I never cared about modeling. As a model, you’re powerless. —Karen Gillan
Back in 2005, when I first considered moving to Indianapolis from Atlanta, I naturally wanted to make sure that I would be able to have sufficient income. I did a little digging and was able to make contact with four different modeling agencies here. Three were delightfully quick to say yes, they would be happy to utilize my services. The fourth, Helen Wells, wouldn’t commit but at least was open to discussion. I had similar phone calls with ad agencies with similar results. So, I put the majority of my belongings in a storage unit (which would later flood), packed the rest in the back of a rental car, and headed North feeling somewhat optimistic about the future.
Within two weeks I knew I was wrong in my assessment. One modeling agency packed up and moved the very next day after I met with them, taking all the models’ earnings with them. Another told me how much they paid for a model’s comp card session, but they only had one model due to a disagreement over pay. They were gone within 30 days of that conversation. The third was more difficult to pin down, never quite having time to schedule a meeting and when we did was suspiciously non-committal. By the end of the summer, a lawsuit had been brought against the agency for withholding models’ pay. The models won the suit, but the agency owner fled the state without paying anyone.
I don’t know how many times I’ve talked with aspiring models who just wanted to make a little extra money while in college. Modeling sounds like it would be an easy source of cash for anyone who is reasonably attractive. The common perspective is that all one has to do is show up. Someone does your hair and makeup, someone else provides your wardrobe, then you just stand in front of a camera and pose for a few minutes. Boom, instant easy cash. But that’s not the way modeling works at all. Not even close.
Modeling has always had its shell games and money rackets going all the way back to the 1940s when professional modeling began. The industry runs loose with absolutely no one overseeing it in any way. Some states have laws concerning how long models can work if they’re under 18, and a few European countries have some form of law designed to protect against eating disorders, but for the most part, modeling agencies do whatever they damn well please and models almost always end up feeling more like victims.
CNN Money recently started airing a five-part investigative series called Runway Injustice, taking a detailed look at the dark and dirty side of modeling. Only two parts have been released so far, but it is obvious from the title that the cable news outlet isn’t taking a positive view of the modeling industry. They’re looking at the con games, the slow-to-pay problem, and how many agencies make money charging models for expenses. One former model even goes on record as saying her agency charged her for the flowers they sent her on her birthday.
When one watches a fashion show and sees all the long-legged girls parading past in next season’s fashion, one might get the impression that these models are doing quite well for themselves, but the truth is quite different. While designers might pay the Hadid or Jenner offspring outrageous (and unjustified) amounts for showing up, most labels still pay less than $5,000 per model. I know, that still sounds like a lot, but from that travel, hotel, and food expenses are deducted, on top of the agency’s standard 20% commission and administrative fees. Many models walk away, after months of waiting, with less than $500. Some end up actually owing the agency money. Even Cara Delevigne, who has been at the very top of the game, doesn’t have anything nice to say about the industry and how it treats models.
Increasingly, the value of an agency, or “management company” as many like IMG prefer to be called now, is being called into question. More casting agents are looking at sources such as Instagram and other social media outlets, choosing models with exceptionally high numbers of followers, which virtually guarantees success for whatever ad campaign or runway show in which the model appears. Unrepresented, or independent, these models have difficulty keeping the work flowing. Most end up signing with an agency and find themselves right back in the same traps that more traditional models experience.
All this begs the question that, if modeling is such a horrible career, why would young people want to even consider doing such a thing? The answer is that not everything about modeling is horrible. For many, just the fun of being in front of the camera, getting to play dress-up with the wardrobe, the opportunity to travel (even if it’s on their own dime), and sometimes meeting really cool and famous people is sufficient. Some use modeling as a way to explore their alter ego, being in front of the camera what they cannot be in their private lives. Others use modeling as a means of escape from other horrible conditions. For many, just the chance that they might become part of the .05% who actually make a fantastic living is enough to risk everything.
I’m sure that, at the end of the CNN investigation, there will be someone advocating greater oversight of the industry and legislation to protect models from various forms of abuse and deceit. Don’t expect anything to actually happen, though. We’ve heard all these complaints before. Nothing I’ve seen in the CNN report so far is new or different from what I’ve seen and heard for 30 years. The sad fact is models are not an organized group, therefore they are not able to present a single or unified voice. They don’t have, and can’t afford, lobbyist speaking to legislators on their behalf. No one sticks up for them and, once the spotlight of the CNN story fades, everything will almost certainly continue on the way it has.
Modeling is fun, sometimes, but there are a lot of other times when it just plain sucks. If someone wants to do it for the fun and adventure, great. Go for it. Have fun every step of the way. Don’t expect to get rich, though, and watch your back at every turn. While being a model can present some incredible experiences, it’s not likely to leave you swimming in cash. In fact, you’ll be needing your own gas money. Always.