I have been in the modelling industry since I was seventeen. Over a decade of experience in print and TV adverts, photo shoots and of course – auditions.
I worked within a modelling agency for a time so I have quite a well rounded understanding of the workings from both within and without, each feeding into one another and making me more confident and experienced in this field.
It’s a unique industry to say the least. There would be times when, as a model booker, I would have to ask people for photos of their hands and feet or I had to search for mixed race babies, albinos, black men with freckles and even a person with a prosthetic arm who could play the piano. The list goes on so long that I think it might just be a topic of its own.
When it comes to auditions, there’s a chain of hierarchy that usually works in this order or similar:
Ad agents pitch to huge clients. They pitch their ads and the agent who is selected then gets to run with it and make it a reality.
From there, the brief goes to a casting director who will then host the audition on their behalf in order to get the most suitable candidates on tape.
A casting director will send this brief out to all of the modelling agencies that they work with.
It’s then the role of the modelling agencies to read and interpret the brief which they will then send to models that are right for the job based on numerous factors ranging from age, race, appearance and size and most importantly performance.
Without performance ability – there is no model to work with. You may as well not attend the audition because you will not get booked on any job; no matter how stunning you are, if you don’t have at least some on camera performance.
It was one of the biggest struggles I had working within the agency.
You could get the most beautiful woman with amazing style, a fantastic body, great wardrobe and lovely makeup; who stands up in front of the camera and when we tell her to smile, just grimaces or has no expression in her eyes. The photos come out lifeless and drab. Not eye-catching or showing the type of promise that a client would go for. Obviously it is a new venture and can be frightening for those who have never been on film before. So I understand nerves can play a factor because they did for me. But you can also get people who come in with more self-confidence than a room full of models, who wind up giving the worst performance ever. One male came in determined that he was a model. When I gave him instructions on how to do a short piece that he was meant to have prepared, he came off standoffish and condescending. After the tenth take when my patience had begun to wear thin, he only then looked into my eyes and admitted that perhaps he was nervous as I had initially stated and he needed a little more help.
Obviously because it’s an industry based on aesthetics, your appearance has to be on point but you would be surprised at the number of people who came in to register wearing bad clothes, bad weaves, no makeup, gold in their teeth or whatever it may be. There was a girl who was entirely squint, one with a milky eye, one with a hairlip who was missing teeth. A severely obese young girl and many with gold in their teeth who all wanted to be professional models. I don’t discriminate against them because they don’t necessarily meet the normal beauty standards. I think that everyone is beautiful in their own way and I am usually drawn to the more quirky and unique than commonly pretty people. However, when artists begin to demand answers as to why they are not receiving audition briefs or are not getting booked on jobs without understanding that as a deviation from the norm, they are going to have a much harder time being selected, then I get angry because I am not the one who makes up the rules.
Bear in mind that it’s not just physical attributes that are important here.
You could get someone pretty normal looking but who just doesn’t make the effort required but pays their registration fee, does their photos and expects to be booked and become a model. Usually their photos are terrible because they have little to no performance and even if they do have a bit of performance, if they are wearing a tatty wig and no makeup and are going up against girls from the high fashion agents, they are still not going to win. The two go hand-in-hand.
I joined up with an agency when I was seventeen, wearing no makeup and a crappy outfit but luckily I was taken in under the owner’s wing and after some years and much grooming, many auditions, call backs and shoots can I call myself a professional model. It’s noteworthy that as a professional model, if you have any hopes of being booked on jobs and earning money, you absolutely have to attend auditions.
A terrible shot from my first shoot
A good motivator to attend is recognising the casting process as an up and down table of hierarchy. From the client all the way to the model agent, you must know that a brief has come a long way to reach you. You have been hand selected to try out for this part.
As I mentioned – there are varying factors that would determine whether you receive the audition brief or not. Some can be even more rigid than normal as was the case in the most recent audition I went for. They wanted experienced live theatrical performers- which I am not. But my agent sent my photo through to the casting director, convinced her that I have enough experience and performance talent that I should be given a shot which is where I then had to bring out all the stops.
My outfit before auditioning as a French girl
You usually get an audition brief the day before, infrequently two days before and sometimes for the very same day. Most often you will have one day’s notice which allows you enough time to consider your outfit and performance.
What you wear to an audition is extremely important, as you are selling yourself to the main client as the right person to represent their brand. So if, for example, the product is an upmarket alcohol, and the scene is a Cape Town rooftop party, you wouldn’t arrive in jeans, sneakers and a rugby shirt. I literally watched it happen where a girl did this and was auditioned just because the casting director was feeling nice that day.
I myself have auditioned in the wrong outfits and it has cost me the job or at least the opportunity to be considered.
It is an interview of sorts and you are the product. So you need to look your best. Your hair, makeup and wardrobe, nails all need to be on point. Remember also that not looks alone will get you booked. There are some stunning artists out there who have no performance ability.
So although they may look like the complete package on the outside, there is no purpose to them within this industry. If you have looks and no performance you may as well be unattractive unfortunately.
Auditioning in an evening gown at 10am
If there are ever any lines for you to learn, they are sent to you along with the audition brief. Or as for the theatrical one, I had to prepare a lip-sync to a song they selected which I was then to perform on camera.
If none of these things are provided, you will occasionally get a synopsis of the ad from which you can get a vague idea of what will be asked from you but even then you generally have no clue. All you have is your perfect outfit and your skills as a performer.
Once you make the decision to attend an audition, I would always recommend arriving early. Fifteen to twenty minutes is fine because then you will get to be one of the first in and out. They don’t call this the hurry up and wait industry for no reason though. I have been early for auditions and waited for half an hour or more to audition. I do recall arriving mid-audition slot for one that was worth quite a lot of money. I waited for three hours. The audition itself was five minutes if that and I was not even selected to come back.
Auditioning dressed as a nun
The waiting room is the most difficult place to be because you are surrounded by other beautiful girls who are all vying for the same role as you. They are your competition, so your fake smiles and fake conversation are just to get through the waiting time because in the back of your mind you are ready to cut a bitch for this.
My nerves always rise when my number is nearer to being called as I think of different scenarios and generally freak myself out. I start considering walking out as I tell myself I can’t do it. I watch and listen to others and ask myself why I am even there.
And then my number gets called...
Each casting director rules their kingdom differently and each can affect your performance greatly.
When you come in, you fill in a form and get a number which you will be called in on. Some will call in ten people at a time, brief everyone on what will be taking place in the advert and what is required from the models. Before they even start recording, they ask each person to do their performance and write their numbers down. They will then call out the numbers of those they wish to stay and send the others home. A second batch will be called in and the same process is then done on them. Everyone left behind you can now assume, has some sort of potential for this role. The casting director will then begin putting every person on tape and then ask for the performance once more. Sometimes with a little more detail or performance required. These are the most difficult auditions I find because – you are doing improv- but you are doing it in front of many people with the same hopes of getting booked.
Some casting directors call you in individually and describe the performance one by one. They do your intro and you perform and it is all put on tape. I think once the audition is over, this style makes the filtering process a little more difficult as they have to go through each individual’s tapes, which can be time consuming but luckily it’s not me who has to do that so I can’t complain.
Lastly there are some who call you in one at a time, ask you to do the performance individually and shortlist you right there and then. If they want to put you on tape only then will they give you a number and record or else if you are not what they are looking for, you will be given a pat on the head and gently ushered from the room.
Each style works for whomever is casting and you get used to that and learn how to do different performancs per casting director. The biggest thing is to just not be shy and to pay attention to exactly what is being asked of you. Being able to take direction is what makes you a suitable candidate for any ad because directors want artists who will be able to perform and do what they are told on the actual day of the shoot.
Time constraints and the casting director’s style can result in alternating between the above and more of a filtering process. A huge audition where everyone with the right or similar look attends is called a “cattle call”. Nearly everyone will come to these hence the name and the wait.
Sometimes casting directors request photos first from which they shortlist and ask to see individuals in particular and this is called a “go-see”. These are a little more private and less chaotic with fewer people. Every person that attends has already been pre-screened and now has to wow with their performance.
On occasion you get something called a “direct booking” which can usually only come from recent photos. This is where the ad agent and clients select an artist directly from their photos. No audition needed. They do usually ask to see some recent selfies, just to be sure. More often than not, these are for print ads but on the occasion where it has been for a TV ad, they have been known to ask for a video of the artist doing the performance required for the scene. One can only dream of direct bookings because you literally just go to set and get paid for it, but for those of us who aren’t lucky enough, we attend regular auditions.
On set as a nurse
On set for a Clientele ad shoot
The process after an audition is a tedious one. The casting director takes time to go through all of the footage of potentially good candidates and shortlists from there. Usually the ad agent will give input at this point as they are one step closer to finding their artists. The very top candidates will then be called in for a “call back”. The most will be about ten people per role. The least – I have attended a call back where it was between me and one other person. This is your last opportunity to shine and convince the client that you are the one they want.
On occasion the director of the ad will sit in on these, which is what happened on one of the largest paying shoots I have ever been chosen for. And thank goodness for that because their decision swayed everyone to make me their final choice!
At a call back you usually wear the same or a similar outfit to your initial audition, and now that you know the performance required of you, you are going to be even better at it. Once you leave, all that you can do is wait and hope.
Meanwhile, that final footage is shown to the ad agents again, as well as the client who then makes their final decision on who is going to be selected.
They will only notify the agents of those who have been chosen. So if there is radio silence when the wardrobe call and shoot date pass then it is safe to assume that you weren’t selected and you just dust yourself off an attend the next one. Such as was the case with the lip-syncing audition for me.
It is pretty difficult not to take the rejection personally. I have struggled for a long time trying to separate it and remind myself that it is just my look that they don’t want for this particular product. Not that I am useless and should never audition again...
At a wardrobe call for Mnet
Makeup artist's kit
I love this industry. There is nothing quite like the exhilaration of finding out that you are confirmed.
You get to go to a wardrobe call where they fit you in the clothing that you are going to be wearing for the advert and then on the day of the shoot, you get your hair and makeup done and are asked to perform your little heart out. I love being pampered; I love the attention on me.
My heart races as they call camera rolling and action and it is an entirely different me that comes out.
The old, friendless and shy Sam is replaced by a confident, captivating actress who directors enjoy working with.
On set at an MTN shoot
I’ve been asked many times if I would ever consider taking this career further and becoming an actress and the answer is no. Despite my vain adoration for the cameras, a full film life holds no appeal. I am a writer with a knack for modelling. I have definite limitations in my performance too. I know that there are certain things that I could never do, even if it is just for a movie. I am satisfied to have modelling as a subsidiary income and dub myself as semi-famous as my ads appear on TV or in magazines.
There have been several parties where I have fallen into the lime light as I recount my tales from set as a paid model and I think it’s safe to say that it’s the little things in life that make our efforts worth it. isn’t it?
My first portfolio shoot circa 2008 - I looked terrible and my performance is very weak!
A second portfolio shoot circa 2009. The performance is a little better
In 2016 - Seven years later I've grown as a model
2016 a big performance with a prop and a wig
2017 the development is astounding