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Mary Clarke sat in a St. Louis Cheesecake Factory and scanned the room. As owner of Mother Model Management along with her husband, Jeff, Clarke had kept her head on a constant swivel for 25 years. She was well-known in the industry for having discovered a young Ashton Kutcher in an Iowa bar and supermodel Karlie Kloss at a cattle call for a local charity fashion show. But what were the chances of spotting a model in a Cheesecake Factory? She had popped into the chain restaurant for a bite to eat after scouring the adjoining mall, often the best place to scout young talent. But as she ordered her meal, her eyes came to rest on a nearby table. There sat the most beautiful family, an attractive middle-aged couple with four children—two younger girls, a boy, and the eldest sister, who was chatting away. The girl’s expressive manner emphasized her high cheekbones and sharp angles. Her huge blue eyes looked exotic on her girl-next-door face. Even sitting, the girl was obviously tall—and very thin. Bingo.
Clarke walked over to the strangers’ table and introduced herself. Then she turned to the girl.
“Have you ever thought about modeling before?”
Kimberly Hartzel shared a knowing glance with Grace, her 15-year-old daughter and the object of Clarke’s attention. Grace beamed.
“As a matter of fact, I have thought about it before,” she said.
Two years earlier, Grace, then 13, had sprouted to 5-foot-9, though her lithe, bony frame was no surprise. Her mother, at 6 feet tall, was an active tennis player who overshadowed her opponents. Her father, Michael, towered 6-and-a-half feet and was mostly arms and legs. Still, it hurt Grace when her friends would joke about her weight (or lack thereof) at the lunch table in her Chicago middle school. She felt isolated, and her mother fumed. Kimberly remembered that age, when being tall felt like a burden—when boys ignored her or she had to slump down in pictures.
It didn’t help Grace’s confidence that she was struggling in school. She studied for hours and got B’s while her friends seemed to effortlessly score A’s. Some days Grace came home and cried, feeling she couldn’t meet the high expectations. But she was a beautiful singer; perhaps an audition for the parts of Eponine and Cosette in the school production of Les Miserables would give her confidence. As Grace took the stage to audition, she realized that the shoo-in for Marius, the male lead, was a head-and-a-half shorter than she was. Even after a killer performance, Grace didn’t get either part.
Grace was devastated, and Kimberly tried to think of another way to give her daughter a boost. What are things only girls who are very tall and thin can do? Modeling! Grace found an ad for an open call in downtown Chicago.
“Mom, can we go?” she pleaded.
By the following weekend, Grace was signed to her first agency, and modeling became a natural rhythm in the Hartzel household. Kimberly dropped off Grace in the city to take test shots and then picked her up, like any parent would after a sports practice or music lesson. Within a few months, Grace was walking in Chicago’s fashion shows and modeling for local companies, including a shoot for Carson’s department store. That fall, she made another leap: a spot in the Kohl’s juniors catalog.
Then, suddenly, in early 2010, Michael received an attractive job offer in Indianapolis. With the move, the drive to Chicago fashion shoots would be too far. This has been a good experience, Kimberly thought. She’s finally feeling confident. Her kids had tried many hobbies over the years and then, for various reasons, set them aside. She assumed modeling would be no different.
But modeling was one thing that always made Grace feel good about herself. Now here was Mary Clarke in a Cheesecake Factory, offering her a second chance. The Hartzels were only visiting St. Louis from their home in Zionsville for a few days, so Clarke arranged some test shoots for the following morning. Grace arrived and positioned herself in front of the camera. From the first click, she came alive, giggling and tossing her hair. Clarke, off to the side, took a few snapshots with her own digital camera. She e-mailed them to her husband, who was sitting in a cafe in Milan with modeling agents from the international agency NEXT. Jeff opened the attachment and flipped his phone around.
One agent leaned over Jeff’s shoulder. “Oh my gosh,” he said. “This girl is amazing.”
Within months of that serendipitous moment, NEXT signed Grace and began flying the Zionsville High School junior to shoots in New York and across Europe. In the two years since, Grace has walked the runway in more than 100 fashion shows from Paris to Milan for big-name designers like Chanel and Louis Vuitton. She has appeared in Russian and Italian Vogue. The paparazzi call her name in New York. She is a girl on the cusp of becoming a star—even if it means giving up the last bit of her childhood along the way. At first, other parents would make judgments about the Hartzels’ decision to let Grace leave home to model, framed as compliments. “You’re so laid-back,” they would say to Kimberly. “I could never let my kid go to New York alone.” But Grace wasn’t alone. True to their business name, Mary and Jeff Clarke became Grace’s “mother agents”—essentially a stand-in set of parents for when Grace is away from Zionsville. In the beginning, the couple accompanied her everywhere—scheduling flights, introducing her to casting directors, traveling with her to fashion weeks. Eventually, they loosened the reins. Kimberly trusted them, and the knowledge that Grace was being looked after put her at ease.
Navigating New York, though, was still stressful for Grace—as was the competition. Some days, she would notice that the models around her were all tall and beautiful, too. In the Midwest, she had stood out; here, she was one of many.
Keeping up with schoolwork was no picnic, either. Sometimes, while waiting for a runway show to start, Grace would take out her laptop and calculator to work on math problems. Because she missed so many school days, she tried to get her assignments in advance. Still, she struggled. Eventually, she cut down her load to take just one online class, Algebra II, through Zionsville High.
In July 2012, Grace walked in her first “season,” as the release of designers’ collections is known in fashion-world parlance—the fall/winter haute couture shows in Paris. The couture shows often feature over-the-top, one-of-a-kind outfits. The other category of shows, known as ready-to-wear—those trend-defining pieces most likely to make it into boutiques and department stores—can mean even wider exposure for an up-and-coming model. Either way, one good season, in which a model stands out at multiple designers’ shows, has the power to transform an unknown into an “it girl.”
In Paris, Grace walked in the first Christian Dior show since Raf Simons had been named creative director—one of the most highly anticipated of the couture season. Donatella Versace and Diane von Furstenberg sat in the audience. At one point, Grace looked around and saw models she idolized, like Lindsey Wixson and Sigrid Agren, and realized: I’m here with them. I’m a model, too.
By the September ready-to-wear shows in New York, Grace felt even more confident. She had spent weeks running around town to castings and fittings, finally solidifying several high-profile gigs. During the famed Fall Fashion Week, Grace met designers and fashion editors like Anna Wintour and Nina Garcia, nibbled on kebabs backstage at Chanel, got lost a few times while running from show to show—and tried not to fall. It was at the Marc Jacobs show, though, that she had something of an epiphany. There, a hairstylist backcombed and twisted Grace’s hair until it was tall, wispy, and tangled. She then whirled the mass into a bees’ nest and secured it to Grace’s scalp. A makeup artist dabbed Grace with foundation, winged out a bit of black liner from her eyelids, and darkened her full eyebrows. She put on the outfit she had been assigned to wear: a beige, just-past-the-knee skirt with a cropped, sheer shirt atop a beige bra. For the final walk, the runway assistant corralled Grace and the girls into lines and told them not to move. The models stood behind mirrors, which flipped open at intervals to reveal each girl. Grace watched out of the corner of her eye as several groups of girls’ mirrors snapped up and they jaunted into the triangle-shaped runway.
Grace was nervous, but when she looked up, her reflection in the mirror caught her eye. She was proud of herself. Grace, even if you don’t get any other shows, this is so amazing, she thought. Grace’s mirror flipped open. Don’t fall!
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