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Secrets of Scouting: The Team That Discovered Karlie Kloss on How to Become a Model

Jeff and Mary Clarke; Image: Mother Model Management

Jeff and Mary Clarke; Image: Mother Model Management

Did you know that two of the most famous independent model scouts in the country live all the way out in Missouri? Meet Jeff and Mary Clarke, the husband and wife behind Mother Model Management, the infamous agency that discovered 13-year-old Karlie Kloss and a little known Iowa teenager by the name of Ashton Kutcher. We sat down with the duo to find out the secrets to their success and tips on how to become a model.

theFashionSpot: Background, please!

Mary Clarke: Scouting started as a hobby. Over 30 years ago, I was the lady in Iowa that would produce the fashion shows at the mall. I started to realize there was a demand for new faces. I met a few key people early on that helped me understand that I had an eye for scouting. 

tFS: How did you meet Jeff?

MC: I scouted him at a mall in January 1997!

Jeff Clarke: I was the store manager of a men’s clothing store called Structure. We started off in the normal agent-model relationship, and then all of a sudden we were holding hands and kissing in the car. We fell in love. Later, we married and I became a business partner.

MC: It can be lonely when you’re out on the road scouting, but I think we have an advantage because we’re together and we look at it like one big adventure. When we’re out on the road, we stop at random, weird places and entertain ourselves. We go to cafes and county fairs and everything in between. We appreciate the whole Americana life. 

tFS: What’s the advantage of being based in Missouri?

MC: We like our place in the business because we’re plugged into it and yet removed from it. The Midwest has served us really well, and it’s quick and easy for us to scout in many areas since we’re sort of in the center. We can easily reach Illinois and Iowa or drive over to Nashville. 

Grace Hartzel for Vogue Paris

Grace Hartzel for Vogue Paris

tFS: What makes you good mother agents?

MC: We have kids, so we understand the girls from a parenting standpoint. We always tell models we work with that if you’re in a hurry, we’re not the company for you. We want longevity and real success. We don’t want a flash in the pan.

tFS: You have a reputation for going above and beyond for your models.

MC: The things we do just for the potential of something to happen! This winter, for instance, we stopped to get gas in Hannibal, Missouri on the way to this dance competition in Iowa, where we scout every year. It’s the largest statewide dance competition in the state. They get over 4,000 teenage girls! Anyway, we saw a really cool guy at the gas station and approached him. Today was supposed to be his first test shoot, but we got a text last night that his ride bailed on him, and he had no way to get to the shoot. So, Jeff and I looked at each other and said, “We’ll come get you.” We drove an hour and a half to pick him up and bring him back here. When we were a half an hour away, he called and canceled because his uncle was in an accident. So, we turned around and came back. You have to love scouting because it may not pay off.

tFS: What’s your scouting method?

JC: Usually we’re together when we’re scouting. Mary does the initial approach, and tries to speak to a parent first if they’re present. One time when we were in the mall in Des Moines, Iowa, we saw this girl that we thought was cool. She was standing with her friend, and she was probably about 13. Mary quietly said out of the side of her mouth, “Jeff, keep on walking. Do not stop.” Mary went over to talk with her as I veered to the left. I don’t think this girl was used to 6-foot-2-inch men with a beard and tattoos…

MC: She was a little freaked out, but all his tattoos are positive. One is a rose, and one has my name. When you get to know him, he’s a big teddy bear.

tFS: Do you have a busy season?

MC: We travel with the girls for shows in February and March and again in September and October. We also travel for spring break, and we’re on the road a ton in the summer, going to state fairs and music festivals. Football games are big in the fall, too. We’re in the trenches, but we make it fun.

tFS: What are you looking for?

MC: Of course, it always starts with height. But yesterday we were at the mall ordering a book and we’re both looking at the girl taking our order. She was tall and pretty, but there just wasn’t that thing where you go “Wow, she’s really special.” You learn to trust your instincts. If it just took being tall, beautiful and photogenic, our job would be 5,000 times easier. But it’s so much more than that.

tFS: Do you have to deal with divas?

JC: Those girls aren’t for us. We’ve been doing this long enough that you just get to the point where you don’t need the headache. It’s important that we gel with the boy or the girl, and if they’re young, we have to gel with the family. 

MC: We’re very direct communicators, at work and with our family. We’ll always tell the girls the truth, even if it’s not what they want to hear. At the end of the day, sometimes people forget that we’re working with young adolescents. They deserve to be treated respectfully.

tFS: Where did you find Ashton Kutcher?

MC: I discovered Ashton in February 1997. He was at a bar in Iowa City that was a University of Iowa hangout. It was called The Airliner. That year, everything snowballed. 

Mary and Jeff Clarke with Ashton Kutcher in December 2007 at an agency Christmas party. Image: Mary and Jeff Clarke

Mary and Jeff Clarke with Ashton Kutcher in December 1997 at an agency Christmas party. Image: Mary and Jeff Clarke

tFS: Do you still talk?

MC: Oh, yeah. We’ll be friends forever. He’s just a wonderful guy. Things happened so fast for him. I found him in February, took him to New York in July and by that fall he was doing runway shows. By the following January, he landed That ’70s Show.

tFS: Did you know he wanted to be an actor?

MC: He told me that was his dream when I scouted him. But when you’re a kid in Iowa, you don’t really think that’s realistic. So, I told him that modeling could transition him into the business, and it happened at rocket-speed with him. It was wonderful and overwhelming.