The ugly truth of fashion's model behaviourFashion Law Institute in The Guardian, February 13, 2012
"You get paid to look good, now shut up."
This is the kind of remark I often hear about my efforts to establish fair labor standards for models working in the American fashion industry. Modeling is a seemingly glamorous profession, and models are certainly not the people you picture when you think of bad working conditions. But wipe off the sheen and another reality emerges.
At 29, I have worked as a model for over half my life, and I'm the first to admit that I've been lucky in my career. I have worked with some of fashion's most talented, creative people as the face of some of the industry's most recognized brands. I enjoy modeling, a job that not only paid my bills, but also allowed me to put myself through school. I have no reason to speak negatively about an industry that has given me so much. And, yet, I can no longer stay silent about rampant abuses that I have experienced firsthand.
The modeling business today is unregulated and relies on a compliant labor force of children. Sexual abuse and systematic theft occur at the highest levels of the industry, and because models are considered to be "independent contractors", the rule of law in terms of workplace standards does not exist. Sadly, the notion that fashion is frivolous encourages a dismissive, misogynistic attitude toward the industry's young workers, and it is precisely this sentiment that allows the abuse of vulnerable young people to persist.
When I entered the business as a 14-year-old schoolgirl, I was routinely asked to do topless shoots and pose seductively. To this day, in an industry dominated by minors, there is no policy of informed consent for jobs involving full or partial nudity. A recent survey shows that 86.8% of models have been asked to pose nude at a casting or job without advance notice.
Sexual abuse is a pervasive problem. Consider just the last few years: in 2008, fashion designer Anand Jon was found guilty of rape and multiple counts assault on aspiring models, who ranged from 14 to 21 years old. Last year, models began to speak out in numbers against Terry Richardson, one of the industry's most powerful photographers, who has been accused of pressuring models to disrobe at castings and conducting shoots that involve what he claims are consensual sex acts performed on him by models. (Among Richardson's regular clients are H&M, Vogue, and GQ.)
What is worse, in an industry where the majority of models start their careers before age 16, most working unchaperoned and far from home, the incentive to say nothing in order to keep your job creates an unconscionable environment of coercion.
Lack of financial transparency is also a significant problem. Last year, three models brought a lawsuit against their New York agency Next for allegedly withholding $750,000 of their earnings. Like the plaintiffs, I also left Next after becoming increasingly wary of their opaque bookkeeping, and I was paid the outstanding earnings they owed me only after my lawyer threatened legal action. As a model, simply getting paid can be a major issue, and, of the models who achieve a coveted spot walking in New York fashion week, many, in fact, are never paid at all; instead, working for free or for clothes. Needless to say, a tank top doesn't pay the rent.
Our glossy industry often provokes superficial criticism of models' weight and body image, but the fact is that most models' clout in their workplace is as tiny as their size-zero frames. It is time to delve beneath the surface and consider models' concerns from a labor and public health standpoint. Photographs of models pervade our culture, and we cannot promote healthy images without taking steps to protect the faces of this business. This effort starts with giving the faces of this business a voice. Correcting these abuses starts with seeing models through a different lens: not as dehumanized images, but as human beings who deserve the same rights and protections as all workers.