When Nathaniel Dickson is in a Babies R Us store, he'll slap the "My First Xylophone" box and say "Me!" At home, when he hears music from the PNC Bank "Grow Up Great" TV commercial, the toddler runs into his Westbury living room to watch.
This behavior is easily explained. Nathaniel has been modeling since he was 9 months old -- he's the tot playing the xylophone on that toy's packaging, and he's featured in the PNC Bank commercial. He has appeared in a Gap holiday commercial directed by Sofia Coppola, and J.Crew flew him to the Caribbean island of St. Barts for a clothing shoot that appeared in its June catalog. Nathaniel, 'Little star' of modeling has jobs galore. At just 22 months old, he booked 20 modeling and acting jobs in 2014 -- and banked $22,000 to use toward college, says mom Dominique Dickson.
"He knows what the camera is now," she says. "He knows he's supposed to look at it for sure."
Nathaniel's agent, Dariana Sub, who owns City Models in Manhattan, calls Dickson "my little star." She says his level of earnings is "extremely rare. I've been doing this for more than five years, and there's only one other baby who has grossed nearly the same amount of money."
For the most part, the experiences have been thrilling, says Dominique, 28. "When else would we go to St. Barts? That's where celebrities vacation," she says. Downsides exist -- primarily the traveling to Manhattan on short notice and disappointment when auditions don't translate into jobs -- but the upsides outweigh them, she says.
When Nathaniel was only months old, strangers would stop parents Dominique and Joseph and tell them he should model. "One day I just heard it a few times," says Dominique, director of communications and marketing for a Long Island law firm. "I said, 'Let me do some research. I see babies in Pampers commercials, but how does it work?' "
She did a Google search of New York City baby modeling agencies and narrowed the list to five. When the family got holiday photos taken in fall 2013, Dickson asked the photographer to take a few of Nathaniel solo, both headshots and full body. Within two weeks, she heard from three agencies.
Then came interviews.
That was intimidating, Dominique says: "How should we do his hair? What should he wear?" But Dominique and Joseph, 28, a corrections officer in a juvenile detention facility, were confident Nathaniel had "a unique look," Dominique says. His ethnic background is a mix of African-American, Jamaican, Italian and Chinese. "I just felt like his energy was special," she says.
TWO DAYS = JOB
Once they started the process, Dominique was nervous, checking her email constantly. "I got out of work one day and there was a voice mail," she says. It was Product Model Management, his initial agency, offering to sign Nathaniel.
It took two days to get a job.
Joseph, Dominique and Nathaniel were on a road trip to spend Thanksgiving with Joseph's mother when they got a phone call from the agent offering a photo shoot for Babies R Us on Monday in New Jersey.
For Nathaniel, the shoots are like play dates, the Dicksons say. "Because he's not in day care, he's always with family, it gives him a chance to socialize," Dominique says.
Sometimes, the clients want the real mom or dad to audition with the child. Both Dominique and Joseph appear in the PNC bank commercial, for instance, with Joseph reading Nathaniel a book on a couch.
But it's not all fun and games for Mom and Dad.
"It's a 24/7 commitment," Dominique says. "They've called and said, 'Can you come now?' " Being on Long Island makes the commute tougher.
Parents also have to adjust the child's schedule. "It's nerve-racking to this day," Dickson says. "He looks how he looks, and that's awesome. But we have to try to make sure he shows up as a happy baby. Maybe the audition is during his nap time and we have to modify his schedule that day. He might just be cranky, because babies get cranky."
When Nathaniel books a job, Mom or Dad or Grandma has to attend. Nathaniel was on set for several hours during the Gap holiday commercial shoot, and only appears in seconds at the end, for instance.
The agency -- Nathaniel is now with City Models for print and Take 3 Talent Agency for commercials, TV and film -- negotiates the pay rate and keeps a percentage. Some jobs pay hourly, some a flat fee. Pay can be $100 an hour, or might be a $600 flat fee, Dickson says.
Parents are required by law to deposit 15 percent of earnings in the child's name. The Dicksons, however, say they have deposited it all. Says Dominique: "Now he has a great head start on a college fund."