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Many try, but few are chosen for ...

A model life

It's a brutal business, but IMD, a Medford modeling agency, sometimes helps guide young hopefuls like 15-year-old Nina Smidt to success

Even the hip beat of the background radio couldn't cut the tension in the room.

It was audition day at IMD, a Medford modeling agency, where some 40 would-be fashion stars came to strut their stuff for the bigs. For the first time, a scout from the world-famous Ford modeling agency in Los Angeles was in town to look for talent.

A dozen at a time, groups of teenagers -- mostly girls -- filed into the small Cobblestone Village office of the 2-year-old agency Tuesday.

They perched nervously on metal chairs, leaned nervously against walls plastered with photos of people who'd already tasted success. One at a time, they filed in to talk to Natalie Smith, the Ford scout. Just as quickly, some filed out again.

Are you done? What did she say? whispered Cully Wright, a 19-year-old student model from Talent.

She said, `You're a loser, get out of here,' came the wry reply from Renee Badgett, 16, of Ashland. I'm done; I'm leaving.

Both Badgett and Cully stayed a little longer, though, when Nina Smidt arrived.

Hello, star, someone said, only half joking.

But Smidt, the tall, honey-haired 15-year-old from Talent, just shook her head and smiled, radiating the wholesome beauty that drew Ford to Medford in the first place.

Ford's Natalie Smith was here mostly because of Smidt, confided Teresa Pollman, owner of IMD -- Image and Modeling Development.

Most agencies are interested in Nina, Pollman said. She has a very classic look. Beautiful skin. Tall, thin, with healthy straight hair. Very classic.

In the past year, that classic style has landed Smidt some coveted jobs. That's her face smiling from back-to-school ads for Meier & Frank and Mervyn's, photo shoots that paid as much as $750 for an afternoon's work.

Now, the oldest of four children is ready to take her modeling to a higher level. She's negotiating with agencies from New York, Paris and Milan. And now, Los Angeles has come to call.

But first, the Ford scout has to take a look.

Hi, Nina, Smith says, flipping through the girl's portfolio. I heard you did really well in New York.

That's a reference to the International Modeling and Talent Association Convention held in July in New York City. Smidt hauled home eight of IMD's 59 awards.

She won the sitcom and soaps divisions and was named first runner-up as female model of the year.

That was not only an impressive accomplishment for Smidt, but also for the small, independent agency.

This was the first year we went to New York Pollman said. Last year, my girls weren't ready.

Since IMD started in 1997, some 300 students have paid $800 each to go through the agency's 12-week personal development and modeling classes. Of those, between 20 and 30 students are working regularly as models, Pollman said.

That's a small ratio, but it's reflective of an industry in which many, many seek success, but very few find it. And those who do have to work long and hard for the accomplishment.

Probably the biggest myth to this industry is that a girl gets discovered in a mall and it's so glamorous and they fly all around the world, Pollman said. Girls think it's going to happen overnight for them. It took Cindy Crawford 10 years. And everyone told her she'd never make it because she had a mole on her face.

Modeling schools that promise the possibility of employment must be licensed by the state, but that's no guarantee that jobs will follow, noted Ray Lindley, an education specialist with the Oregon Department of Education. He certifies the handful of modeling and talent schools in Oregon.

I can only tell you that of the modeling schools I work with, they are all up front, saying that the percentage of people who make it as models is very, very small, Lindley says.

Most clients benefit primarily from the increased confidence and poise the training offers, added Kathryn Shepard, a Medford veteran of the modeling field.

It's a wonderful opportunity for girls who want personal development or to have fashion savvy, Shepard said. But being a supermodel is like a one-in-a-million chance. This industry is harsh. It is brutal.

Pollman, a former model who managed a California agency for a well-known chain, figures success will come gradually for IMD as well as for individual models.

The Ford scout's visit is a good start, especially because the agency came at its own behest, looking for interesting new faces.

There's not really one look we're after, Smith explained. Ford is about beauty, composure, the way a girl carries herself. But it's also something in the eyes.

The scout travels across the country, looking for prospective models at agencies, malls and rock concerts. Medford and other mid-sized cities can yield fine sources of talent, she said.

I've been very successful in Oregon, she said. Maybe it's more of a wholesome place to grow up. There's good water here. There's good skin.

After a short chat, Smith took Smidt outside to shoot Polaroids that she'll present to clients in LA and Miami.

It looks good, she said.

That was uplifting news to Smidt and her mother, Bjorg Smidt, who both smiled broadly as Smith returned to the auditions.

Modeling has been good for her oldest child, said Bjorg Smidt. Some mothers might be worried about exploitation or unsavory activities, but Nina's mom said she is not concerned. Even fashion layouts of Nina in skimpy black underwear don't phase her mother.

I am Scandinavian, so it doesn't bother me, she said. Later, she added:

Nina is not to be worried about. She is responsible beyond her years. She's just grown up to be an independent young woman.

But Nina Smidt was not the only young woman to attract Ford's attention. Of the 40 who showed up for Tuesday's audition, five were picked to pose for Smith's Polaroids.

Those photos could be a ticket to the wider world of modeling, or simply a pass to a more polished life, said Pollman.

Whether they want to model or not, it all starts with self-confidence, she said. It's what's on the inside as well as the outside. Some of my girls are pretty, but they're not amazing. But their personality is so stunning that it makes them amazing.