What It’s Truly Like to Be a Fashion Model

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For decades, modeling was a silent profession, where women were supposed to be seen and never heard.

But in February, just as Paris Fashion Week began, a group of high-profile models — Jourdan Dunn, Edie Campbell, Leomie Anderson, Candice Swanepoel and Joan Smalls — voiced their support for James Scully, a casting director, who had taken to Instagram to condemn two colleagues, Maida Gregori Boina and Rami Fernandes, for keeping models in an unlit stairwell for several hours.

“Thank you James, speak that TRUTH!!!” Ms. Dunn wrote.

A month later, models.com published results from a survey in which more than two dozen models discussed unprofessional working conditions, nonpayment and abuse in the industry. And in May an Instagram post by the model Ulrikke Hayer in which she accused a casting director for a Louis Vuitton cruise show of telling her to consume nothing but water for 24 hours, went viral. (The day after the water edict, she was informed that she would not walk in the show.)

“Now models have social media platforms, so even if they’re not incredibly well known, they can still have a relatively big following and articulate their views in a way they weren’t able to do before,” said Francesca Granata, director of the master’s program in fashion studies at Parsons.

Indeed, social media platforms have become part of their selling power, often included on their measurement cards. Many use these tools to express their belief that for all of its seeming glamour, the modeling industry remains overrun with problems that include labor exploitation, sexual harassment and body shaming.

Below, women in different stages of their careers sound off on their experiences.

Precious Lee, 28, Atlanta

I became a model about 10 years ago when I attended an open call with a friend. I modeled throughout college, and after I graduated I moved to New York three days later. My first agent here changed my name from Precious to Victoria. I was Victoria Lee for three years.

I’ve encountered some really interesting issues as pertains to my race. I had a casting for a client that was waiting to see me for a while. They asked me my background and I said, “Oh, I’ve shot for Macy’s and Nordstrom’s.” And they were like, “No. What’s your race?” I said, “I’m black.” They’re like, “Oh, you’re black? You’re just so pretty.’” And I said, “I didn’t know black didn’t come in pretty.” Needless to say I didn’t book that job.

We don’t see enough black models, and we definitely don’t see enough black plus-size models. I am definitely more than likely always the only black model on set. Sometimes I’m the only black person on the entire set or on the entire floor.

People aren’t seeing different types of beauty because the publications, the designers, the people that are actually in the power to make it happen, aren’t making it happen. Fashion was always supposed to be the next new thing, the next trend. What’s more out of the box and progressive then having a size 14 or a size 16 woman on a cover of a magazine when there’s been a million straight-size women that have been on it?

Ebonee Davis, 24, Seattle

I started modeling in my hometown, Seattle. I wanted to take my career to the next level, so I dropped out of college and moved to New York at 19. A lot of the agencies that I went to either told me they had someone who looked like me or there wasn’t room on their board for me, or they just didn’t get my look.

When I decided to wear my hair natural, at first my agency was totally against it. They told me that just-rolled-out-of-bed look isn’t going to work. And it wasn’t just-rolled-out-of-bed. It takes a lot of work.

They told me I was going to lose the clients that I had and new clients wouldn’t want to work with me. But the crazy thing is that less than a month after the decision to wear my hair natural, I booked the biggest campaign of my life: Calvin Klein.

Being a role model isn’t about showing people how to look like you. Being a role model is about using your freedom to show other people it’s safe to be themselves.

Silence is violence. Models who decide not to speak up are participating in that same system of oppression that’s harming other people, and just because it doesn’t affect you directly, or you benefit from the privileges of it, doesn’t mean that you get a pass and that you should remain silent on those issues.

Stella Duval, 20, Laguna Beach, Calif.

My mother was a model, and she never forced anything upon me, but she was taking me to castings in Los Angeles when I was younger. Agents wanted my hips to go down, they were saying I can’t even have a bag of chips, they wanted me on a 700-calorie diet. I remember going into an agency and they said, “You’re beautiful, but you’re a little pudgy here. You got a little hip here.”

I was only 14 and being called fat, so I ended up quitting and went to college. I got signed with Muse agency, and this is the first year I’ve been modeling.

I think 13 is way too young and 14 is way too young and 15 is way too young. You’re just not developed and you’re not ready. I see models who are 13, 14, 15. I’ve had someone tell me that she hadn’t eaten for two days because she didn’t know where to go to eat. I saw girls doing lingerie at 14.

Kelly Mittendorf, 23, Phoenix

I was 11 when I was first scouted. I was at a pool with my family. I signed with an agency in Arizona, and I started working full time on the circuit when I was 16 and I booked a Prada campaign as my first job.

I look back on things that happened when I was 16 or 17 years old that make me cringe. When I was 16, I showed up on set wearing a camp T-shirt, athletic shorts and Toms, and it was S-and-M-inspired. It was this table of whips and cuffs and various balls for various activities. I hadn’t kissed a boy.

They put me in these shoes that were your typical dominatrix-inspired pointy-toed stilettos. They were so tall, and I didn’t have enough experience in heels and I couldn’t stand in them. I would get in the shoes and then get dressed by the wardrobe, and then I would have to, like, cinch my elbows on my side and this hairdresser would pick me up in my outfit by my elbows and then put me where my mark was.

I never made good money as a model. I went into debt with every single one of my agencies at one point or another. An agency has for each girl an account, and if they need to have the girl come from Arizona to New York in order to build her portfolio, the agency will front the expenses for her plane ticket, for paying the photographers, for printing the photos, for the physical portfolio itself, for the comp cards that need to be developed, for the retouching, for new clothes to go on castings with, for a model apartment for her to stay in.

However, as an independent contractor, the model is ultimately responsible as they’re not a direct employee of the agency. I was well into the five figures of debt. I was lucky to kind of be able to climb out of that. It took years.

I retired from the industry two years ago. You get sick of people touching you. I wanted to feel a little bit more in control of my life. I didn’t want to keep waiting to get a schedule that told me what I was going to do the next day, the night before. I wanted to be able to have a dog, I wanted to be able to get a degree. I wanted to be able to not feel spread thin and anxious and like I was constantly waiting on something else.

Renee Peters, 28, Nashville

The first time I decided I could be a model was when I was 14. I was actually scouted at a mall in Nashville, and my parents immediately said, “No, you’re not modeling. You’re too young. You’re going to stay in school.”

All of high school that was all I could think about. I started modeling locally in Nashville as soon as I was done with high school. I started modeling professionally in New York when I was 21.

The girls at castings that were getting selected were all very, very skinny. And so I put a lot of pressure on myself to be that girl because I wanted to succeed. And I developed anorexia and bulimia. That lasted five or six years, and it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that I realized that I had a problem.

I think that there are definitely times when agencies ask their girls to lose weight, and that is a problem. But I think a lot of it is just inherent to the industry because sample sizes are so small, and because the thinner you are, the more celebrated you are.

Every day that you’re working as a model, you’re objectified somehow. You know, if it’s just a simple term of you being a “mannequin” or a “model,” like you’re not actually a person and you’re just a vehicle for the clothing or the makeup or the hair. And then sometimes it’s even like sexual harassment. I had one guy who wanted my nipples to look hard for the shoot. He literally just grabbed my nipple and was like, “See, we need it to be hard.”

Jillian Mercado, 30, New York

I was always filming somebody else or taking photos of somebody else until I got the opportunity to be in front of the camera through a Diesel campaign. I want to say I started officially four years ago.

I was one of about 300 students in my high school who had a visible disability. And it took a toll on who I am. And it took a toll on me growing up. I didn’t see anyone who had a visible disability in the mainstream media or in the entertainment world, for that matter. And it was something that was really bothering me. There’s not a lot of me out there. I have taken this role to open up the conversation of diversity and inclusion.

My disability is very, very visible. And people sometimes see that before they see me. Those same facial expressions that I get from just taking the subway every morning, at a photo shoot it’s no different. It’s the same facial expressions.

I would rather people ask me questions about something that they’re uncomfortable with that I can answer because I’m living in it, rather than assume things and make it 100 times more awkward.

Shivani Persad, 27, San Juan, Trinidad and Tobago

People always asked me to model when I was younger, but I’m Caribbean. I guess in a brown family it’s not really a real job, so my parents were always like, “Yeah, ha ha. She’ll never really do that.” I never took it seriously until I went to “Canadian Idol” with my dance team. One of the judges there told me I should consider modeling.

I have found that I’m normally the one nonwhite person on set. The other day I was in a casting line for a makeup brand and I thought, “Wow, I’m the only brown person here and there are 20 white models in front of me.” That’s common.

I’ve had photographers say to me: “You’re so beautiful because you have such dark skin but you have such Caucasian features.” What is that supposed to mean? I’m only attractive because I have Eurocentric features? I’ve had people say to me: “You’re lucky because you kind of fit in between this white and black skin color.” So for a hair campaign or something, for example, they’ll check their diversity quota by booking you. But they won’t have to deal with a black girl’s hair.

It’s never been: “Shivani, you need to lose, like, 20 pounds.” It’s always been this struggle of five to seven pounds in this one little area. It’s so hard to maintain that and you can so easily fall off of that. I’ve had instances where my agency has asked me to take down pictures from Instagram because they don’t think it represents my best look.

It’s one thing when they ask you to change your body and you don’t feel good about your body. But when you feel good about your body and then someone tells you that you shouldn’t, it’s a whole different story.

Julia Geier, 32, Middletown, N.J.

I got into modeling when I was about 20 or 21. I was doing makeup as a makeup artist for a photographer, and he suggested we do a photo shoot. I felt a little shy first, but I did it. He told me how to mail them into agencies in New York City. I really quickly got picked up by a small boutique agency.

I had a client that I was their clothing model for all of their fittings for global production. I was at their headquarters four days a week at least, for multiple hours a day. And they didn’t want me to go to the bathroom. They complained if I had a snack. They would talk about my body in front of me: “Julia’s very wide and her hips are very big. Everyone keep that in mind.” Because I’m a model people feel at liberty to comment on my body. But there’s a fine line. Yes, that’s my job. But at the same time I have feelings.

Playing on women’s insecurities has become so extremely pervasive in our society and it’s so damaging and so unhealthy for the models, of course, but also for the women — especially for the women that see the images of the models because they don’t know how much time we spend trying to look good. And then also they don’t understand the process.

We’ve spent the last five years perfecting our bodies and our skin and our hair color, and we have a team of makeup artists, and we have a team of hairstylists, and we have a team of wardrobe stylists. Then we have a professional photographer. And then all the photos get edited and Photoshopped. So the end result is the farthest thing from like a realistic photo that you can ever imagine. Women are seeing these images that literally are not real.

Paloma Elsesser, 25, Los Angeles

I was about 22. There was some preceding work that would happen, but I feel like I fully surrendered to the game three years ago. I had seen images of Crystal Renn and Sophie Dahl growing up, but I didn’t really know about the plus-size fashion industry or how lucrative it was or like that it was changing or that I was even invited.

When I started Instagram, I kind of just did what I like to do or to show the things I like, whether it be sneakers or weird flowers, have the little drops of myself and my style kind of fluidly throughout. That was really helpful in starting and carving out my own place.

There’s the worst things every single day. It’s these tiny microaggressions — “Oh, you’re a real girl.” I’m like, “Yeah, but I’m also a model.” Sometimes it’s just people blaming, saying, “Nothing fits.” As if I just don’t exist. Some days everything fits and I love what I’m wearing, and I feel that I’m on an even playing field with a straight-size model.

It’s really hard not to fall into that trap of insecurity when you’re a model. Beforehand I never looked at myself in a huge monitor with 30 people around it every day. I have to remind myself when I’m on a job and I’m feeling a lull in attitude or confidence or whatever, I’m there for a reason. I have to constantly remind myself of these almost corny Pinterest mantras, like “You are worthy.”

Grace Mahary, 28, Edmonton, Canada

I started in the fashion industry about a decade ago. I definitely didn’t want to start. I was playing basketball and going to school. But one agent made me an offer and said, “If you move to Toronto and pursue this career, I guarantee you can continue going to school and playing basketball,” and that’s what sold me. I was 16.

One of my first test shoots in New York, we drove out to the Hamptons and nobody told me that it was going to be topless. I shot topless on the beach in the poses the photographer was asking me to do, and I have never felt so uncomfortable in my life.

I’ve had pressure to change my look. I can recall comments about my skin or comments about my size or comments about my hair. The hair thing used to come up so much. It was insane: “Why don’t you just relax your hair or why don’t you just perm it straight?” And I just said, “No, I have curly hair. I love it.”

Ashley B. Chew, 26, Chicago

I started modeling in college. I was going to school for costume design, and photography students would ask me to be in their portfolios or I would join fashion clubs so I could walk in the runway shows.

Modeling is still a gamble. You can go on 20 castings and get all 20 jobs, or you could go to 20 castings and leave with zero. So it’s never fun, especially when you’re looking around at these girls that are taller, that spent more money on their books or on their new face, or they just look really weird and for a minute you do kind of question yourself.

I actually started a movement called Black Models Matter, which pushes diversity in the industry. There are casting directors who won’t want black models and literally write, “Don’t send models of color” or “We already have a black girl.” I noticed I would go into rooms and I would be like the most exotic thing in there, I would be the darkest thing in there, which was just crazy to me because we live in such a diverse city and you see all types of everything.

Diandra Forrest, 28, Bronx

I became a model about 10 years ago. I was scouted by a photographer named Shameer Khan. I was walking on a street shopping, and he just approached me and told me I had a great look and asked me if I ever considered modeling. Fast-forward a month after we did some photo shoots and he brought me into a top modeling agency, and I got signed on the spot.

When I first started modeling, there was only about one spot for a black girl in a fashion week show. And now there are about two spots in a show for black girls out of maybe 50. Some shows don’t even use black girls at all. I feel like they didn’t even see black girls at the castings. Especially when I was in Paris, I would speak to other models and I would have about 13 castings or 20 castings and the white girl would have like almost 40.

Sometimes agencies are charging you for every little thing, and they’re charging you an arm and a leg for it too. Especially when you’re traveling abroad, they’re ordering you fancy cars and drivers. That’s coming out of your pay at the end of the day.

I’ve walked for a designer in February and didn’t see the check until next September or even the next February when they’re having another show. So sometimes the payments are just not there or really delayed. Sometimes designers don’t pay at all.

The Issues

UNDERAGE MODELS: Some states offer protections for child models, and New York extended the protections given to child entertainers to underage models only in 2013, which was accomplished in large part through the activism of the Model Alliance, a labor advocacy organization founded by Sara Ziff.

Federally, a law similar to New York’s, which would establish limits on working hours, salary requirements and a course of action in cases of sexual harassment, was introduced in Congress in 2015 but has not made much headway. Representative Grace Meng, Democrat of New York, who brought it to Congress, plans to reintroduce it in the next session.

Since 2007, The Council of Fashion Designers of America has asked casting directors and designers not to hire models under the age of 16 for runway shows. It’s hard to know how many are complying with this recommendation, but Steven Kolb, the president and chief executive of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, said: “It really did change. Every season there would be one or two designers that fell through the cracks. Often it wasn’t intentional.”

The British Fashion Council banned the practice.

RACIAL DIVERSITY: Only 27.9 percent of the models who walked the spring 2017 runways were nonwhite, according to a report from The Fashion Spot. In an assessment of the fall 2017 ad campaigns, The Fashion Spot found that 30.4 percent of the models were nonwhite, and of the seven models who booked the most campaigns, just one was of a minority background.

BODY DIVERSITY: Plus-size models appeared in 2.2 percent of the castings for fall 2017 campaigns, and they made up less than 1 percent of the total in the fall 2017 runway shows, according to The Fashion Spot.

HEALTH: This year, a measure in France that requires models to provide a medical certificate confirming that they are healthy and not excessively underweight went into effect. In a study conducted by the Model Alliance in conjunction with researchers from Harvard University and Northeastern University that was published in the International Journal of Eating Disorders, 81 percent of the models surveyed reported a body mass index of less than 18.5, which is considered underweight by the World Health Organization.

PAY: A model working in New York earned, on average, $48,130 in 2016, while one working elsewhere in the United States earned $36,560, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Models are often offered payment in the form of clothes.

SEXUAL HARASSMENT: Because models are considered independent contractors, they lack many of the protections reserved for full-time employees. The industry’s demographic — young, often female, sometimes foreign and non-English-speaking — makes models particularly vulnerable to exploitation. In 2012, a Model Alliance study found that 29.7 percent of female models had experienced inappropriate touching at work, and 28 percent had been pressured to have sex at work.

Elizabeth Cooper, an associate professor of law at Fordham University and the director of the Feerick Center for Social Justice, said that full-time employees who have experienced sexual harassment have a chain of reporting they can follow, and if the company they work for does not pursue some sort of action, they can sue the company itself.

Independent contractors have no such rights. “The only thing you can do is complain to the agency, but because of the fierce competition, if you become a ‘problem’ person, you’re more likely to not be hired and sent out on new jobs,” Ms. Cooper said. “It’s like fighting with one or both hands tied behind your back.”

Related Coverage

  1. Claims of Model Abuse and Racist Casting Roil Fashion Week Mar 5, 2017
  2. On the Runway: Protecting Underage Models Becomes a Federal Issue Nov 2, 2015
  3. Reworking Labor: A New Alliance Steps Up to Protect a New Generation of Models Dec 23, 2013
  4. Models Are Raising Their Voices, and Their Profiles, Online Aug 10, 2015
  5. The Curious Case of the Fainting Models Jul 12, 2016
  6. On the Runway: A New Age in French — Modeling May 8, 2017
  7. Photographs: Fashion Week: The Runway Revisited Sep 25, 2014
  8. Slide Show: The Model Deconstructed Feb 15, 2013