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Grace Berger: Small town girl, big time model

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 18, 2010 - Grace Berger of Springfield, Ill., says that even as a young child she'd say, "I'm going to be famous, I'm going to be a superstar." One day older sister Holly threw down the challenge.

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"Actors, Models & Talent for Christ of St. Louis came to White Oaks Mall in Springfield (2007) to search for talent," says Grace. "My sister Holly said, 'Well, Grace, if you're going to be such a superstar, you better go audition.'"

Then an 8th grader at Springfield's Franklin Middle School, Grace did audition, expecting, as did her mother Jill St. John, little to come of it.

But in Grace, the agency saw clear, alabaster skin, a healthy head of hair (then strawberry blonde) and expressive eyes.

Three-plus years later Grace Berger is a veteran of fashion shoots in New York and Milan and has been featured in Glamour, Gioia, Marie Claire and other magazines. She has modeled for Nike, Liz Claiborne, Kmart, Chicago Fashion Week,  prom magazines and more.

Asked if she had any reservations about turning loose her youngest of three daughters into the world of fashion modeling, mother Jill responds: "Huge. Huge! I felt, as a single parent, having trouble paying bills anyway, I was really scared. I called the Better Business Bureau (about the modeling agency) 18 times. It's a pretty dark industry."

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Short takes

When she's not modeling a $6,000 Marc Jacobs dress or being photographed in Marina Rinaldi fashions in Milan, Grace Berger is every bit the regular high school kid. Really.

Summer job: A second-year lifeguard who scrupulously stays under the umbrella to avoid the sun -- putting on 55 sunblock every hour -- Grace teaches swimming to kids 8 and younger.

Activities: She's active in her church, Cherry Hills Baptist in Springfield, doing volunteer work. She is one of four representatives from her high school to the district's Superintendent Roundtable. ("One of my main issues was that we were frustrated by too much busy work in one class. It needed more rigor.") With her mother she assists at Actors, Models & Talent for Christ.

Pets: An animal lover and vegetarian, Grace helps tend to the family menagerie: greyhound Hagrid; beagle Pumpkin (or sometimes "Plumpkin") and the 57-pound mini-pig Cuppy (short for Cupcake).

Fame: Elise, 24, and Holly, 21, occasionally post her fashion shots on Facebook. (Mom says no Facebook for Grace until she's 18.) Otherwise few of her classmates at Springfield High School would know that Grace periodically gets a phone call pulling her out of class, urging her to please -- as soon as possible -- get on a jet to New York, Palm Springs or Milan.

"I don't talk about it (modeling) at all, at school," says Grace. "I had it in my mind that people would be fake to me or be mean to me or think 'She thinks she's better than anyone else.' I'd just say 'I have an appointment out of town.' You're there and you're back."

School: "I have five AP classes and one honors class. That was difficult, especially calculus. I like getting A's. But I don't like to read. I read magazines and I read text messages. I figure any good book is going be turned into a movie anyway."

Faith: "I have made this decision and based my life around it. Whatever has happened in our life whether good or bad -- it has always bettered our faith. In a way I know that is the most important part of life for me. I am not pushy about it.

"I just make sure at least someone knows they've heard about it. You never know what could spark something, never know what someone's going through, what their circumstances are. Someone may be just hearing that there's hope out there that could really encourage them to discover more about Christianity. I like to say I'm faith-based."

Fashion: Her creative wardrobe has caused a few ripples. She expresses bemused incredulity that she has been called out of class for a wardrobe check. "I was pulled from class and photographed from the neck down on for a 'what-not-to-wear' example. I was wearing leggings with a shirt-dress over them."

At Bible study, a church usher once seemed scandalized when Grace attended sleeveless.

"They said," says mother Jill with a mocking laugh, "that it could cause a man's brain to wander.'"

"I like to get dressed up," says Grace Berger. "Every day is something to get dressed up about."

AMTC proved legitimate, leading Grace to agencies Elite in Chicago, the Rock (a boutique agency in Madison, Wis.) and now Wilhelmina in New York.

A strong Christian, Grace quickly agrees with her mother about the industry's "dark side."

"A lot of girls, to be skinny or to get the job, will do things that I morally don't agree with," says Grace. "There is a large drug problem in the modeling industry. A lot of people will social climb to get the job and do things that would question my morals. I take whatever job comes my way as a blessing. I'm not a pushy person. Sometimes people catch on and ask me about my faith. Sometimes they act like I didn't say it so we don't have to talk about it."

A test shoot with a photographer from Marie Claire led to Grace's first job, Kmart's Back to School campaign. "It was not high fashion," says Grace whose image appeared in Kmart stores everywhere, "but it paid well."

Grace is featured in four photographs ("Wow! All these dresses are great deals") in the July Glamour magazine. She will wear 14 outfits in a 10-page layout in the fall Gioia (Joy), an Italian fashion magazine.

She recognizes the ironies and contradictions of a young girl doing adult work. "I did bridal gowns, really big ones," she says. "As a freshman in high school, I'm wearing bridal gowns."

Because of her age, 17, and principles, Grace has written into her contract what she will and will not do: "I can say no to anything. I put in my contract no fur ("I'm a big animal lover. I can't do it."), no nudity and any lingerie would have to be approved first."

Also due to her age -- Grace will be 18 in December -- it's strongly recommended in the business "that a parent should be in the vicinity," says St. John. "When she goes on a job, I accompany her. They pay for her way; they don't pay for my way. Our school district has been supportive. They made a compact so Grace could go."

If St. John can't go, one of Grace's sisters -- Elise (a genetics engineer at Monsanto in St. Louis) or Holly (Grace's de facto manager and a senior in marketing/management at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville) will.

"Her being out there alone is too much," says mom.

Challenges

Modeling's major challenges for her, Grace says, are stamina and confidence.

"You get there really early, 7 in the morning and sit around 45 minutes until everybody shows up. You go to hair and makeup, (which) can be two to three hours."

It's "just so many people touching you. It's kind of weird. I understand lotion, but then they put the concealer in it. They want me pale. They put makeup on you evvvvvvywhere, my arms, hands, legs, on your chest. You have to get over it, realize, it's your job."

Once they decide what she will wear and send her to the set, Grace says, her stamina becomes a factor: "They don't want to give you breaks or let you sit down. You'll be in 8-inch heels with a million lights on you, change and you're right back again. It's a 16-hour day and you sit down for only 20 minutes."

For a particular Italian shoot, "They wanted me as white as the walls. They did not believe in flash. They literally had huge spotlights on me. For fall, I had on layers of clothing. I am so tired because I got there jet lagged. I'm really hot, and I ended up falling over. I got a glass of water and they asked, 'Are you ready to go back?'"

How does she cope with the pummeling and being shuffled about?

"You have to think everything is funny. One person is down on the floor with a blow dryer trying to make the dress blow, and one person is standing above you on a ladder trying to make your hair blow. And then the lights are right on your face. If nothing else, you have to be entertained by it."

She occasionally has to remind herself that she belongs in this competitive world.

"I'd get around those girls, and they're 5-10 (tall) and double zeroes. Everyone here is the typical model girl and you're not. (Grace is 5 feet 8 and not emaciated.) I'd think, 'Omigosh, I can't compare to them.' But then I think, you got chosen, so you're just as good as them."

Plans

As to what modeling has meant to the family pocketbook, Grace says, "I haven't officially made anything." And, no, she doesn't get to keep any of the clothes she models.

Her mother interjects: "If I didn't go with her, it would allow her to make money, but because I am accompanying her (a Springfield-to-Chicago-to-Milan plane ticket on short notice can cost up to $2,000), it's a catch-22."

"They taught us at AMTC that in getting started you have to look at it as an investment," says Jill. "A lot of this is a life that you just have to figure out as you go."

Grace seems to have quite a few things figured out, including that modeling can end abruptly. She mentions that she once replaced a 30-year-old redhead "who had to be retired."

"No matter how far modeling will take me I've learned skills that will always help me, networking, interview skills. Every time I go to a casting it's an interview for a job. It's helped mature me seeing how other people are treated. It's made me decide who I want to be."

And that is someone who eventually might work in government and international relations. The Wilhelmina agency recommends that Grace move to New York right after high school.

"I want to go to (New York University), but it's hard to get into. (She ranks in the top fifth of her class of 368). I want to do international relations and a double minor in business and government. I have it all planned out."

So sits Grace Berger in her family kitchen looking every bit a typical 17-year-old high school kid, shoeless, makeup-less, wearing a self-described blue Grecian style bag dress that, she says, "can be tied 15 different ways." Yet on the kitchen table lies a smattering of high fashion magazines in which she looks pretty much like a movie star.

"I just make it seem like it's not a big deal to me because it's really not," she says. "No matter what, it's still me. I'm just doing this job. I'm healthy, I'm glad to be the size I am. I'm just going to be me."

Paul Povse, Springfield, Ill., is a freelance writer. 

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