Most people welcome the 10th year of their career as an adult. Ewing resident Leah Hurst, however, recently celebrated that milestone while still in high school.
The Ewing High School freshman has been a professional model since the age of four, when she made her debut in a New York-area Ronald McDonald Charity Fashion Show fundraiser for the youth-focused charity.
Since then, she has been in ad campaigns for everything from Boscov’s Department Stores to David’s Bridal and has done shoots and runways work everywhere from Park City, Utah, to the center of attention at New York Fashion Week—twice.
And it all started by sheer happenstance—or, as what her mother, Meghan, describes as “kind of by accident.”
“A friend of mine had her kids involved in modeling since they were babies. She called me and said that she was helping put together a charity fashion show to raise money for the New York City Ronald McDonald House,” Meghan says. “It just so happened that a little girl who was Leah’s size had gotten sick the night before the show and could not do it.”
She says that Leah was an outgoing child, and her friend thought that Leah wouldn’t be afraid to be on stage and be around people. “She asked if I could bring Leah up so she could model in this girl’s place. I said yes, and it just went from there.”
As luck would have it, a representative from a modeling agency was in attendance and asked if Leah was currently represented by anyone. The spirited little girl found herself at the beginning of an adventure that is still going strong into her teenage years.
Perhaps even more remarkable than her long tenure as a print and runway model at such a young age is the fact that Leah kept her job a secret from everyone outside her family until she was in third grade.
And it wasn’t even that Leah decided it was time to spill the beans: Her class had received a shipment of the coupon books that elementary school students sell for fundraisers, which included an ad for Burlington Coat Factory that Leah had appeared in.
“Once the school got the books, everyone was like ‘Leah, you’re in this!’ Her secret was out after that,” Meghan says.
Leah says that growing up in front of both a camera and rapt audiences has been “super fun but also a little weird,” as well as an experience that has coaxed the five-foot-nine 14-year-old to positively regard being tall her entire life. Both Leah and her mother say that her height has presented a challenge to her confidence—and that modeling has been an asset in that regard.
“In modeling, you have to walk like you’re proud,” Leah says. “You have to have confidence in yourself and what you’re wearing because you can’t walk like you’re shy. You have to be confident in your clothes and yourself. I needed to learn how to do that, because I’m not the most confident person, and modeling definitely helped with my confidence.”
“She’s always been really tall for her age, and she definitely struggled with confidence when she was younger, because she was so much taller than everybody,” Meghan adds. “Adults were always assuming she was so much older than she was.”
Leah says that she has learned quite a lot of adult-sized lessons as she continues to establish herself as a model, which range from the importance of planning for the future to immersing herself in an ongoing journey of self-discovery.
She currently gets $25 from each paycheck she receives—sometimes a little more if the gig pays higher than usual—but the rest is put in a savings account.
“For the most part, modeling ensures that Leah has a little nest egg later on in life,” Meghan says.
It was important to Meghan that her daughter’s modeling offers Leah financial stability later on, and she feels that modeling itself has given Leah an additional insights into where money comes from and how to handle it.
“A lot of families who have kids in modeling are very wealthy, and we’re just average people—so at a young age, Leah had to learn the value of a dollar and what was worth spending. A lot of those lessons came with seeing how families do things that we cannot,” she says.
And, in addition to the confidence that modeling has helped Leah tap into, it has benefited another talent of hers: acting.
“Modeling kind of gave me the confidence to be as big as I need to be on the stage,” Leah says.
If modeling taught Leah self-assurance, then her parents taught her how to love musicals to the point where she calls herself a “huge theater nerd.”
“When I was little, my parents would always play musicals on TV, and then I just loved them so much that I never stopped watching them,” Leah laughs. “And when I got to middle school, all I thought about was shows”
Throughout middle school, Leah performed in the likes of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and Shrek Junior. Beyond bringing one of her most genuine passions to school, she has also performed and studied at the summer camp Music Mountain Theatre, participated in seasonal haunted houses and has been cast in the semiannual production of Jesus Christ Superstar at The Keswick Theatre.
In fact, in another 10 years, Leah says that she sees herself “hopefully on Broadway”—though she is certainly no stranger to being in the spotlight throughout The Big Apple.
This past September, Leah once again participated in New York Fashion Week as a runway model.
“A couple of years ago, she did a print-model campaign for House of Barretti and the designer really liked her,” Meghan says. “So she’s reached out a couple times to work with Leah again, which is how she got into Fashion Week.”
“This year was tons of fun,” Leah continues. “And the outfit I wore made it a little more interesting, too.”
Leah does occasionally keep the clothes she tries on, with runway fashion shows more likely to yield swag than print modeling jobs—and Leah still bemoans a David’s Bridal dress that she especially loved and wanted to add to her own closet.
In addition to the occasional take-home garment, Leah also says that modeling at fashion shows also offers another perk as the perfect avenue to test out not only her improv skills but also the confidence she worked so hard to cultivate.
“Even if you’re wearing something in a way that you’re not exactly sure is how you think it should go, you have to go out there and sell it and be like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is totally how this is meant to be’,” Leah says.
She adds that wardrobe mishaps are inevitable, but if they happen with the right person, they’re a learning experience at worst and a bonding experience over shared on-the-job horror stories at best.
Deepened friendships aren’t the only strengthened personal relationships that modeling’s ushered in: Leah and her mom both say that modeling has also given them a chance to bond in a whole new way, since they travel together for Leah’s modeling jobs in ways that give them extra time together, from indulging their shared love of theatre to learning new life skills as a team.
“We have a lot of fun together, and I am so lucky that she likes a lot of the same things I like,” Meghan says. “We’ve learned the city and the subway together, which really was like an adventure for us. Something always seems to go wrong, so we’ve learned how to roll with the punches and laugh when things go wrong.”
And that, Leah agrees, is some of the best advice among the many lessons that modeling has taught her.
But the most important one incorporates all the different ways she’s learned to enjoy life, find her truth, and encourage others.
“It’s okay to be bold and put yourself out there,” Leah says. “It’s a lot of fun when you do.”