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MILAN (Reuters) - Italian model Diana Gelsi strode straight onto the fashion catwalks of Milan from high school and now at the grand old age of 24 is already considering how she'll spend her retirement.
The slender, leggy model with a face framed by hair dyed an ironic silvery gray for a show at Milan Fashion Week is preparing for a second career around the same time that many middle class Westerners her age are taking their first steps from university into professional life.
"I am a granny model," Gelsi told Reuters on the sidelines of the runway shows. "I would like to become a video producer."
Video producer, lawyer, actor, writer -- most of the models strutting their stuff at fashion weeks in New York, London, Milan and Paris are already preparing themselves for life on the realistic assumption that they will not be spinning out a career showing off designer gear for decades like supermodels Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell.
That's why the 20-somethings dashing around the backstage areas in preparation for Cavalli, Armani, Versace and Prada are thrilled to be on the circuit, but cautious about the future. Some still stereotypically puff on cigarettes and sip Champagne, but the smart operators have a book off their reading list close by and they are actually devouring it voraciously.
British model Lily Cole grabbed headlines last year when she graduated in Art History from Cambridge University at the age of 23. Canadian model Lisa Cant entered Columbia University at 23.
"I love modeling but I love school more. Before I went to university, I saw modeling as my career, but now I see modeling as a means to pay for my future," Cant wrote on the website of The Model Alliance, a non-profit organization which aims to improve working conditions for fashion models.
David Brown, who represents catwalk stars such as Moss, Claudia Schiffer and Campbell, said the chances of a long-term career for most of the girls at the shows these days are much lower than they were during the heady 1990s, when supermodels ruled the fashion roost.
"There is a continuing demand for something new that is almost maniacal," he told Reuters.
The majority of models start working before age 16 and their career is over by their mid-20s.
Brown, who owns the Milan-based D'Management agency for professional models, said around 70 percent of girls selected for runways are new faces. He said supermodels are now mostly hired for campaigns or as special guests of events.
The 41-year-old Campbell led the catwalk in a shimmering evening dress for Roberto Cavalli on Monday in Milan, the last big show of that fashion capital's autumn/winter 2012 season.
The need for new faces is increasing competition among models who know it's tough to become the next Gisele Bundchen.
The Brazilian topped Forbes's list of the world's highest paid models with an estimated $25 million last year.
"Let me start off by saying that I'm still quite a nobody in the fashion world. Yes, I work as a model, but I don't identify as just that," said Dana Drori, who holds a university degree in English literature, wrote on online magazine BlackBook.
"I decided to take a year (or two) off to model full-time, to travel and make money for grad school and other life investments," she said.
Top models can earn up to $5,000 for a show, beginners sometimes work free or are paid in clothes, Model Alliance said.
"This is a temporary job," Gelsi said, wearing a black cocktail dress backstage at Blugirl's show.
Reporting by Antonella Ciancio