For decades, modelling 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!!!” 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 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 modelling 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.
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.
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 organisation 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. Rep. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., 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.
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.
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.
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 Organisation.
A model working in New York earned, on average, US$48,130 in 2016, while one working elsewhere in the United States earned US$36,560, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics. Models are often offered payment in the form of clothes.
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 Centre 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,” Cooper said. “It’s like fighting with one or both hands tied behind your back.”