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Tampa’s Barbizon USA continues the ‘be a model or just look like one’ legacy

Today the Tampa-based Barbizon USA runs 125 Barbizon schools across the country for acting, modeling and personal development for young people.
A make-up room awaits students at Tampa's Barbizon USA.
A make-up room awaits students at Tampa's Barbizon USA. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]
Published Mar. 25

TAMPA — On workdays around 5 p.m., Barbizon USA’s director of corporate training Kim Flores knows not to make phone calls. Because it’s about to get loud.

That’s when the bookers — employees who spend afternoons and evenings phoning young people who signed up for Barbizon’s modeling, acting and personal development classes — put aside their headsets and rise from their workstations.

There in the bookers’ room, the lights dim, a disco ball starts to twirl and a dance video is projected on a wall for participants to follow. On a recent afternoon, it was Barry White’s “You’re The First, The Last, My Everything” that got them moving, followed by a “Kung Fu Fighting” encore. They laughed, clapped, and went back to work.

“You can hear it anywhere in the building,” said Flores. “Even though you’re not in there dancing, it still makes you smile.”

From left: Amyah Calderon, Cara Naylor and Elsa Hoven participate in the booking department’s daily dance break at Barbizon USA in Tampa.
From left: Amyah Calderon, Cara Naylor and Elsa Hoven participate in the booking department’s daily dance break at Barbizon USA in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]

Barbizon’s modeling training has been around for more than 80 years, once sporting the memorable tagline: “Be a model, or just look like one.” (The newest version: “Let your star shine.”) Today, from its Kennedy Boulevard offices across from the WestShore Plaza mall, Barbizon USA manages 125 of the training facilities nationwide, including its own in Tampa.

The company’s more than 60 employees are predominantly women — and women comprise the managing executive team. “It’s just a very empowering place,” Flores said.

Hallways are lined with giant glamor shots. Students walk a runway with floor-to-ceiling windows and apply cosmetics under hot lights in the make-up rooms. They learn everything from posture and voice and diction to skin care and resume writing.

Students take classes in everything from make-up to proper posture at Barbizon USA in Tampa.
Students take classes in everything from make-up to proper posture at Barbizon USA in Tampa. [ ARIELLE BADER | Special to the Times ]

In the 1980s, Barbizon found potential clients through TV and radio ads, and in the 1990s, reached out to young people at shopping malls and movie theaters. As with all businesses, and particularly in pandemic times, the playing field has changed.

“In a post-COVID world, a lot of our efforts are focused on a digital platform,” said Barbizon USA’s chief operating officer Laura LaBelle. Barbizon still has a mall presence in some larger markets and works events — recently, the Florida State Fair — but probably 80 percent of new client inquiries “come from a digital space,” LaBelle said.

That means connecting with young people through TikTok, Instagram and Google, and for parents, Facebook. There are Zoom auditions and orientation before in-person training starts. Clients are 8 to 18, and while many have their sights set on acting, modeling or both, others just want to be able to step in front of a classroom with poise and confidence, Barbizon employees say. Classes are 48 hours of in-person training on weekends for six months and cost about $50 an hour.

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Some who apply to work there are Barbizon graduates themselves. Some were employed at Disney or played in rock bands.

“I like the diversity,” said Flores, who has experience in modeling, dancing and pageants and holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education. “Everyone kind of comes from a different part of the world in this industry, and it just kind of works.”

One Barbizon graduate started at the company in an entry-level job and worked her way up to be a vice president, LaBelle said. “We’re always looking to grow our individual employees from the inside,” she said. The executive team does interviews even for entry-level jobs.

Employees — salaried or hourly, with the potential to earn bonus incentives — are considered from both a quantity and quality perspective, LaBelle said. Someone who isn’t especially productive may still do high quality work that enhances the customer experience. Both matter, she said.

“Our higher power is serving young people,” LaBelle said. “We’re all going to live in the world these young people are going to be running.”

A perk to working there: a fully stocked clothing exchange closet for employees, complete with shoes lining the floor. The company plans to move to trendy Midtown Tampa later this year.

Bottom line on what they do, Flores said: “It’s fun.”

Barbizon USA

Modeling, acting and personal development program

Location: Tampa

Employees: 79 in Tampa, 150 globally

Website: www.barbizonmodeling.com

Employee comments: “I am passionate about what we do for young teens. We give them a program that helps their self esteem and develops them in to being the best they can be.”

“I do believe we help kids with our training program. My income and potential starts and ends with me and the ambition and hard work I put into it.”

“The fun and loving environment each team member contributes to. Each new day is fresh and exciting here.”

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