At 52, Rose Indri is as amazed as anyone that she is a sought-after model working for one of the most prestigious agencies in the business. ''It isn't anything I dreamed of doing. I never expected to do anything like this at this time in my life. I always took pride in my home and family. Sometimes I have to sit back and think about what's happened,'' she says.
Mrs. Indri's modeling career began four years ago when a friend, a beauty salon owner, suggested to her, ''I think Clairol would love to see you.''
''I told her, 'You've got to be kidding,' '' says Mrs. Indri, little realizing at the time that the comment would be prophetic. ''I was always so quiet and reserved.''
But the idea stayed in the back of her mind. One day, without telling anyone, she got ''all dressed up'' and went into New York City from her home in West New York, N.J. She went to a bookstore, asked for a book on modeling, and went to the first agency listed.
''[The agency] picked me up immediately,'' she says, and her career snowballed.
Two years later, after she signed on with the Ford Models Inc. in New York, her first assignment was in fact with Clairol. Since then she has done many jobs , including catalog and advertising work, television spots, and most recently, the January cover of Fifty-Plus magazine.
Mrs. Indri is an exception in the highly competitive modeling industry, where newcomers are pounding the pavements for a break and young women are hitting stardom at age 15 and under. But over the past few years, opportunities have been opening up for more mature and gray-haired models.
''A lot of women wouldn't think of modeling as they grow older. Those that do can get a lot of work,'' says Tina Sutton, a prominent fashion consultant in Boston.
Rose Indri admits that when she started in the modeling business, she had no idea her gray hair would be an asset: ''Although I went gray at an early age, I always kept my gray hair - I just never gave it another thought. There aren't many naturally gray-haired women in the business. Once they get to know you, they keep calling.''
It isn't always so easy. Some older models who were prominent in the business during their younger years find it difficult to contend with new ''go-see'' jobs , where they must ''try out'' rather than be chosen on the basis of previous work and their portfolio. Others who don't fit the ''gray-haired lady'' image can have a hard time finding work.
One slim, fashionable, 48-year-old model with auburn hair says: ''My problem is, I look too young to be an old model and too old to be a young model. I'm hanging in there, but it's tough.''
Still, progress is being made. Five years ago, for example, the Ford agency in New York opened its ''classic women's division'' with 10 older models. Today the division has expanded to 30 models, ranging in ages from 35 to 65.
Although demand for the older models is still not as brisk as the agency would like, ''We've made incredible gains,'' says Claudia Black, who heads the division. ''The groundwork had to be laid.''
She says many of the models in Ford's older women's division were top models in the late '40s and early '50s.
Lillian Marcuson, with three Life covers to her credit from her early modeling days, is back in the business after a 25-year hiatus while she raised a family.
''The young people are delightful to work with. I am treated very well, like a mother queen,'' she says.
As an older model, Mrs. Marcuson has appeared in many major women's magazines , has worked for television and advertising, and did a cover for Newsweek last November.
She says older male models have been ''very fortunate'' during the years about getting work: ''Men get more distinguished as they get older, and women get older and grayer - that's the stereotype.''
Although she says mature women models are gaining recognition, the high-fashion magazines rarely picture them. ''It's women in their late 30s, 40s, and 50s who can afford to buy the clothes in these magazines, but [art directors ] only use the younger women. We still haven't broken the barrier,'' says Mrs. Marcuson.
Eugenia McLin, 46, says modeling has changed a great deal since she began about 20 years ago. Initially, she worked as a high-fashion model for seven years before she married and moved to Europe with her family. There she did some work for Dior, Chanel, and others before stopping completely.
Modeling at that time was more stylized and stiff, whereas it is more relaxed now, she says. Although getting work has not been a problem since resuming her career back in the States, she admits that ''it hasn't been easy for me. I've had to learn all over again. There are also changes in what I project. I am what I am.''
Some in the fashion business recognize the special qualities of mature women.
''I go out of my way to use older models,'' says Tina Sutton, who does promotional work for Bonwit Teller in Boston and other clothing stores. ''There is definitely a certain grace and poise as you grow older because you are more sure of yourself.'' Young models may have perfect features, she says, but ''older women have character in their face. I appreciate that kind of beauty.''
[Older models] are also the most professional. They are always on time, where younger models can be less responsible.''
The types of models she uses for a particular assignment depends on the client and the audience, but Ms. Sutton likes to use older models in runway fashion shows given for executive women, for example. She says they are particularly effective in informal situations where the model is expected to chat with the audience.
Ruth Pratt, who has been working as a ''matron model'' in Boston for 10 years , says she has received some unexpected audience response. On one occasion she was modeling swimsuits during a runway show given for an audience composed largely of middle-aged and older couples. She says they were politely quiet as the younger women modeled the skimpier styles, and when she emerged in a suit that ''covered everything up,'' they broke into applause.
Mrs. Pratt finds modeling has other rewards. She likes the irregular schedule because, with five grown children and nine grandchildren, ''I still have time to do things for them.''
Eugenia McLin, who runs a consulting business on the side, agrees: ''It's been fun for me to do this. I don't really want a 9-to-5 job.''
Rose Indri says she models ''not for the money, but for the enjoyment I get out of doing it. I love it very much - it's a great career. You think these things only happen to very young people, but age has nothing to do with what youm want to do.''