They say, “Home is where the heart is.” and if that is true my heart is spread out across most of Wisconsin. But there is one place in this world that has the biggest piece, a small little community on the western side of the state, Altoona. On the outskirts of Eau Claire this little piece of heaven is where I grew up.
I lived in an idyllic neighborhood at the end of a cul-de-sac in a big white house surrounded by trees and love. The block where I grew up was home to the people who ultimately became my family. There were no less than 10 kids all about my same age who did everything together. Our families spent weekends around backyard campfires and large ‘family’ dinners on Sunday. Yes it sounds too good to be true, but it was the reality of my life and I thank my lucky stars that I was fortunate enough to experience a childhood filled with such positive memories and loving people.
From 1st grade through my sophomore year of high school I attended the Altoona School District, it was the very first place I visited with my new title and was honored that they asked me back once again to celebrate homecoming this past weekend. There are so many children growing up in areas of our nation where school systems are failing and education has become less and less of a priority. Altoona is not one of those places. A district with a strong commitment to making sure that children have access to the resources and support that they need. A group of teachers who see beyond a child’s limitations and help them to discover their place in the world. I was given so many opportunities to find mine. I hosted a middle school weekly news program, performed with the award-winning show choir and participated in some of the most unique academic opportunities I kid could wish for…from Math Olympiad to National History Day, this girl took advantage of every opportunity presented. Altoona taught me that you can develop many skills in your lifetime and you don’t have to have only a single passion or dream.
Things in my life haven’t always been perfect or peaceful or idyllic, whose life has been. But every person who meets me knows I choose to focus on the positive. I am the type of woman that likes to make the most out of every day, every minute and every gift I am blessed with. Altoona and the people in it are among my greatest gifts I have been given in my life and no matter how far I travel or where this crown takes me it will always be my first home.
This weekend I was honored to be part of the 10th annual Down Syndrome Awareness Walk in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin. The Down Syndrome Association of Wisconsin-Chippewa Valley advocates for a worthwhile cause and is a wonderful organization. I have supported multiple causes throughout my life. Among the organizations related to celebrating all abilities, I have been an award presenter for Special Olympics, a judges coordinator and emcee for the Miss Amazing pageant and am so looking forward to participating in Best Buddies events around the state as an ambassador as part of the Miss Wisconsin USA organization.
But even more so, I have been involved in awareness events and walks since I could walk. My mother was a news anchor and was often asked to participate, so non-profit events were a true family affair. I am blessed to have been taught the importance of community involvement and giving back. We did it all, Alzheimer’s awareness, heart disease awareness, Epilepsy awareness, mental health awareness, and breast cancer awareness. The latter came to be when my Nana was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer when I was 12 years old. She wanted to attend events and we all got involved. Something she used to say has stuck with me all of these years. We would all get dressed up in our pink shirts with our ribbons and pins and head to an ‘awareness’ event and she was bald and sick and going through chemo and would say….”AWARENESS, oh I am aware, I’m aware of what breast cancer is and what it does and what it means.” and she was, we all were. For my family it meant we would eventually lose our matriarch.
So when I go to an awareness event that is always top of mind. The families who attend, who live every day with ‘awareness’, choose to come to help the rest of the world understand, even if it is just for one day, for a few hours in a park, to share what it means. It is a time for them to come together, be together, to laugh and sometimes cry. My heart is full this Monday morning knowing that showing up with a crown and banner didn’t actually make anyone more ‘aware’ of the ups and downs these families face every moment of every day, but it did put a smile on a lot of faces. They are aware, and I am more aware and more educated than I was yesterday.
This will be my favorite part of being Miss Wisconsin USA. Please invite me to your ‘awareness’ event, I would be honored to be a part of something bigger.
Nestled in the Northwoods of Wisconsin is the beautiful community of Tomahawk. To most in the world it is known as a motorcycle mecca, with not one but two Harley Davidson plants located in the city. It is home to one of the largest biker rallies in the nation, the event raises thousands of dollars for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, but to me it is my second home.
Tomahawk is where a majority of my extended family lives. It is the place I have worked since the age of 14! On the shores of Lake Nokomis there is a supper club that has been owned by not one but two sets of my great aunts and uncles. It has been in our family for 23 years. Rumors say the building was once financed by the mob as a rum running operation and the tunnels and false walls in the basement would lead me to to believe that is true.
I have been a busser, a hostess and a waitress there for summers as long as I was allowed to work. I believe no job in the world teaches you the value of hard work more than, literally, serving others. When it is your job to provide vacationers with a memorable experience and your tuition bill depends on it, you learn the importance of customer service, kindness and hustle. A smiling, happy customer is one of the most rewarding feelings in the world.
My summers in Tomahawk have prepared me for my job as Miss Wisconsin USA, to the thousands of locals and tourists I’ve had the pleasure to meet over the years, thank you. I wish I could share the true essence of the ‘Fish Fry’-Wisconsin experience with the world, but that batter just doesn’t travel well. So everyone from this point forward will have to take my word for it.
From apron to crown, proud to represent Tomahawk, Wisconsin
So many cool projects this month featuring some of the finest photographers and hair and make-up artists I have had the pleasure to work with. And as a bonus they are Wisconsin based. I love behind-the-scenes videos that give people a glimpse into a shoot.
Growing up in small towns I would have had absolutely no idea how to get started in modeling, I do remember there being model searches in my hometown mall however and once in a great while a ‘talent scout’ would come to a hotel selling your chance to be the next Disney star. Now that I have been doing this for some time and built a professional network which includes many other models I have learned this one very, very, very important fact. Do not pay a ton of money to become a model!!!*
That said there are costs involved but if someone tells you that you need a series of classes, expensive workshops or thousands of dollars’ worth of photos they want to take your money and once they have it their interest in you is likely over. People I know have done this and I imagine they would not only echo my thoughts but have an even harsher reaction. Now this is a point where I could easily name the names of companies that are notorious for doing this but as an aspiring lawyer I am smarter than that. So please google modeling classes and know that very few signed models (with good agencies that get you paid work) actually ever went to those ‘schools’. Modeling is one of the few things in the world that cannot necessarily be taught and attending classes will not make you more successful, if you want to spend money invest in great photos. If you want to find success build a network. 25%Luck, 25%Relationships,50%Hard Work.
Also to read a lot more about this check out my favorite article on the subject.
So if you aren’t lucky like I was and fall right into this business in an unexpected ball of fire, how do you start? This is where the money you do need to spend probably comes in. Get a decent headshot and set of polaroids (or ‘digis’ or ‘digitals’, they go by many names) They are called this because if you got an agency interview or scouted, back in the day, they would pull out a Polaroid instant camera and take a headshot, profile, 1/3 and full body shot, usually in a bikini or tight clothing or something that shows off your build and are usually fresh faced with little to no make-up, raw unedited images. These become part of your portfolio for potential clients. In 2016 modeling agencies usually prefer you submit these images digitally and if you go to agency sites often they will tell you that these photographs do not need to be done professionally, this is probably true if you have all the makings of a supermodel. But don’t trust your smartphone with this task. Go and get these done by a good professional photographer, especially your headshot, one who has worked with agency signed models, do your research for your market and find the best photographer you can!
So if you aren’t a ready-made supermodel (and honestly, who the heck is) my best advice is to work first, build your professional portfolio, hopefully with a good headshot and some prime networking you can find work with photographers also building their portfolio and you can work together. The progression of an unsigned print model usually follows this route, you pay for really good pictures from a really good photographer, sometimes you need to pay for more than just head shots and Polaroids, portfolio prints don’t come cheap. When you get good enough you can work for free with photographers on a TFP (time for prints, time for photos) basis and finally you get paid by photographers who want to work with you. This is how as a print model you progress, learn and get better. If you have talent photographers will seek you out. In my career I started by reaching out to really good photographers, now photographers will reach out to me, that is an awesome place to be. Those pictures build your portfolio which you use for casting calls and a comp card. These are items you will take to casting calls and auditions.
Then if you are so inclined take that material and hit the open call agency circuit to get signed. A true agency may charge you a nominal fee for including you on their website and will likely suggest photos from a high end professional who can assure your listing is the quality the agency prefers and yes this may cost you some money. If you have a strong enough portfolio, brand and proof of success no agency is going to charge you up front to sign with them. If they insist you spend $1500-$3000 up front for ‘signing’ something is seriously wrong. Since I am a ‘free agent’ most of this advice has come my way from people who have been doing this a LOT longer than I have. But I trust them and take their advice to heart.
Again most of these things are separate posts. Connect with other industry professionals and models but don’t use them to advance your own career . Be cautious of snakes in the grass, I have horror stories about bad casting calls, shady photographers and downright scary situations, vet everyone you work with.
And as usual as I complete this blog post my last paragraph has just given me four more post ideas. So follow me, if you are curious about my experience or stories from this crazy world I have enough apparently for a novel. So until next time.
Dream Big, Skylar
*These are my personal opinions and professional experiences, I know there are people out there who will not agree. I am sure with an infinite amount of money many models can build a successful career. My goal was to build my own career without spending my parents cash. It has not been easy…it’s a lot of work every day!
Among the many pieces of advice I’ve shared recently with aspiring models:
Find and know your market.
My 18 years of life so far have been spent in two relatively small towns located right in the center of Wisconsin. One on the western side of the state, the other smack dab in the middle. The relevance is that I have learned that to be a ‘working’ model you need to:
1) find your closest realistic market and 2) be willing to either relocate or travel there often.
A realistic market is a city or area large enough with enough industry related business to actually make paid modeling opportunities available to you. On the western side of Wisconsin my market would have been Minneapolis, in central Wisconsin,unfortunately I was not close enough to a large market to find much success.My career did not take off until I moved within driving distance of Milwaukee and Chicago. Many of my friends in the south have found their success in markets like Atlanta, Dallas and Miami.
This is one of those harsh realities and it is hard to explain and sometimes comes off a little devastating and trite, but modeling for senior photographers, the mall fashion show or repping a local beauty salon are really great starts but they won’t make you any money. Promotional modeling is one of the few areas that can be done almost anywhere, and I have a lot of friends who enjoy traveling with companies and representing their brands, but again that is a whole different post. If you want to do this, really do this you have to find and know your market. If you want to be ‘famous’ you will not be able to get there unless you are willing to move to a market that can make you famous….NY, LA, Paris. My end goal is not to become a famous model.(that said if you are an agent from New York, read this blog, look at my portfolio and fall in love, call please call, I can be convinced! 😉
My goal (and I am closer every single day) is to be a working model and actress in the Midwest for as long as I can before I am either washed up, large enough and professional enough to get a break that makes a move worthwhile or simply choose to stop doing it. In the end it will likely be the latter. I want to earn a law degree at some point, settle down and have a family. That is my personal dream, probably doesn’t appear as exciting as the constant go-go-go of my current life. My hope is that when someone is looking for a model in the Midwest, the name Skylar Witte comes up and is shared with enthusiasm and wonderful experiences.
By working I mean I get paid every time someone puts a camera in front of me. Right now I am about 70 percent there, I love to shoot and still do portfolio building. I have worked hard to network with the right people in order to do TFP work (Trade For Print or Time for Pics-an equal trade of time for portfolio building between a model and photographer) I have a few consistent clients and recently started working with a designer who will hopefully make my TFP jobs no longer necessary. I have a pretty extensive portfolio and I am proud of it, in my market I have made wonderful connections with the right kind of people. Hopefully enough to keep me working which right now is just about enough to off set the costs of books, food and incidentals in college. Next stop paying off student loans.
I’m not a blogger, but recently I have gotten so many questions about how I am doing what I am doing and what it is exactly that I do week in and week out I thought what better way to connect with people than to start to use my site to share a little more. It’s also a good avenue to answer questions to the best of my ability about the life of a model/college student…notice the slash that will become very important as I share this journey. So check back often for insights and as I log my Skylar Witte modeling adventures for you all to see.
The number one question I get asked and asked often, I’m interesting in becoming a model, how did you do it? The answer I give is probably not what people hope to hear but it is the truth and my journey will be different than every other person both successful and unsuccessful in this particular endeavor. But since it comes up often it was a reasonable first post.
My recipe for success is a simple mix, 25% pure luck, 25% building a solid network and 50% non-stop hard work.
I didn’t wake up one day and decide to be a model, but I did wake up and decide to send my senior picture into a dress designer who was looking for models. The connection came my way via a dress shop owners Facebook post and it was a very abrupt,not at all a thought out, decision. I just emailed him my photo, beginning and end of story.
Two amazing national ad campaigns later, a few appearance on Seventeen.com and pictures to build an amazing portfolio my modeling career began, Jimmy at Vienna Prom liked my smile, I fit in his amazing gowns, he enjoyed working with me once and asked me back to model another collection and yep I was a model. 25% pure luck.
I could have been done, as a matter of fact I tried to get an agent after that and was told at my first and only interview that because I was 1 inch shorter than the minimum requirements to do print and runway (which is 5’8″) I should just enjoy the experience and move on (see my next post) but I didn’t want to be done so I started phase two and took my portfolio and started to network. 25% of what I do every day is build relationships.
Finally, non-stop hard work. My calendar is booked through July and when I get a call from someone who wants to work with me, I rarely if ever say no. I miss class when I have to so I can travel and sometimes drop everything to be in Chicago on a days notice. Every week I shoot with a boutique that pays me to display all of their inventory, I am the stores only model. We fit the shoots in between college classes. It pays for most of my college incidentals. Everyday I make a conscious choice to eat clean and workout so I can continue to represent the brands that pay me to fit into and look good in their merchandise. This is my job and I take it extremely seriously. Many girls who attempt a go at this business are content to find an agency and sit by the phone waiting for the chance to go to a casting call. I choose to work all the time, some jobs pay hourly, some pay daily and some do not pay at all. All of my jobs are booked as a freelance model, I handle all my own arrangements and travel and when I do get paid it is my money to keep. I find most of my opportunities through my network or by constantly searching. It is hard and my cell phone is attached to my hip so I can field inquiries. I am fortunate to be represented by a film and television agency but the modeling is all me. Work, work and work!
My friend circle has become rather small, I am a social butterfly but the people that are closest to me these days are those who understand I have big dreams and I have to work to get there, which means a lot less fun and sacrificing time with people I love. If I had any advice for anyone in any industry it is surround yourself with people who support your dreams and are willing to sacrifice along side of you.
Much like losing weight or getting A’s in school, there isn’t a secret. So if you want to become a model it just take a lot of dedication and hard work… but that other part, the other 50% you can’t make that happen, people either like your look or they don’t, they are either willing to network and be part of your journey or they aren’t. There isn’t a way to make those things happen. I’m sorry it isn’t easy, but all the really big dreams come at a cost.