I Was A Child Model! A Tragedy In Nine Pictures

This is me—circa age six, sporting double popped collars, rainbow suspenders, more denim than is acceptable in public, and a smile. I was seemingly happy, making more money than I will ever earn again, and—look at that pose!—brimming with confidence. I was a child model. You could look just like me for $43.99 plus tax. I was pulling $55 an hour to show you how.

These pictures are from a first audition of sorts I had with David & Lee, a big modeling agency that had an office in Cleveland years ago. Getting to this point meant they liked my look enough to put together some professional shots. Kids modeling works a lot like what you may know about adult modeling: The best of the best from this series ended up in my book, which was then passed on to folks who wanted to hire stunning kids to wear stunning clothes. Mom trotted me to this audition when I was five. l vaguely remember the ordeal—big escalators, lots of wardrobe changes, and a day off school, the latter being clearly the biggest upside. There were short short-shorts and an ensemble that somehow involved a fake ice-cream cone, a headset, and a sweater. And the blurry one up there, which shows my considerable emotional range. I call it: “When Mom and Dad ask, you and Uncle Terry were just wrestling. Right, slugger?”

I did a fair number of shoots per year, but it was far from a weekly thing. And though the jobs were scheduled during the day, I missed school no more often than any kid with a moderately performing immune system, so it was easy to keep my secret life, well, secret.

I hardly mentioned it to any of my friends at school. I was already sequestered in a special academic classroom, and it’s tough enough trying to bond with the cool kids when you’re only shuffled out to mingle at recess, like a leper monkey at the zoo. I wasn’t going to proclaim to the kids—all bigger, more popular, with girlfriends, and sporting, even as second-graders, what I remember as full mustaches—that a pretty woman wanted to take my pretty picture because of my pretty hair and hey, do you like my new suspenders?

As for the girls? The only time I was scoring some hand-holding action based on my looks was when a photographer made a girl do it.

But my friends in the neighborhood knew, mainly because my mom told their moms. She was proud, of course. Lots of parents hear the “Your kid should be a model!” routine; for hers, it was true. Other moms (and plenty of hairdressers) told her how gorgeous my red hair was. Turns out that hair could not only be admired but monetized. In fact, I’m pretty sure that it was my most positive attribute in the eyes of the modeling agency: my ability to chromatically match up well with red- and orange-colored products.

Years later, when I was 19, some ten years after my last gig, my sister pulled a bottle of Ocean Spray from the fridge and said, “Hey, Vince, isn’t this you on the bottle?” It was. Some agency had somehow and for some reason dug up a decade-plus-old photo of me and plastered it on every Ocean Spray bottle to pimp a computer giveaway. The juice was red, my shirt was red, and my hair, of course, was perfectly red. A shade more perfectly cranberry red, apparently, than that of any other redhead born in years in between. I didn’t get any big payday—the contract said David & Lee could do whatever they wanted with the picture once it was taken, although I still think I should have at least gotten a computer out of the deal.

For a few months, it became an ice-breaker at parties during college, a go-to when any girl was mixing a vodka cranberry from a bottle with my face on it. But it rarely proved effective. Probably something to do with implausibility and awkward delivery, the disparity in cuteness from the person on the bottle to the person standing before them, or maybe just the oddness of having my kid self grinning out at them while my older self was grinning earnestly and goofily beside it.

What was it like? I did gigs for Higbee’s and a slew of other department stores, beamed out on flimsy paper in the Sunday circular to tens of thousands of people around northeast Ohio. Photographers, evincing none of the patience and tact that Sears family portrait shooters have to show, would point and direct and flex and cajole and manipulate me into any number of non-natural contortions. Smiles quickly fade as you fail to do exactly what they’re telling you to do even though you’re doing exactly what they told you to do, like jogging in place while smiling and looking athletic but without a strained look on your face or breaking into a sweat.

Sessions could be as quick as an hour, or much, much longer, all depending on how many shots were on the schedule and how easily I was able to give the photographers what they wanted. It was easy to tell when they were frustrated, and the stress tornado could spiral quickly. I remember getting cranky and tired—though a cookie break could save it all.

This was the late 80s. Usually, I was pimping the latest and greatest in denim-wear. Sort of the Oshkosh lifestyle on steroids. And way more polo shirts than I was comfortable with even then and which was probably the germination moment for my lifelong aversion to collared shirts. Also: hats. Hats, hats, hats—always oversized, always plopped ridiculously askew or backward or at a 180-degree angle.

But for that pay rate? Sure. I didn’t know it at the time—it was all sequestered away in a savings account I was rarely allowed to touch and the balance of which I was clueless about—but I was fully funding my first two years of drinking in college.

From ages five to seven, I enjoyed a steady stream of work, and then the well dried up. Nothing. No calls. Looking back at the halcyon days of rainbow suspenders and jean jackets now, it’s a depressing realization to know you hit peak attractiveness before you turned eight. A buddy of mine has a theory that your peak year should be 32. Some people would put it older; some, much older. Not me. For me, it had happened by age six. I have proof. It’s right there.

I did get one last job after years on the bench. I was nine. It was a Halloween ad for CVS precursor Revco, a gig which is basically the made-for-TV Lifetime movie level of modeling, and my part couldn’t have been more metaphorically appropriate. That’s me as the clown.

Vince Grzegorek hates smiling and having his picture taken. He’s a staff writer at Cleveland Scene who exploits his Polish heritage and knowledge of obscure Cleveland sports figures on Twitter.