Working the Hilton Hotel stage and runways in Manhattan, members of a small Tennessee-based talent firm compete in front of some of the biggest hitters in the modeling and acting agency-management professions — all for the chance to, just maybe, join the ever-changing All-Star team of stage, screen, or runway.
By Ethel Smawley
IMTA — the International Modeling and Talent Association — brought the spirit of the performing arts to New York City in July and opened doors to young and promising models and actors from all over the world.
Many of the famous were discovered at IMTA conventions both in New York and Los Angeles. Some of the names you might recognize include Ashton Kutcher, Kallie Flynn Childress, Matt Hunter, Kyle Lowder, Cherina Scott, Zhanna Vedenicheva, Jessica White, and Elijah Wood. Many models and actors who appear in soap operas, feature films, television series, magazine covers, and national commercials share a common background — IMTA. It is a fast lane world for those who work hard and dream big. Sometimes, in the blink of an eye, the actors’ unwavering commitment produces their lifelong work.
Casting directors, personal managers, and agents from many countries come together to accomplish a single goal — finding the talent who will fulfill our vision of the world we live in. What a magnificently daunting task — discovering the stars of tomorrow!
Believing in the adage that “great things come in small packages,” the Smawley Agency is one the smaller independent agencies to arrive at the world-famous Hilton Hotel, joining a contingent of larger “big-league” agencies for the start of IMTA competitions. Agency membership in IMTA is by invitation-only; upon becoming a member, each agent learns that excellence is required in this superior media-driven world of discovering the stars of tomorrow.
This would not be our first big convention. My husband, Tom, and I have worked as a management team for many years, promoting models and talent as well as running a large pageant-training business. Over the years, that experience has proved invaluable as we expand our company’s role in identifying those rare individuals who have the potential for success on the runways and in front of the cameras.
RULING THE RUNWAY: Smawley Agency models Erika Uhlig (Top - Intro), Jessica Uhlig (Above), and Jeanie Clay (inset) make their IMTA debut in competition, winning the recognition of the judges in Fashion Print and Group Runway modeling categories.
Yet nothing quite prepares us for the staggering number of IMTA enrollees who arrive on Sunday morning, each one more eager than the next to perform and pursue performance contracts. Public relations professionals, led by IMTA Vice President Michelle Buttigieg, ably answered our questions, and experienced registration staffers quickly provided us with IMTA shoulder bags packed with information for each of our participants. This same supportive attitude continued throughout the entire week.
The talented young women whom we brought to New York almost immediately hit the stage for the dancing and singing preliminary competitions. Each of them hoped to be successful and strived to be selected for the talent showcase later in the week. The daily schedule also listed numerous seminars, designed to help not only actors and models prepare to compete but also parents to prepare for their children’s success.
By the end of the week, it became clear that each of our participants had the necessary skill and talent to be a part of this magical and difficult entertainment world.
Before coming to IMTA-New York, we had decided to enter our small contingent of models in the team fashion competition, believing that by performing together our models would gain a sense of team unity, while also exposing their runway skills to the numerous agents in attendance. But because many of the larger schools from such countries as Puerto Rico, Italy, and Japan — some 40 to 400 members strong — appeared to have an advantage over us, we tried to lower our team’s expectations, telling them simply to consider these team competitions as “a warm-up.” Watching these modeling teams rock the stage, with giant projection TV screens flanking both sides of the runway, was quite a thrill. These kids were awesome!
As the week progressed, competitions in Cold Reading, Makeup, Jeans, Monologue, TV Beauty, TV Real People, Fashion Print And Runway, Theatrical Headshots, Soaps, “I’m Ready For My Close-up,” Commercial Print, Sitcom, Swimwear, and many other events made for often-fun-filled, sometimes-stressful, and always-busy and exciting days.
By midweek morning, anticipation among the performers was extremely high because the list for Talent Showcase performers was about to be posted. We were thrilled to learn that one of the five chosen finalists in the Junior Singing talent division and one of the six selected in the Dancing Miss division were Smawley team members. Both young women looked forward to performing on the Hilton Hotel stage for the thousands of fans and agents who would be watching. It felt good to be in the Big Apple.
A RAFT OF RECOGNITION: Above left, third from top: Ethel Smawley (front center) shares a proud moment with her agency’s five IMTA competitors. The talent includes (top row, L-R) Erika Uhlig, Jeanie Clay, and Jessica Uhlig; and (bottom row, L-R) Alex Snow, Ethel Smawley, and Audreyanna Easterling. PHOTO BY TOM SMAWLEY
By the end of the week, it became clear that each of our participants had the necessary skill and talent to be a part of this magical and difficult entertainment world. We joined in when the schedule included meetings, receptions, luncheons, and the awards-night celebration. When winners were announced in the competition categories, our young women were recognized in Cold Reading, Soap, Actress of the Year, Junior Talent, Fashion Print, Dancing Female, Theatrical Headshots, Dancing Children, Young Miss Actress of the Year, and Group Runway categories. We were pleased to see these individual talents so honored, and we hoped other small agencies would be inspired and motivated to plan their own visit to IMTA in the years ahead.
The agents were numerous, the lines were long, and now the dreams — and the questions they raised — were even bigger.
Later, when the many callbacks came, we were ready to get down to business. The agents were numerous, the lines were long, and now the dreams — and the questions they raised — were even bigger: “Do you want to work in New York or Los Angeles?”
Interest and contract offers from movie and record producers would not have been probable in the hometowns of any of the fine performers who found these opportunities at IMTA-New York. The midtown Manhattan setting uniquely brings together agents, casting directors, and talent in a highly efficient mixture that, for the best of the lot, can explode into promising performance careers. It’s that combination of expertise and talent waiting for their big break that drives IMTA’s successful track record in discovering tomorrow’s stars. With a lot of work and a little luck, who knows? The next one could be you. We’ll be back, and we’ll keep watching!
Ethel Smawley and her husband, Tom Smawley, own The Smawley Agency for models and talent. Mrs. Smawley has been a pageant consultant for more than 29 years, and is also the owner of The Encounter, a high-fashion ladies’ clothing store in Kingsport, Tennessee.
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