On a recent Tuesday, in a blue jumpsuit and a regal gold necklace, Zulay Vasquez marched across the blacktop at a Manhattan charter school and past the line of parents waiting to pick up their kids. A woman with a clipboard eyed her. Ms. Vasquez momentarily hesitated, but then swiftly strode inside the lowly-lit foyer. She rode up an escalator to the second floor and walked straight. She located her daughter’s classroom, peered in, and paused outside while the teacher finished reading a story. The day prior, the principal had sat down with Ms. Vasquez to discuss the ongoing problem of pulling her daughter, Haileigh, out of class early. Ms. Vasquez had agreed not to do it, but here she was, ready to sweep Haileigh away any moment.
For years, people on the street have crooned over Haileigh, dressed in classic Diane Von Furstenberg-style wrap dresses and fitted blazers over skinny jeans. She accessorizes with oversized shades and cross-body purses, making her look like an adult in a child’s body.
So Ms. Vasquez began posting pictures of her then three-year-old to Instagram under the handle @hails_world. Even back then, when being photographed the tiny toddler stood with one hand resting on her thrust-out hip and pursed her lips.
Four years later, Haileigh has 129,000 followers. The social media posts have turned her into a child model, an aspiring actress and an Instagram star. She’s appeared on “The Steve Harvey Show,” walked on a Saks red carpet for a back-to-school event, and strutted down the catwalk during New York Fashion Week three years in a row. She blows kisses to her followers in Snapchat videos, and fans recognize her when she travels.
“She’s like a little Audrey Hepburn,” said Shelly Perry, a photographer who recently shot Haileigh in Los Angeles. “She’s seven years old and she has so much personality. As soon as she gets in front of the camera, she’s a natural.”
Emily Lanzillo, a senior account associate for Tractenberg & Co., the public relations agency that puts on the New York Fashion Week show Haileigh walks in, agreed. “She’s like a fifteen-year-old in a little body,” Lanzillo said.
The morning Ms. Vasquez picked Haileigh up from school, she had been fielding calls from Haileigh’s agents. Juggling Haileigh’s schedule often means leaving early from her office at the Gap, where she works as a stylist. And now that Haileigh is a public figure – one teacher supposedly follows her account – Ms. Vasquez can’t make excuses anymore for taking her to mid-day auditions.
“It’s challenging because I can’t sway my way into saying things like, ‘She’s sick,’ when she’s not,” Ms. Vasqeuz said.
The kids filed out of the classroom around 3:45 p.m., and Haileigh sidled up to her mother for a hug.
“Hi Mom,” she said. “Your hands are sweaty.”
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In her school uniform and high pigtail braids, Haileigh looked like any other seven-year-old, ready to go home, eat a snack and play with her toys. She looked up at me curiously and asked who I was. I saw she was missing her front right tooth; the gap isn’t noticeable on Instagram because she poses with her lips closed. Ms. Vasquez introduced me as “our new friend.”
She ushered Haileigh to the bathroom and parked her in their usual corner between the air vents and stalls. She began Haileigh’s transformation process. They needed to prepare for a Crayola-sponsored shoot that afternoon. About a year ago, companies like McDonald’s, Kind, Amazon and Polaroid started calling Ms. Vasquez to ask for sponsorship opportunities, paying to have Haileigh promote their products in her Instagram feed. She puts the money into Haileigh’s trust fund.
In the bathroom, Ms. Vasquez swapped the uniform for overall shorts, an eyelet tee and stark white Converse sneakers. In an ABC video segment earlier this year about “Insta kids,” Haileigh gave a tour of her closet, pulling out a Burberry coat and talking about Dolce & Gabbana and Karl Lagerfeld.
I asked Haileigh what she was wearing, feeling slightly foolish, like an anchor on the E! red carpet.
She gave a big shrug.
“You don’t know what you’re wearing?” her mom asked.
Haileigh shook her head.
“Well, you know the shirt is Levi’s.”
Haileigh didn’t respond, but it was the last time that afternoon she kept quiet. She chatted about how she didn’t eat her broccoli at lunch, the book they’re reading in class, and how she watches “Law & Order” to learn to be wary of kidnappers.
“A lot of parents want this and they couldn’t handle it,” said Ms. Vasquez, as she fussed with the overall strap. “Some nannies take [the kids] to auditions and they look a hot mess and that’s whatever. I make sure she looks presentable and proper. Some people don’t care about that, but I do.”
They moved over to the sink and Haileigh played with the soap dispenser. Ms. Vasquez worked with quick fingers to unbraid the pigtails. She dipped her hands under the running faucet and ran them through Haileigh’s tight, kinky curls. They sprung out of her head like freshly watered blooms.
“Ugh, this hair is out of control,” said Ms. Vasquez.
She gave up, scooped the discarded clothes into Haileigh’s school backpack, and the two rushed downstairs.
Looking at Haileigh’s Instagram feed, her seamless transition from child to star stands out in particular back-to-back posts from earlier this summer. In the first, she sits curled up in an airport chair, headphones in, intently watching something on a hot pink tablet, a carryon holding two dolls beside her. In the next post, she’s sitting with legs crossed on the ledge of a pool, holding the same tablet, but this time in an oversized sun hat, dark glasses and giving off an air of coolness.
“She’s down-to-earth but at the same time, it’s amazing what her and her mom have been able to do all through Instagram and everything,” said Cristin Geissler, the assistant marketing manager at Haddad Brands.
A block up from the school, Ms. Vasquez found an outdoor plaza, a suitable backdrop for the shoot. She set Haileigh up on the concrete ledge of a fountain and readjusted her shirt, again fiddling with the strap on her overalls. She then combed a deep side-part in Haileigh’s hair, but exasperated with the outcome, led Haileigh over to a chair and plopped her down. She scooped the locks up and twisted them into a plump bun on the crown of her head. She grabbed water and patted down the flyaways. Then she stood back.
“Let me see. Look at me,” she said to Haileigh. When Haileigh turned, Ms. Vasquez made a look of disgust.
Finally after a third attempted hairstyle – a half bun – the two moved back to the fountain. Haileigh leaned back on the ledge, bent her right knee behind her and popped her left hip out. She braced one hand down and modeled the plastic Crayola cat in the other. She ever so slightly lifted the corners of her lips. The breeze blew her hair back and the unfastened corner of her overalls flopped down.
“Don’t move,” said Ms. Vasquez. She bent over and snapped a photo on her Samsung.
“Smile,” she said.
She got several shots, then Haileigh slumped.
“Chin down. Open your eyes.”
Haileigh followed orders. Ms. Vasquez squeezed in a few more pictures, but could tell Haileigh had had enough.
“Done,” affirmed Ms. Vasquez, and the two high-fived. After about an hour of wardrobe changing and primping, the shoot took only a few minutes.
Haileigh wanted to go home, and shortly after, the two packed up to take the 1 train uptown. In the coming days, she would be walking again in New York Fashion Week, shooting with a photographer and possibly prepping for auditions, which were often scheduled last minute.
As they walked through the plaza, Haileigh bounced beside her mom, her hair cascading over her backpack. Ms. Vasquez walked with her head down, eyes on her phone, most likely scrolling through a backlog of emails. Ms. Vasquez is aware that Haileigh’s stardom could be fleeting.
“Entertainment is like an iron,” she said. “You gotta strike while it’s hot.”