Have you ever thought about getting your daughter into commercials?"
Joe and Vicky Vallee had heard that line before.
Ever since the Anaheim couple's blond-haired, brown-eyed daughter, Jennifer, was a baby--an unusually bright, cheerful and perpetually smiling baby--her grandparents, aunts and uncles had been asking them that question.
And when Jennifer began entering children's beauty pageants at age 4 and picking up trophies for "most beautiful face" and "prettiest smile," Hollywood talent agents in the audience occasionally would hand them their business cards.
So it was nothing new when Phyllis Henson, a judge at the 1986 Universal Rainbow State Pageant at the Anaheim Sheraton, approached them after Jennifer was crowned queen in the 4-to-5-year-old division.
"Have you ever thought about getting your daughter into commercials?" asked Henson.
"Yes," said Joe Vallee, general manager of a sandwich shop, "but nobody's ever been serious."
"I'm serious," said Henson.
As owner of the Kids Hollywood Connection in Irvine, a consulting service that helps children get started in show business, Henson always is on the lookout for budding talent.
And Henson, whose own three children have been working steadily in commercials for the last 12 years, was simply bowled over by Jennifer Vallee.
"Oh, I love this kid!" rhapsodizes Henson, who serves as personal manager for several dozen child actors. "She's got that sparkle. She's tiny and petite for her age. She's got big, beautiful brown eyes, and she doesn't stop smiling. She's definitely star material."
Henson's enthusiasm for Jennifer's commercial potential was contagious.
Two days after the pageant, Jennifer and her parents met with Henson in her office where they learned the ins and outs of the television commercial business.
By the time they walked out the door, they had decided to give it a try. And by the time they got home, Jennifer had even picked a stage name: Jena. They had been told there are too many Jennifers in the business and, says Jennifer, "I thought Jena would be a cute name."
The Vallees are typical of the countless thousands of hopeful parents and children--many of them from Orange County--who try to crack the highly competitive world of television commercials, those 10-, 30- and 60-second slices of American materialism that could lead to a five- and even six-figure annual income before a child has even lost all his baby teeth.
Unlike many parents who go prospecting for gold in the Hollywood Hills and come up empty-handed, however, the Vallees have struck pay dirt.
Following her meeting with the Vallees, Henson arranged an interview for Jennifer at a Hollywood talent agency the next day. The agency, Herb Tannen & Associates, signed Jennifer on the spot. Says agent Mimi Michel: "She's very special. It's a quality that's undefinable. We just call it magical, a spark or pizazz, and some children just exude that. A lot of them do not have it; sometimes it has to be acquired."
Jennifer, by all accounts, was born with it. Now it's paying dividends.
Her first time out on a job interview, Jennifer was selected from among 300 other cute and personable moppets for a commercial selling doll-shaped pillows called Pillow People.
Today, at age 6 and after only 16 months in the business, the 3-foot-7, 42-pound first-grader is a veteran of 13 commercials.
Jennifer, who just completed a spot for McDonald's, currently has six commercials airing on television: two for Pillow People, two for Quaker Oats (she appears at the breakfast table with "Our House" star Wilford Brimley) and two for Skippy peanut butter (she's the girl sitting in a rocking chair with her teddy bear and holding up a piece of bread with a heart drawn in the peanut butter).
Such a high degree of commercial success in such a short amount of time, however, is unusual.
"To be really gut-level, hard-core honest with you, it's usually 25 interviews, and then perhaps they would get one job," said Michel, who works in the children's department at Herb Tannen & Associates. "Jena came to us in June, 1986. Just in numbers it's unusual. She's a very exceptional little lady."
But it is success stories like Jennifer Vallee's that keep a steady stream of parents knocking on agents' doors and submitting their child's photograph to the talent brokers.
And, because of its freeway-close proximity to Hollywood, Orange County is the home of hundreds of successful and budding commercial kiddies.
"We're thinking of the future and college education and stuff like that, and it seemed like a good opportunity," said Don Heckathorn of El Toro, whose 4-year-old son, Jason, was signed with an agent two months ago. Jason, known professionally as Jason Paul Warren, has gone on six commercial interviews but so far has not landed a job.