French child models: wage-earners at an early age

My godchild's two little daughters, aged 2 and 4, are serious wage earners helping to finance their father's last year at a Paris university. Angele and Jeanne, professional free-lance models, are booked for photo sessions once or twice a week, each earning 138 francs an hour (about $22), minus social security charges and federal taxes. ''They consider it play,'' says Mama, Pascaline Cambournic. ''But if they ever turn into spoiled brats, we'll stop it cold.''

Five major agencies in Paris specialize in child models from the age of three months through the early teens. The largest, which books Angele and Jeanne on a regular basis, refused an interview after a French magazine last year rather snidely insinuated that these working kids equal ''sweatshop labor'' while parents frolic merrily on the proceeds of their offspring's harrowing toils.

Factually it's quite the contrary, according to Frimousse, the second leading agency, with a listing of about 500 Lilliputians. When it comes to the big league of television ads, paying between 800 and 1,000 francs even for a short session, the government requires the parents to place half the child's earnings in a registered savings account that cannot be touched before the ''wage earner'' has reached the grand old age of 18. Today, even the three-month-old pros are socking away the sous for their own college education.

About 1,500 to 2,000 babies and young children are currently listed in most professional model agencies here. Infants and prekindergartners work the most, as schoolchildren are only free ''after hours'' on Wednesday afternoons, Saturday, sometimes on Sunday, and occasionally during holidays. Bookings ''in the cradle'' actually depend upon the baby's size (there's no way you can stuff a 10-month-old infant into a three-month-size garment) and the amount of available time the mother may have to trundle the baby to and fro for appointments.

Many doting mothers instantly visualize the newborn as an eventual ''Little Lord Fauntleroy'' or incarnation of the early Shirley Temple. But only about 1 out of every 10 applicants makes the grade no matter how sweet, pink, and rosy the cradle pictures appear to his near and dear. Agencies automatically eliminate the vast majority of would-be stars before selecting a few for tentative trials. The commercial client and photographer have the final say, often after a preliminary run on videotape. ''A candidate may seem wonderfully photogenic in stills,'' says Mme. Moon Dambrine, co-owner of Frimousse, ''but often he eventually goes into a 'deep freeze' or is painfully shy.''

While no little spoiled darling who constantly throws tantrums is anyone's delight, most professional photographers, often parents of small children themselves, are wonderfully patient and willing to cope with any small crisis when tears flow momentarily.

Clients are looking for spark and personality rather than physical beauty, and there are definite trends in type casting. Frimousse, which translates roughly as ''roguish little face,'' claims that blondes and redheads are currently most in demand. When there's a delicious sprinkling of freckles the child is considered a ''teep Ah-merry-cane'' -- (American type!).

If gentlemen prefer blondes, so does a leading French manufacturer of children's underclothes, refusing to settle for anything less than an angelic little towheaded toddler now portraying the wonders of leakproof bloomers on television.

Another French company producing a well-known brand of baby oil embarked on a search for the ideal ''image'' that lasted almost as long as the quest for Scarlett O'Hara in ''Gone With the Wind.'' This client demanded that Frimousse come up with a winsome, blonde two-year-old boy to cuddle and dab adorably with a bottle of the lotion. After a four-month check with helpful agencies in other countries throughout Europe, the eventual choice turned out to be a French child whose TV residuals have already ensured his college education plus his old-age pension.

Movies are an ultimate goal. Rachid Ferrache, nine years old, has just been booked for a three-month location stint on a new film starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. What about schoolwork? No problem. The film company is paying for a private tutor to accompany the boy and drill him daily in the ''three R's.''

Even animals get in the act, though Frimousse does not habitually book the four-footed friends. The office mascot, however, is Othello, a large, friendly old collie dog who recently made a last-minute unscheduled appearance for a Kleenex ad. ''He has such a long aristocratic nose, and the connotation is that it would take an awful lot of paper tissues to blow it,'' the agency says.

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