likes to look. She likes it when she has her own little bubble around her, herself and her mom and me, and she can look out of this bubble at the strangeness of other people. Who wouldn’t like this feeling, I wonder. I wish I felt as safe around me as she does. She hates it when a stranger reaches through the bubble and touches her. This is her American side.
After a while, she wants to be held, so we carry her around and push an empty stroller. As we pass a cart, a woman stops us with compliments. We are ready to slip away, but then she mentions baby modeling, and we see that the cart is some kind of modeling company. I can feel my wife’s interest growing beside me, as if it is physically pushing against me. We are invited, the woman says, to try our baby out.
My wife has been talking about baby modeling for a while now, ever since Facebook told us our baby is cute (I joke). Cathreen was a baby model herself, so it’s in the genes, though the consensus is that Grace looks like me. Sometimes my mother-in-law will say the baby is starting to look more like Cathreen, that she’s getting cuter. When I defend my looks, Cathreen says, “Do you want her to look like you? She’s a girl.” I don’t defend my looks very hard.
There are various baby modeling agencies or marketing firms or whatever-they-call-themselves in Boston. Cathreen has looked into them. We know all parents think their baby is cute, and so do these firms. They charge parents for appointments, which seems to me as if they are simply taking advantage of love. Before we go to our “interview” for Grace, I look up the company that stopped us. I type “Interface modeling” into Google.
The reviews that come up reference the Framingham location, where we are going, as having taken parents for large chunks of money. Mothers are suing.
I tell Cathreen that if they try to charge us anything, we need to get out of there fast.
On the day of our interview, someone calls several times to make sure we are coming and that we bring multiple forms of identification, which is somehow off-putting, though I realize why they need it. I imagine a network of babynappers and modeling. A man calls while we are waiting in the lobby for our appointment, asking if we are going to be on time. I don’t know how to sound nice about my answer.
Our interview is with a friendly, overeager “agent” (he calls himself something else) who asks us questions about Grace’s personality, her hair, her birthmarks, her physical milestones. At one point, he asks if she’s had her first lollipop yet. Cathreen and I hold our tongues. Our daughter is 7 months old. He says we need to record this moment, her first sugar. We might record it, when Grace is 4 or 5. He asks us about our “background” in a way that makes me squirm, as if he is calculating the value of Korean. Throughout all of this, he is smiling and showing us photos of children he says he has gotten modeling jobs for at Macy’s or Babies R Us or even well-known designers I haven’t heard of but I am sure my wife has.
He says our daughter will make bank. He says companies are looking for an “Asian look” and hair. He says his success rate is 80%. He talks about hair and makeup for Grace; he wants to go with a mohawk look. He thinks it will be so cute. We listen, I confess, with pleasure. We like being told our daughter is adorable. We could certainly use the money. I am sure Cathreen would enjoy the photoshoots, a way to break up the day with attention.
At the end of the session, the agent says he will get us all ready for the first set of photos, which go out to companies like an actor’s headshot. He calls it a “card,” though the examples he shows us are about the size of a half-sheet of A4 paper. He talks about the next steps, which jobs we should definitely take and which we might turn down. He thinks we should go with the premium package for the “card.” And I know then that this has been a long sell. He hands us a piece of paper that shows the prices, starting at 700 dollars or something (for one photograph) and going up into the thousands.
When I was in high school, I spent a summer selling knives to friends’ parents and neighbors. I learned the pitch we were supposed to give by heart: demonstrating the quality of the knives, letting the customers test them out, cutting a penny in half with a pair of scissors, showing how much better the knives were than the competitors, mentioning the life-time guarantee, and finally slipping in the price when the product was already “sold.” I felt terrible making this pitch. My grandparents bought an entire set of knives. I still have my demonstration set, and they are fine knives—better than most—but I felt awful for asking people to buy them. Not for recommending them, but because I knew that the pitch was designed to manipulate them. Because I wasn’t so ignorant that I didn’t know what I was doing.
When I mention to the baby agent that we don’t have the money for these photographs, he says we will work something out. It becomes clear that he means we can go with the least expensive option. I say we can’t afford anything. I mention agents in other industries, how they earn money through a percentage of what a writer or actor makes. I mention that my sister did commercials as a child and never paid to be in them, of course. I say if he believes Grace will make plenty of money, then he should be confident that the costs will be recouped. Cathreen says we will think about it and get back to him, showing far more grace. But as soon as the money is off the table, the agent grows angry. He says he doesn’t want us, anyway. He says we aren’t supportive parents; he only wants to work with parents who support their children completely. He says don’t bother getting back to him if we aren’t going to spend the money up front. He says, “Good luck waiting for your baby to be discovered.”
By this time, Grace has felt the shift in the room, perhaps, because she is getting fussy. She keeps spitting out her pacifier and swaying unsteadily. I am staring at this person as he says he has to get to lunch and wondering if he feels any regret, what it would take for him to shine the light on himself.
In the car, Cathreen says the fee was more than other agencies charge, anyway. If we do this, she’ll go somewhere else. Grace is happily sucking at her bottle. I look over the seat at the top of my child’s head, all that hair she was born with, and think about the word, “discover.” How inadequate it seems, and how very late, when it feels as if we have known forever how amazing she is, when the onus seems not on us to share her with the world, but on the world to leave her, at least a little longer, within the bubble of us.
—photo Daniel Salesses