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 tremendous personality.

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 food .

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 Conover's.

As I've told you before, I feel Conover's will always be my first love."

Yes, Sandra, the feeling is mutual.


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