Beautiful Schemers

The low end of the South Beach modeling scene is a tangle of lies, violent threats, and bad manners

It's late afternoon and Jerry Babij is sitting in the lounge of Image Model and Talent Agency on Lincoln Road discussing the past year's success. Babij (pronounced bah-bee) is a trim man who wears his brown hair brushed straight back from his wide, round face. Both his ears are pierced, and he's wearing cream-color pants, two-tone brown-and-white shoes, and a lime-green shirt made of some nearly diaphanous cloth with sleeves that balloon out. The effect is that of a well-groomed pirate.

On the wood-paneled walls is a faded shrine to Babij. In one snapshot he stands next to Sylvester Stallone. In another he's smiling amid a bevy of leggy models. It also appears Tommy Hilfiger and Miami Vice's Philip Michael Thomas have made his acquaintance.

Babij founded Image nine years ago, when South Beach was emerging as a prime location for fashion photography. The market has cooled in recent years so Babij has concentrated more on casting talent for commercials and movies. He is optimistic about the future. "Within five to ten years I want to be in the sphere of Stallone and [Steven] Spielberg," he says. "I think my production company can be that big."

Babij the businessman doesn't like to be toyed with
Steve Satterwhite
Babij the businessman doesn't like to be toyed with

The past year has been one of his best, he boasts. He claims to have booked 1800 models and actors in films and commercials, more than any other South Florida agency. And he recently signed the lease on a new office suite several times larger than his current digs. But Babij contends he is more than just a Miami Beach beauty peddler; he also is a force for good in an industry rife with predatory charlatans. Models who use drugs are dropped, he claims. "Most agencies tolerate drug use," he sniffs. When the state pondered deregulating the lucrative industry in 1998, he took a busload of his charges to Tallahassee to lobby for preserving state oversight. "There were so many people ripping off others, agencies charging girls $3000 to take their photos. We needed something for protection," he recalls. "I single-handedly stopped deregulation."

After finishing his riff on success and integrity, he makes an offer: "I want you to come see me teach my class," he says. At 6:00 p.m. the following Thursday, Babij stands by the door of his studio's waiting room counting heads as about 25 people -- young adults, teenagers, and one precocious elementary school student -- saunter in. They range from svelte Latinas to an overweight man who talks in a monotone with a slight lisp. After allowing a few minutes for stragglers, Babij steps up and bellows, "Good evening, class!" They respond with a hearty "Good evening!"

Chest out, gut in, he struts in front of the students like a Napoleonic general inspecting the troops. He's wearing jeans, cowboy boots, and a short-sleeve denim shirt with Image stenciled on the back. Ships' flags run up the shoulders like epaulets. This is a sort of charisma boot camp, a training session to prepare raw recruits for casting calls and modeling jobs. "The reason we're holding this class is the reason we're the number-one booking agency," he proclaims. If members of the rapt audience follow his advice, they will get jobs, he promises, the first step toward becoming stars.

Bearing is critical, he says. Head up to prevent a double chin, back straight, don't fidget, lock your eyes on the camera. Women should make sure they've removed any facial hair at least two days before the shoot. Everyone should pluck eyebrows that have grown together. And never, ever, list your home telephone number on the sign-in sheet. "This [agency] is your home number," Babij commands, before giving Image's seven digits. The reasons are numerous, he emphasizes. Conflicts may arise. He recounts the time a director called a potential lead in a music video to ask her out on a date. When she declined, she didn't get the part. But the primary reason, he warns, is that production companies sometimes offer an unacceptably low pay rate. "I'm your agent and I'm the best agent in town," he boasts. "It is my job to do anything it takes to get paid for a job. If I have to, I go personally and collect money. I've made myself very unpleasant in the offices of some clients." Miami Beach's next Spielberg smiles, then proclaims, "I'm a good agent, I'm a tough agent, and I get the money."

It's appropriate that in a business that sells illusion, Babij's presentation is as much salesmanship as fact. Many of those whom he booked last year, for instance, took nonpaying gigs, such as extras in movies. And although Babij urges models to believe his company is a contender in Miami-Dade's roughly three-billion-dollar-per-year entertainment industry, Image is far less known than prominent concerns like Michele Pommier and Irene Marie.

Indeed Babij acknowledges he may be operating below the radar of elite agencies and, consequently, top clients. "I book in numbers," he exclaims lustily. "I book everything: trade shows, calendars. As long as it pays money, I book it.... [Rapper] DMX's last video? I did all of that, 250 people. I did all of Enrique Iglesias's last video. What I'm not doing is the high-end fashion stuff, where girls are getting $30,000 a shoot." The top grossing job he secured for a model last year, he says, was a beer commercial that paid $7000. For now he can't discriminate, he says.

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