Nude watercolor by Zoe zuniga

How to find modeling gigs even if you don’t fit the stereotype

You can find modeling gigs even if you don’t look like the typical model.

This is my series on jobs I have had that:

  • Didn’t totally suck
  • Had flexible hours
  • Didn’t take up much mental bandwidth or add stress to my life
  • Paid pretty well
  • Allowed time for creative art and writing projects, dance rehearsals, etc.

Types of modeling I will share

Art model/anatomy model
Photography model/lingerie model
Fashion and commercial print modeling

Modeling sounds glamorous and hard to get but I am no glamour queen and modeled for art classes, photography classes from 18 to 50, and lingerie modeling from the ages of 43 to 47 (Not the ages you typically think of for this).

I lived in LA where there were millions of gorgeous young women to compete with. But there was a market for older women who were physically fit. Who would have thought that was possible? I made anywhere from 9 to 100 per hour from modeling over the years.

Modeling for Art Classes

I started art modeling in Vermont when I was 18. I was taking a drawing class at the University of Vermont and became friends with one of the models we had. She told me about modeling and gave me the number of an open drawing class that was always looking for models.

I visited the frame shop that had a drawing studio my friend had told me about in downtown Burlington and scheduled my first modeling gig.

I think it paid 8 or 9 an hour which was a lot of money in 1977. It was in an art studio in the basement of the frame shop that the owner had set up with a platform in the middle with modeling stands around it.

Getting used to being naked

I had an idea of the format of art classes since I had taken the life drawing class at the university in Vermont before i started modeling.

I got over the weirdness of being the only person who was nude in the room. I knew as an artist myself that people were there to practice art.

Gesture Drawing by Zoe Zuniga

Most drawing classes start with gesture drawings which are quick 30-second to one-minute poses for the artists to warm up. Then they will have longer poses, usually five to ten minutes or 20 minutes.

Some groups set up a long pose that you will hold for half an hour to 40 minutes with breaks and then get back into the pose once they mark spots where your hands and feet rested.

I found the quick poses to be easy and fun. Posing for gesture drawings was like dancing because you could hold just about anything for a few seconds and do unusual movements and then freeze into a position. But I quickly learned that longer poses were painful after a few minutes.

Long poses and pain

I probably have a lower pain threshold than most people, or maybe I chose poses that were too difficult. I always ended up with limbs falling asleep and horrible tingling sensations as I would shift slightly to wake them back up again and get the blood flowing.

It was boring if there was no music or radio on. Sometimes I could really get absorbed into working on a design or project of my own in my mind and the time would fly. But often it was just drudgery and monotony.

Art modeling: love it or hate it

I once modeled with an artist friend of mine who loves modeling. He said he would get applause after a modeling session sometimes.

So my experience may not be typical. You might find that you love it and enjoy the meditative quality of modeling.

I met a model at Laney College when I was taking a sculpting class who has been art modeling full time for most of her adult life. She said that modeling was the perfect fit for her.

Braving the cold

If you model in the winter, you can expect the facility to have space heaters out. Sometimes part of my body was cold while the other side was getting baked. But the teacher was always good about moving the radiators and making sure I was warm in most classes.

I would often bring my own pillows and blankets for long poses because sometimes the studio was not well equipped with props.

It was actually kind of grim, and I hated it sometimes. But I stuck with modeling for art classes a few times a week on and off for many years because the pay was a lot better than many jobs I could get, I liked being around other artists, and it had flexible hours.

In Vermont, I modeled for private artists in their studios for painting long poses and sculpting. It was easy to sign up with the art department and get scheduled for modeling for the various art classes just like my friend who I had met taking the drawing class there.

If you have ever taken a life drawing or painting class you probably know that art models come in all shapes and sizes and ages. The leaner and more muscular models may be the most popular, but artists are not that picky as long as the person is on time and can do interesting poses and hold long poses.

Modeling in Boston

gesture drawing of model from Boston art class
Gesture Drawing by Zoe Zuniga

When I moved to Boston, there were so many art schools and colleges that had art departments that it was easy to work as many hours as I wanted to.

All I had to do was find out the name of the person who booked the models and either show up in person by the office or call. This was back before the internet, so they didn’t have any online booking forms so going in person worked well.

I modeled for the Museum of Fine  Arts school, Boston College, Mass College of Art, The Art Institute, and a lot of other schools and open drawing sessions around the city. MIT had an open drawing session that went on for years and years every Sunday afternoon for instance.

MIT had an open drawing studio that I modeled for on the weekends sometimes when I didn’t go there to draw the model. And a bunch of private artists who I found through getting on a listing or meeting them at classes.

Photography classes at the Learning Annex

Los Angeles photoshoot trade for portfolio shots
Zoe Zuniga photo shot LA 2005

I also connected with the Learning Annex which had a lot of photography classes and found out that models got paid a lot more for photography because it was harder to find people to pose for recognizable nude art photography than drawings I assume.

It was a lot more fun than art modeling because you were moving the whole time, so there was no pain to contend with.

Modeling with cadavers

The most unusual modeling gig I had in Boston was modeling for Harvard Medical School in the Cadaver lab.

They had cadavers laid out and also had me and a male model to look at the muscular structure of the living body so they could get a sense of the movement and how the origins and insertions of the muscles related.

It smelled like formaldehyde and a bit like old leather. We got to look at the cadavers in various stages of dissection and listened to the lectures. Pretty interesting to me as an artist.

After around 1990 I left the Boston area and moved back to California and didn’t model for a few years. I was busy doing massage and then teaching Pilates.

The Art Model’s Guild

Eventually, I modeled for the Palo Alto Art league in Silicon Valley. They had an art models guild, and you had to audition. Suddenly there was a middle-man taking a cut of your earnings. But I only had to pay a nominal yearly fee at the time.

A professor had started the guild because he was an art model, and had this orientation you had to go through, which seemed a bit silly to me since modeling for art classes is pretty self-explanatory.

He suggested props and staff you could use to help with balance and explained the different types of poses, gestures, and longer poses.

Then I moved down to LA and discovered lingerie modeling which paid a lot better at 100 per hour to start.

The Bay Area Models Guild requires 300 dollars to get in the door

When I first moved back up to northern California in 2009 things had changed a lot in the art modeling world. Few places would hire without an audition or belonging to the Bay Area Model’s Guild which has a 20 dollar audition fee, a 75 dollar initiation fee, and a 225 dollar refundable security deposit, and a probationary period.

There is a handbook with lots of rules and guidelines. This seems odd for such a straight forward gig. But maybe there has been a lot of flakey models in the SF Bay Area.

Since I didn’t have a car I didn’t bother joining since many of their gigs were not close to public transit.

I modeled at a few places I could reach by public transit that did not require you to be a member of the guild.

The California school of arts and crafts booked models who were not guild members for the figure classes and costume classes in San Francisco. I found a private art group that had an open drawing session. I also modeled for a long pose for one sculpting class at Laney College in Oakland, which took place over four weeks.

Ways to find art modeling gigs

mother daughter duo modeling for oil painting class Long Beach City College
single day painting: Life painting class Long Beach City College

Contact art schools and art centers in your area and ask if they hire directly or if they go through a model’s guild. If they go through a guild, you will probably have to pay a fee to join, audition, and follow whatever guidelines they have.

Depending on where you live, art modeling can pay anywhere from 10 to 25 an hour for drawing, painting, and sculpting and 150 or more per session for photography. It isn’t the best-paying gig in the world but could be a flexible source of extra income in a pinch.

Lingerie modeling

I found my first lingerie shoot in Boston when I was 22. It was a group of photographers that this one guy got together and charged for a class.

I also did a private shoot with the guy who started the class on the Beach but he was sleazy when we were alone, so I shied away from doing any more at the time.

Then in Los Angeles I was a lot bolder and 20 years older. It was in 2003, so there were not a lot of internet options yet for finding gigs. But there were a few photography sites, and people were looking for something a little different than traditional models. I never made a full-time living, but I did make 100 per hour and had fun and put an extra 500 to 1000 per month in the bank.

How to create a photography modeling portfolio

retro dress in lingerie photo shoot
Zoe Zuniga Modeling for lingerie shoot 2004

To get a portfolio to post, I did photos for trade to set up my profiles with pics. Photographers needed models for their own portfolios, so it was pretty easy to find people to work with for trade.

I found a few legit jobs on CL, and I put listings up on One Model Place and Model Mayhem and found that it was pretty easy to weed through the sleazy guys and find legitimate photographers who wanted to do artistic nudes, lingerie, and swimsuit photos.

What kinds of people will you work with?

I connected with a few professional photographers and a lot of guys who were just hobbyists who liked to take pictures of women in sexy outfits. Surprisingly I never had any trouble with anyone except that initial photographer when I was 22.

I enjoyed doing photos shoots because I got to wear lots of different costumes and wigs and do make up that was a lot flashier than ordinary everyday makeup.

I worked for one photographer who was a full time professional and needed to churn out a lot of pictures for companies he sold to every month. I was able to get a few high-quality shots for myself from him for my portfolio.

At one point I did a series of photos for a guy who was a hobbyist but wanted to start an online business. He wanted to set up a pay-site with me and some other women he was working with, so I worked with him for free.

But it turned out he decided he needed to have girl-on-girl porn videos to get customers and so a month of work was wasted. I didn’t want to do porn and had not agreed to it.

But I still recommend looking into lingerie if it is something you think you would enjoy. You don’t have to be traditionally beautiful or handsome or slim. Sometimes it can be an asset to be off-beat, ethnically diverse or curvy.

You can get lingerie modeling gigs that do not require sex or full nudity if you look for them. You never have to do anything you are not comfortable with. You can always say no or cut a session short.

Other types of modeling

Zpe Modelilng at Mass College of Art fashion department
Zoe Zuniga Fashion modeling in Mass College of Art 1985

I got to do a little fashion modeling for art school, but I was too short at 5  foot 3 to do anything with the modeling agencies in Boston at the time.  They didn’t work with commercial models for fitness and product ads, at the time.

Be cautious about modeling agencies because often they are just fronts for photographers who want to charge you a lot for photos and have no intention of representing you.  I did stumble upon one fitness modeling gig through Craigslist one time.

I Have noticed a lot more plus-sized models on merchandise photos and larger sized manikins in clothing stores lately so although you probably have to be tall, you don’t have to be skinny to be a fashion model for print anymore.

plus size model
Bigger Manikins at Target 2019

In conclusion

Art modeling is still reasonably easy to get, and if you join the right guild or meet the right group of artists, you can find photography classes that pay well. For fine art modeling, there is a greater range of looks and sizes of models than in lingerie modeling and fashion.

Lingerie modeling, swimsuit modeling, and fashion are a lot harder to break into obviously. It depends more on how you look and where you live. But there is a lot more diversity in models and what size you have to be then there used to be. So it could be worth looking into even if you don’t look like a stereotypical model.