Your Kid the Commercials Star? : Consultants Tell What It Takes for Children to Succeed in Television Work

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

You’ve been stopped in the supermarket by strangers who have gushed over how cute and adorable your child is. You’ve watched those kids in commercials and said to yourself, “My kid can do that.” You’ve given serious thought to how, if your child had a career in commercials, he could help pay for his college education.

You’ve thought about it long enough. What’s the first step?

You might try a consulting firm such as the Kids Hollywood Connection, a 3-year-old Irvine company that evaluates a child’s potential for print and commercial work and provides answers to questions on all aspects of show business.

“Parents come to me because they don’t know where to start,” said owner Phyllis Henson, who has counseled close to 1,000 families and whose own three children have appeared in more than 150 commercials in the last 12 years. “I think it’s really important to have someone guiding them who knows what they’re going to be going through.”


For a fee, Henson provides a 90-minute consultation in which she discusses the ins and outs of the business, what children and their parents can expect from agents and what agents expect from them. She also offers guidance on pictures, interviewing techniques, obtaining work permits and selecting wardrobe, hairstyles and makeup.

Some children’s agents, however, said it’s not necessary to go to a consultant, because parents can send them a picture of the child. And they needn’t spend hundreds of dollars on fancy portraits and composites--at least not in the beginning. A snapshot will do.

“All we need is a picture of a kid’s face,” said Hollywood agent Mary Grady, who has received pictures of children with ice cream and spaghetti sauce smeared on their faces, in obvious hopes of landing a food commercial. Grady said: “They’re comical, but nothing we can pick from. We don’t need to see the food, we just need to see the face. If it’s something we want, we bring them in.”

What does an agent, who receives hundreds of photographs a month, look for when a child is called in for an interview?


“Naturalness,” Grady said. “A child that isn’t waiting for you to ask the question the parent has prodded them with. The kids that are very open and uninhibited. A charisma.”

“Commercially, a generic look is great,” said Serene Cicora of the Abrams Rubaloff and Lawrence Talent Agency in Hollywood. “Somebody who would appeal to anybody in any city and state. They don’t have to be that beautiful blonde with the perfect teeth anymore. We usually look for a great personality because it (a commercial) is such a high-energy thing, and you only have a few seconds to do it.”

Is it necessary to enroll your child in a commercial workshop?

“I’d say the majority of children need some kind of training,” said Henson, adding that because few children are “naturals,” the on-camera experience provided in a workshop helps prepare them for an audition.


“They need to have their energy level up and to have good eye contact. They need to be very outgoing, to be able to talk to the casting director, to feel at ease and not be inhibited.”

Is living in Orange County a drawback for a career in commercials? Only if you mind driving on the freeway during the late-afternoon commute hour several times a week. Most commercial interviews for children are held after school from 3 to 6 p.m. That means spending two or more hours on the freeway for an interview with a casting director that usually lasts just five minutes.

“The kids who are successful in the business are the ones whose parents are 100% committed,” Henson said.

What are the drawbacks for the children?


They miss out on lot of things, such as birthday parties, soccer practice and piano lessons, said Diana Bostrom of Stanton, whose 6-year-old son, Zachary, has been in more than two dozen commercials, including spots for Oscar Meyer, Kodak and Mattel toys.

She said, however, that Zachary has been brought up to realize that whatever after-school activities he misses can be made up at a later date. Besides: “He loves the attention and the praise he gets from the other people. He’s very warm toward people, and he loves to share it.”

Does the so-called Coogan law, a 48-year-old state law named after former child actor Jackie Coogan, ensure that a percentage of a child’s earnings will be safeguarded in a trust fund?

It does, but the law is not automatic and rarely comes into play with children working in commercials.


Vicki Shapiro, Hollywood resident counsel for the Screen Actors Guild, said the law is applied only if a child’s contract is taken to court for affirmation, a procedure producers of theatrical movies and TV series routinely undertake as a safeguard against an under-age actor backing out of a long-term contract. At that time, the judge will order that a certain percentage of the child’s earnings be placed in a trust.

Because commercials are typically filmed in one day, however, producers do not bother going to court to have a child’s contract affirmed. What happens to the child’s earnings is thus left up to the parents.

“They can eat it, drink it, bury it and spend it--and that’s what happens,” said Grady, adding that while such parental abuse of a child’s earnings is rare, she is familiar with several such cases.

What about stage mothers?


“We don’t hold onto Hollywood mothers; we let them go,” Grady said. “Mothers and dads (sometimes) get where there’s nothing in their lives but this business, and the child tries too hard because they’re trying to please Mom and Dad. I think the parents should be terribly sensitive to what the kid wants to do.”

Grady’s advice to parents whose children work in commercials is to “still live a normal life--still go to baseball games, go on picnics and vacations--so your whole life is not centered on the (commercial) business. If Hollywood parents would only realize that that’s what keeps the child fresh and wonderful.”