The Bittersweet Life Of a Teenage Model
Candy Jones, head of Conover Models and discoverer of Sandra Dee tells
what it really took for Sandy to make it...
This article appeared in the August 1959 issue of Modern Screen Magazine
It seems only yesterday—well, it was in 1954—when the Conover Agency received the following note, written in childish but firm script:
" It's Sunday, and I have
finished my home work. I am writing you to find out whether I have a chance to become a model. I hope to become an actress some day."
It was signed, Sandra Douvan and it came from Bayonne, a New Jersey suburb of New York.
A tiny snapshot (about one inch by two inches) was enclosed.
Using a magnifying glass, I studied the photo. I liked what I saw: a sweet round face, with curly golden-
brown hair peeking out from under a peculiar little hat.
I wrote her, inviting her to come in to see me with her parents.
When Sandra came with her mother, a petite
bubbling young woman, she seemed even prettier than the photo. She was about twelve, with big brown eyes, soft wavy hair, clear complexion, a round angelic face. She was dressed simply but smartly, and I was very much impressed. She had a
quiet reserve, poise, confidence.
We discussed her potential as a model, .and I agreed to take her on as a Conover
girl She agreed to shortening her name,for professional use, to Dee.
We had other child models on our list, but there was something about Sandra that
made her stand out. Perhaps, it was a intelligence, perhaps it was her frank
eagerness to succeed, perhaps it was her
She caught on fast as a model. She listened carefully to instructions, did as told, learned quickly. Soon she quit school at Bayonne, and transferred to the Professional Children's
School in midtown New York. This is the school specializing in arranging studies for actors and actresses, including correspondence courses, so
that they can take jobs during the daytime. I think it costs about $500 a year.
Like all models and actresses of school age (under eighteen) she had to keep up with her school work. She knew she would be in trouble at school and we would have to stop sending her out on jobs if she had low marks.
Fortunately, Sandra was bright, and we never had to worry.
I suspect she was so bright, she was able to do her school studies quickly and then wait breathlessly for us to send her out on assignments. Incidentally,
assignments were not jobs, really. An assignment meant there was a job waiting for the girl who could qualify. Sometimes two or three
girls showed up for the same job; sometimes twenty or thirty girls were auditioned for the same job. That meant the job went to the girl who made the strongest impression, and the other girls would then leave, brokenhearted.
The ferocious competition for these wellpaying jobs (as photographic models or as actresses In TV commercials) sometimes turned these young girls into little vixens.
But with Sandra, there were virtually no problems. She was a fine girl—except for two peculiarities: she insisted on walking her little blonde Pomeranian Tiki before rushing off to appointments, and she persisted in considering herself fat.
Walking her Pomeranian meant she was
sometimes late for appointments, and the
studios had to penalize her by deducting
from her fee.
Now Sandra had a round face, but she
was not fat nor was she skinny. She was
quite normal for her age. I used to try to
explain to her that the old concept of
haggard, gaunt, pencil-thin models was
passe, and that the trend was toward be-
lievable natural beauty. And Sandra was
certainly a natural beauty.
But, unfortunately, a couple of receptionists,
where Sandra reported for work,
were stupid enough to remark in her
presence that she was 'too fat.'
Sandra then had an 18- or 19-inch waist.
and a trim little figure; but she believed
that she was 'too fat' and stopped eating.
Naturally, her parents and I were flabbergasted. We tried to persuade her that
she was all right; but she just wouldn't
eat, and started to lose weight. She became nervous and fretful, and we were
afraid she would come down with
tuberculosis or mononucleosis.
So we had to figure out tricks to get her
to eat. For instance, We kept a chart of
appointments for our models in my office.
When Sandra arrived, she would beg to
see the chart and check her bookings
and compare them to the other girls.
So I began to hide the chart and say,
"Sandy, first, you've got to drink a malted!"
She would frown and protest. But I
would insist, and then "offer a glass of
malted milk -with an egg in it. She would
sip it slowly, complaining, "But I'm so fat!"
Only after she drank the last drop would
we permit her to see the chart.
Fortunately, Sandra did not smoke.
There are teen models who smoke because
they think smoking will cut their appetites
and help keep them thin. But Sandra--
aside from her refusal to eat properly—-
was health conscious and she went to sleep
early, got proper rest, avoided parties,
watched her complexion.
0ur trouble with Sandra's poor eating
habits reached a climax when I sent her—
along with Lorna Gillam and Peggy
Bishop—to the Hal Reiff studios, to pose
for a set of color photos intended for
Young Set Magazine.
It was a classroom scene, and
photographer Reiff worked quickly to arrange the
complicated poses. Suddenly, Sandra
gasped, "I have to sit down," and slumped
to the floor.
She was helped to the chair and revived;
but she could not continue to work. The
color had drained from her face, and she
seemed terribly ill.
Reiff called off the session, and phoned
me to complain that I had sent him a sick
model and that he'd never hire her again.
Sandra's mother of course rushed her to
the doctor, who found that she was anemic
and suffering from malnutrition. He ordered her to take pills for her blood and
pills to build up her appetite.
But Sandra developed a new quirk; She thought vitamin pills were a substitute for
Her mother would say: "Sandy, did you
take your vitamins?" Sandra would say,
"Yes," Mother would then ask, "Did you
eat?" Sandra would then become ex-
asperated and exclaim, "But, mother, I
had my pills."
This would go on and on.
News of Sandra's fainting got around,
and mothers of other teen models,
intensely jealous of Sandra's success, spread
reports that Sandra was 'always sick.'
They tried to kill off her career. As a
result, Sandra lost out on quite a few jobs.
Prospective employers were reluctant to
hire somebody who might quite literally
fall down on the job.
But Sandra, with great tenacity, wouldn't
give up. She made every appointment
count, and she managed. With time, she
re-established herself as a reliable model.
I don't believe Sandra has ever
recovered her appetite. The other week in
Hollywood, I discovered, makeup artist
Bud Westmore offered Sandra a new spe-
cial lipstick . . . on condition she first drink
a glass of malted milk. And Sandra tried,
-but just couldn't down the milk.
Through all her troubles, Sandra was
stoic. I never saw her whimper. She was
always the silent type. If you told her
something she did not want to hear, she.
just sat, stony faced. She didn't argue
back. She just resisted.
Being a model isn't quite all fun. It's
hard work. It means rushing through
school work in order to have time to go
on model assignments. It means worrying
about weight, complexion, clothes, health,
personality. It means having no time for
boys, parties, girifriends, lazying around,
listening to records. It means a lot of
rushing, hopping cabs, gulping food in cabs,
remembering 'do's' and 'don't's' of modeling,
straining to say the right things at
the right time, knowing how to meet adults.
It requires stamina, long hours on your
feet, getting stiff from holding a pose, end-
less waiting and endless walking.
Sandra, I must say, took to modeling
easily. She noticed everything; understood
everything (except the need to eat prop-
erly). She knew what she wanted (to
be a great model and then a great actress).
Once, when I realized she was so tired,
I asked her, "Sandy, why do you want to
take on so many jobs? Why don't you relax
and stop working so hard?"
She looked me straight in the eye, and
said, "Mrs. Conover, you gave me this op-
portunity . . . and I just can't miss it. I
want to prove myself! I want to be the
best teen model in the business!"
Around the Conover office, she was quiet
and serious faced. But when she got to the
ad agency or the photo studio to audition
for a job, she became a different person.
She sparkled; she became animated; she
captivated everybody. She learned her
script quickly; she followed directions
carefully; she was a perfectionist. As a re-
sult, she landed more jobs.
By the time she was thirteen, she was
being hailed in the fashion world as one of
America's top ten models. She appeared on
many national magazine covers.
As with other models, she was required
to be able to portray a girl three years
younger and three years older than her-
self. In other words, she had to have a
range of six years of expression—with the
aid of makeup and dress, of course. Sandra
was very good. She knew, almost
instinctively, how to model. When she was
barely fifteen, she modeled once as a young
mother holding an infant.
Like most of our other teen models,
Sandra was a good student and got fine
marks. She was very good in English and
social studies, but hated geometry.
But, unlike most other girls her age, she
was not boy crazy. The other girls yakked
all the time about handsome young actors
they had seen backstage on TV (they
preferred actors to male models) but San-
dra seemed bored with that. She'd wander
away to a corner to read a book or maga-
zine, or chat with her mother. Her mother,
of course, was her constant companion.
Not having brothers or sisters, Sandra
was close to her mother and father, and
accustomed to adult conversation. Her
ease with grown-up talk was a great asset
when she went out on assignments, and
had to deal with ad agency executives
and famous photographers.
She did not mix too well with the other
models her age. Not that she was snobbish.
She was not. But she felt they were too
aggressive, and she was especially ap-
palled at aggressive mothers.
Her father had warned her he would
take her out of modeling if she ever be-
came swell-headed or bratty. And he had
urged her, "Never go looking for
anything, Sandy . . . Let things happen."
I know Sandra never did like the
"pushing routine," as she called it. She deplored
young models viewing each other as rivals
rather than as friends. She was shocked
to see how they lied to each other about
jobs because they feared the other would
try to cut in on a pending assignment.
I remember how horrified Sandra was
at the mother of a girl who was growing
tall. The mother feared the girl's tallness
would cheat the girl out of jobs, so she
warned the girl not to stretch, to slouch
rather than stand straight, and to smoke
so she could stunt her growth.
Because of the suspicions and outright
hostility among some of the models, Sandra
preferred to withdraw rather than to force
friendships. In fact, I believe Sandra made
only one real friend during her two years
with Conover. She became chummy with Lorna Gillam,
who's now a top Conover
Television Girl and currently one of the
regulars on the NBC- Too Young to Go
Steady program. Sandra phones her from
Hollywood for long chats.
Every day Sandra grew prettier. When
she first came to us, she was a pre-teen
size 12, and soon she had grown into a
to junior 9. But she was never satisfied with
her figure. She said once that, when she
finally arrived at a really good figure, she
would wear only sheaths.
Like other girls her age, she went in for
fads, like the time she decided to have
steak for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
But most of the time Sandra ate poorly.
I understand that in Hollywood Sandra
now has a routine of milk for breakfast;
hamburger and head of lettuce for lunch;
and steak, vegetables and fruit for dinner.
Even this is not bad, but there are periods
when she cannot tolerate steak.
When she was with our agency, she
sometimes carried a head of lettuce in her
bag, she would peel off lettuce leaves and
eat them while riding to modeling dates.
Sandra did very well, financially, when
she was with us. Just before she went to
Hollywood, she said she had earned $78,000 in 1956 from modeling and TV acting.
Obviously, she made plenty of money. I
have several teen models today that earn
more than $35,000 a year . . . and I can't
help wondering: "Are they really happy?"
I know that Sandra had no time for
boys while she was a model. She admitted,
when she got to Hollywood, that she had
never dated a boy in her life. The boys she
met at school seemed so young and immature
. . . and boring. The older boys
shunned her as too young. So she kept
busy with her studies and career.
I believe the only tragedy in her young
life came when her beloved father
died on Sept. 11, 1956, of a heart attack.
A week later she had an appointment to
audition for Ross Hunter, who was seeking a girl to co-star with John Saxon in
The Restless Years".
She tried to break the appointment, but
remembered her father's admonition,
"Always be courteous," and in fact Hunter
had to come in from Hollywood to see her.
So she saw Hunter and he gave her a
script and said, "Please read it." She
agreed, "Yes . . . if you give me ten minutes to study it first."
She had enough experience to know she
should never read out loud a script she
had not at least read through once.
So her reading for Hunter was excellent
and she was flown to Hollywood the very
next day for a film test. She was signed to
a contract, winning over four hundred
other girls who had read for the part.
We are proud of many teen models who
have passed through our agency doors—
Joan Caulfield, Patti McCormack, Pat
Crowley, Vanessa Brown, Joanne Dru,
Phyllis Kirk, Nina Foch and France Nuyen.
But I must admit that I remember Sandra
Dee as something special.
It's not that she's already made half a
dozen movies and is being hailed as a
discovery. It's because she is gracious, and
does not forget her friends.
When she settled in Hollywood, she
sent me a note;
"I enjoy making movies, and recall you
were the first to predict a movie career
for me. I shall be grateful to you, and
shall always remember the happy days at
As I've told you before, I feel Conover's
will always be my first love."
Yes, Sandra, the feeling is mutual.