Where the Only Hiking Is Toward the Runway

Instead of practicing archery and basketball, girls at this summer camp perfect their runway walks.
By Megan Greenwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 16, 2008

At Heather Cole's summer camp, there is no tie-dye, no bonfire. There are no cheesy camp songs, no lanyards. Perhaps most egregiously, there are no trees and not a speck of dirt.

After all, what 13-year-old aspiring model wants to get dirty? Like, ewww.

One of the region's most popular summer camps, it is held in the basement ballrooms of a Best Western in Tysons Corner. It sounds like camp: Teen-girl shrieks seem to blast out of the walls. But instead of hiking boots and bug spray, there are high heels and makeup by the pound.

In a corner, a teenager demonstrates the best technique for applying electric-purple eye shadow. Nearby, an 11-year-old practices walking in two-inch heels, her friends giggling when she stumbles. Across the room, three 14-year-olds compare bra sizes.

"My boobs are ginormous, so I probably won't fit into your shirt," one girl tells a fellow camper. "No offense, though."

This is Modeling Camp, where every girl is the next Tyra Banks. Campers from 7 to 17 spend a week or more learning makeup tips, runway walking and how to compile a professional portfolio. They leave with a handful of fashion photos and, generally, an intensified desire to enter the competitive world of modeling.

"I'm going to be a high-fashion model," says Bailey Milde, a long-limbed 12-year-old from Stafford in short shorts and a tank top. "Not all agencies are going to like me, but I think enough will that I'll make enough money to live on. I have a good body type for it."

Despite its location in the Washington region, which is hardly known for fashion, Modeling Camp has grown from 10 or 12 girls a summer to about 600 in 12 years. Cole, an elegant former international model who at 38 still looks like she belongs on the runway, acknowledges that her camp is untraditional. Although she also offers programs in etiquette and fashion design, the camp is best-known for modeling, which was open only to girls 11 and older until this year. Demand led to sessions for girls as young as 7.

Cole was never a child model. She moved from England to New York when she was 18 to try her luck in the industry. Although she never became a superstar, she paid the bills for eight years through photo shoots for such magazines as Vogue and Elle. After giving birth to her son 12 years ago, she moved to the District and opened a model-scouting business. That led to the modeling camp, to help girls who were not ready for the runway.

Cole, who tells campers that she was an awkward, gangly child who was bullied, emphasizes that the goal is to build self-esteem in girls no matter what they look like. Yet the widely publicized dark side of the modeling industry -- exploitation, eating disorders and cutthroat competition -- has prompted criticism that Cole is breeding a generation of women destined to struggle with weight and self-esteem.

Cole points to dozens of testimonials from teenage girls that the camp made them more poised and comfortable in their own skin. Camp is open to any girl within its age range whose family can afford the $499 weekly tuition (or who is awarded scholarship funds).

"There are these girls who are interested in modeling, so why is it wrong to channel that in a healthy and appropriate way?" Cole asks.

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