Life of fashion models: debts, low salaries, sexual harassment and career instability
This post is based on investigations by CNN Money, Telegraph, Mashable, The Guardian and others (Vanity Fair, Allure, SCMP, Singapore Style, Esquire SG, Independent, New York Times, Bangkok Post, Bangkok Coconuts).
According to Ashley Mears, a professor of sociology at Boston University, and a former model, between 2000 and 2010, 47% of models appearing on catwalks at one of the four major fashion weeks around the world appeared only once. She writes on the Boston University website: “At the agencies I studied, the median earnings were estimated by agents to be under $60,000 a year, but that’s a very uncertain sum which fluctuates over short periods of time, and agents expect models’ high-fashion careers to last less than five years. A sizeable share — 20% of the models at one agency I studied — were actually in debt to their agency for the costs of starting their career, such as pictures for their portfolios or even a place ticket to New York.” The catwalk used to be the stage on which models won a ‘super’ prefix and earned a fortune in the process. Now it’s an expensive, exhausting trial. Has modelling moved on?
You probably won’t have heard of Binx Walton, a nineteen-year-old model and the only person nicknamed after a Star Wars character to star in a Chanel campaign. A lithe, lean Tennessee native with a soupy drawl to match, Walton began her career on the catwalk for Marc Jacobs in 2013, and was soon booked for campaigns at Céline, Balmain and Coach. During fashion month last autumn, she walked down the catwalks for Bottega Veneta, Roberto Cavalli, Versace, Loewe, Céline, Stella McCartney, Chanel, Valentino and Miu Miu.
Binx, in other words, is at the top of her game. But it’s lonely up there. “Recently, designers have been hiring a lot of newer girls, so it’s not as fun because I’m not with as many of my friends,” she says when we catch up in Milan. “New girls — I feel sorry for them. My first and second seasons were my worst. It’s like being in a new school. There are cliques and I didn’t have many people I could trust.”
Three years and six seasons in, Binx considers herself a veteran. “These new girls — they’re sixteen, they’ve just quit high school and they’re only going to be around for two seasons,” she says, animatedly. “A lot of them stop growing up. They get to twenty, twenty-four, and they’re still the same. They’re stunted.”
As we continue to chat, Binx exudes the trademark keeping-it-real ethos that has led to her success, talking of her family — “my most expensive purchase? I bought my mom a car” — and her friends — “I live with a model, Lexi, in New York, in an apartment with a snake tank and a huge brown couch and that’s it. You don’t wanna live too fancy. It just makes your ego bigger”.
She plays down her good fortune, but Binx is one in a million. Few girls make it big these days, and fewer still have the backing to convert a smash debut into longevity. For while the Kate Mosses and Gisele Bündchens amass millions, and command thousands for a catwalk appearance, most models work long hours with scant job security and earn very little.
Part of that is due to the fact that the catwalk, once a breeding ground for supermodels, is no longer the springboard to a long and illustrious modelling career. Neither is it financially rewarding for the models themselves, many of whom actually find themselves in debt at the end of the season. Where twenty years ago Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington could command £30,000 for a show, nowadays models can earn as little as £300 — or just get paid in clothes.
Binx weighs in with a characteristically pragmatic view. “New girls, new girls, every season — you have to accept that,” she says. “You don’t believe in this industry? Well, then you’re not going to be in it. You’ll get thrown away like a toothpick. It’s that simple.” She sighs. “You don’t have to believe in everything, but fighting it? You have to remember: fashion is always bigger than you.”
Now, more than ever, designers and casting directors are interested in new faces on the catwalk. Amanda Bretherton, the president of Next Models London, attributes that to the following: “Firstly, designers have decided to use their finances more wisely and not spend huge amounts on one-off fees for supermodels. Secondly, I think there is a true desire not to have the models detract from the actual collection by being too well-known and in turn stealing the show. If they can choose girls who look very similar, they create an image of uniformity which then means the clothes stand out within the show.” Karlie Kloss, one of the industry’s top models, confirmed the latter in an interview with Vanity Fair, claiming that designers have told her she’s “too famous” to walk in their shows and that her appearance on their catwalk would mean “no one will pay attention to the clothes”.
That those models who do manage to forge a career are required to have “additional talents” is an added irony in an industry predicated on selling luxury while paying those whose images they are utilising very little. As Bretherton points out, today’s models “must dominate not only the runway but social media, campaigns and editorials. Whether they act, or design, or have a strong social media presence, they need to be more desirable for casting directors.”
It’s all part of the plan to become a “personality”. For increasingly, the most lucrative fashion campaigns and magazine covers are being won by actresses and reality TV personalities such as Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner. So-called “big” girls, the top models in the industry, are also competing for these gigs, and eschewing the exhausting merry-go-round of catwalk shows in the process. With over 40 million Instagram followers between Hadid and Jenner alone, it’s not hard to see their appeal — and model agents are reacting accordingly, now including specific Instagram-related clauses in contracts with clients to negotiate a fee for an Instagram post of the campaign pictures in which the model stars. But even that gets boring quickly: Cara Delevingne, arguably the closest thing this decade has seen to a supermodel, now eschews the catwalk and all but the most remunerative modelling campaigns in favour of her acting career.
Is the age of the supermodel over? Carole White, the CEO and founder of Premier model agency, which has looked after the careers of Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Christy Turlington, thinks so: “I don’t think there will ever be new supermodels like there were in the Nineties. There are girls who have a “name” in fashion whilst they are hot; but supermodels were names the man in the street knew.”
With Paris Fashion Week in full swing, images of beauty, glamour and jet-setting lifestyles are dominating the fashion landscape. But for the average working model, the fashion industry can mean a much darker reality. Beyond the low pay — the average annual wage for a runway model is $26,600 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics — the industry is littered with stories of abuse and degradation. Starvation, child labor, sexual abuse and grueling hours for almost no pay. Working conditions no one should experience are too often the hallmarks of a runway model’s career.
In 2012 Sara Ziff, a model and former face of Tommy Hilfiger, founded The Model Alliance, an organization dedicated to improving working conditions for models in what is essentially an unregulated industry. The philosophy, as outlined in its Models’ Bill of Rights, is to empower models and demand fair treatment from both agencies and clients.
But while Ziff has attracted big name support from models such as Coco Rocha and Milla Jovovich, who serves on MA’s advisory board, the overall response throughout the industry has been mixed. “It’s a difficult group to organize,” Ziff tells Mashable. “Models tend to be young and foreign, living here only sporadically. There’s a high turnover rate and some agencies seem to try to keep their models in the dark.” Ziff ultimately hopes the Model Alliance can be a collective voice, a way for models to fight the abusive practices of powerful agencies and clients without fear of reprisal.
So far The Model Alliance’s biggest victory has been to convince New York lawmakers to include models under its child labor law. According to a survey of working models performed by The Model Alliance, 54.7% begin working between the ages of 13 and 16, and until New York’s legislation passed the bill in November 2013, those models had no legal workplace protection. Sponsored by New York state senators Jeffrey Klein and Diane Savino, the law restricts working hours for underage models, requires them to have a valid Child Performer Permit, and requires agencies to provide a chaperone for any model under 16. But despite The Model Alliance’s efforts, ending the use of child labor completely isn’t unanimously supported within the fashion industry.
Model Ondria Hardin was under the CFDA’s recommended minimum age of 16 when she walked for designer Marc Jacobs in 2012. In 2012, after the CFDA made a request for designers not to use underage models during New York Fashion Week, designer Marc Jacobs hired two models believed to be 14 or 15 for his Fall 2013 show. “I do the show the way I think it should be,” Jacobs told New York Times, “If their parents are willing to let them do a show, I don’t see any reason that it should be me who tells them that they can’t.”
Beyond child labor, The Model Alliance tackles eating disorders and sexual abuse. In that same survey conducted by The Model Alliance, 64% reported being asked to lose weight by their agency. “We still hear from models who say that their agencies encourage or even require them to be dangerously thin,” says Ziff.
As for sexual harassment, 30% of models in that survey reported inappropriate touching on the job, with 28% reporting being pressured to have sex with someone at work. Part of the problem, according to Ziff, is that models in the U.S. are generally hired as independent contractors, which means under federal law, they can’t sue for sexual harassment. In two-thirds of the cases, those models who opted to inform their agencies about work-based sexual harassment were met with agencies who “didn’t see the problem”.
Though unionization has helped to improve working conditions for models in the UK — in 2009 British trade union Equity agreed to take models as members — it appears to be a much touchier subject Stateside. When asked about the possibility of unionization, Ziff seems to hedge: “We are a small, committed, volunteer-run organization and we do our best to empower models despite entrenched interests against models organizing collectively.”
With approximately 400 members, The Model Alliance is gaining traction, but it still has a long way to go in terms of industry-wide support. “Some individual agents and designers have been supportive,” says Ziff, “But our success [with the child labor law] seems to have caused some industry leaders to take notice and to try to marginalize our efforts.”
For a vast majority of the thousands of runway models who have flocked to New York this February, fashion week is everything but a moneymaking business. At best, they will walk away with a few thousand dollars in their pockets. Realistically, if they get booked for a few shows they can hope to break even, which means they will cover the cost of their travel and living arrangements for the few weeks it takes to attend castings (for free), fittings (for free), parties (for free) and catwalks (where they will earn between nothing and $2,500, sometimes up to $5,000 for top names). A vast proportion of these women will most likely leave New York in debt.
Agencies will initially cover the costs of the models they have signed as they go about their castings and travels, seeking to make a name for themselves. Everything is accounted for, and as taxis are hailed to make industry events and rents are paid for the apartments, the models accrue debt. This debt becomes leverage for poorly regulated agencies who are then able to send models to far flung countries and demand they complete unwanted assignments. To call it a form of indentured servitude is no exaggeration.
Why do models do it? The first reason is exposure. Catwalks are where “faces” get “discovered”, to use industry slang. Discovery might lead to major campaigns or editorial work, which is where the money lies.
In investigation by Blake Ellis and Melanie Hicken for CNN Money you can find details how the modeling industry exploits young and vulnerable workers: Stolen pay; Sexual harassment; Months without a paycheck; Outrageous fees and expenses that eat away at earnings; And no one (from modeling agencies) to turn to for help. While the industry often comes under fire for eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse and unwanted sexual advances, its problems go far beyond that.
From an analysis of pay stubs and financial statements, interviews with dozens of current and former models, attorneys, labor experts and even a former agency executive, a CNNMoney investigation has found that the fashion world often treats its models in ways that would be unheard of in many other industries. And due to a significant lack of regulation, these abuses can be completely legal.
“It’s not an easy industry, you’re not going to have a nice lush lifestyle,” said Emily Fox, who started out as a model at age 16 and has appeared in Italian Vogue and walked on runways all over the world. Now 25 years old and still working in the industry, Fox says that most years she earns less than $20,000 before taxes. “You’re going to really struggle and you’ll be really poor.”
One model claims she was forced to rely on her father, a blue collar worker in Ohio, to pay for groceries — even after gracing the pages of the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Another, from Britain, resorted to working illegally as a bartender at an Irish pub in New York City to make ends meet. An 18-year-old who entered the business last summer and has already appeared on a number of European runways claims she has yet to receive a paycheck. And a Jamaican model ended up receiving only a few thousand dollars over three years of work in New York — despite being promised a $75,000 annual salary on official visa documents. (Her agency disputed any wrongdoing, calling the salary a “guesstimate.”)
In Florida, a number of young women were so desperate for modeling work that they fell victim to a fake business that allegedly drugged them and used them to create pornographic films. “When you’re a supermodel like Giselle or Christy Turlington you’re treated like royalty, but 99% of models are treated like garbage,” said Carolyn Kramer, a former agency executive who compared the industry’s labor abuses to those faced by young factory workers at the turn of the century.
For decades this world has operated in the shadows — blatantly taking advantage of its young, mainly female workforce. Many models are thousands of miles away from their families, while foreign models often speak little English and are trapped in immigration programs that make them that much more vulnerable. Others aren’t in immigration programs at all, but are instead encouraged by agencies to come to the United States (or other countries) illegally.
In many cases, models say it’s the agency (or management company, as some call themselves) that takes advantage of them. While they say the designers and brands they pose for can also be part of the problem, models were more concerned about agency practices and didn’t single out clients. Of course, some agencies do indeed act as fierce protectors of their models. But the lack of regulation (or a labor union like actors, classical musicians and athletes have) makes it easy for bad apple agencies and fashion houses to thrive, allowing them to treat workers as nothing more than a source of profits.
While the fashion world’s most famous faces rake in millions, many aspiring and working models earn unlivable pay and end up indebted to their agencies — as a perfect storm of 20% commissions (in some countries — up to 50%) and expenses drastically reduce earnings. The industry’s labor issues often stem from the fact that even though models say agencies control much of their lives (down to their eating habits and the pay they receive), they typically aren’t considered employees. A number of the industry’s top players are currently battling a lawsuit that challenges these very labor practices. The suit, proposed as a class action, alleges that the firms have unfairly profited off their models by charging exorbitant fees and expenses, incorrectly classifying them as independent contractors and withholding wages, among other allegations.
Clients don’t typically claim them as employees either. Instead, models are left as contract workers in an industry with little oversight — making it very difficult for them to challenge everything from wage theft to sexual harassment. “There is this culture that comes from the agency that you are disposable and you are so lucky to be here,” said former model Meredith Hattam. “It’s a toxic power dynamic and it starts from the top.”
Models interviewed by CNNMoney acknowledged that some agencies do negotiate fair compensation for shoots and chase down deadbeat clients. But many said that when they expected this kind of parental support from their agents they were instead thrown to the wolves.
Many get their start in their early teens, and come to the big fashion meccas like New York and Miami on their own. Desperate to please their agents and find work, they’re willing to accept pretty terrible labor conditions. Canadian model Ty States has worked in the industry since she was 17. “We are left struggling while companies make a huge profit,” said Ty States, 24, who is hoping to leave the industry and go back to school so she can work with disabled children. During her time as a model, she would go home to Canada to live with her parents rent-free while she waited months for late payments to arrive.
High-profile gigs often pay very little, instead paying in prestige. CNNMoney saw countless examples of hours-long work — from editorial shoots at fashion magazines to fancy runway shows — that paid models $500 or less before commissions, taxes and expenses. Others pay nothing more than free clothes (though some say this practice is declining). That’s because agencies don’t classify models as employees, and as a result they avoid minimum wage laws (though several lawsuits are currently challenging this classification). And the countless hours spent at castings, test shoots and go-sees (meetings with agents or designers) usually result in no compensation at all.
For the long hours she spent at runway shows and photo shoots, Fox has been paid with everything from a bizarre dress that she has never worn to a pair of beige bellbottoms. Others say a coveted shoot for Vogue has earned them only around $200 (though the magazine has been known to help launch careers).
And no matter what the job is, agencies — and clients — can take months to pay anything at all, models say. To afford their bills, some models resort to taking cash advances from their agency, which further reduce their pay with fees of around 5%. “A lot of us don’t have rich parents or somebody to take care of us,” said male model Alex Shanklin, who is part of the proposed class action suit. “When you work you would expect to at least get a paycheck in a timely manner, but that never really seemed to be the case. It was almost a hide and go seek with the check.”
When a paycheck does arrive, it’s often a fraction of what the client actually paid the agency. In addition to big commissions, earnings can be devoured by other deductions as models are billed for expenses ranging from walking lessons and dermatology visits to overpriced accommodations.
Marcelle Almonte says she was one of nine models who was charged as much as $1,850 a month to stay in a two-bedroom “model apartment” in Miami, with a market rate of around $3,000 a month for the entire apartment (as Almonte alleges in the suit), this would mean the agency could have taken in more than $10,000 a month in profits.
Meanwhile another member of the lawsuit, Louisa Raske, who worked for clients like L’Oreal, says her agencies have billed her for everything from messenger service and website promotion to client Christmas gifts and flowers given to her on her own birthday.
Fox, for example, says she’s owed her agency at least $5,000 at a time, while Lisa Yanowitz (formerly Davies) says that she spent her 14-year modeling career bouncing in and out of debt. She has since left the industry to become a nurse, which she says is a much more stable job. “Most models never manage to get out of debt. Most models never make any money,” said prominent model and actress Milla Jovovich in a recent letter urging lawmakers to take action. In her letter, Jovovich detailed the “outrageous” expenses and labor abuses in the industry, even recalling how, as a teenager, she worked a 24-hour day with no pay. Models acknowledge that the contracts they sign allow for these deductions, but they say that they are typically expected to pay with little proof or explanation of the charges. And they worry that if they challenge these expenses, they will be blacklisted from the future jobs they so desperately need. “A lot of times if you get too concerned or you get too involved, you can feel the agency not liking that,” said Addison Gill, a Canadian model who has worked for clients including Calvin Klein, Louis Vuitton and Valentino. “They prefer to deal with girls that aren’t questioning them.”
Even those who “make it” — often earning around the six-figure mark but far from the millions of dollars raked in by the industry’s most famous — still claim they face a complete lack of transparency. They complain that their agencies steal money that is rightfully theirs and continue to tack on excessive fees and expenses that can take up more than half of their pay. Almonte, for example, has a statement showing that 70% of a $1,000 paycheck from a lingerie and swimwear company was eaten up by vague expenses charged by her agency (not even including commissions or taxes).
Others say that agencies and brands profit off of their images without their knowledge — and without paying them. Retired model Carina Vretman, for example, says she has had to chase down payments after seeing her face on everything from boxes of hair dye to London billboards. She says she would have lost out on tens of thousands of dollars had she not fought back. “Why should the agencies take my money?” said Vretman. “They are supposed to represent me, they are supposed to be looking out for me. If they do this to me, can you imagine how many girls they have done this to?”
In contrast, consider another class of creative workers: actors. Whether they’re on a commercial set or a Broadway stage, actors benefit from a laundry list of union protections, including mandatory breaks and overtime, minimum salary requirements and prompt payments. They also typically pay their agents commissions of only 10% because of union rules.
Former model Sara Ziff founded the Model Alliance to fight for worker rights. While actors have been unionized for decades, attempts by models have been crushed by agencies, said Sara Ziff. It’s already very difficult for independent contractors to create a union since they lack many basic legal protections and rights, she said. Then there’s the fear that they will be blacklisted if they join labor efforts. As a result, Ziff argues government regulation is sorely needed. With no federal regulation of the industry, states have taken a piecemeal approach. Only some have laws requiring modeling agencies to be licensed. And while a recent law in New York State, (where models often spend the bulk of their career) significantly strengthened protections for underage models, critics say there are still few protections for those 18 and older. Meanwhile in California, a lawmaker has introduced legislation that advocates say would provide the strongest labor protections in the industry so far. The bill would require models to be treated as employees, among a variety of other labor, health and safety-related regulations.
It’s the modeling industry’s dirty little secret. After spending their days walking down runways in thousand dollar dresses and hobnobbing with the fashion industry’s biggest names, many young models return to living conditions that are anything but glamorous. From roach-infested buildings to dorm-like rooms stacked with bunk beds, even the most undesirable apartments can run up huge bills for the models who live in them. Known as “model apartments,” these properties are a big part of what keeps the fashion industry running. In many cases, models say it’s the agencies that rent housing that can rake in as much as five times the market rate.
But companies other than modeling agencies advertise apartments for models as well — with one New York City firm even requiring potential tenants (female models only) to submit their age, height, weight and photos as part of their rental application. And it’s not difficult to pack these places full.
Finding convenient housing is already notoriously difficult in expensive fashion capitals like New York and Miami. Often, models are too young to secure an apartment on their own, or they’re in a city for only a short period of time and unable to commit to a long-term lease. Others don’t have the earnings or credit to get a landlord’s approval. Some are even encouraged by agencies to come to the country illegally, according to interviews with models, making it even harder for them to find a safe place to stay. As a result, the agencies and companies offering these apartments are able to rent a single bed (or even a couch) at a massive premium.
“Packing that many girls into an apartment that you’ve owned for years — there is no way they aren’t making money off of it,” said model Addison Gill. She says she paid her agency $60 a night to stay in a one-room New York City studio space with as many as seven other models at a time. She remembers the apartment being filled with bed bugs and mice and said it didn’t even have a working lock. “You are put in a position where you have to take that,” she said.
While modeling agencies often front the cost of housing initially, the high rent payments ultimately come out of any earnings a model makes — leaving many trapped in a vicious cycle of debt. “The models apartments were one of the biggest suckers,” said former model Lisa Yanowitz (formerly Davies), who remembered staying in an agency apartment that fit up to 12 models at a time. She said that even though she believes the agency only paid around $4,000 a month for the apartment, each model was charged around $1,200 — meaning the agency could have taken in thousands of dollars a month in profits if the apartment was full. “That’s how a lot of people went into debt.”
Canadian model Emily Fox, for example, says she remembers spending around $50 a night to stay in a New York City model apartment during Fashion Week and the three months that followed. As a result, she ended up owing her agency as much as $4,500 for housing alone. Making matters worse, many of the runway shows Fox appeared in paid only in free clothing. Even when jobs did pay, it took months for her to receive any money — and the paychecks were eaten away by commissions, fees and other expenses owed to her agency. This forced Fox to rely on cash advances from her agency (which CNNMoney found typically charge fees of around 5%) to pay for food and other expenses. All of this left her even further in debt.
Meanwhile, model Marcelle Almonte says her agency, MC2, charged her up to $1,850 a month to stay in a two-bedroom Miami model apartment that fit nine people — on bunk beds and a couch. Almonte alleges that similar units in the same building currently rent for $2,900 to $3,300 a month — suggesting the agency made as much as $13,750 above market rate each month.
In New York, Kenza Fourati, a model who has worked for clients like Sports Illustrated, says she was charged more than $2,000 a month for an apartment where she shared one bathroom with eleven other women. She remembers being told that the rent was so high because the agency knew it would never “make the money back” from some of the other models living there.
One company, ModelsApartments.com, appears to be run by model John Paul Pfeiffer, who now owns a model management company. In one example listed on its website and public Facebook page, a bunk bed in a sparsely furnished Williamsburg, Brooklyn loft rents for $1,300 a month. Filling all eight spots in this apartment would result in revenue of $10,400 a month — around three times the rate of recent rentals in the same building, according to real estate listings. Pfeiffer declined to comment.
Other companies require more than just money. Website ModelHousing.com has a whole page of models who it says have lived in its New York City property. But its apartments, which rent for $75 a night or up to $1,600 a month (according to the website), aren’t open to just anyone. Tenants must “exemplify strong dedication” and “meet the standard height and measurement requirements (preferably 5' 9” and above).” Modelhousing.com advertises housing for models only. A former tenant of an apartment run by ModelHousing, Isaura Flint, said she enjoyed her stay and that for many models, it’s a far better option than staying in agency housing. In fact, she says she was able to live rent-free by agreeing to appear at nightclubs three to four times a week. Online model forums are filled with stories of similar offers — where club promoters cover rent, groceries and even plane tickets to New York if the women agree to appear at night clubs. While Flint says her promoter was respectful and always looked out for her, not all models are comfortable with this arrangement. Many have questioned in forums whether they would be expected to have sexual relationships with club patrons and have even worried about hidden cameras in the rooms.
“I was so desperate to make something out of myself,” said 21-year-old Jessica Lee Reedy, who claims she was sexually harassed while living in a model apartment with agency owner Aristeo Tengco. Just 17 at the time, Reedy said she agreed to live with middle-aged Tengco because she saw it as her golden ticket to a successful modeling career. She claims that Tengco quickly became abusive and controlling — walking in on her while she was undressed, and touching her inappropriately during Bible studies. Reedy says Tengco owes her $15,000 — including the pay she claims he withheld from her modeling jobs and the money her parents gave him for her living expenses. To try to get this money back, she joined a 2012 sexual harassment lawsuit originally filed by aspiring model Hayden Holt. In the suit, Holt says she was forced to pay rent to live in the model house and that she later moved out because of the harassment. According to the lawsuit, which grew to include four models, Tengco retaliated against her by charging her $4,000 in “portfolio” and “coaching” fees and withholding the small amount of money she had earned. The young women alleged a number of other forms of harassment and abuse as well, including claims that Tengco made them practice modeling in front of him and other male patrons of a public gym in skimpy spandex outfits and high heels.
Unlike most U.S. workers, models regularly see huge chunks of their earnings — whether it’s a third, more than half, or even entire paychecks — disappear right before their eyes. One male model, for example, showed CNNMoney a statement where a $500 catalog shoot turned into a $15 check. Meanwhile a young female model saw almost six years of earnings shrink from $74,000 to less than $30,000.
Commissions are the bread and butter of the modeling industry. Not only do agencies usually charge their models a 20% commission (in several countries up to 50%), but they charge the model’s client a similar amount, according to models and attorneys. A $5,000 job, for example, would typically result in a $2,000 windfall for the agency, which can end up being more than what the model herself would take home in some cases. A pay stub from one model showed how a big $30,000 payday became only $6,475 after a 20% commission and a big tax hit (though she’s hopeful she’ll get some of that back at tax time). Yes, this may sound like a lot. But this is before any other expenses are taken out. And because the pay is wildly inconsistent, many models are forced to rely on a one-time payment like this for months or even longer. Another model, for example, saw a $10,000 job shrink to less than $4,000 after taxes, commissions and expenses.
Lorelei Shellist, a longtime model who has appeared in magazines like Vogue and Marie Claire, was part of that class action suit against the agencies. While she says she moved on from the lawsuit years ago, she is still worried about working conditions for current models and can’t believe agencies are still getting away with charging 20% commissions. “Nothing has changed. Nobody has enforced the laws,” she said. “What they are doing is they are double-dipping.”
Beyond commissions, there’s a never-ending list of expenses and fees that models can rack up. For a beginning model, the start-up costs can be especially daunting — often landing them in debt before they even book their first big job. Take Jamaican model Alexia Palmer, who was brought to the United States by Trump Model Management after being discovered in a Caribbean model competition. Test shoots, where models practice in front of the camera, cost Palmer more than $2,000. Walking lessons were $75 a pop, a dermatology visit that she says was recommended by her agency cost her $200 and a promo video was $250. She was also charged $900 for a “show package,” which showcases the agency’s models to try to land them jobs in runway shows. And then there were more than $100 in courier fees (typically charged for transporting a model’s portfolio to potential clients), another $400 in transportation costs and $4,000 in vague administrative fees. Palmer’s financial statements also show that she took out a number of cash advances from the agency, a common industry practice as models wait months for paychecks to materialize. It’s unclear how much Palmer paid her agency in fees or interest for these advances, but others have said they were charged fees of around 5%.
Advances are common in the industry as models wait months for paychecks to materialize. It’s unclear how much Palmer paid in fees or interest, but others say fees of around 5% are the norm. Like Canadian model Ty States, who said she often relied heavily on advances from her agency. “Advances were the only way you could actually afford to get anything,” she said. “They are still making money off of you, but it’s like I need to eat and pay my bills.” Cash advances were the “only way you could afford to get anything,” said model Ty States.
The fees don’t stop when a model starts becoming successful. Many told that they have been charged for everything from overpriced and cramped model housing to their agency’s own office supplies. One of the most common expenses for working models is a “website fee,” which can run hundreds of dollars a year for a single model. Then there are fees the agency charges to print “comp cards,” which are like business cards for models except that they are covered in photos. These can cost upwards of $1 a card, and are often bought in batches of hundreds at a time. One model says her agency even charged her for cards that had her name misspelled on them.
For most of these expenses, the agency pays upfront and takes them out of the model’s pay — meaning that many models have no idea when they are going to be charged for something. “They don’t ask if they can spend your money, they just do it,” said former model Madison Schill, who started in the industry at age 15 and has walked runways for the likes of Marchesa and Oscar de la Renta. While she knew her contract authorized the agency to deduct any and all expenses, she said she had little control or clarity about where her money was going.
Another model, Louisa Raske, says she was shocked when she realized she had been charged for the flowers her agency bought her on her own birthday (the agency that she claims charged her for the flowers did not respond to requests for comment). And Raske’s past statements from a different agency show that $250 was deducted from her paycheck for client Christmas gifts that she says the agency purchased without asking her.
Just because a client wants a model to come to a studio or exotic location for a shoot doesn’t mean they will pay to get them there. Male model Alex Shanklin, for example, says he was excited to book a $1,000 catalog shoot in New York a few years ago. But after the cost of his plane ticket from Texas and other travel expenses were subtracted from his pay, he claims he received a check for only $150 after around a day of work plus travel — and he didn’t even get it until more than a month later. Meanwhile, retired model Carina Vretman remembers when she got a free trip to Denmark for a catalog photo shoot but ended up making no money for the actual job. Instead, she says the German modeling agency that booked the gig told her she owed them money for past promotional costs and other expenses. (In fact she believes she still owes that agency 700 euros). “I didn’t get a cent,” said Vretman. “I spent money for a taxi — I lost money.”
Many models say that what’s even worse than the fees is the complete lack of transparency about what they’re being charged for and why — with the statements they receive doing little to explain the laundry list of deductions being taken out of their pay. “It’s like reading a foreign language with the statements that were sent to us — especially for someone who is 16 years old,” said former model Lisa Yanowitz, who entered the industry at that very age and has walked international runways for clients like Chanel, Burberry, and Balenciaga. She has since left the modeling industry to become a nurse. Another model, Grecia Palomares, received a check in 2014 where her agency had deducted 70% of the $1,000 in pay for “expenses,” according to documents from the proposed class-action lawsuit. Palomares, who has worked for designers like Christian Dior, Valentino and Roberto Cavalli (none of which were the client in this specific case), claims all she was told was that the expenses included $450 for “WRITTEN OFF REVENUES” and “$250 for “APLD BAL WEST ACCT.”
And it’s not uncommon for many models to stay silent — afraid to ask any questions at all. They say that all too often, doing so results in a dead end, and that pushing too hard could hurt their reputations with the agency and their potential to get more jobs.
Ragnhild Jevne, a 25-year-old Norwegian model based in New York, tells in between shows that walking for US fashion designer Alexander Wang can make a girl’s career. Jevne, who has appeared on the cover of Japanese Vogue and is signed with IMG, is one of the rare models making money. Even so, the four or five shows she will have done over the course of fashion week will have brought in between $1,000 and $2,000 each, she says. Take away agency fees and taxes, and you probably have enough to pay New York rent for a month or two. You can forget about the yacht.
Working for exposure, with the constant dangling carrot that discovery might just be one casting away, is far from exclusive to the modeling industry. To that extent, fashion models are actually no different from other young workers in creative industries who are expected to train to high levels and work hard for little to no formal remuneration — whether under the form of internships, unpaid or contract work. That runway models are the face of a new class of precarious workers, rather than lavishness or extravagance, is undeniably ironic.
Ashley Mears explains why, in an industry where fashion week generates $900m a year for New York City alone, a hoard of mostly female models are only able to touch the smallest of fractions of profit: the answer lies in a 19th century gendered understanding of capitalism and luxury. “Women’s bodies lend status, or are status signifiers of luxury, especially to men. Women are central to showing off assets that are mostly controlled by men,” she said, adding that those at the top of the large luxury chains like Gucci Group and LVMH continue to be men. “The people who are making the profits and drawing up the contracts are largely men.”
In an essay for Vice, former model Meredith Hattam details her nightmarish stint as an aspiring model. “At 19, the five foot, nine inch-tall Hattam signed with an agency in San Diego and was promptly told to lose 15 pounds. After two weeks on a starvation diet — 800 calories per day, plus a two-hour workout — Hattam weighed 115 pounds. She was “miserable and frail” but her agency was pleased and sent her to New York City to pursue fame and fortune. Like most would-be models who move here, she never got a big break. Hattam subsisted for a few years on the money she made doing prom catalogs and book covers, and then returned home defeated. Only with the help of a therapist did she eventually get over the mental toll that years of an eating disorder and a punishing work environment had taken on her sense of herself.
One reason agents and designers can treat models pretty much however they want is that the modeling industry is almost completely unregulated. Models have no union to establish guidelines about a healthy work environment and they don’t get health insurance or other benefits typically afforded to employees because they’re considered independent contractors. However, unlike, say, freelance writers, models can only get work through an agency, which gives agencies absolute power, and models absolutely none. “You’re a freelancer who can’t actually freelance,” says Hattam.
Katrine Bregengaard, a 29-year-old Danish visiting researcher at Columbia University who was a model between the ages of 14 and 20, remembers avoiding drinks at castings after hearing tales about colleagues being drugged. Bregengaard recalls a “disturbing” summer when she was 16 and went to Athens to work as a model and live in a house full of other underage girls. Over the course of a couple of months, castings mingled seamlessly with outings to nightclubs where free drugs and alcohol flowed. A photographer in his late 30s working for Nike took her and another 16-year-old model on a three-day getaway to Mykonos, expecting sex in exchange for the trip and acting out when he did not get his way. “When I was in these situations I felt like I was in control and in control of my own life. I didn’t really like it, but I felt in control. When you are 16, that’s the illusion,” Bregengaard said of the experience. “But you’re not in control, you have no idea what is going on. It is outrageous what girls have to go through.”
By the end of that summer, Bregengaard was in debt to her world-class agency, having only booked a couple of jobs. The debt was canceled out by work she did later in Denmark. By the time she quit, six years after starting, the current human rights and history scholar had managed to save just enough to do some traveling for a year. “There’s always this carrot in front of you. If you do this show or that show then you will get your name out there. For most girls, this never really happens. I never really made it big or anything. I got money, but nothing in terms of the work that I actually put into it.”
While she was modeling, Bregengaard says she felt cool, and at times felt that corresponding to an aesthetic ideal seen as worthy of celebration was enough. This may be a second reason why models at fashion week accept to work for as little as no money at all: prestige. “I think the industry has learned how to exploit the status of what it means to be a model, labor-wise” Bregengaard says. “Even if you work for free, you are already rewarded because you are part of that exclusive production of luxury. You are part of the fiction that sells these products. You are already rewarded through that because that is what our society feeds off of.”
Korean-British model Mia Kang, one of the Hong Kong’s top names and now the worldwide face of Max Factor, told: “[If you move], your agency advances your flight ticket, three months of rent and three months of pocket money and you are thrown in a tiny apartment, sharing a bunk bed with another model”. This is the way most models start their careers abroad.
Despite the industry in Hong Kong being self-regulating, with no equivalent of the Model Alliance, which stands up for the rights of models in the United States, the city is by and large a safe place to work. Globally, however, the lack of financial transparency in the industry means models are sometimes deceived by agencies and bookers who take a large cut of their fees. One agency she had contact with, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, sent “girls to men’s parties as paid ‘jobs’”, says the model, who is from Eastern Europe and moved to Hong Kong several years ago for work. Having spent more than a decade in the industry, Kang hasn’t had to deal with such agencies, but says that they “can be extremely common in other parts of the world”.
While Hong Kong’s modelling agencies might not engage in the industry’s sleazier practices, that’s not to say models here have an easy time — most understand that their bodies are commoditised and must meet certain ideals. “Some agencies in Hong Kong measure their girls every Monday and, if their measurements increase slightly, they are denied pocket money [HK$500 to HK$1,000 a week],” says Kang. This leaves some unable to top up their octopus cards or eat properly. “It seems extreme but it’s written into contracts that if your measurements change your agency has the right to take action or even terminate your contract and send you home.”
Agencies in other cities enforce even stricter rules; in some cases staff move into models’ apartments, to implement curfews and monitor what the girls eat and how often they exercise. Even if a model signs with an agency that actively protects the well-being of its models, controlling every job, stylist and photographer would be impossible. The model has to be prepared to stand up for herself. “Unfortunately,” says Kang, “models from poor backgrounds or the very young often can’t read properly or understand their contracts, let alone get the fact that they have the right to negotiate.”
Kang remembers a casting in Milan, Italy, in which fellow models were instructed to take their tops off, and a Hong Kong photoshoot where she was asked to disrobe entirely to help achieve the photographer’s “artistic vision”. “I have even been to a casting in a hotel room with a couple of guys and a video camera. They asked if we [the models] could get changed right there,” she says. “Girls need to know they have every right to say no and walk away. Go to your agency and report them. If necessary report them to the police.”
Every signed “face” has a “mother agency” in their home country, to which she can turn in times of need. But just how helpful they are varies wildly. “Sometimes a girl just has to be strong enough to deal with her own problems as best she can,” says M, “because when models get in real trouble, some agencies will back off … they don’t want to get a bad name.”
Kang, who has worked extensively in many of the world’s fashion capitals, says, however, that there is one dangerous aspect of modelling unique to Hong Kong in its severity: the city’s night life. “It’s far worse here than anywhere else I have seen in the world,” she says. While a champagne lifestyle might seem part of the job, predatory, rich and powerful men who seek an ever rotating entourage of models can often lead young women down the path of exploitation and “unspoken agreements”: lavish gifts exchanged for arm candy and sex. “These naive models feel special — they are in a foreign country and feel they have made a friend who has resources to protect them and give them an amazing life outside of their overcrowded apartment and tiny bunk bed,” says Kang. “I know countless girls who arrived in Hong Kong fresh faced and ready to work [only to] leave with no money, an appetite for cocaine and probably a couple of STDs.”
“As a model, you’re meant to have a face and not an opinion,” says Yomi Abiola, a model and the founder of Stand Up for Fashion (STUFF). “Models who want to stand up and voice their opinion jeopardize their ability to work.” Yomi Abiola, a model turned journalist who was the first African British face of Maybelline, says that the industry was “empowering but disempowering at the same time”. The first because it allowed her to discover her beauty and finding acceptance through that, and the second because of being made to feel black, and therefore it turned out, simultaneously unaccepted or rejected.
When she moved to New York in her early 20s, having already signed campaigns with major clients, Abiola still struggled to find an agency to take her on. Agencies told her they already had one black model on their books, she says. Today, diversity still feels like a token gesture. At a Monique Lhuillier runway show, only two out of around 20 models were non-white. This is only marginally worse than fashion week over all, which counted eight out of 10 models on the catwalk as white — a figure that has barely changed over the last few seasons.
Veteran model Bethann Hardison, who has been an outspoken advocate for diversity, says she will stop short at calling designers “racist”, but insists the continual cases of individual choices selecting white bodies and faces over faces and bodies of color leads to a racist outcome. She says models are afraid to speak up themselves for fear of jeopardizing their careers even further. Part of the difficulty in confronting the lack of diversity in fashion is that in an unregulated industry models are often not treated like actual workers — rather embodiments of ideals of beauty. Discrimination as an issue is circumvented by designers and editorial stylists raising the argument of aesthetics and color palettes.
But black skin being “out” of fashion is something Abiola is tired of hearing. Partly to address this, Abiola now heads her own corporate social responsibility organization called Stand up for Fashion. “You hear, ‘Our customers don’t want this’, or ‘We are giving our readers what our readers want’. That’s what they say,” she recounts. Abiola thinks if the fashion industry wanted to shift some paradigms, it could easily do so.
It was the leading fashion event in one of the most racially diverse nations on Earth, a week-long celebration of Brazilian style, glamour and beauty. But the lack of indigenous and Afro-Brazilian faces on the catwalk at São Paulo fashion week has triggered protests and calls for a 20% quota of black models. “We cannot accept the world of fashion insisting on being a stronghold for the Eurocentric,” said Frei Davi Santos, the Brazilian race campaigner behind the protests. “São Paulo fashion week sells the image of a Swiss Brazil where everyone is white and blue-eyed. The organisers … forget that more than half of Brazil’s population is black.”
There is growing dissent over the tiny number of Afro-Brazilian models reaching the top of the country’s booming fashion industry. While models of European descent such as Gisele Bündchen have exploded on to the global fashion scene, few Afro-Brazilians get a similarly high level of exposure. An inquiry by São Paulo’s public prosecutor found that of the 1,128 models booked for fashion week that year just 28 were black. In the wake of the inquiry the event’s organisers agreed to a voluntary two-year quota of 10% for black models. But according to reports in the Brazilian press many fashion labels have ignored the quota at this year’s event.
An article by Vivian Whiteman, fashion editor of the Brazilian newspaper Folha de São Paulo, noted that bookers claimed they were not hiring more black models because “research showed their clients still reject the combination of black [models] and luxury clothing”. Bruno Soares, an Afro-Brazilian booker at the São Paulo event, told the newspaper the lack of catwalk diversity was the result of “cruel rules” imposed on models by the fashion market. “For historical reasons Brazil’s black population has been poor and not a consumer of fashion. This is reflected in the casting,” he said.
Niki Bruce, the Editor in Chief of www.herworldplus.com, wrote: “I was doing a story the other day on the recent haute couture fashion shows in Paris… I was looking for an Asian model. There were three luxury houses being featured in the story but only ONE of them had any Asian models.” “People like to see themselves being represented in their media. They are naturally more likely to identify with someone who looks like them, right?” “Which is why when I look at a lot of the magazines published in Singapore, and from around the region, I’m always surprised that there are so many white faces. What’s the point of showing a beauty colour trend on a blonde with blue eyes when it’s going to be worn by a girl with olive skin and black eyes? Likewise, what’s the point of shooting a luxury brand runway look on a 6 foot tall, white, blonde model when you’re trying to sell the trend to a woman who is 5 foot 2 inches tall, dark haired and petite? Why not, at least, shoot the look on an Asian model who, while probably 6 foot too, is at least fine-boned like many Asian girls, and with a similar skintone.”
Niki continues: “Likewise, I’m also aware that there’s a tendency to shoot ‘white’ Asian girls in Singapore (ie. Chinese / Korean / Japanese models with quite pale skin tones) … Which is why I’m so excited about Indian Singaporean teenager Diya P. She’s 6 foot tall, stunning, has amazing hair and skin and has shot for Vogue India … So, why do a lot of magazines in Singapore and the region only use white models? Part of it is historical … Previous many, if not most, of the high end luxe brands had ‘requirements’ about their clothes being seen on ‘certain types’ of people ie. they demanded white models to match whatever their marketing or branding campaign was about; and if a regional magazine wanted to be able to feature these sorts of clothes they had to kowtow to the brand requirements.” “There is also a continuing perception that having a white model on your cover makes your magazine look more ‘international’ and therefore more ‘modern’ or ‘luxe’. But that too is clearly an outdated concept these days when many of the actual international magazines are putting Asian models or celebrities, or women of colour on their covers.”
She also wrote: “Why did our Singapore and Southeast Asian magazines start ‘whitewashing’ their covers and spreads? When there are now top Asian models like Park Soojoo, Ji Hye Park, Liu Wen, Ming Xi, Sun Fei Fei, Sayo Akasaka, Jessie Setiono, Dara Warganegara, Sui He, Dinara Chetyrova, Jing Wen and Tao Okamoto (just to name some of the biggest Asian models in the game) there’s no excuse not to make the effort to find and help mentor young Asian models at home and from around the region.” “Singapore has Diya, Aimee, Grace and Nadia, young models just starting out. There are also a bunch of more experienced models like Sheila Sim as well as local celebrities who are perfect cover models to use. On top of that some of the Asian male models are awesome too.”
Priscilla Shunmugam, 34, is the founder of Singaporean womenswear label Ong Shunmugam, told about Singaporean fashion industry for Esquire magazine: “Singapore’s really good at packaging things. We’re very good at putting on a big overcoat that says we are the hub of this or that. We are bla bla bla. But when you take the overcoat off, there’s nothing underneath. We’re very good at organising fashion shows, but we have no fashion industry. We don’t have any of the basic requirements that you need to have a proper fashion industry. We produce fashion students every year, but they can’t sew to a decent standard. They don’t know their fashion industry well enough or their fashion history deep enough — some of them are just borderline ignorant.” “If you look at my case, it’s really one out of 10. If you look at 10 fashion designers in Singapore, you will know exactly what I mean. At the end of the day, entrepreneurship is very much tied to market forces. If you don’t have enough capital, or have that network of people who can open doors for you and make things happen, you won’t make it. I see that all the time, but I don’t think that it is insurmountable.”
Vanessa Geens’ slender 179cm tall frame is everything you expect from a bona fide European model and millions of girls around the world see her role as their dream job. But through her eight years of working as a fashion model in Dubai, Geens has seen her fair share of mishaps and horror stories in the modeling industry. “Dubai’s modeling scene is very different. Everybody thinks it’s a glamorous life and you always look pretty, but sometimes that’s not the case at all,” she says.
A typical day for a model working in Dubai can be as long as 11 hours, running from 10am to 9pm. A fashion show, for example, can have check-in scheduled for 10am, a first rehearsal at 12pm, hair and make-up at 2pm, a dress rehearsal at 5pm, with the show kicking off at 9pm. “Here, I feel like it’s really a waste of time sometimes. You’re just sitting around doing nothing. They don’t allow you to go anywhere and even forget to feed you sometimes,” says Geens.
This all changes dramatically during ‘fashion weeks’, when the schedules get tighter and the shows are back to back. “When fashion week was on, it was really tough because you get to do three to four fashion shows a day with each designer wanting something different,” she explains. “So for the first show you’d have your hair in a bun with a hundred pins and half a bottle of hair spray keeping it securely in place, but the next show’s designer would want this to change completely and for your hair to be slick straight. “You lose your hair, eyelashes, and walk out looking like a tropical fish. This is the kind of thing you have to go through. People think that because you are a model or because you do a fashion show you live glamorously and get something free at the end of the day, but they really have the wrong idea about it.”
But there is an upside to all this mayhem. According to Gosia Golda, managing director and founder of MMG Events, Dubai is filled with countless opportunities for models of all age height and size. “Although you get paid higher wages in Europe, models like coming here because they get more jobs and they start working right away. Overall, it is much easier here in Dubai and there is a growing market for it,” she states.
Golda first came to Dubai as a model and quickly realised that there was a big gap between the level of professionalism seen in Dubai compared to that seen in Europe. “When I came to Dubai I was modelling and studying… Compared to working in Europe at that time I was feeling that agencies that I dealt with, or even the clients, were not fully professional. “Sometimes it was because people were in the business just to make quick money without caring about the quality of service, and others it was not really their fault because they were never exposed to anything better.”
Although there doesn’t appear to be discrimination in the Middle East with regards to appearances, there is a significantly higher demand for brunettes with an olive complexion, and according to Golda, a rising demand for plus-size models. “Some models have a look that doesn’t necessarily work for this market, maybe it can work for Europe but not here. So they might accept a job for less money or the money is not their priority and they want to build their portfolio,” she says.
Models are placed into ranks, according to their height, face, experience and demeanour. They are classified into three categories: international and catwalk models, hostesses and finally promoters. Promoters get paid by the hour, sometimes as low as $22. But models refuse to do so, opting instead for either a full or half-day payment. An average daily wage for a model can be from $410- $685, but if she is really lucky, she can land a TV campaign for over $5,500 a day.
In May 2014 more than 60 foreign models have been arrested in China for working in the country illegally. Models from the US and Europe were caught working in the country on tourist visas after police in Beijing staged a fake casting at Chinese model agency M3. Four models have reportedly been jailed and 60 others remain in custody and will most likely face deportation. In addition, it has been reported that other models have been arrested in Guangzhou and have disclosed models’ residences to police.
China has become a hot destination for young women pursuing a modelling career, as it has emerged at the forefront of the fashion conversation with major luxury labels such as Burberry, Dior Homme and Michael Kors, building their presence in the region. For a model to work legally in China an entertainment visa is required, which often takes at least two months to process and requires more effort from the applicant, hence agencies advising models to work illegally under tourist visas, which are far easier to obtain.
The insider essay on modeling in China opens with the American model, Meredith Hattam, sitting on a train from Chengdu to Beijing with a 16-year-old Ukrainian friend, Lana. The friend is eating a hard-boiled egg. Ms. Hattam makes it clear that eggs are all Lana will eat for the next 10 days because the modeling agency in Beijing that employs the two of them has cut Lana’s weekly allowance due to her weight. Lana had violated the strict measurement standards laid out in her three-month modeling contract.
It is not a glamorous scene, and it sets the stage for the rest of Ms. Hattam’s account of working for several months for an agency in Beijing owned by a former Ukrainian model. Ms. Hattam, who now lives in Brooklyn, was around 24 years old and had what she described as a “curvier than average frame” when she got a job with the agency, which, according to standard practice, had her work in China illegally on a tourist visa (the same in Singapore). Ms. Hattam wrote that this kind of job constituted “the dregs of the modeling world, the bottom rung of the high fashion ladder.” It means working a series of car shows, fake beauty pageants and pajama catalogs, and on occasion being asked to perform less savory duties.
Here is Ms. Hattam on one car show that she worked: for eight hours each day, we’ll lean invitingly on top of a $1.5 million Hummerlike tank wearing short-skirted army uniforms purchased from a party supply store. Our handlers request that we salute every hour, switching into evening gowns during intervals. For that job, the daily pay was 3,000 renmimbi, or about $500. Forty percent went to the agency and 10 percent to the scout, which is not unusual. “By the time we leave China, we’ll have earned nothing at all.”
In Beijing, Ms. Hattam lived in a cramped apartment with 12 other models, most of them under 18 and from countries in the former Soviet Union or Eastern Europe. Of the 13 roommates, there were nine girls and four boys. Most jobs lasted nine hours a day and required travel to Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Hangzhou, cities central to China’s fashion industry. Some jobs did not involve modeling work per se. One 26-year-old, college-educated European colleague was asked to act as a hostess, alone, on an overnight boat trip with older Chinese men. The woman declined and was fired from the agency. Ms. Hattam wrote: “Sex will always quietly surround those who make a career selling their image. But in China, it’s pervasive: model life, if one so chooses, becomes a hypersexual nightscape of drugs and promiscuity. Older male models frequently sleep with teenagers (whom they often live with), and at clubs prostitution is euphemistically referred to as “working the after-party.” One of Ms. Hattam’s friends, a Canadian model, was asked by the owner of a popular Beijing nightclub to work such a party. For 10,000 renminbi for one night, or more than $1,600, she would “entertain” a Chinese businessman. “After refusing,” Ms. Hattam wrote, “she returned home in tears.” “This feeling of helplessness is amplified in countries like China, where you’re lucky to find someone who speaks your language, much less someone to connect with. Personally, I experienced a months-long depression that eventually abated, but when talking with models, I found loneliness to be a commonality. Many models have committed suicide over the years. Ruslana Korshunova in 2008. Daul Kim in 2010. This year, a Brazilian model named Camila Bezerra jumped to her death in Guangzhou on New Years Day. She was 22 years old.”
Labour authorities of Thailand and the modelling association have vowed in December 2015 to jointly tackle the problem of foreign models working illegally in the country. More than half of the approximately 500 foreigners who visit the country annually to work as models do not have work permits. Cooperation from Thai modelling agencies will also be sought along with stricter law enforcement.
ML Puntarik Samiti, permanent secretary for the Labour Ministry, said the problem is a serious one as illegal foreign models come into the country on tourist visas and take modelling jobs earning big money. She said the models avoided paying taxes as they did not have work permits, while some cases potentially involved human trafficking and child labour as some models were under 18 years old. The industry in Thailand is growing and attracting models from various countries, largely from Brazil, Russia, Ukraine, Europe and the US.
An employer found to have hired illegal models, meanwhile, could be fined between 10,000 and 100,000 baht per model, said Mr Arak. “Thailand doesn’t reserve modeling jobs for only Thai nationals but it is important to ensure that all foreign models who want to come to work in this country comply with immigration and other related laws”.
Employment for foreign models under 18, aside from their work visas, must be approved by the Department of Labour Protection and Welfare within 15 days of their first day of employment. More importantly, he said, under Thai law, permission from the parents of underage models is required before they can be hired legally, and the parents must accompany them to ensure their safety and welfare.
Jessica arrived in Bangkok four years ago with empty pockets and no desire to return to the United Kingdom. Fresh from backpacking across Asia, she took a teaching job she despised just to stick around. That’s when one of her condo neighbors, a casting agent, suggested she try modeling on the side. “I never considered it before, but I didn’t have any money, and I didn’t have any friends,” Jessica said. “So it seemed like a good idea. I went to my first casting for a Japanese commercial.”
She didn’t get the job, but met a guy who invited her to one of Bangkok’s notorious “models nights” and her first dreamy taste of the expat “beautiful people” scene where skinny, statuesque eye-candy from Eastern Europe and South America bask in free stuff and can find themselves being groomed for prostitution. “I have to say they were sort of like better-looking backpackers,” she remembers. “They all had three-month tourist visas and just wanted to have fun and party,” said Jessica, who didn’t want her name used because she is still working in Bangkok.
Back when she was the new girl in Bangkok, she started going five nights a week, but not for the pleasant company. “A lot of time was spent talking about things like, ‘I want to go to Japan, but I need to lose weight,’” she recounted. Instead it was the ready supply of free food and booze — 10 drink tickets up front and free piles of king prawns and sashimi. There was a different bar or nightclub offering free goodies every night of the week, and this crowd loved to get wasted and blow lots of coke.
During that time, not much happened for Jessica’s professional modeling career. She got two jobs as a commercial extra. She wouldn’t have called herself a model, but hey — she had a “comp card” identifying her as such at bars and clubs. “What defines a real model anyway?” said Jessica, who was 21 at the time and had just graduated from university with honors. “I guess some worked, but maybe just once every three months.”
The model scene has long held a warm and fuzzy spot in Bangkok’s nightlife, and so-called “Models Nights” remain a staple of the free-wheeling nightlife scene everywhere from low-rent discos to high-end eateries. There are model nights almost every day of the week, and almost every upscale restaurant, bar or nightclub has advertised such parties, from Zuma and Limoncello to Maggie Choo’s. A decade after it was pioneered in Bangkok by Bed Supperclub, regular “models nights” can be found Tuesdays at Flix on RCA and Fridays at Circle on Soi Ruamrudee. That’s not to mention Fashion TV’s The Love F Bar in Mixx, which also offers 10 drinks and a free taxi for groups of three models on certain nights, and Koi is perhaps the most well-known model hangout.
So when you’ve got hungry, attractive young people billed as “models” and Hi-So men eager to associate with them, a sort of symbiotic relationship follows. “You have to expect that models are going to come and eat a lot and drink a lot,” said one promoter, who asked not to be named. “And you can’t cut them off, or they are going to leave. You can’t get customers with that … especially models who are friendly between themselves, but don’t let others into their own society.”
But there is one segment of regulars indispensable to this corner of Bangkok’s multifarious nightlife — businessmen with a lot of money to blow. “Back then, there was a Thai in his 40s or 50s who ran these dinners,” Jessica recalled. “He told me every week he hires four-to-10 girls for 2,000 or sometimes 3,000 baht to go to dinner with a group of businessmen. It was always fancy restaurants, like Long Table or one of the restaurants at Sofitel, and you order anything you want, eat, drink and all you have to do is hang out.”
The perks came quickly. “He told me he contacts everybody over Blackberry Messenger,” she said. “I didn’t have a Blackberry, so the next time I saw him, he showed up with one and gave it to me, so he could start contacting me.” She started getting messages once or twice a week and went a couple times for the free meals and pocket cash. It was innocent but “totally awkward” as far as the small-talking and fake-smiling went. The businessmen were usually middle-aged Thais — one group was American — dining with models between 18 and 21. She remembers one model at such a dinner being 16. “There were enough girls there that just thought, ‘Screw these guys, let’s just talk to each other,’ and they were nice enough and friendly,” Jessica said.
One model would be given the money at the start of the meal, and she would distribute it to the others at the end of the night. “You were to never ask about the money or acknowledge it was being given,” said Jessica, “but we all joked about it amongst ourselves.” The businessman organizing these exclusive parties would also write the girls occasionally and invite them out for bowling, massages or spa treatments.
“I sort of knew it was going to get sketchy eventually, but I told myself as soon as I feel uncomfortable, I will stop doing this,” she said. “I wouldn’t go on a trip with him and he would bug me and send me random messages all the time. It was never sexual, just annoying. I just stopped answering him because he was just like the needy boyfriend I did not want.”
She stopped going to everything completely when she started hearing unsavory stories from other models. Not just the usual stuff, but rumors of sexual and physical assaults occurring. All the events started getting harder to sit through, even for the free sashimi. “All of the Russians would just sit there, chain-smoke and look miserable and pick the fish off their sushi and scowl every now and then,” Jessica said. “And sometimes it would be quiet, then somebody would start yelling out of nowhere, ‘Let’s take shots!’” At the last event Jessica attended, she was talking to another girl when a non-model guest walked up and said, “You aren’t here to talk, you’re here to make out.”
That was four years ago, when Bangkok’s modeling industry was being overwhelmed by new arrivals. Then the lead spot in a car commercial could pay up to THB600,000. Now you’d be lucky to get the same gig for THB200,000. More common is finding work as an extra, which usually pays about THB3,000 ($100) for a 12-hour day. And even those jobs are getting harder to come by as the local market is more saturated with pretty faces than ever before. Girls as young as 16 are being sent from agencies around the world to try their luck at modeling in Asian cities like Bangkok, Beijing and Hong Kong. Bangkok has emerged as the favorite, as agencies are less exclusive, and the cost of living is much lower than elsewhere.
The younger girls are hustled to multiple castings daily, and if they are under 18, live in shared apartments and forced to abide by a strict curfew of 11 pm. Of course, some still find ways to break the rules. So while those who are serious about modeling would probably opt for China (or Europe and the United States for those who are able), the expat models in Bangkok usually arrive with little experience. They don’t need it for the lesser-paying jobs, but these days they are also competing with tourists and students have also caught onto modeling as a means of quick and easy cash.
The casting agent we talked to said she even knew of one agency running such sleazy transactions as part of their business. “They call models to hang out with rich people, invite them for dinner at Sirocco and buy them gifts to get them into bed,” she said. The domestic modeling industry is known for being somewhat more professional than the expat scene but is known for its own exploitations. “My girlfriend is a Thai actress and model,” Tom said. “She’s been offered a one-night boat trip for 500,000 baht,” he said. “There will always be people who want that in return.”