Illustration by Adam Noor Iman
The Business of Babies is an on-going series by VICE's Indonesia office looking at all the ways people have turned something so basic—reproduction—into a money-making venture. In the coming days we'll cover Instagram fertility scams, elite pre-schools, and explain how international companies convinced mothers their own breast milk wasn't healthy enough.My 7-month-old nephew is the cutest person I know. I’m not just saying that just because he’s related to me. Every time I post a picture of his chubby, pale cheeks, round eyes, and soft fat rolls, I get significantly more likes than usual. So it got me thinking, is he model material? Instagram launches careers, so if he has what it takes then maybe we should get him started early.
I scrolled on over to the baby section of Instagram. It's full of the babies of wealthy families pushing towels, diaper creams, and formula. But these infant influencers are typically the kids of established "celebgrams"—they were basically born with clout. Millions of people have been tapping hearts over their photos since they were a blob on a sonogram. With that kind of following, of course they are going to sell things on the internet.But keep scrolling through baby Instagram and you'll notice a serious lack of "self made" babies. How does an aspiring model break into the baby biz? I reached out to Talitha Rahma Ekochandra, a woman who has been working in Indonesia's child-modeling industry for 10 years, to find out what it takes to become an Insta-celebrity before your baby teeth come in.Talitha's modeling agency, which represents children between the ages of 6 months and 10 years, currently has tens of thousands of straight-up adorable children on the books. These kids book TV commercials, billboards, and ads selling baby stuff like diapers and cooking oil. Every one of them is way more famous that I will ever be and they haven't even learned how to use a toilet yet. Way to set the bar impossibly high you little chubby-faced celebs.OK, so maybe you have a child of your own (or at least a little sibling, cousin, whatever) and you're wondering, hmm… how can I get this kid's face up on a billboard? I mean a billboard spot pays a cool Rp 25 million ($1,817 USD), way more than most of us make in a month. And a TVC brings in Rp 15 million ($1,050 USD), which is still more than enough to cover all my bills and then some.
So what's it take to be a baby model? Here's Talitha's advice.(NOTE: All of us at VICE think all of your babies are cute adorable little creatures who surely deserve some of this advertising cash. We're only reproducing these standards of baby beauty so everyone can see how the industry works, and how weirdly specific—and racist—the industry's wants are. We would love to see some equal representation in the baby modeling industry, but until that happens, here's the stuff that makes talent scouts and ad execs go gaga).FAIR, BUT ROSY SKINThe Indonesian market wants its babies to be fair-skinned. Now this isn't really a surprise, this is a country with a massive skin whitening industry after all. But for babies, pearly white skin isn't enough. They also need to be a bit "reddish," Talitha told me.Now, personally, I have never seen one of these naturally rosy-cheeked babies in real life, so I had no idea they actually existed. Reaching for an example, I asked, "so like Sundanese babies?" citing Indonesia's second-largest ethnic group who are known for having light skin. Talitha paused for a moment and told me no."How do I say this? Like Chinese, but not really because small eyes aren't popular," she explained. "So even if it's a Chinese baby, we look for one with big eyes. So I would say the ideal is Indonesian babies who get mistaken for being Chinese because of their fair skin."Like I said, it's pretty "specific."
LUSCIOUS LOCKSCompanies love it when babies have a head full of hair. “Like a helmet,” Talitha told me. And it has to be black. In the rest of Indonesia's entertainment industry, white people and Indonesians who are half white, typically have a leg-up when it comes to getting roles. But in the baby business, it actually hurts your chances if you look too white. That's because hair color really matters. Babies in Indonesia gotta have dark hair."Even if a child is bule, we don't want them if their hair is blonde," Talitha told me, using the Indonesian term for white people.This hair rule struck me as particularly absurd because I've seen so many adorable bald babies. My mother recently told me that my oldest brother's scalp was perfectly hairless until he was three, and that was after she tried every natural remedy she could to convince it to grow. It's a shame too because in our old family photos, he was a really cute baby. Oh well older bro, I guess you never had a shot at baby stardom after all.Ultimately, a baby's hair is determined by factors out of anyone's control, like the mother’s hormones and genetics. It’s disheartening that something as arbitrary as hair could stand in the way of a successful career of selling cookies. But hey, life is unfair and I guess the earlier we all learn this the better.But if you get it right, there's a good chance your little bundle of joy is going to go international. TV commercials shot here are usually adopted by other countries in the region and dubbed over in a local language. So don't be surprised if your bright-eyed, rosy-cheeked Indonesian baby is suddenly passing as a Thai baby in a dubbed baby formula ad.
PEARLY WHITE TEETHOK, so this is for when babies get a little older. It doesn't matter when an infant has one or two tiny teeth, but once they hit toddler age, those teeth need to be pearly white and super straight. Toddlers are asked to line up, and the ad execs always choose the ones with the best teeth, Talitha told me. So keep your kids away from that sugar (and definitely those smokes, sure that baby got famous, but for all the wrong reasons. Plus they ruin your teeth).Sometimes moms go to extremes to get their kids a TV spot, Talitha told me, including gluing fake teeth into their kids mouths before an audition. Showbiz, a world where even the smiles of children are fake.ACT FAST BECAUSE (BABY) BEAUTY IS FLEETINGBaby models have a shockingly short career, typically peaking for about three months before they grow out of those soft features that made them so cute in the first place. And a lot of these good-looking babies grow up to become not so good-looking adults, Talitha said. That's why some parents wait until their kids are a bit older and a bit more grown to get them into the modeling industry, but if you think that you have an adorable baby with model-good looks then there's no time like the present.But even if your child isn't the It Baby anymore, there's still a future in show business. A lot of former baby stars take acting lessons and find work in Indonesia's sinetron factories, where a never-ending stream of soaps means there's always demand for young would-be stars to make their marks.OK, so with this much money on the line (and this short of a career) I had to see if my adorable nephew had a shot at stardom. I sent Talitha a photo and asked her opinion. Then I waited… never a good sign. Finally she texted back, "He doesn't have enough hair :)" I guess some babies are just born stars.