Look Ma I'm a model

SINGAPORE - Little Julka Phoenix Lee-Zidov has more than $30,000 in the bank. She is just five and a prolific child model.

This year, she has done more than 13 assignments, including a TV commercial for Sentosa and print advertisements for shopping mall VivoCity.

Last year, she did 26, encouraged by her mother.

Ms Maia Lee, 31, owner of a children's costume boutique, says: "My daughter has the looks and talent, so why not use them?

"She enjoys the shoots. And I put her earnings in a separate bank account for her future expenses, such as university fees or to start a business."

While the money can be pretty attractive - a four-hour assignment involving photo and video shoots can pay from $300 to more than $1,000 - it is the fun of doing the assignments that draws some kids.

For six-year-old Kaeden Choo, it is all about role-playing and dressing-up.

The boy says: "I like to wear different clothes and take photos in them."

His mother, freelance photographer Lena Chan, 38, says: "During lull periods, he'll even ask if there are assignments for him."

It is the same story for the children of Ms Syafeena. The 37-year-old tuition centre owner, who goes by only one name, started taking her two sons - Amir Shaqile, 11, and Irfan Shahzaad, nine - for shoots last year after a family friend noticed that they like to role-play at home.

"They love pretending to be waiters and doctors, and mimicking British accents they hear on TV," she says.

Parents of child models whom SundayLife! spoke to say they do not see downsides to allowing their children to do commercial shoots.

Acting, Ms Syafeena says, teaches her children how to understand and explore emotions, and instils in them a good work ethic.

She says: "Sometimes, scenes have to be reshot and the kids no longer find it fun. But going through the reshoots teaches them discipline and how to work as a team."

For Ms Lee, her daughter is picking up soft skills on the set of commercial shoots.

"Other kids learn piano and ballet. My child learns how to interact and work with other kids and adults," says the former Singapore Idol contestant, who also has two sons, aged 12 and one.

The older boy, Tyrese, also acts and was in a corporate video for the Changi Airport Group earlier this year.

Some modelling assignments require children to put in long hours.

Ms Syafeena, whose son Amir acted in the eight- episode local children's TV programme Geez, I Didn't Know That!, recalls that he occasionally filmed for 12 hours a day over a one-month period.

She says: "There were some days when I knew he was tired. He'd go to bed very quickly. But he still wanted to do them because he enjoyed the shoots. It was during the school holidays, so I allowed it."

The parents say modelling assignments should not interfere with their children's schoolwork.

Although Ms Syafeena has allowed Amir to skip classes to attend shoots on two occasions, she says she agreed "only because he himself wanted to do the shoot".

When that happens, she makes sure he catches up later. "I also take it upon myself to teach him whatever classes he missed," she says.

She adds: "I will never let the assignments eat into the time for his studies. Both my sons are in the best classes in their cohorts."

Being recognised by friends and strangers for advertisements the child talents appear in is generally not a problem, even when an advertisement becomes controversial.

Amir was one of the children in the much-talked-about National Council on Problem Gambling World Cup advertisement.

Although it was his co-star Baptist Lim, 11, who was in the spotlight as Andy, the boy whose father has a gambling problem, Amir still got teased for it.

He says: "After the advertisement ran, my school friends asked me why I supported the team that lost. I just say I'm not the one who wrote the script."

How do parent teach their children to handle the attention when strangers recognise the kids?

Says Ms Lee: "I always tell her to be polite, say 'thank you', and move on.

"I want to raise her to be humble and not let fame get to her head. She knows that despite being in advertisements, she is no different from any other kid."

She is open to spending the money Julka earns but it must help the girl's future.

Ms Lee says: "It shouldn't be for the latest fad or fashion accessory.

"I must be confident it will benefit her in the long run."

But appearing in advertisements is not for every child.

Psychologist Daniel Koh, 42, from Insights Mind Centre, warns that the experience can be stressful for children who lack confidence or are naturally shy.

He says: "They can feel overwhelmed by the attention or become upset if they are forced to walk or act in a way which they don't want to."

For such kids, it is better for them to interact with other kids one-on-one or in a small group to overcome their shyness, he adds.

Model agencies say two in 10 inquiries come from parents recommending their kids who are actually camera-shy.

Ms Bonita Ma, head booker of Basic Models Management, who receives over 50 inquiries from parents every month, says: "The parents will say their kids are very cute.

"But we can tell during the casting process if the children don't want to be in front of the camera.

"They might look at the floor or refuse to walk onto the set. There have even been instances when the children cried on set because they felt so uncomfortable. When such things happen, we explain to their parents that the timing is not right."

Ms Esther Lim, 42, director of Phantom Models, says: "From a professional standpoint, these kids can sometimes hold up the shoot, which is bad for the client.

"Performing in front of cameras requires the kid to be cooperative and open, and some kids are just not there yet."

Of course there are the ones who take to it like ducks to water.

Ms Lee's daughter Julka did her first commercial, for a brand of milk powder, when she was 10 months old. The half-day shoot paid $1,000.

Since then, Ms Lee has been finding assignments for her daughter. Most take place on weekday afternoons after the girl's kindergarten classes.

Ms Lee says other parents have accused her of being selfish and robbing Julka of a childhood.

But she replies: "The comments hurt. But I know what's best for my daughter.

"In life, it's not just about the skills you have, but how to communicate with others."

bang@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on July 29, 2014.
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