the not-so-chic reality of the modelling industry
The modelling industry has never been a stranger to criticism. From the days of Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton, to Cindy Crawford and Christie Brinkley, scandals have been rife throughout the industry at all levels. Sadly, there seems to have been little satisfactory progress. Whilst it’s definitely more ‘fashionable’ nowadays to talk of the industry’s successful progressions in terms of equality and the treatment of those within it, as someone who has spent the past 6 years as a signed model, this so-called ‘progress’ doesn’t appear very far-reaching or thorough.
Before I progress I’d like to stress that whilst I have had my fair share of negative experiences in the industry, I have also worked with some incredible teams and companies of whom have, and always would, treat me with the utmost respect. This article is by no means a reflection on every single person within the industry.
At the age of 16 I was on a photoshoot for a fashion magazine with a pleasant and welcoming team. Everything was going well until the adult male photographer asked me if I would shoot topless with my breasts painted white. For a girl who 1. Didn’t actually have any boobs and 2. Had never been publicly semi-naked, or even privately so with a member of the opposite sex, you can imagine that I freaked out. Massively.
After I had spoken to various members of the team expressing my discomfort the photographer then took me aside to continue to goad me into co-operating, completely (but politely) invalidating my protests. Long story short and after much manipulation I went along with it all. With little knowledge of what to do in a situation like this I felt totally out of my depth and pushed into a corner to the extent that I didn’t even feel comfortable phoning my mother or my agency to protest. What I had learnt so far from the industry at this age was that, as a model, you are there to work. You aren’t there to kick up a fuss, and you definitely aren’t there to change the creative direction of the shoot. My naivety and my utter desperation to be a successful model meant I felt like I had no other option to co-operate, even if that did mean I was immensely uncomfortable.
Photoshoots for young girls can be incredibly daunting experiences, and all too often we are thrown into them with little preparation and with people who, at the end of the day, don’t really care if you’re having an enjoyable time or not. You’re working after all. My agency had the shoot pulled from the magazine the second they found out what had happened.
Last summer I was shooting a look-book for a designer fashion company. To say the day was draining would be an understatement. Working against time pressures meant the team (who themselves were genuinely friendly and caring people) were incredibly stressed, the (out of house) stylist the most pressured by far. Whilst it isn’t uncommon to be prodded and pulled around whilst a stylist dresses and undresses you on set, I think it’s probably fair to draw the line at being stabbed with pins, repeatedly zipped into dresses to the point where your skin is cut, aggressively ordered around and spoken to like you’re nothing, and man-handled to the extent that I was struggling to stand. I don’t know about you, but I’d say that’s a pretty vile way to treat any human. Having stood in 5 inch heels under bright lights the entire day with barely any breaks (‘Of course you can’t sit down, you’re in a body-con dress, darling!’) and being treated like a rag-doll, I had to hold back tears as I left. I phoned my agency the second I was out the door. To say that victory was sweet when I heard that the company had fired the stylist would be an understatement.
The two personal experiences I have chosen are merely examples of the mistreatment and disrespect I have encountered during my years within the industry at the hands of multiple clients. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I have been expected to undress in front of entire, predominantly male teams. Clearly, setting up a changing room is far too mentally and physically challenging. As too, apparently, is the ability to always prepare rest breaks for your model when they’ve been standing (often in heels) under bright lights for hours on end.
I am by no means alone in my frustration, and I’m not simply a weak-willed, whiny 21-year-old. Since posting about my plans to write this piece on my Instagram and Twitter I have been flooded with stories both from girls I have grown up with in the industry, and from other models who I have never met. Whilst the majority of them were adamant I don’t name them, they were more than forthcoming in sharing similar stories with me.
One of the first stories I was sent was from a model-actress who had recently shot with one of the top-tier fashion magazines around today. Before shooting, clients sign contracts with agencies to assure they don’t cross any personal boundaries with the model at hand. The model at hand (lets call her Emily to make life easier) didn’t want to shoot nudity, and so the client legally was bound to honour that. Prior to the shoot, Emily was asked to fill in two pages of questions (for an interview in the magazine) where she spoke of her passion for feminism, the difficulties of being a woman in the industry, and everything else she wished to achieve. Off the record, she had discussed with the casting director her current role as a prostitute in an upcoming film and how, in the future, she would also love to play a strong woman like Joan of Arc. During the shoot she was dressed in a blazer with no clothing underneath, but was promised that any pictures where her breasts were showing would, obviously, not make the magazine. I get the feeling the direction this story is headed is potentially predictable…
The pictures came out and there Emily was, in all her semi-naked glory. Aside the picture, to add insult to injury, was a caption that flippantly described how she had ‘just finished filming a small part as a prostitute…but her dream is to play Joan of Arc.’ She was encouraged for the benefit of her own career not to bother attempting to sue the magazine. These magazines will run double paged spreads on the wonders of feminism, of embracing different body types and of championing female success, but money is money and it makes people horribly fickle, as Emily’s case shows.
Miscommunication is another big one in the modelling industry, and I’m not sure how accidental it always is. Chloe W, who has now left the industry completely, has experienced equally as perverse situations within the industry: from travelling across the country for a lingerie job to turn up to find sex toys and bondage outfits ready for her on the rail with no prior warning at all (and subsequently being told she would be silly not to co-operate); to flying out to New York solely for a Victoria’s Secret casting only to be told her hips were an inch too large and that she 1. Couldn’t go to the casting and 2. Would need to start working out daily and only eat salad leaves. With no dressing, obviously.
Of all the stories I was sent, the lack of personal respect whilst undressing during shoots was something that every girl spoke of, as was feeling uncomfortable and under pressure by certain photographers. Being told that you won’t make it if you don’t undress for a ‘good picture’ seems frighteningly common. Such requests are made all the more terrifying given the fact that a lot of these test-shoots take place privately in the photographers’ own apartments. Whilst on the extreme end of the scale and less common, being coaxed into sexual favours in return for the services of a photographer or to land a job has also happened to multiple girls I have spoken with in preparation for this piece. All these girls were subsequently encouraged to ‘put on a brave face’ after complaining about their experiences. Again, money is money.
These horror stories from within the industry are universal. Friends of mine who have spent time working in Japan were worked from 5am until midnight almost every day, weighed every week and faced being sent home if their measurements fluctuated. Stories from Paris are of a similar vein, with agencies (and we are talking established, top-level agencies) running workout classes in adjoining conference rooms so they could monitor the girls and ensure they were exercising hard enough. On the other end of the scale, plus-sized girls I have spoken to have faced conflicting criticism, from being told to gain weight to become more marketable, to being told to eat only salad the night before lingerie castings. The sentiments being put out in the industry towards plus-sized girls are contradictory at best, and down-right harmful, mentally and physically, at worst.
I could go on and on, but my statements and stories shouldn’t need repeating and reinforcing for people to feel outrage. If you experienced such treatment in the work place, would you stand for it? Probably not. Would you expect it? Definitely not. Within the modelling industry you do not have a choice. You either suck it up or you leave. To be pushed out of an industry because the level of disrespect and poor treatment is so high seems utterly barbaric at a time where the discourse of the day is the promotion of human rights and equality in the private and public sphere.
I like to think as a 21-year-old woman who has experienced the way the industry works for the past 6 years that I can at least, having grown as a person and in confidence within myself, tackle people head on who treat me like dirt in my place of work. I don’t deserve it and it’s despicable that I should have become accustomed to it. However, I have enough experience under my belt now to know what to do when something does happen which I am not comfortable with.
What worries me most is the young girls coming into the industry. Young, naive and desperate-to-impress girls come flooding into modelling agencies’ doors every day, and they’re thrown into a world that could eat them alive and spit them back out if something doesn’t change within the industry. I can say this without sounding patronising because I was one of those girls. I’ve been pushed around and left hiding in toilets and changing rooms in tears too many times to count, just like countless others. My experiences are not unique, and that only makes them worse.
Whilst the industry likes to pretend it’s changing, it isn’t. Just a couple of weeks ago James Scully broke a story of two world-renowned casting directors (during Paris fashion week) leaving 150 girls in an unlit stairwell for two hours whilst they went to get lunch, after taking their portfolios so they couldn’t leave. Also rife in Paris this season has been a rising up of models of colour against world-famous names who are known within the industry to only request white girls to their castings.
Equally, photographers face frequent exploitation at the hands of big agencies. Test-shoots often involve the model paying a small fee for the photographer’s time and the images, an arrangement which is known and accepted by all sides. Many aren’t aware, however, that some agencies are re-directing their hard-earned money into the agency’s bank account instead of the photographer’s account. All of this goes on over the models’ heads.
It is painfully clear that the industry is broken and in desperate need of fixing. With so much money and so many people’s self-worth being hinged upon perpetuating not only unfair and unrealistic beauty ideals, but also the poor treatment of hardworking models, it seems unlikely attitudes will change any time soon. Voices criticising the machinations of the industry may be getting louder, but I feel any concrete change is a terribly long way off in the future.