"She's 14!" someone yelled as Sumer Sommerfeld walked through a restaurant-turned-runway wearing alien-esque headphones—she was modeling in New York Fashion Week's first silent show (think sober silent disco, with better clothes), wearing four-inch heels and a sleeveless dress. The décolletage hovered above her belly button. She didn't look 14.
Sumer and her mother, Sherryl Clarke, had made the two-hour drive from their home in Middletown, New York, to New York City earlier that day, after a breakfast of hard-boiled eggs and cereal for Sumer; she says she watches what she eats during Fashion Week, trying to avoid carbs and dairy. They packed a pair of heels in case the designer wouldn't provide them, and in the car Sumer stared out the window, listening to music while her mother drove. (She gets carsick if she tries to do homework.) They arrived in Midtown, where Sumer's older sister, Sky, met them.
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At 5'9", Sumer is stunning: She's got high cheekbones, long legs, and light brown skin, the product of mixed German and Jamaican heritage. She began modeling when she was 12 years old, and this is her third fashion week. In between season openers, she acts and models for print and online campaigns; most recently she was in a Coca-Cola commercial. She's always known she wanted to be a model.
"My cousin and I would walk down my grandpa's hallway," Sumer says. "We would catwalk or race each other and stuff. I always wanted to do it."
I learned that maybe I should be more selective with her.
When she first began modeling, Sumer signed a one-year contract with an agency. Now Sherryl and Sky act as her manager and agent; together they look for casting calls and take Sumer to auditions. When Sherryl, a full-time nurse, can't make the trip, Sky steps in. If Sky has work or school, Sherryl's niece takes Sumer.
"I don't have a 9-to-5 job because when my mom needs me to help her with something she needs me," Sky says. "I work for a non-profit organization so that I can create my hours that week depending on what my sister has going on; my mom does the same with her work."
Sumer, Sky, and Sherryl agree that this was Sumer's best fashion week yet. She was in four shows: Jerome Lamar on Thursday, the JD Collection on Saturday, One Mama on Tuesday, and Tumbler and Tipsy on Wednesday. Tumbler and Tipsy was by far the crown jewel; Kendall Jenner was their headliner last year. In between Sumer went to a slew of fittings and last-minute casting calls, and school. Nevertheless, for most models, four shows isn't very many.
"Initially I wanted to put her in a lot of shows—you know, be that pageant mom," Sherryl says. "I'd break my neck for her to get to eight shows, but that would mean castings and fittings and rehearsals for each, and it's hard to fit everything in.
"As time goes on, you talk to other parents and designers and agents who give you advice, and I learned that maybe I should be more selective with her," Sherryl continues. "This season I said, 'We're not going to have her do that many shows,' and therefore she didn't."
Sumer is too new and too young to walk in the big-name shows, so she must first pay her dues with mid-level designers. Nevertheless, it's still an exhausting process, and it plays out in clichés of fashion shows, no matter the caliber or type of show. Sumer and Sherryl arrive a few hours before the start time; if Sky doesn't have work, she meets them. Since Sumer is under 18, Sherryl must legally be on set at all times. There's a vague rehearsal, or a run through, and a set-up period. Hair and makeup sweep in. The models get dressed; designers make last-minute changes. Fake nails are glued or taped on, accessories carefully perched. Sumer stays barefoot for as long as she can, until eventually she climbs into three-to-five-inch heels. The last 30 minutes are always a panic. Designers or their assistants shriek; models stand patiently as they are being adjusted or redone. Most shows start late, one as much as two-and-a-half hours. There's a lot of waiting around.
Because the numbers that matter are measurements, not age, Sumer is almost always the youngest one on a job. Child labor laws say that Sumer can work as long as her mother is there.
"A lot of times at auditions or shows they try and separate me from her," says Sherryl. "They don't want a mom there. So I have to be proactive about staying by her side."
Like most models, Sumer doesn't get paid for all the shows she does; when she does get paid, it's not much. Sherryl has had to invest in a fair amount of upfront costs, ranging from headshots to gas money. She's learned to get the photographers' contact information at unpaid shows so they can at least use the photos for Sumer's portfolio.
Having a demanding job is hard on any 14-year-old, even a job that sounds as glamorous as modeling. Sumer and her family sacrifice a lot so she can pursue her career. Sometimes Sumer gets tired, or her feet hurt, and when this happens Sherryl and Sky have to decide how hard to push her. On Tuesday Sumer was scheduled to walk in two shows following One Mama at the same location, but when she emerged from the dressing room complaining that she didn't feel well, Sherryl looked surprised. The three of them debated for a moment; they eventually honored Sumer's request and took her home. In addition to feeling off, Sumer and Sky had been offended by the show's organizers, who had treated the girls rudely. This isn't uncommon, either.
"If we go to a show and there's a level of disrespect or a level of disorganization, it still might be a good designer," Sherryl says. "I have to decide: Do I want her to work with that designer again? There are shows that I want her to be in, but that Sumer doesn't want to be in. Whose decision is it then? Is it the model, who knows what she likes, or is it mom, who thinks she might know what's a good show for her to be in based on the exposure she might get?"
Sometimes the other models aren't so nice, either. Once at an audition a girl stole one of the heels Sumer was supposed to walk in, forcing a last-minute change that meant the designer decided not to use Sumer. It's not all bad, though. This year a more experienced model, Twyla Robinson, took Sumer under her wing; she even sent Sherryl the casting call for the Tumbler and Tipsy audition that Sumer later booked. Twyla is the one person Sumer has met in the fashion industry whom she calls a friend. For the most part, you aren't friends with the competition.
You really do grow up faster. You have to learn to do everything yourself.
"Some clothes I try on and [they] don't fit, and I feel very self-conscious," says Sumer. "Other clothes maybe some of the models weren't fitting and I'm the only model that can fit, so [then] I feel really good. I know I'm doing something right, keeping my body in shape. But it can get really hard sometimes because I just want to eat what I want and I can't."
Despite loving modeling, in many ways Sumer "just wants to be normal," her sister Sky says. Sherryl recalls a period of time when Sumer wanted to gain weight because she felt boys her age didn't like tall, thin girls. Sumer rarely talks about modeling at school or around her friends, and she's incredibly modest. Her exercise routine consists mainly of school sports—track, volleyball, tennis, and swimming. During track season, she works out for two hours a day.
"It's really hard to keep up with school," Sumer says. "Sometimes I'm absent a lot. If I come back at nighttime, since we live two hours away, I can't really do my homework. It's hard for me because I only get about six hours of sleep sometimes."
Outside of school, Sumer, Sherryl, and Sky have had to educate themselves on how to navigate the fashion industry. Sherryl and Sky had to learn how to discern legitimate gigs and scouts from not-so-legitimate ones. They've also had to learn how to advocate for Sumer pre-show and make sure no one mistreats or sabotages her. Sumer has had to learn how to deal with being treated like an adult.
"You really do grow up faster," she says. "You have to learn to do everything yourself. Of all the girls, even though I'm the youngest one, I'm still looked at like everybody else. You're all equal no matter what age you are. You're talked to like you're an adult."
Sumer has also had to learn how to carry herself, how to stand and how to walk.
"For a model, the most important thing is her walk," explains Sherryl. To teach Sumer, Sherryl found classes and coaches, and Sumer met them at studios or gyms for two years to practice until she got it down.
There are shows that I want her to be in, but that Sumer doesn't want to be in. Whose decision is it then?
"When I first started out I didn't know how to walk at all," Sumer says. "I was pigeon-toed and stuff like that. Eventually I took different classes and I finally got my walk down pat."
Despite the challenges and the sacrifice, neither Sherryl nor Sky question helping Sumer pursue modeling.
"It's a very quick field; it's a very adult field," Sky says. "I want to make sure she's always comfortable—that's probably my biggest thing. But I know my sister likes runway and I know she likes modeling and pictures."
"It's rewarding when Sumer goes to a show and I know that she's happy she was in that show," says Sherryl. "At the same time [modeling] has made her more mature; it's kept her humble. Sumer has a very sweet character. She's a very humble girl."
Today is Sumer's 15th birthday, which means that in one year she'll be eligible to be scouted by top agencies. At that point, Sumer and her family will have to decide if this is something Sumer wants to pursue full time. When Sumer turns 18, she'll be old enough to walk in her dream show: Victoria's Secret. Until then, Sumer, Sherryl, and Sky will continue to navigate the glamorously murky waters of the modeling world.
"In the end I like walking down the runway," Sumer says. "I just feel really confident and happy."