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COMMERCIAL KIDS : Breaking Into Television Is Child’s Play for Some, Although Their Parents May Work Pretty Hard at It

Times Staff Writer

Have you ever thought about getting your daughter into commercials?”

Joe and Vicky Vallee had heard that line before.

Ever since the Anaheim couple’s blond-haired, brown-eyed daughter, Jennifer, was a baby--an unusually bright, cheerful and perpetually smiling baby--her grandparents, aunts and uncles had been asking them that question.

And when Jennifer began entering children’s beauty pageants at age 4 and picking up trophies for “most beautiful face” and “prettiest smile,” Hollywood talent agents in the audience occasionally would hand them their business cards.

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So it was nothing new when Phyllis Henson, a judge at the 1986 Universal Rainbow State Pageant at the Anaheim Sheraton, approached them after Jennifer was crowned queen in the 4-to-5-year-old division.

“Have you ever thought about getting your daughter into commercials?” asked Henson.

“Yes,” said Joe Vallee, general manager of a sandwich shop, “but nobody’s ever been serious.”

“I’m serious,” said Henson.

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As owner of the Kids Hollywood Connection in Irvine, a consulting service that helps children get started in show business, Henson always is on the lookout for budding talent.

And Henson, whose own three children have been working steadily in commercials for the last 12 years, was simply bowled over by Jennifer Vallee.

“Oh, I love this kid!” rhapsodizes Henson, who serves as personal manager for several dozen child actors. “She’s got that sparkle. She’s tiny and petite for her age. She’s got big, beautiful brown eyes, and she doesn’t stop smiling. She’s definitely star material.”

Henson’s enthusiasm for Jennifer’s commercial potential was contagious.

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Two days after the pageant, Jennifer and her parents met with Henson in her office where they learned the ins and outs of the television commercial business.

By the time they walked out the door, they had decided to give it a try. And by the time they got home, Jennifer had even picked a stage name: Jena. They had been told there are too many Jennifers in the business and, says Jennifer, “I thought Jena would be a cute name.”

The Vallees are typical of the countless thousands of hopeful parents and children--many of them from Orange County--who try to crack the highly competitive world of television commercials, those 10-, 30- and 60-second slices of American materialism that could lead to a five- and even six-figure annual income before a child has even lost all his baby teeth.

Unlike many parents who go prospecting for gold in the Hollywood Hills and come up empty-handed, however, the Vallees have struck pay dirt.

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Following her meeting with the Vallees, Henson arranged an interview for Jennifer at a Hollywood talent agency the next day. The agency, Herb Tannen & Associates, signed Jennifer on the spot. Says agent Mimi Michel: “She’s very special. It’s a quality that’s undefinable. We just call it magical, a spark or pizazz, and some children just exude that. A lot of them do not have it; sometimes it has to be acquired.”

Jennifer, by all accounts, was born with it. Now it’s paying dividends.

Her first time out on a job interview, Jennifer was selected from among 300 other cute and personable moppets for a commercial selling doll-shaped pillows called Pillow People.

Today, at age 6 and after only 16 months in the business, the 3-foot-7, 42-pound first-grader is a veteran of 13 commercials.

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Jennifer, who just completed a spot for McDonald’s, currently has six commercials airing on television: two for Pillow People, two for Quaker Oats (she appears at the breakfast table with “Our House” star Wilford Brimley) and two for Skippy peanut butter (she’s the girl sitting in a rocking chair with her teddy bear and holding up a piece of bread with a heart drawn in the peanut butter).

Such a high degree of commercial success in such a short amount of time, however, is unusual.

“To be really gut-level, hard-core honest with you, it’s usually 25 interviews, and then perhaps they would get one job,” said Michel, who works in the children’s department at Herb Tannen & Associates. “Jena came to us in June, 1986. Just in numbers it’s unusual. She’s a very exceptional little lady.”

But it is success stories like Jennifer Vallee’s that keep a steady stream of parents knocking on agents’ doors and submitting their child’s photograph to the talent brokers.

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And, because of its freeway-close proximity to Hollywood, Orange County is the home of hundreds of successful and budding commercial kiddies.

“We’re thinking of the future and college education and stuff like that, and it seemed like a good opportunity,” said Don Heckathorn of El Toro, whose 4-year-old son, Jason, was signed with an agent two months ago. Jason, known professionally as Jason Paul Warren, has gone on six commercial interviews but so far has not landed a job.

“I’m the type who feels like if I don’t try anything once I’ll always wonder if it couldn’t happen,” said Chris Szymanek of Huntington Beach, whose 17-month-old daughter, Gina, was signed with an agent when she was 5 months old. The blond-haired, blue-eyed girl has done two commercials that have yet to air, one for Ivory shampoo and one for Chiquita-brand melons.

Before a child gets to that point, however, he or she must first pass muster with a talent agent. “Agents get hundreds of pictures a week,” said Henson, “so it’s very competitive even so far as to get a child to see an agent.”

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The Mary Grady Agency in Hollywood, one of the oldest in the business dealing exclusively with children and young adults, is typical: Grady receives about 200 photographs each week.

“I’ve been on the other side, and you wonder do agents really see them, but I do,” said Grady, whose son, Don Grady, starred in “My Three Sons,” and whose daughter, Lani O’Grady, was a regular on “Eight Is Enough.”

But just because an agent looks at a child’s picture is no guarantee it will lead to an interview. Of the 800 pictures a month that come across Grady’s desk, she said, “we’ll pick about six to eight of those to come in, and after seeing those eight, maybe two will be picked.”

Costa Mesa talent agent Marian Berzon says she receives up to 10 calls a day from parents who have been told that their child is beautiful and outgoing or who have been stopped by strangers who said, “Why isn’t your child in commercials?”

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Berzon’s favorite story is of the mother who called to say she wanted to get her daughter in commercials. Berzon asked her how old the child was. Replied the woman: “I’m pregnant. She isn’t born yet.”

“I thought, I don’t believe this!” Berzon recalled with a laugh. “Anytime the bottom line is dollars, people want to get involved.”

For the actual filming of a commercial, children receive the same pay as adults: about $333--not bad for a day’s work. But where the potentially big bucks can come is in residuals. The size of residual payments varies, based on whether the commercial airs nationally, how often it airs and what time of day it is shown. But Grady said it’s not unheard of for a “top commercial kid"--one who works steadily and appears in several national commercials annually--to make up to $100,000 a year.

Getting to that point is not easy.

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“The competition is horrendous,” said Berzon, adding that the children who are chosen for the jobs have “an extra something. It could be a look, or a little different kind of body language. And you don’t have to be a beautiful child to be in this business. An unusual look or voice--something that’s different--is a plus. It’s really (based) on the child’s personality--how he shines.”

Talent agents agree on one thing: the child mustn’t be timid and shy.

“They really have to be outgoing,” said Berzon, recalling a 3-year-old boy who came into her office one day. The boy, smartly dressed in a little suit, sat down in the chair in front of Berzon’s desk, crossed his legs and said, “Well, Marian, I’m here.”

Laughed Berson: “I could not believe it. He was very outgoing. He told me about what he was wearing and modeled it for me. I got such a charge out of him, and he wasn’t prompted by his mother. It was him.

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She recalled that another 3-year-old boy once came in with his mother for an interview. Berzon asked him if he really wanted to do this.

“No,” he said.

Do you want your picture taken?

“No.”

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Do you want to be on television?

“No.”

Berzon asked the mother why she wanted to do this.

“Because I want it for him,” she said.

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The moral of the story: “The child really has to want to do this,” said Berzon.

Kay Dygert of Orange learned that lesson the hard way two years ago.

Using a list of children’s agents supplied by the Screen Actors Guild, Dygert sent snapshots of her red-haired, 3 1/2-year-old daughter, Erica, to nine of them. Three different agencies called in Erica for an interview.

“They took her into a room, and it was just really intimidating to her, and she just wouldn’t do anything,” said Dygert. “They came out and told me she was ‘totally undirectable.’ ”

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One agency suggested that Dygert bring Erica back in six months.

“They thought it might just be an age thing, but I think it was personality,” Dygert said. “They bring the children in cold and expect them to work. The directors don’t have time to work with them. They need kids that will respond under those conditions and respond the way they want. I think there’s just a small percentage of kids that can do that at an early age. I give those kids a lot of credit now for going through it.”

Erica later told her mother that she didn’t want to return in six months. That’s just as well as far as Dygert is concerned. She said she didn’t like the way she was acting toward Erica on the days they drove up to Hollywood for the interviews.

“I’d be nervous all the way up,” Dygert said. “I didn’t want her to move around and ruin her hair. . . . I wanted her to do well, and I think I was putting a lot of pressure on her. I know a lot of mothers go through that. You can’t help but want them to succeed.”

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The Vallees share Dygert’s concern. They met their share of stage mothers during the 18 months Jennifer entered beauty contests.

“You could tell which ones push--a lot of them push,” said Vicky Vallee, a secretary for Pacific Bell, seated in the living room of their modest, turn-of-the-century wood-frame house, where Jennifer’s more than 50 beauty pageant trophies and 20 crowns are displayed on the upright piano in the dining room.

“We went into it with the attitude, we didn’t want her to change,” Joe Vallee said. “We just told Jennifer, ‘You’re here to have fun. You don’t have to do this.’ But she just took off on it. She wasn’t afraid to be in front of people.”

Like many children who achieve success in commercials, Jennifer is now interested in an acting career. She has already made a screen test for NBC, auditioned for several TV and movie roles and recently was hired to do voice-overs for a line of tape cassettes that accompany toys called Little People.

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But the Vallees remain philosophical about Jennifer’s career. “If it stopped, it wouldn’t upset her or us,” Joe Vallee said. “Kids change. Maybe tomorrow she’ll want to be a fireman.”

In Jennifer’s case, that seems unlikely.

“It’s fun!” she said, describing the first time she saw herself on TV: “I was real excited. I was jumping up and down and yelling, ‘My commercial! My commercial!”

The Vallees say they take turns getting off work to drive Jennifer up to Hollywood for commercial interviews, sometimes as many as three or four times a week.

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“It is taxing,” Joe Vallee said. “The stress of driving L.A. freeways is a job in itself, but it’s something we can give her at this point. We weren’t born with silver spoons, and any money she makes is going to help her further her education and give her something we wouldn’t be able to help her with.”

The Vallees, who bank all of Jennifer’s earnings, won’t say how much money she has made, but if her commercial career continues at its current pace, they’re confident that by the time she’s 18 she’ll have at least enough to pay for her college education-- and buy the red Corvette Jennifer wants. Said Vallee, laughing, “I think she wants the red Corvette first.”

Jennifer, modeling one of her beauty pageant crowns for a visitor, nodded her head vigorously when asked if she really wants a red Corvette.

“And to go to college,” she said, then giggled: “That’s the only kind of car I want.”

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She looked at her father: “Papa, how much money do I have in the bank?”

“It’s a secret,” he said with a grin.

“Why don’t you call up the bank and find out?” Jennifer asked.

“You’ll probably have enough for a car and college,” he reassured her.

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Jennifer smiled gleefully and clapped her hands.


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