Mansfield Staniford wants to make sure the Brazilian girl is in the picture. He's running around in the anti-fashion trifecta of socks, sneakers and shorts, obsessively pulling his thinning brown hair. Little kids dash between the legs of the business men, photographers, models and moms who are gathered at South Point Park for the world's most bizarre photoshoot.
I've been invited here because Staniford thinks his company, Model Launcher, can restore Miami's reputation as a fashion mecca. The premise is simple: People upload photos onto the ML website and hope other people vote for them. The most popular amateur models are flown to Miami Beach for the photoshoot of their dreams. This is incredibly appealing to girls like Emilee Miller, the white-as-Wonder-Bread West Texan who Staniford just brought to town with her mom, Frankie.
Days ago Emilee was posing fruitlessly in front of an Orange Julius, trying to spin appearances at local mall fashion shows into a career, and now she's got a make-up artist and a handler hovering around, continually making minute adjustments to the cap that rests over her pin-straight blonde hair. Meanwhile Frankie, is holding a reflective prop for photographer Fabian Hernandez, smiling and continually making spirited remarks like, "Everybody's so nice here" and "I feel like we're in Hawaii."
Although Frankie is right that Florida's particular brand of orange-and-pink sunlight makes for a picturesque backdrop, Miami is no longer a modeling mecca. It used to be cheap to come to South Beach from Europe, which is why photographers preferred it to New York or L.A. in the '80s and '90s. That's no longer the case, due to the recession, as well rising hotel costs and airfare. Sensing an opportunity, Staniford started Model Launcher, which allows local companies access to eager (and free) models.
Apparel companies love Model Launcher, but it's important for Staniford to have models trust his company, too. Unfortunately, he can't convince the Brazilian of the great opportunity he's presenting her, at this particular moment, as the sun sets on South Beach. It's not that she knows he once worked the door at NYC's party central club, Palladium. Or that he once worked as a cryptographer for the Marine Corps. Or that he was interviewed by the FBI in 2010 after it was discovered both his accountant and his girlfriend, Anna Chapman, were Russian spies. It's not even because Staniford is the breathless type who can hardly get a sentence out before swallowing and taking a series of deep breaths. It's because Mirena doesn't speak English.
That doesn't stop him from trying. He's determined as hell to get a couple of shots of the exotic Mirena, too.
It's been a year since Mansfield and business partner Jason Silverman started Model Launcher, and they're as desperate for exposure as any girl from a square-shaped state who dreams of becoming a model. It's important to distance Model Launcher from the skeezy, stereotypical photographers who take advantage of young girls' desperation to get noticed, Mansfield says.
Jason, a Boca businessman with silver hair, cuffed jeans and polished loafers, tries to steer the conversation while Staniford keeps going on about Anna, as if he's forgotten that he's changed his name from Bill to Mansfield in hopes of avoiding just this. "I thought she was an attractive, fun girl who had a lot of financing from Russia, and one day I wake up and she's on the cover of the fucking New York Post," he gushes.
"Hey Frankie," Jason interrupts, "I don't know if you'd mind repeating the story you told me earlier, but I just can't get it off my mind. It was so heartfelt, and it just shows that we're really doing our job of obtaining your trust." And so the woman describes, again, how she and Emilee haven't been on a plane since her husband died, and they had to go all the way from St. Angelo to Dallas for the funeral. "We're just Texas people," she adds, almost apologetically.
With Model Launcher, Staniford hopes to demystify the path to stardom by crowd sourcing it: Aspiring models upload photos, and people vote on them. Whoever gets the most votes gets flown to Miami, and free labor is traded for portfolio shots that can hopefully be parlayed into paying work. Today, Emilee is modeling nautical-themed clothing for B.O.A.T., a Miami-based company.
It sounds good, but the reality is weird: At one point, nine people are simultaneously photographing a 16-year-old small town girl who's so overwhelmed she can barely speak and a 14-year-old Brazilian who knows no English, but seems content to be posed by various strangers. By this point, the children who were running around and enjoying the park are gone; their mothers have pulled them away from the chaos to go play somewhere else.
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The idea for Model Launcher came to Staniford as he watched the Super Bowl two years ago. "I realized that pretty much every guy in the world wants to be the star quarterback, and every girl wants to be the supermodel," he says. "Everyone understands the mechanism for becoming a football player, but no one understands how to become a model. It's very contrived."
Follow Allie Conti on Twitter: @allie_conti