When the fashion industry ruled South Beach in the 1990s and earlier this decade, models were royalty.
Ocean Drive was their parking lot every day of the fashion season, packed with trailers and cars. Modeling crews lined up to wait for their turn to shoot on the steps of the police station, recognizable for its unique art deco design. Lincoln Road, the main street of South Beach businesses, was dotted with agencies.
And at night, beautiful people would glide by on sidewalks and fill nightclubs, as much a tourist attraction as the city itself.
The golden Florida light that brought so many photo shoots to South Beach still shines. But the models aren't coming anymore.
Models and agencies in Miami Beach, which owed its 1980s resurgence in part to the glamorous image created by the fashion industry, say they have been edged out of the community they helped rebuild. Photo shoots here are no longer cheap. "For Rent" signs appear in windows once part of agencies. Art deco buildings that became mainstays in photo backgrounds have disappeared behind cement high-rises.
Those changes have driven modeling business back to the ever-present modeling centers — New York and Los Angeles. Business will never come back to Miami the way it was, some industry players say.
From beach bunnies to dust bunnies
"Miami is not like it was when you saw 14 or 15 Winnebagos on Ocean Drive," Miami Beach modeling agency founder Michele Pommier said. "Now you're lucky if you see one."
Lately, the fragility of Miami's modeling business has become increasingly obvious.
Pommier, whose Miami modeling agency has been in South Beach since 1979, downsized to remain in business. She's cut back from representing 150 models to about 75 and now has four booking agents instead of 10.
In February, Ocean Drive modeling agency Irene Marie Models closed. The agency, founded in the early 1980s, was the subject of MTV's 2006 reality show "8th and Ocean."
Irene Marie said Miami Beach can't support large agencies that provide models for film, advertising and fashion shows.
"My formula just wasn't working anymore," she said.
Tugba Ercan, a Turkish native who has modeled for three years in Fort Lauderdale and Miami, said she has seen a huge difference since 2007 because of the economy. But Miami was a seasonal market to begin with, she said.
Ercan, who used to get daily calls for castings and shoots that made it difficult to have a job other than modeling, said her schedule is empty now. She's concentrating on her job as an exercise physiologist at a hospital and had considered moving.
"I'm just focusing on paying my bills and how I can keep my day job," she said.
It's not just agencies and models who are noticing the changes.
Miami swimwear designer Red Carter said he's had increasing difficulty finding models for his shoots. Local girls who are available don't always fit his vision, and there are fewer models to choose from, he said.
"It's hard because we're trying to get a look across," he said. "We need new faces all the time."
Problems before the recession
Miami's modeling future pales in comparison to its past, said Chris Charles, a model-turned-producer who has lived in Miami for 11 years and has been in the industry for 20. While the economic recession is hurting the fashion industry overall, the decline of Miami's modeling started before the nationwide problems, he said.
"The fashion industries will go anywhere there's good light and they can move around without a lot of industry and permit fees and it's not that expensive," Charles said.
Miami Beach used to be that way. In the 1990s, flights to the city from Europe were cheap, and so were hotels. Catalog clients could shoot bathing suit ads in December.
But after September 11, increased airline restrictions made traveling with heavy trunks of clothing and photography equipment more difficult. New hotels and convention centers popped up on the beach, and the city started courting events instead of models.
Max Sklar, Miami Beach director of culture and tourism development for the past six years, said he thinks the complaints of permit difficulty are overstated. In 2002, the earliest date permit numbers are available, about 900 permits were issued; last year, there were 600. City officials estimate the revenue brought in by the shoots fell from $40 million in 2002 to $12 million last year.
The demand for catalog modeling shoots has dwindled, too. In the past, Macy's was a huge client for modeling agencies in the city. But the company moved its shoots back to New York in February as part of a companywide reorganization.
Some seasonal modeling events can still do well in Miami: 12,000 people attended shows at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Swim in July, up from 10,000 in 2008. And Victoria's Secret held its main fashion show in Miami Beach in November, bringing top supermodels Heidi Klum, Ariana Lima and Karolina Kurkova.
But those short-lived seasonal shows are the main opportunities for local models.
Vianna Nater, a Miami model, took part in the Marysia Swim Show during fashion week. After the show, wearing a fedora and short shorts, she said she's been lucky.
"They can keep you busy here on the beach," said Nater, who has been working solely out of Miami for a year and a half using Next, a national agency with a local office.
Models head to Big Apple
Still, about half the models she's met have moved away because they couldn't find work in Miami.
And Nater herself is leaving in August for New York. No one wants to shoot in Miami in the summer, she said. She's planning to stay in New York until November or December at least, longer if it goes well.
Irene Marie, whose agency closed, said the waning of Miami's modeling isn't wholly unexpected. Fashion is fickle. The newest fad location only stays hot for so long.
"As in fashion, trends change," Marie said. "So that really is what happened to South Beach."