I’m a model, so was intrigued when I saw the Daily Mail’s juicy story this week that several models were going to sue their former agencies—powerhouse agencies, Wilhelmina Models, Wilhelmina Models International, Elite, Click, MC2 Model and Talent Miami, MC2, Next, and Major Model Management—for mistreatment.
The agencies, the models contend, used their images without their permission, perpetrated sexual harassment against them, and pressured them to have cosmetic surgery—all of this leading to eating disorders, and the alleged circumvention of labor laws.
I am skeptical, and yet still extremely supportive, of the stances of these models. Such a story isn’t surprising: a lot of what these women detailed in their experience doesn’t shock me at all. I have heard echoes of their experiences, and have had to face many similar ones.
What I worry about is the industry continuing as it is—besmirching the characters of these women, as they so often do when the brave few speak out.
Part of what stops models speaking out is fear: a fear of repercussions, a fear of losing work, a fear of being seen as a “snitch” or “difficult.”
And, like in all manipulative relationships, there is a fear of being wrong. Maybe what is happening to me is normal, maybe the terrible experience never happened at all and I imagined it. Maybe I am difficult to be so demanding.
But today, thanks in no small part to to social media, those in the field can compare stories, and reach out to others. In an industry based on the validation of the human form, we also need the validation from the community (inside and outside of fashion) on whether or not we have a case and a right to complain.
Too often, a model who speaks out against abuses in the industry will be belittled, smeared, or his or her career terminated altogether.
A personal anecdote. I work frequently in Tel Aviv. I like the culture, the food, and have a strong group of friends there. This past winter, I decided to find new local representation.
My previous agency had withheld payments, didn’t promote me, and threatened me with retaliation when I complained. A previous manager vowed that I would never work in the town again, and also threatened to call my family to extort them for money he wrongly thought he was owed.
I first looked to replace them with a thriving local boutique agency at which two friends of mine had worked. I asked my friends about their experiences.
One, an American male model who has worked internationally, told me he had never been paid. He had worked a lot in the local market, and had done quite well financially, and had to threaten legal action months after he had left the country to collect the money he was owed. My other friend, a female model who had been with the same agency, told me a similar story.
When I raised this with the agency directly, and asked if these statements were true (expecting them to clarify a potential “misunderstanding”), they called my friends liars and losers. They told me to come into the agency immediately, where they would clarify everything “in person.”
From experience I knew what this meant: bullying in person where there would be no email record.
There is a certain amount of craziness you expect to encounter in the modelling industry. Long days, even longer waiting periods, and early mornings are to be expected. Nonpayment of earnings is not—and neither should be subpar working conditions.
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