Model children. Behind the scenes with an agency that puts kids in front of cameras

IN TV commercials, you often see perky children rolling their eyes over hot dogs or chortling ecstatically over pizzas or jumping with joy over raisins or new shoes or toothpaste. How do people get a tiny child to do it? Well, first they find a tiny child who acts like that pretty much routinely in the normal course of a day.

Take adorable 2-year-old Ada Perz. Ada has big brown eyes, tiny brown braids anchored to the top of her head with red and green barrettes, and looks chic in yellow sweater, turquoise pants, and red rubber boots. Her mother, Anna, opens Ada's portfolio. ``Here, Ada. Here, Ada,'' says Ada, whamming a tiny forefinger accurately on each picture of her chubby, charming face. Then she spins off, laughing and romping with such grace and animation that you listen for the clicking of appreciative cameras.

``It goes in a cycle,'' says Mary Pat Sperry, founder of Rascals Unlimited, a child modeling agency here in Manhattan that represents Ada. She says that when she started in this business nine years ago, everybody wanted the ``perfect, blond, blue-eyed little kid. Then there was a rash of red-headed kids. And we had a lot of work for black kids - that's totally slowed down. We had a big search for them; now it's very difficult to book a black child.''

Rascals Unlimited is a small office, with coolly modern gray carpet and white walls and desks. But everybody is friendly, and everywhere you see pictures of kids: little girls staring sensitively out from under large hats, or looking like dolls in handknit sweaters; confident dark-haired boys who look as if a Harvard MBA were somewhere in their future.

Ms. Sperry says she picks up half her agency on the street. One picture shows three little girls playing on a jungle gym, all laughing, all in red bathing suits that say ``Coke.'' One pretty child is Filipino: ``This little girl I found in Saks. I said, `She's beautiful,''' says Sperry, a former child psychologist and the mother of two. Her oldest son is now in college, thanks to the money he earned years ago as a child model.

Sperry represents 200 kids - ``that's not very many'' - and is always on the lookout for more. Sometimes she'll interview 1,000 children at a modeling convention, and not find one. In addition, she says, the agency receives about 200 photos a week. She uses a lot of local kids in winter; in summer many of the models come with their mothers from out of town. (``Half the agency goes to summer camp,'' she explains.)

When Rascals Unlimited receives the ``storyboard'' for an ad, it then sends off its most promising candidates to a ``go-see,'' or audition. Today, somebody wants a female Little Leaguer. Sperry goes over to a file and pulls out a photo of a little girl she might send. ``She can look very feminine, but she can also look like a baseball player,'' she says.

She pulls out a photo of another child who would be less appropriate for this job. ``She's so prissy, a real pageant queen,'' she says; then she looks a bit apologetic, or maybe a little sad. ``That's what we call them. Her mother has grown up on her doing pageants. That is the kiss of death for kids. They are taught to walk, talk, and breathe on cue. They come in here with blush and a little mascara and gloss, foundation, black eyeliner - at five years old.'' While it's hard for kids who have gone this route to break into modeling there are some who do: ``They have to become unpageanted,'' she says.

Does modeling have a negative effect on a child? Gail Lilly from Connecticut doesn't think so. She has two children at Rascals, 14-year-old Derreck and 7-year-old Heather. Mrs. Lilly feels that their careers have been beneficial: ``their social growth has been tremendous,'' she says.

Derreck, a relaxed, easy-going boy, says his friends react pretty casually to his career, ```You model; that's great.' It's not like I'm different from anyone else.''

When the kids start arriving in the Rascals office, toys start appearing. A white elephant lies on its side on the office floor; Ada Perz hands her mother a rather worn looking Cabbage Patch doll and then dances off.

Mrs. Perz, a slender, attractive woman with a long blond braid and a wonderful Greta Garboesque Polish accent, straightens the doll's bonnet and smooths its yarn hair with an automatic motherly gesture. She says that Ada benefits from modeling because she gets to go where there are other kids. ``It keeps her feeling she is not different from other children, because we are foreign,'' she says. ``She tells me she wants to go to studio to make pictures; it's a nice part of the day.''

Ryan Maloney, who at four years old is short, dark, and handsome, tiptoes ostentatiously around the Rascals office with a letter-opener that has a crystal at one end; it is serving as a magnifying glass, and he is obviously being a Great Detective. He finds something suspicious; there is a loud ``Ha!'' from behind my chair, at about floor level.

His mother, Chris Maloney, says she doesn't want Ryan to behave differently because he's a model. She doesn't coddle him in an attempt to avoid normal scratches and bruises that might mar his appearance: ``You don't want it to dominate their lives,'' she says.

She tells of being at a toy company go-see, and watching a mother yell at a child for not getting the job. ``The thing I go by is, take it as it comes,'' she says. ``Sometimes they don't choose him; he's not disappointed. I'm glad he's like that. There is enough pressure in life when they get older.''

Rascals Unlimited kids come from all walks of life: ``We have children brought around in limos. Other mothers have no means of support,'' says Sperry. A child can earn up to $100,000 a year if successful.

She feels that every state should have laws protecting children's earnings: in California, for example, the parent is required to put aside a percentage of the child's earnings for the child's use in adulthood. But California is the only state with such a law.

According to Sperry, however, ``Very few people squander their kids' money. We know they're concerned to put money away for their kids.'' Sometimes, the money the child earns is the money the family lives on: ``We have a lot of divorced mothers; the fathers have abandoned the children,'' she says.

Another possible problem: dealing with non-modeling siblings. ``I think the money shouldn't be given to the kid who works,'' says Sperry.

Ryan Mahoney has his college education in the bank, but his younger brother, Tommy, doesn't model. Chris Mahoney says she and her husband feel that it will be easier to put one child through college than two.

Heather Lilly is the youngest child in a family of seven; her mother Gail says that by the time Heather is in college, she and her husband will be nearing retirement - a difficult time to come up with college money, so it will be helpful that Heather has her own.

One family of a popular little model and actress sets aside a certain amount of money toward her education: then if there is anything left over they use it to go on a vacation as a family.

The principal factor determining whether the experience of modeling is positive or negative is the attitude of the mother. ``A lot of women wanted to be models. They're living vicariously - and that's very scary,'' says Sperry. ``If they only knew what it does to people.''

She will refuse to represent a child if the mother is a ``stage mother.'' ``I don't want to be the one to cause any damage to the child; she [the mother] is never going to be satisfied with what the child can do.''

To eliminate this, Sperry interviews each child by himself or herself. ``We ask silly things to put them at ease. Then we say, `Do you like to get your picture taken?' Kids are honest. They'll say, `My mother told me that I had to do it.'''

According to Sperry, modeling has to be a business for the mother, but enjoyment for the child. ``This business is fun; it has to be,'' she says. ``There is no way you can ask a child to run on and smile day after day, to give up their soccer games and give up their Girl Scouts, unless they love it.''

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