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 Liza Elliott-Ramirez CEO of Expecting Models for The New York Times

By TAFFY BRODESSER-AKNER. Original article at The New York Times

Published: November 13, 2013

On an overcast morning in a nondescript office building here, Liza Elliott-Ramirez stood in the studio of her modeling agency, Expecting Models, taking pictures of pregnant women who were wearing bikinis and high heels.

Ms. Elliott-Ramirez was shouting “push” not for the usual reason one would hurl such a directive at a pregnant woman. She wanted the model to stick out her belly, exaggerating the progression of the pregnancy so that Ms. Elliott-Ramirez could show potential clients how the model would look by the time a shoot happened in a few days or weeks.

About 10 pregnant women sat in the waiting room, listening to Genesis on a soft-rock station and ignoring a vat of red licorice on an end table. Ms. Elliott-Ramirez, 51, wielding a Canon, called them in one by one to shoot what she calls “digital updates” for her clients, which include Target, Old Navy and Fit Pregnancy magazine.

“Lips out!” she instructed a model with cropped hair in a light pink bikini. “You’re beautiful as God created you.”

To a model pregnant with her third child who kept turning sideways, she said: “Don’t worry about your thighs. I shoot flattering!”

She told a particularly beautiful, tattooed model, “That baby is going to be sick!” This was intended as a compliment.

“Give me sexy!” she said to another. “No, sexy — not mean! O.K., not that sexy!”

“I don’t want to lose you,” Ms. Elliott-Ramirez said, with a mock sob, to one expectant mother who had a booking the next day at a maternity clothing company and whose baby was due in six days. The woman said she planned to model with her baby in ads for formula and breast pumps as part of Expecting Models’ Real Families division. But as soon as she is back in shape, she will return to her old agency, which she did not want to name because her contract there specified exclusivity.

Since 2000 Ms. Elliott-Ramirez’s stopgap agency has dealt only with professional models during and immediately following their pregnancies. She came up with the idea after she could not get work as a model after she became pregnant. She had worked in front of the camera since age 14, when a photographer scouted her in Sag Harbor, N.Y. At age 36 she worked until the second trimester of her pregnancy.

“I held my belly in until I couldn’t,” she said. Ms. Elliott-Ramirez, who was living in New York at the time, called agencies, asking if they had maternity modeling contracts. “Their response was: ‘Call me when you get back into shape.’ I was so discouraged.”

She went on what she called a “rampage” to find out which companies needed pregnant models.

“I called customer service at Gap to find the booking, the photo editor,” she said. “Good luck, right? I found her, and I finally got her on the phone, did my whole pitch, and she said, ‘Well, how many models are you sending me?’ I said ‘No, no, no. I am the model.’ She said, ‘Oh, we don’t deal with models directly. You’re going to have to have your agent contact us, but gosh, you’re so inspiring.’ ”

(Ms. Elliott-Ramirez added that she soon received a package of baby goods from the Gap employee.)

As the major agencies did not have departments dedicated to pregnant models, Ms. Elliott-Ramirez saw an opportunity and opened an office.

“I literally signed 14 girls in two weeks,” she said. “Ford, Wilhelmina, Elite — they’re not going to get all the calls. That’s not their specialty. That’s like shopping at Home Depot, expecting to find great pasta.”

In 2008, she expanded her business, moving it to Los Angeles and opening a second office in that city. Ms. Elliott-Ramirez said she currently had about 200 pregnant models and 400 clients total, including the babies, toddlers and fathers she sometimes enlists.

“The real family is important because you can’t fake that chemistry on a set,” she said. “You can’t fake the nursing mom, and for Ergobaby,” a popular baby carrier, “all of those ads are real mom and baby because that bonding, that closeness, the smell, when you’re wearing a carrier. With a fake mom, you’re just going to have a screaming baby. We want that true chemistry.”

Her clients seem to appreciate it.

“Liza offers a great selection of pregnant models, so we can really look at a big portfolio of who is pregnant now and put a collection of moms together,” said Ingrid Carney, who owns Ingrid & Isabel, a San Francisco maternity clothing company. “I’ve had great success with other agencies, like Ford and Wilhelmina, but they have far fewer women available to us.”

Most of the models come to Ms. Elliott-Ramirez via word of mouth, but also from some agents.

“With her niche, she’s built a great base,” said Tana Loy, an agent at Two Management in Los Angeles, who previously worked at Wilhelmina. “I’ve been referring models to Expecting Models because I feel like it’s a win-win for me. While we have a ton of clients like the Gaps and the Old Navys, we’re known for women who aren’t pregnant.”

Other top agencies, though, prefer that models work for them exclusively. (Wilhelmina and Ford would not comment on the practice of models going on “leave” to Ms. Elliott-Ramirez’s agency.)

Ms. Loy said she didn’t understand such possessiveness.

“You never have 10 girls who are pregnant,” she said. “You have one or two at a time. Referring them to Liza takes the girl off my shoulders and allows me to do what I’m good at.”

It might be in the agencies’ interest to beef up their maternity divisions. Maternity clothing is projected to reach $4.8 billion by 2015, according to a 2010 report by Global Industry Analysts.

But until then, expectant models are happy to have a niche agency to find them work.

Lotti Bluemner, 30, said she had signed with Elite and Pinkerton before an injury forced her to take time off. When she became pregnant, though, a friend told her about Expecting Models and she signed on, partly to get some great pictures of herself during her pregnancy.

Ms. Bluemner has had some success. She was recently featured on the E! channel’s website.

“I was the Kate Middleton replica for how they dress pregnant women, which was a great, fun photo shoot,” she said. At 32 weeks, she also had a booking at Ingrid & Isabel, with pay commensurate with what she made in her pre-pregnancy career.

Pregnant models have perhaps more concerns about their changing bodies than do women in other fields. They spoke of obsessively rubbing cocoa butter on their skin to prevent stretch marks, watching what they eat and, most of all, trying to remember that their growing bellies are in the service of the babies they will have.

“It’s all fine,” said Ms. Elliott-Ramirez as she instructed a model to look a little more demure in her bikini and stilettos. “Even if they do gain a little weight, we can find work for you.”

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