Their job is intensely mysterious and undercover. Jeff and Mary Clarke of O'Fallon, Mo., change lives, directions, fate. They are fashion scouts...

Share story

ST. LOUIS — Their job is intensely mysterious and undercover. Jeff and Mary Clarke of O’Fallon, Mo., change lives, directions, fate. They are fashion scouts, the people who walk malls, circulate at parties and scan bus stops and convenience stores in search of the next Tyra or Giselle.

To look at them, they’re just another couple who enjoy spending time with their blended family of four. But their outright talent to spot those with the striking features that can set fashion mags like Vogue and Glamour ablaze distinguishes them from your average suburbanites.

The year was 1997 when Mary, then owner of an Iowa-based modeling agency, contemplated leaving the business. It was around this time that she and a group of friends headed out to the Airliner bar in Iowa City. Her buddies made the Cedar Rapids native promise not to talk business. And she didn’t, for a while. But then she spotted a young chap with a crown of tousled brown hair, deep eyes and an infectious, full-mouthed smile.

“You should be a model,” she told the University of Iowa student from Homestead, Iowa.

“Right from the get-go, he was open. He told me of his interest in acting, and I told him that this would be the catalyst,” she recalls saying.

Soon after, Mary entered the then-unknown Ashton Kutcher in an area modeling contest, which he won. The prize included a trip to New York City, and good thing, since the seasoned scout needed to introduce the 19-year-old to some of her agent friends. Not surprising, more than a dozen agents came a knocking, and within weeks, Kutcher was on his way.

“He didn’t come back,” says Mary of the Iowa-bred star. Kutcher went on to do runway work in Europe and New York, Abercrombie ads, and, of course, he eventually landed a role in the Fox series “That ’70s Show.”

Mary and Jeff still stay in touch with Kutcher, who now hosts MTV’s “Punk’d,” although they’re always on the lookout for the next new face to join him.

While many might think that the duo would be more likely to find the chiseled features and lithe bodies of models in larger cities such as Chicago, New York or L.A., the Clarkes are settled in St. Louis for now. They look here for attractive talent in ordinary places, like gas stations, malls and grocery-store aisles.

The reason is two-fold: One, there’s less competition. Although there are a handful of modeling schools and talent agencies in town, what the Clarkes do — hand-picking models for agencies in New York and Europe — is unique. Second, the fresh-face Midwestern girl-and-boy-next-door look, they say, is often a welcome sight.

Over the years, Mary and Jeff have discovered exactly what their agency friends are looking for. But, like everything else in the topsy-turvy world of fashion, those sought-after looks can change from season to season.

“September 11th changed what advertisers were willing to pay for,” Jeff explains. “Before that, it was funky, weird, exotic, especially for editorial.”

Sizing them up

Now, he and his wife say, looks are more mainstream and white-washed.

“They’re more handsome or pretty with an edge or twist, with really full lips and high foreheads,” Mary says.

The prime age for girls is between 13 and 22. For guys, age skews a bit older; guys between 17 and 25.

But there’s not as much leniency when it comes to body size.

“The hardest part is the body,” notes Mary, who says girls should typically be at least 5-foot-9 but no taller than 5-foot-11, with few exceptions. Moreover, her hips must not be greater than 35 ½ inches. If they’re bigger, Mary says, she can pretty much hang up her modeling dreams.

If the hip measurement is on target, it’s likely that everything else will be proportionate, Mary explains. But sometimes it’s just normal growth that derails some girls, like those who “blossom” in the bust line, heaving over the acceptable B-cup size.

“The agencies that we cater to hire girls in print for major magazines and runway work, where size is even more critical. It’s a smaller window, the tiniest segment of the market,” says Mary.

Guys don’t have it much better. They must be between 5-feet-11 and 6-feet-2, with few exceptions. And, while male models are expected to have a taut body and ripped abs, they can’t be bulky.

“They can’t be too buff,” Mary says. “They have to fit into a size 40 to 42 jacket. And if he’s been pumping iron, he’ll have to lay off. They need to be lean, defined and not too buff, especially for the European designers who have a tendency to cut things really narrow.”

He and Mary admit they can’t go anywhere without considering the different model requests that they get faxed or e-mailed daily from agencies.

“You sort of feel like private eyes,” Jeff chimes in. “But I think that it is a gift that God gave us.”

In the short time they’ve been here, the Clarkes have already helped to make stars out of a few locals.

Store clerks, lifeguards

They found Jennie Runk last year when the 17-year-old teen worked part-time at PetsMart. Since then, the Chesterfield, Mo., native has become a working plus-sized model. She signed with the Wilhemina Models agency in New York and has graced the pages of various publications, including Vogue.

One night while relaxing in bed, the Clarkes watched the evening news on the local Fox affiliate. A blond lifeguard came on, explaining his role in helping to save a drowning child at the Shaw Park swimming pool in Clayton, Mo.

As Jeff tells it, he sat up and almost got giddy. The guy possessed the “Blue Lagoon” handsome quality that the Louis Vuitton show was seeking for its Spring 2006 show. Immediately, Jeff used his TiVo to freeze the TV frame. He took a snapshot of Mark Lubis and sent it to a casting agent even before meeting the guy.

Mall patrol

During a recent summer day, the Clarkes venture out to the Galleria, looking for a possible male model for the Vuitton show and other bookings.

Although quite deliberate about each glance, neither looks stiff nor dares to stare at anyone who passes by.

But with their eyes, they compare notes and swap nods.

“We’re really particular about who we approach,” says Jeff. “It has to almost be a sure thing. If either of us are questioning it, then we don’t.”

A tall, lanky guy with a mop of blond wavy hair sweeps by.

“There would have been a time that we would have been looking for him,” says Mary.

But looks aren’t all that count. The boy’s demeanor bothers Jeff. “He’s a little effeminate. As a male model, you can’t be or can’t look as if you are. But girls can be boyish.”

You can be pretty or doggedly handsome and still not be model material, the two say.

“It’s a different filter that you put them through,” Mary explains.

A model’s skin must be clear of blemishes, she says, and hair needs to be updated. And then of course, there’s the size issue.

Too often, Mary says, they find teens who are “overly done up with makeup and with hair that is too highlighted and skin that is too tanned.”

A girl with straight blond hair, parted down the middle, zips by the Clarkes in a T-shirt and blue jeans. She doesn’t look to be any larger than a size 6.

“Cute girl. She’d have to lose weight to model in New York though, and she’s not interesting enough. But she could probably do a commercial or two locally,” Mary says.

They admit that it’s difficult to “let people down gently.” But Mary and Jeff continue to perfect the art.

“We’re a bridge. We know the rules. And if we approach somebody, we feel that it’s something they can do,” Jeff says.

Scouting is just a part of what the Clarkes do. They also serve as the buffer, helping to refine the looks of potential picks before presenting them to the modeling agencies.

“To get their skin clear, they have to lay off soda and fried food,” Mary says. “They’re hormonal. It’s hard. When a model goes on a casting call, it’s with no makeup, in jeans and a T-shirt and flip flops.”

To date, the Clarkes, as owners of Mother Model Management, have placed models at New York agencies like Next, Elite and Wilhemina Models as well as Elite Chicago. They also directly represent a few models themselves.

The models the Clarkes find who are ultimately hired by the top-tier agencies represent a continued investment to the couple. They get 10 percent of every casting of each model for as long as he or she remain in the modeling business. Suffice it to say, the money adds up.

A youngster, no more than age 12, whizzes by the Clarkes at the mall. His crown of blonde hair bounces and almost covers his blue eyes.

“I’d love to see him when he grows up,” says Mary. “But then again, things change at this age.”