Modeling agencies are less about what is fair and more about what is legal
The Short Version
Modeling agencies are less than a century old and almost from their inception have been the playground of charlatans, the greedy, and criminals. Unchecked, largely unregulated, and capable of making things up as they go, modeling agencies have victimized aspiring models for over sixty years. Yet, because so many people are anxious to find that super-elite spotlight for themselves, they continue to fall victim to con artists and shysters all over the world.
How This Mess Started
There haven’t always been modeling agencies. There haven’t always been professional models. When photographer Horst P. Horst chose a muse for his famous photo of a woman in a corset with her back to the camera (the Mainbocher Corset), he asked a young woman he had met at a cocktail party. She posed with no expectation that anything would come of it and didn’t even bother telling her husband until the photo was published in Vogue. The relationship between models, photographers, and magazines was much more casual, based on social contacts and friendships, void of contracts and irregular regarding any form of payment. That was 1939.
Eileen Ford and her husband Jerry started their now-famous modeling agency in 1946. No one is sure if they were the first to utilize the concept of models having a representative since there was no form of registration required for such businesses. They were, however, the first to make their agency famous and profitable because of the models they handled and the way in which they handled them. Starting the agency was difficult. Photographers and editors were accustomed to working with models directly and initially resented the concept that there would be a person between them and the model. Slowly, they progressed, insisted, and proved to editors and photographs that they could provide models that were reliable, attractive, and capable of posing without constant direction.
By the late 1950s, the concept had caught hold and copycats began to appear. Most of these copycats, however, were scams. Early on, people figured out they could take the money upfront for modeling services, not pay the models, and then skip town when models started complaining. There is no record that I can find of the first modeling agency fraud case, but by the early 1970s, women’s magazines were publishing articles warning against such scams and advising women to only work with reputable agencies.
One of the earliest and most challenging cases was a fake agency that set up in New York and other states as Wilhemenia Modeling. This confused a lot of models because the name looked and sounded like the same Wilhelmina Models founded in 1967 by Dutch model Wilhelmina Cooper with her husband Bruce. The fake agency was able to avoid trademark litigation because its name was one letter different. However, it was clear they were succeeding off the name and reputation of the larger agency. While the fake agency was eventually forced to closed in some states such as New York and New Jersey, they continued doing business on the sly until the founder died in 2006, never once successfully placing a model in a major magazine or advertisement.
To this day, false or deceptive modeling agencies flourish around the world, especially in states lacking representatives of major agencies such as Ford, Elite, and IMG. With few laws to stop them, even when an agency is convicted of misdeeds, the owners are typically fined and allowed to continue. At the worst, owners move to a different state and re-start under a different name.
Who Wants To Be A Supermodel?
Motivating young women to become models was difficult until the advent of the supermodel in the 1970s. Sure, there were extremely popular models before then. Using the same requirements as we would for a model today, Dorian Leigh and Lisa Fonssagrives, whose modeling careers spanned the 1940s and 50s, certainly deserve the title. It was until Gia Carangi’s meteoric rise and dramatic fall in the late 70s and early 80s, however, that young women began paying attention and wanting to achieve the same success. Janice Dickinson has always claimed she originated the term “supermodel,” but by then models such as Farrah Fawcett-Majors and Christie Brinkley were proving just how far successful models could take their career.
Then, in 1982, a newspaper photographer in De Kalb, Illinois noticed a cute girl detasseling corn and took a picture. Innocent enough, right? But the attention following the publication of that picture was unlike anything else that had happened before, or since. The clamor was so strong, from virtually every fashion editor and modeling agency in the US, that young Cindy Crawford left the farm and decided to “give this modeling thing a try, at least for the summer.” A superstar was born in that moment, as well as a fashion and beauty empire unlike any other.
On the waves of Crawford’s explosion from the corn fields of Iowa onto the pages of Vogue and Playboy (both multiple times), the dreams of young women desperately looking to get out of the Midwest and other rural locations were ignited. If Cindy Crawford could be discovered while shucking corn, certainly every other farm girl stood a chance as well. Suddenly, aspiring models were everywhere, looking for any means of getting “discovered” and making it to the big time.
Every con artist n the country saw the opportunity and most of them took it. Fake modeling agencies started popping up in places that had no demand for models. Opening a storefront with the words “model agency” on the door was too easy and aspiring models, unaware of how the industry works, were too willing to fork over thousands of dollars for a chance to become famous.
More than 30 years later, almost nothing has changed.
What Makes A Good Agency?
Pay attention, children, because here’s where things get painfully real:
Model agencies are in the business of elitism.
There’s a reason we warn aspiring models that the chances of them “making it” are roughly one in a million (actually, the real ratio is more like one in 678,000 but who wants to split those hairs?). What sets successful models apart from every other young woman and man is that they are uncharacteristically unique both in terms of their appearance and their attitude. Only the very best, the most beautiful, the most unique, the most attractive bodies, have any hope of reaching the pinnacle of modeling.
We must remember, first and foremost, that modeling agencies, nor their clients, give one damn about a model’s self-esteem. They are not there to help anyone “grow as a person.” They aren’t in the business of helping models achieve their goals. They don’t care. They never have.
What matters is whether a model can, simply through her physical appearance and personality, sell a product. That product might be fashion, or automobiles, or cookies, or makeup, but there is always a product even if that product is an idea or concept of what beauty looks like.
Consider model Karlie Kloss, another Midwestern Girl who has made it big. Why is she so successful when her younger sisters are not? Try and sugar coat it all you want, the real answer is that Karlie is elite. She’s uniquely different even apart from her own sisters.
The primary job of a model agency is to find those elite people and introduce them to creative directors, art directors, editors, and others who need elite people to sell products. Nothing else matters. If a model agency does not have the ability to deliver those unique persons then there is no reason for artistic decision makers to pay any attention to them. None. A model agency that delivers a “normal” kind of beauty is just in the way. We can go to the local coffee shop, hang out for a few minutes, and find a “normal” level of beauty. Model agencies must be beyond picky or else they won’t survive.
No, it’s not “fair.” Yes, everyone is beautiful, in their own way. What’s fair doesn’t sell that $2,500 Dior dress, though. Not everyone can make a vacuum cleaner desirable just by standing next to it. So no, modeling is never going to be “fair.” Accept that now or there’s no point in continuing.
Here’s the thing: for all the rhetoric about models needing to be more “real,” the greater majority of consumers, by more than 70 percent, respond more favorably to ads and commercials that focus on more attractive people. This is just part of the way the human mind works. We see attractive people wearing certain clothes, driving certain cars, participating in certain activities, and we want to be like them. They look happy. They look successful. We want to be happy and successful. Advertising and marketing executives have tried different approaches and some have had limited success, but to achieve mass brand recognition and increased sales, the campaign has to center around exceptionally attractive people.
Argue all you want about how that’s not “right” or “fair.” Until human nature changes, this is going to be the reality.
This makes the job of a model agency challenging. Exactly what gives one that perfect look is constantly changing with society. Height, weight, hair color, eye color, freckles, no freckles, dimples, no dimples, all those factors affect what clients need from in a model and they look to model agencies to sift through the masses of faces, hundreds of thousands of faces, to find the one that is exceptional.
So, what is a legitimate model agency going to do?
- Keep it real. They’re not going to blow smoke up your ass and tell you something just to make you feel good. If you don’t have the look they want, they’ll dismiss you immediately. They won’t’ offer you classes or workshops or makeovers. They’ll tell you good-bye and often that goodbye will come while you’re still standing in line. They don’t’ have time for anyone who doesn’t stand a chance.
- Control your life. A legitimate agency is making an investment in a new model. To make sure that investment produces a return, they will ask models to lose weight, work out, maintain a specific diet, and in some cases, they’ll even tell a model when to sleep. Be ready for it and don’t complain. They’re making sure your appearance meets client expectations.
- Make sure you know what you’re doing. If I’m doing a casual shoot for my own portfolio, I don’t mind taking the time to work with a new model. We’ll try a number of different things and see what works best. However, if I’m on a commercial set where the clock is ticking on everything, the last thing I want is a rookie who doesn’t have a clue what to do. So, the agency is going to send you out on shoots where you work for free, or at least in exchange for photos. How long a model does this depends on how quickly they learn. Models who don’t show progress after several shoots are typically dismissed.
- Require reimbursement for some costs. These should be spelled out in the model’s contract with the agency. They typically include things such as housing, meals, and some travel expenses. While legitimate agencies do frequently cover a lot of up-front costs, they do so to make sure models have what they need to make money for them, not out of the goodness of their hearts. This is an investment. If they don’t quickly start seeing a return on that investment, they start asking models to reimburse those expenses. This frequently means that models may see only a small portion of pay owed them. However, any deductions for expenses should be itemized.
- Send you places. Agencies cannot promise models specific jobs. Run from anyone who does. Clients chose which models they want and often that means clients conduct large-scale casting sessions often referred to as “cattle calls.” These castings, whether open or closed, are almost never pleasant. Casting directors really do not care about model comfort. So, the hours may be long, some models may be given preference before others, stepping out of line loses your place, and bathroom breaks are often nonexistent. Models stand for hours in often deplorable conditions (severe heat or cold is almost a given) and at the end of the day the casting director may choose someone who wasn’t even present. Model agencies don’t control this. Models who want the work endure. Those who don’t endure, quit.
- Market you according to your ability and success. Not all models are created equal. With every model an agency signs, they’re taking a risk as to whether they have any actual commercial appeal. Some do, most don’t. While everyone starts, more or less, on a level playing field, the more success a model has the more marketing effort an agency is going to put into that model. A model with proven experience is more likely to be chosen over one with nothing significant in their history. Agencies don’t put money and effort behind someone who doesn’t generate income.
- Prohibit models from securing their own work. Reputations mean a lot in the modeling industry and making sure models don’t make “an honest mistake” is part of a model manager’s job. Specifically, agencies want to avoid models doing work that either presents a negative image or creates a conflict of interest with a client. If a model has just finished an ad campaign for a specific beverage company, for example, it would likely be a breach of contract for the model to then appear in a campaign for a competing beverage company. All work goes through the agency to prevent problems like this from occurring.
Nope, it’s not a pretty picture. Only the very elite get the really glamorous jobs. Everyone else sleeps four or six to a room in the cheapest hotels, travels coach, survives on water and energy bars, and is obsessive about their skin lest wrinkles and worry lines start to creep onto their face. Models typically pay for their own manicures and pedicures (which are expected to be perfectly maintained), their own clothes (which are expected to be stylish), and their own health care (which is expected to be unobtrusive).
What should a model not expect from an agency? That list could go on forever, but here are some of the most common tactics used by less-than-legitimate model agencies.
- Charging fees upfront. Nope. Doesn’t happen. DO NOT fall for the line, “That used to be the way it was, but modeling is different now.” Bullshit. I double-checked with major agencies this week and this aspect has not changed. Reimbursement arrangements have become more frequent and more severe. Agencies are not likely to wait as long before requiring reimbursement of housing, travel, and food expenses. However, NO legitimate agency charges a fee up front.
- Charging for comp cards or portfolio shoots. Agency-branded comp cards are a business expense for the agency and be very sure that the agency wants a model to have the best portfolio possible. Models can’t go on casting calls or look-sees without both, which means the agency can’t make money if a model doesn’t have them. Legitimate agencies cover these expenses.
- Ask models to do anything illegal This especially comes into play with models who are under the age of 18. Legitimate agencies don’t ask underage models to pose nude or with older models who are nude, in situations that involve explicit or implied drug use, drink alcohol, or engage in any kind of overtly sexual acts. Such requests are illegal and, should they occur, should be reported immediately to law enforcement. Note: such prohibitions are limited to under-age models. Nudity, especially for fashion magazines, is extremely common among models over the age of 18 and implied alcohol use is common for models over the age of 21.
- Requiring classes for which the model pays. Modeling is not a group activity. Not all models learn at the same rate, adjust to the industry in the same way. Model managers give models advice because that is in the best interest of the agency. If a model is struggling in a specific area, such as runway walking, the model’s manager will deliver the appropriate amount of instruction. If the model is unable to learn from that instruction, they are typically let go. Paying for classes is a scam.
- Demanding models pay for “image reviews” or other evaluations. This one just amazes me because aspiring models pay these fees just to get someone to look at them. No. Never. That is not the way legitimate model agencies operate and models should run as quickly as possible from anyone that tries this scam. Get out. Get away. These are not nice people.
You’re going to love this part: very little of what a fake agency does is actually illegal! While their actions may not be in line with industry standards and norms, there is no law that says model agencies can’t charge upfront fees. Charging models for comp cards, photos, and classes is not illegal! This is why fake agencies abound in such great number. The question for them is never about what is right or wrong but what is legal and as long as they don’t step over the legal limits they can, and do, get away with just about anything.
Models Have Options
No model has to put up with the nonsense of fake agencies. Understand, though, that given the lack of oversight and regulation, criminal and/or civil charges are difficult to file and the model holds the burden of proof in demonstrating that anything illegal has been done. Models have to do a lot of work themselves to prevent agencies from taking advantage of them.
- Read any contracts before signing. Look for any hidden fees or costs. Reimbursements are normal. Upfront charges are not.
- Keep your own records. Models should maintain a complete list of every assignment, paid or unpaid, including location, client, photographer, and if paid, how much that pay should be. DO NOT expect the agency to maintain those records for you.
- Keep all pay stubs. Any deductions for reimbursements should be itemized. If those are not provided, ask your agency manager. If the management refuses, consult an attorney.
- Have an emergency non-agency contact available. I’ve seen models get stranded in extremely troubling situations where the agency either couldn’t or wouldn’t help. This especially applies to any foreign assignment. Always have access to a non-agency contact in case of a problem.
- Don’t be afraid to contact police. While laws regarding fraud differ from state to state, if a model believes they are victims of fraud or any other crime they should contact police or the district attorney immediately. DO NOT PUT COMPLAINTS ON SOCIAL MEDIA as this can jeopardize any legitimate charge against a fake agency. Contact law enforcement, show them your records, and then let them do their work.
Who To Trust
Modeling is a supreme case of caveat emptor. While there are legitimate agencies in sufficient abundance to handle the demand, even agencies with strong reputations sometimes get into trouble. Over the past two years, we’ve seen agencies such as IMG, Next, and Elite run into problems with charges of price fixing in an attempt to secure higher rates for their models. To say that all offices are 100% trustworthy at all times would be foolish.
Personally, I am of the opinion that there is no model agency in the state of Indiana with whom I am secure enough in their methods of operation to risk doing business at this juncture. While we have done business with some in the past, recent allegations give us sufficient reason to distance ourselves from these agencies and the individuals behind them until such time they can demonstrate themselves to be in line with the standards and practices we expect.
For any aspiring model who is thoroughly convinced that they have that exceptional look and personality to succeed in modeling, we recommend one of the following agencies:
- Ford Models. If you really think you have a strong look and personality, you can either schedule a visit with one of their regional offices (Chicago is the closest for Midwest models) or submit an application online. Don’t expect them to be friendly, especially if showing up to their office in person. Even the receptionist is trained in what to look for. You can be turned away at the front desk.
- Next. Next is newer and doesn’t have the name recognition that others have, but I’ve seen what they did with Karlie Kloss when she started out, as well as Arizona Muse and Suki Waterhouse. They have an uncanny ability to spot truly unique people. You’ll want to start by applying here.
- New York Model Management. This is another younger agency but its processes are very similar to Fords with a fresher perspective. They’ve seen a lot of success and are getting more attention from casting directors. Women need to be 24 or younger, men cap out at 30. Click here for the application.
- Women Management. These are the people who brought us Cara Delevigne and Jourdan Dunn. They tend to buck the trend for what is considered attractive and aren’t as likely to shove you out the door immediately if you have some ink. Don’t think for a moment, though, that they’re not picky as hell. They don’t have an online form, either. You’ll have to use this thing called email. firstname.lastname@example.org
- Elite Model Management. Some of my favorite models ever have come from Elite, but be extremely certain that they live up to their name. Picky doesn’t even begin to describe their process and they will kick your ass to the curb if you don’t play strictly by their rules. Women need to be between the ages of 14-19 years old and between 5′ 7″ and 6′ tall for starters. If you’re older than that or even half an inch too short, don’t bother. You’ll need a truck-load of self-confidence to succeed here. If you think you’ve got it, you can start the process here.
Let me re-emphasize that it is a model agencies job to pick only the most exceptional and most attractive people they can find. Yes, it’s a subjective decision which is why there is more than one agency. Don’t take it too personally, though, if you file an application or go see an agency and get absolutely nowhere. While strong self-esteem and self-confidence are major requirements for modeling, they won’t get you past the front door if you don’t have a look the agency can sell. That doesn’t mean you’re not a good person, or that you’re not pretty. You’re just not what they are looking for.
Professional modeling is a minefield and there are literally thousands of people looking to trip up models and take advantage of them at every turn and on every level. Anyone who is not smart enough to look out for themselves and take care of their own record-keeping and self-interests would do well to consider a different line of work. The dangers are real and yes, people have died.
I take such a hard view because I don’t like seeing the continual chain of scam victims. Bad agencies and burned models make my job infinitely more difficult.
Play your cards carefully and safely. This is where modeling gets real. Accept it or get out.