The Ultimate Makeover
Because this story is something of a fairy tale, and because it involves something of a princess, it would be fair to start off by saying that once upon a time there lived a little girl named Debbie Parkes. She was named after Debbie Reynolds, the famous movie star, and was the oldest of three children all growing up in a town called Clear Lake, Texas. She went to school with the sons and daughters of astronauts, but Debbie's dad was not an astronaut. Actually, Debbie's dad was not around. But her mother was. And when schoolmates were not allowed to come to Debbie's house because her mother was divorced, Debbie's mother would reply that those kids were jealous because Debbie didn't have a boring father who made them eat dinner at the same time every day.
Debbie's mother always made her feel like she could be anything at all.
In high school, Debbie Parkes drove a 1974 Cougar and liked rock music and went waterskiing before class. She never shaved her legs and she never wore makeup and she was the type of kid who thought cheerleaders and silly girlie-girls and phonies were not to be bothered with at all. She didn't care much for subjects like math or science, but she thrived on art. Maybe, she thought, she could become a fashion designer.
Just before she turned 16, Debbie Parkes was asked, "What do you want for your birthday?" and Debbie Parkes said she wanted a brand-new name. So she went to the courthouse, proved she was not a criminal and had her name legally changed to Page Parkes. Now that name had a ring to it, she thought.
Then, not much more than a year later, the girl now named Page Parkes flew off to Europe to study fashion design. But instead of becoming a fashion designer, the no-makeup, hairy-legged girl they used to call Debbie Parkes ended up founding one of the most successful modeling agencies in the Southwest. It started out small at first, and then slowly it became worth millions of dollars. It expanded from its home base of Houston to Dallas and then to Miami. And the funny thing, the ironic thing, is that the girl who says she never wore mascara suddenly found herself making a living off the sweat of girls who modeled it.
When she tells this story it seems sometimes like she can't really believe it herself. Like she just sort of fell into modeling and here she is, 20 years in the business and one of its biggest success stories. But Page Parkes knows it was not really an accident. She ended up a model agent by a series of choices and coincidences, but either way she probably would have turned into something just as spectacular. Maybe she would have been a fashion designer, or even a great painter. But she was going to be important. She always knew it. That's why, she says, she went down to the courthouse just after turning 16 to get rid of that ridiculous-sounding Debbie.
"Because," explains the grown-up Page, now 43, smiling just a little, "who can be famous with a name like Debbie Parkes?"
In a handful of ways, Page Parkes is very little, but in many other ways she is very big. The top of her head stops barely three inches above five feet, and her frame is so thin it's no surprise to learn she works out "all the time." Her voice often drops to a soft, Jackie Kennedyesque coo. But her eyes are large and her blond curly hair, when it's not pulled back into a ponytail, sprouts out enough to add another inch to her height.
And, of course, Page Parkes the business empire is huge. Headquartered on Kirby Drive in River Oaks, the company is owned by Page and longtime business partner Rachel Duran. The corporation includes the Page Parkes Center for Modeling and Acting (a school), Page 713 (a separate agency) and sister agencies in Dallas and Miami -- Page 214 and Page 305, respectively. In addition, Page Parkes runs a shortened version of the modeling school classes through its four-day Model Camps in all three cities.
Page and Rachel's 20-year-old business started out tiny, in an office on Voss at San Felipe. Now the agencies bill $5 million to $6 million a year and represent about 500 models. Some stay local, modeling for Foley's or Palais Royal. The best travel on to Los Angeles, New York, Europe and Tokyo and get contracted out to the biggest agencies in those cities (Page 713 retains a commission). The school, with about 1,200 students a year, brings in another $2 million. But Page is always looking for opportunities to grow, so that's why today, on this Tuesday morning, she is attending a crash course in how to increase the market value of her models.
Page wants to get on television.
"For me to get a girl on the cover of Seventeen, I have to get her a sitcom first," says Page, pulling out two Page Parkes postcards titled "Front Page News: Your On-Camera Talent Source." Printed on them are photos of beautiful models posing next to words that read, in part, "Maybe you haven't noticed how blurred the lines have gotten lately between models and actors. Let's face it, both groups have a lot in common their uncommonly compelling looks and uncommon intelligence." Page is going to use these postcards to let everybody know that her people can do more than smile. Apparently they can open their mouths and talk, too.
Page already has had some success in this arena. Alexis Bledel, who plays the role of daughter Rory on the WB series Gilmore Girls, is a graduate of the Page Parkes Center and a model with the Page 713 agency. Page recently played up this connection with a marketing event/talent search at Memorial City Mall, where more than 2,000 children and teenagers showed up. Television commercials that wooed prospective attendees spoke of Page's "Houston to Hollywood" connection. The winner got her own spot on a local WB commercial.
Page's instructor for the day is Holly McDonald of Lankford Films, a production company based in Houston. Holly is a friend of Page's, and this morning she spends about two hours instructing Page, co-owner Rachel and two bookers (the employees who schedule jobs) on the tiny details of auditioning, booking and filming commercials. Also sitting in on the meeting is Myrna Phillips, a former vice president of marketing for Foley's and Palais Royal. Page has hired the little woman with the thick Brooklyn accent on a freelance basis to market the company's latest venture.
"I've known Page forever," purrs Myrna. "She is so sweet. She's got a heart that's almost too big."
Holly begins her lecture, and right off the bat it's clear Page is an excellent student. She is a vigilant listener, her eyes following Holly's every move, and she interrupts often to ask questions. She throws out comments to her two bookers, who are seated side by side taking copious notes. There's no need to send a billion people to auditions if they aren't good enough, says Page -- there's no award for the company that sends the most models. When Holly says audition outfits should be "simple," Page interjects that if she doesn't know a model well enough to trust what she'll wear to an audition, the model should check in with Page herself for an okay.
"Sometimes they have their own take on what 'simple' means and I'm like, 'Whoa, sister!' " says Page.
"I mean, just go to The Gap," adds Holly.
After Holly plays a tape of three Chef Boyardee commercials (which include such witty dialogue as "Mom, is there anything to eat around here?" "You could fix some lasagna"), Page grins with delight.
"Commercials these days are more magical," she says. "In the old days they were insulting."
The meeting drones on slowly, with Holly covering each topic in great detail. But Page never gets bored for a second.
Toward the end of the discussion, Holly mentions the fact that lots of the local talent might encounter problems being cast because of their Texas accent. Page acknowledges that they're planning to set up their models with voice coaches who can help them lose their twang, if only for filming. Someone mentions the slight accent of Angie Harmon, the Denton girl-made-good who stars on the television show Law & Order.
"She's beautiful," sighs Page. "Her parents are models -- she's not an accident." Then she laughs and mutters, "If we could only get into breeding "
It's easy to think she's only half joking.
"There were two kinds of kids in high school," says Page. "And I was the other kind."
Page is talking about the fact that she never thought she would be in this business. Not when she was growing up in Clear Lake, doing poorly in subjects like Texas government and flourishing in art history. The oldest of three kids, Page disliked anything that had to do with school. She looked up to her mother, an accountant. Unlike most of her friends' mothers, Page's mom had to work, so Page had to help out around the house a lot.
"She was the most unbelievable woman," she remembers. "She never said, 'You're stupid because you didn't pass math.' She'd say, 'Look at your art grade.' She took my little offbeat self and made it into what I am today."
It was Page's mother who encouraged her to attend the American College in London. She spent three years abroad, also studying in Paris and Switzerland. But Page quickly realized she got less attention for the clothes she was designing and much more acclaim for the women she picked to wear them. Page discovered she had a knack for finding beauty. She liked "odd little creatures," girls who might have been considered ugly in high school. Tall girls, girls with little quirks, strong noses, full lips, small hips. Page's model choices were a hit. She liked that.
"I could've made them carry a purse and it wouldn't matter," she says.
Page stresses that being model-beautiful isn't what everybody thinks it is. It isn't the cheerleaders she couldn't stand in high school. It isn't the poofy-haired pageant queens. Believe it or not, says Page, some men don't even find models attractive.
Soon Page was learning about makeup, hair and how to transform genetically blessed girls into marketable commodities. On her return to Houston, she was unsure what she would do with her new skills, except that she wanted to "be something." But once she met Rachel Duran, her future started to take shape.
Page met her business partner when Rachel was working at a now defunct modeling agency called Michael St. James. Rachel, a soft-spoken, dark-haired woman who is the opposite of Page in both coloring and nature, came to that agency as a 19-year-old elementary school teacher's aide. She wanted to learn how to put on makeup. When the agency needed part-time help answering phones over the holidays, Rachel agreed to do it. Then, after the staff walked out when their paychecks bounced, the poorly run agency, desperate for people, hired Rachel full-time to handle the books.
On her return from Europe, Page was hired as Rachel's assistant. But Page despised administrative tasks like filing and alphabetizing and called it "monkey work." She needed to be where she could get her hands on something, so Rachel recommended that Page go into sales. When the company folded (the owners took off with the money, leaving Rachel and Page to deal with the IRS and unpaid models), Page got a job in admissions at the Mayo-Hill School of Modeling (now associated with the Neal Hamil Agency). But she said she wouldn't come unless Rachel could too. She even offered to split her salary with Rachel. Rachel eventually was hired as well, but the young women were itching to try something on their own. Page's mother gave them $20,000 to get started, and on April 1, 1981, 21-year-old Page and 23-year-old Rachel opened the Page Parkes School of Modeling. That summer they started a separate agency, Intermedia (now Page 713).
Things were slow at first. In the beginning, they billed about $5,000 a month and were so short on models that Rachel once booked Page to model a nightgown for a catalog.
"She was such a little trouper, up on her tiptoes," says Rachel.
Page was maniacal about work. She stayed long after Rachel had gone home. It was not uncommon for her to go to a fashion show until the wee hours of the morning and then show up early to the office the next day. On Mondays, Rachel would usually discover Page exploring the school's bathroom, lamenting about the fact that the cleaning crew had not scrubbed behind the toilets.
"I would say, 'Page, who looks behind the toilets?' " says Rachel. Probably not many people besides Page, but it bothered her so much she took to cleaning them herself.
Page became so personally invested it was easy to upset her, says Rachel. For years Page dreaded coming in on Fridays because that was usually the day of the week that models would choose to leave the agency or "tear into her" about something, says Rachel. Page would regularly break down in tears at the office. She couldn't stand to have anyone upset at her. Rachel would remind Page that she couldn't give her whole heart to something on a regular basis.
"It was her life, and she pulled me along with her," says Rachel. "Not that I resented it. But I think I had the balance of the personal and business, and she was all business."
But it paid off. With Rachel working the financial end of things and Page hunting and honing new talent, the two young businesswomen began to build both the school and the agency. In 1985 they opened their Dallas agency (a press release announcing the opening read, in part, "Had Page Parkes been five feet nine inches tall, instead of five feet three inches, with her sun-streaked blonde hair, sea-green eyes and heart-shaped face, she could have been a top model herself"). The Dallas operation immediately began to bring in money, and in 1989 the company ventured into the Miami market.
The growth was positive for Page and Rachel. But with growth came problems. This May, Dan Parsons of the Better Business Bureau asked Page and Rachel in for a meeting. It seemed that a small number of complaints about the Center for Modeling and Acting had cropped up suddenly.
Page Parkes's BBB record had been spotless for 20 years. In fact, it wasn't uncommon for Page to contact Parsons to complain about modeling scams and rip-offs invading the Houston market.
"When I came to the bureau in '83, Page was a whistle-blower," remembers Parsons.
Page showed up at the BBB office with Rachel and Lisa Lyngos, admissions director for the center, and Parsons sat them down to talk. But just like those Friday afternoons when Page would break down if anyone got upset with her, in the middle of the meeting she started to cry. Parsons remembers Page asking a billion questions, wanting to know just how any complaints could have tarnished their perfect record.
"I actually cried at the BBB. I was like, 'My mother's rolling in her grave,' " says Page.
There were six complaints, a fraction of a percentage, really. Some of the complaints had stemmed from the fact that in their quick growth, a few students at the center had been sent to the wrong "review board" -- the group that decides if students will be accepted into Page 713 for modeling jobs. Page refunded money, rectified the situation. She brought one daughter and her mother into her office to sort out the situation in person.
Some of the other complaints seemed to grow from the fact that some students didn't understand that just because they were accepted into the center (about 75 percent of school applicants are turned away, says Lyngos) that didn't mean that they automatically would be accepted into the agency. And that even if they were accepted, there can never be a guarantee of work.
Soon Page was firing off a letter to the BBB, writing that she promised "our admissions staff will not pressure in any way a student to enroll" and that "the admissions staff will explain in further detail the possibility that you could get an agent and no requests from clients, resulting in no further work."
When Page speaks about this recent obstacle, she looks pained, like she might even start crying just thinking about it. She's always been "the girl in the white hat," she says. She wants people to like her.
"I'm not just a successful businessperson. I'm a girl that has earned every single bit of it through my reputation," she says. "I would say the most disappointing part of the way my whole life turned out is I never got to be rich from this industry because I've told the truth. It's a hard business to do well in and tell the truth."
Page and Rachel say they won't expand anywhere else. Twenty years in the modeling business is a long time, and they are certainly young enough to have an enjoyable retirement.
"I told Page at the age of 45 that I wouldn't be doing this anymore, and I'm 45," says Rachel.
As for Page, she's not sure what the immediate future holds. For now, she seems too invested to think of giving it up anytime soon. But she likes to say that she's not what everybody thinks. Just because she's a modeling agent doesn't mean she's lost any of that simple girl she was in high school. And just because she's a modeling agent doesn't mean she's some superficial, thoughtless person.
"I don't put a lot of value on beauty because of what I do," says Page. "This is what I do for a living. This is my job, not my life."
The walls of the Page 713 headquarters are covered with faces of people -- almost all of them beautiful. Everywhere in the building, beautiful people stare down from blown-up covers of magazines and "comp cards," postcards with Page 713 models' faces and measurements printed on them. The comp cards line the walls like birthday cards in a Hallmark store, and the hundreds of sets of eyes seem to follow visitors wherever they go. One sullen-looking Latino's comp card shuns a last name; he goes by "Salvador."
Page's office is no different. But in addition to dozens of pictures of models and friends cluttering her shelves and walls, there are several framed photographs of her husband, Bob Eveleth. Bob, co-founder of the Glamour Shots photography studio chain, met Page at a Christmas party. They've been married for five years.
Seated opposite Page's large glass desk are metal chairs whose backs have been molded into Picasso-like faces. Some people think they're clowns, says Page. Others imagine cats. Page has a large sweeping view of downtown Houston through a glass wall at the far end of her office. In the back corner is a tiny table with a miniature water fountain and a rock that reads, "I have no yesterdays, time took them away. Tomorrow may not be, but I have today."
Page's schedule is a hectic one. She spends Mondays and Tuesdays in Houston, then travels on Wednesdays and Thursdays to either Dallas or Miami. Recently Rachel suggested they had worked long enough and hard enough to take Fridays off. But Page still has to come in anyway to "touch everything," says Rachel. She tries to leave by noon.
Today is Tuesday, and Page has just finished her class with Holly, whom she is taking to lunch along with Myrna. It's pouring rain, and Page wants to go next door to Fire + Ice. It's barely 20 steps away, but Page worries aloud about getting her "nappy" hair wet, so everyone piles into her black Mercedes for the five-second ride to the restaurant. Over lunch, Page chats about her husband and his Harley-Davidson motorcycle. In fact, insists Page, she's learning to ride it with him.
"She's a very down-to-earth, basic kind of girl," says Bob later over the phone. "What you see is what you get."
In addition to riding the Harley, the two also like to go camping in a little pop-up camper with their two dogs on land that they own near Austin.
"People will say, 'Page is going camping?' " says Bob. But she loves it, he says. The cell phones still reach out there sometimes, he admits, but they sound a lot better when they're answered in such beautiful surroundings.
On Tuesday afternoons Page sets aside time to meet with her models. Some of them have been with Page for a few years, and they come in to touch base and firm up career plans. Others recently have been accepted into the agency and are meeting with Page for the first time. Even though she tries to make herself as accessible as possible, Page says, it's not uncommon for people to face a waiting list just to get time with her.
"They wait months to see me," says Page. "So I always have to be up."
Page can act like her models' mother. She often refers to them not by their names but with one of the following endearments: "Baby," "Angel," "Sweetheart" or "Little One." She has no children of her own, but Bob says it's not uncommon for models to call Page at home in the evenings or send Mother's Day cards to their house. But Page thinks she's the "cool" mom. If she tells them not to smoke cigarettes, not to drop out of school and not to wear blue mascara, they'll listen to her.
They file in all Tuesday afternoon to see Page, who hugs them when they walk in the door. There are the young male models, most of them quiet, shy. They nod their heads at anything Page says. She beams at them. The girl models come in too, folding themselves up like swans on Page's face chairs. The younger ones bring their mothers, who sit quietly and listen as Page maps out their goals on a sheet of paper.
She is breezy in nature, moving swiftly from opening a file to placing a call to flipping through a model's "book," or portfolio. She can do about ten things at once. She is constantly interrupted. Everybody wants to see her, needs to talk to her. She laughs as she tells the story about the time she and Bob were in a grocery store and a teenage girl recognized her, wanted to know if she was "the Page Parkes!" and Page said yes, she was, and she waited patiently while the teenager called a friend on her cell phone to say she had met the famous model agent.
Even though Bob was slightly annoyed, says Page, she was glad to do it.
"If you were a singer and they were your fans ," she says, shrugging her shoulders.
She is honest with her models. When one boy explains that a large agency in New York told him he was too short and to come back in a year, she tells him that was a "brush-off excuse" and they probably didn't want to see him again. She decides to help him book another New York trip, reminding him never to make appointments with New York people on Fridays.
"Mentally, they're already in the Hamptons," she says, opening a book to search for a number.
She fawns over them too. When one of Page's newer models, a shy 18-year-old girl who says she's wanted to model since the eighth grade, stands to have her hips measured, Page plucks one arm and holds it out, explaining, "Her little arms are longer than normal humans. You're a genetically born model."
She takes a tape measure and wraps it around the girl's boyish hips and coos softly, "This little girl's hips are 35 and a half inches. Perfect, perfect, perfect." The girl smiles at Page.
The most exuberant visitor of the day is 16-year-old Shantel Vansanten. Tall, with long brown curly hair, Shantel practically falls off her seat with excitement over finally meeting Page. Shantel is a graduate of the Page Parkes Center of Modeling and Acting, and like roughly half her classmates, she impressed the center's review board enough to be accepted into Page 713. Not all of Page's models are graduates of the center; it's certainly not a requirement. But Page clearly likes the ones who are, because they're trained in the Page Parkes way of doing things.
Shantel has just appeared in an ad for Foley's, a job that earned her $875. Page 713 received 20 percent of that, and today Page is trying to explain to Shantel and her mother the best way to use the remaining 80 percent. According to Page, at least 40 percent should go into savings, 20 percent toward her Center of Modeling tuition (it ranges from $850 to $1,275) and other modeling-related expenditures, and 20 percent is left for spending. Page also is talking to Shantel and her mother about sending the two of them to her Dallas agency to scope out possible work in that city.
Shantel is interested, but she would rather talk about how exciting it was to appear in the Foley's ad, how the kids at her all-girls Catholic school recognized her from the newspaper and came up to her and asked her about it.
"It makes me feel so special I glow!" says Shantel, starting to cry.
"But, sweetheart, you get the bookings because you glow!" says Page. It looks for a second like Page is going to start crying too.
Shantel's mother, Denise, says she is so glad Shantel took the classes at the center.
"I know she was able to find herself." says Denise.
Page looks at Denise, nods her head and says in a sad voice, "Do you know how many kids I'd love to help find themselves, but I can't because their butts are too big?"
Then she pulls out a sheet of paper to plan Shantel's trip to Dallas.
Practically everyone at the party is gorgeous. And that makes sense, of course. Because practically everyone at the party is a model. The event is a special one, held to announce the new runway promo piece for Page 713. It's being held at the Gatsby Social Club in the Rice Village, and even though there's a torrential downpour outside, each of the models who arrives walks in looking glorious, beautiful, surreal. A doorman in a tuxedo checks their umbrellas.
Breaking out of a gaggle of ridiculously long-legged girls is Page. She has spent much of the party peering up at people with her large blue-green eyes. But despite her stature, she is clearly the center of the action. Because this is her agency. These are her models. They all want to talk to her, and Page moves about them with ease.
She is wearing a sleeveless black turtleneck and black-and-white pants so fitting they seem to be painted on her tiny body. She is wearing makeup. Her blond hair glows around her like a halo. She grabs the beautiful people by their arms, pulls them across the room to meet so-and-so, talk to you-know-who.
There are helium-filled red balloons everywhere, and free champagne. The promo piece being revealed tonight is a CD case filled not with CDs but with round cardboard discs that have photographs of Page's runway models on them. On a table at the front of the room is a sort of shrine to the promo piece; a bright light shines onto an artfully arranged display of the discs. A screen hangs above the table, and shots of models' faces are projected onto it as club music thumps quietly in the background.
Page spots Sam Steph, a handsome man with salt-and-pepper hair dressed in black. He's modeled for Page for 18 years, mostly doing print work for catalogs like Lands' End.
"I've made a living being the nonthreatening white man," he says. He goes on to talk about Page's professionalism, her kindness and her loyalty.
"Can you imagine loyalty in this trampy business?" says Page with a little shriek. She grabs the tall Sam around the sides and gives him a quick squeeze.
Earlier in the night, standing by the CD promo piece shrine, Page explains that this party is really not for her at all, it's for her models. She insists once again how she was just a "natural girl" in high school, how people think that because she's this big-deal modeling agent she should also be this big party queen. Page has told her husband that when they retire to their land in Austin she'll grow her hair out long and gray and be a hippie in the woods. She's beyond the time in her life when parties mean something to her, she says, even though she's got to keep showing up to them. They expect her there.
If she had it her way, Page half-whispers, she'd forget all the glitz and get on Bob's Harley for a weeklong motorcycle trip with nothing but "seven pairs of panties" and the open road ahead of her.
After she says this, Page Parkes looks across the room, sees someone she absolutely must go talk to and darts across the room to squeal hello.
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