The tents are abuzz. Like most fashion shows, this one is running twenty minutes late – so far. Those seated in the hierarchical rows on each side of the runway are exchanging pleasantries. The celebrities in the front row are smiling nicely for photographers, and the public relations and production teams are chirping into headsets and flitting about like fireflies.
By 10:30 a.m., everyone is seated. The room goes black. Loud electronic music pounds through the speakers above, engulfing the audience with every beat. The white runway down the center of the room suddenly illuminates and an 80-person mass of photographers stationed at its end lift their cameras in unison, and she emerges.
Tall, young, beautiful, and very thin, the model sweeps down the runway towards the flashing lights, every inch of her slender frame examined by watchful, critical eyes. One by one, other models follow suit: all tall, young, and slender; all beautiful. They’re human mannequins, clothes hangers, displaying the creations of fashion’s most powerful. But to be part of this glamorous moment, these girls had to endure 12-hour days, sleepless nights, missed schoolwork, and the stress of maintaining a slight frame and 23-inch waist, all because a debut in this designer’s 11-minute show could be a catapult to modeling superstardom.
But for most models, that career will only last a year. Remove the glitz and glamour, and fashion modeling is not a pretty business -- especially for models under 18 years old. Models, who typically begin working between the ages of 13 and 16, are often the collateral damage of a 400 billion dollar industry, left in debt, uneducated, and unhealthy. They can be exploited by modeling agencies that make them work illegally long hours without pay, they are frequently sexually harassed, and many suffer from eating disorders – the product of their struggle to present the pre-pubescent physique which the industry prefers. All the while, the laws intended to protect these models are limited and are often disregarded when a minor is modeling adult clothing.
|Backstage at Merecedes-Benz New York Fashion Week. Photo: Niki Blasina|
Lindsey Hoover, a 21-year-old model with a young face and thick blonde curls, sipped on a skim latte at an interview at Mudspot in New York’s East Village. Hoover started modeling in Chicago when she was 15. At 18, she moved to New York where she officially started her modeling career. Hoover has walked the runway at all the major fashion weeks: New York, London, Paris, and Milan.
“I’ve worked with 15 and 16 year olds,” Hoover said. “They basically look like deer in headlights.” She described them as young and naïve, not realizing “what’s not really okay.” Many of the girls who walk at fashion week are “new faces” -- young models hoping the exposure will kickstart them to a lucrative modeling career.
At New York Fashion Week, the first show of the day usually starts at 9 a.m., the last show at 9 p.m. -- if all goes according to schedule (which it never does). Often the models’ work exceeds those long hours: before, after, and between the shows, they must attend castings and fittings for most of the shows that week. “You have to see everyone because you’re brand new,” Hoover said. A week prior to Fashion Week, Hoover, like most new faces, would have had anywhere from 19 to 25 castings per day. “It’s pretty hectic. I thought people were joking when they said you don’t have time to sleep or eat or anything like that.”
New York state labor law limits the hours a child model can work. While school is in session, models aged 14 or 15 are prohibited from working more than three hours on a school day, eight hours on a non-school day, or 23 hours over a week. Child models are also not permitted to work between 6 p.m. and 9 a.m. Similar restrictions apply to 16 and 17 year olds, who may not work more than four hours on a school day, eight hours on a non-school day, or 28 hours per week. They are also banned from working between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.
Also, models under 18 are required to obtain child model work permits from the Department of Education under the state’s Arts and Cultural Affairs law. Parents and guardians are not permitted to consent to any employment until a permit has been issued, and every employer must sign the permit before each job. However, according to models such as Sara Ziff, these rules are often broken.
On September 20th, 2012, Ziff made a presentation to the New York State Department of Labor, urging the department to include child models in its proposed regulations for child performers. The law for child performers (such as actors and musicians) is separate, and unlike the law that covers child models, it has provisions for chaperones, trust accounts, and educational tutors.
Ziff believes that child models deserve, and desperately need, the same legal protections as other child performers working in New York. She warned the Department, “Child models have modest protections regarding their working hours, but these regulations are rarely observed and never enforced, particularly in instances where models as young as 12 or 13 are hired to model adult clothing.”
In February 2012, Ziff founded the Model Alliance with a mission to improve working conditions for models in the American fashion industry. She herself has worked as a model for 15 years, modeling for high-profile brands such as Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Tommy Hilfiger, and Stella McCartney.
Ziff said that at the apex of her runway career, she routinely worked 16-hour days with her 15-year-old peers. “I have never seen a child model carrying a work permit, nor has a single agent ever insisted on one,” she said. “The enforcement of existing laws is a great starting point, but it’s not enough. More work needs to be done to ensure child models can finish high school and enjoy basic health standards.”
There is little hope that Ziff’s testimony to the Department of Labor will lead to any reform. “The way the laws are drafted, the Department of Labor doesn’t cover child print and runway models, it just doesn’t,” said Doreen Small, an intellectual property lawyer on the Advisory Board of the Model Alliance. Small, counsel at Golenbock Eiseman Assor Bell & Peskoe LLP, is an adjunct professor at Fordham University’s Fashion Law Institute, where she co-teaches a class in fashion modeling law. Small credits Ziff with starting the efforts to improve conditions for child models. “Hopefully others will take up the issue through lobbying to see if the Arts and Cultural Affairs law will be expanded to have similar or comparable regulations,” she said in a phone interview. “Or at least be enforced for child models working as adults, because now, to the best of my understanding, those aren’t even enforced.”
Hailey Hasbrook, 17, is an example. In a February 2012 interview with Women’s Wear Daily, Hasbrook said she worked for Marc Jacobs from 6 p.m. until 2 a.m. on one day. The following day, she worked for Jacobs until 4:30 a.m. and had to be at the Theyskens’ Theory fashion show that morning at 8.
Hoover had a similar experience. When she was a new face, she worked for a designer until 4 a.m. and had to be up at 6 a.m. that morning for castings.
Damian Bao, a casting agent and photographer explained, “During fashion week, the girls could be working for five to ten clients a day. So they could’ve just finished walking for Oscar de la Renta and then need to run to a fitting for Ralph Lauren at 11 p.m.”
Bao’s relaxed demeanor and body language perk up when he speaks about his work at an interview at Max Caffé in Morningside Heights, New York. His clients have included Calvin Klein, Elizabeth Arden, and Helmut Lang. He expressed compassion for the models. “Every fashion week I always have a breakdown,” he said. “The girls have a breakdown and I have a breakdown with them. They’re exhausted, I see them crying, and I feel bad.”
Fashion stylist Shane Cisneros, 31, stressed how long and uncomfortable a model’s hours are for projects both on and off the runway. Cisneros has worked on editorial shoots and campaigns with clients like Rolling Stone Australia and Barney’s New York. “I don’t think people know how long you’re actually standing on your feet, modeling, and in strenuous shoes,” he said in a phone interview. Editorials and ad campaigns are also shot a season ahead, so summer is shot in winter, and winter is shot in summer. The models “are either standing outside in the freezing rain in a little ensemble, or in the heat and wearing a fur,” he said.
It is an agency’s responsibility to manage a model’s hours. A model’s agent (or “booker”) manages every aspect of a model’s career, from deciding which clients a model will work for to what types of jobs a model will do. Also, a model’s booker schedules all of a model’s castings and jobs. According to Hoover, “If your booker makes it clear to the client that you need to be done at a certain time, the client usually respects that. If nothing is said, you keep your mouth shut. If you have to stay another five hours to get another two shots done, then you just have to do it.”
In New York, modeling agencies are not regulated by the Talent Agency Act nor are employment agents. “They are model management companies and the booking they do is incidental to the other functions they perform,” said Small. In a situation like fashion week when models work long hours for many clients, they are not working for any particular client for more than the sum of hours permitted by law. Thus, although the legal limits are exceeded, neither the clients nor the agencies are on the hook.
|A presentation at New York Fashion Week, February 2013. Photo: Isobel Markham for A Haute Mess|
Young models are also exploited or harmed in other ways. Reid Maki, Director of the Child Labor Coalition, said in a phone interview, “One of our big concerns with child labor is that there will be an educational impact. Once a kid works more than 20 hours a week, research has shown that there is an impact. With the models, I would be very concerned that their schooling will suffer. I suspect that many of these kids end up dropping out, or getting their GED, or not even getting it.” According to research published by the National Women’s Law Center, one in four girls in America drop out of high school and working during the school year is considered a risk factor. Furthermore, a GED is not enough. Recent studies have shown that people with GEDs do no better in life than those with no high school diploma at all.
Maki and the Child Labor Coalition, an organization with a mission to end the exploitation of child labor, have worked to improve conditions for children in agriculture who miss the last few weeks and the first six weeks of school every year. “When you miss that much school, it’s very, very difficult for them to catch up,” Maki said. “They’re so far behind that they get discouraged, and a lot of them end up dropping out.” In the fashion industry, models spend ten weeks of every year on the runway circuit alone.
Under the current law pertaining to child models, there is no regulatory requirement that models be given educational support. Audi Martel, 38, a recently retired model, said, “Every person I know that started modeling young did not graduate from college. Some dropped out of high school, but definitely none of them went to college. It just became that school wasn’t a part of their life. Modeling became their life.”
Martel’s long, blonde waves and make-up were perfect, and her candor was refreshing as she sat cross-legged on the couch in her Tribeca loft. Martel had an enviable 20-year career: she has worked with revered fashion designer Alexander McQueen, was the “house model” for Carolina Herrera for ten years, and walked what seems like every runway around the globe. Martel talked about a friend who is now 29; her career is over, leaving her feeling unprepared and overwhelmed. Referring to models in this situation, she said, “I think it leaves girls in this really anti-feminist place where it’s like, ‘Oh you’ve used your beauty for this long, why don’t you just go marry someone.’ When you’re 30 or 40, and you’re trying to become a part of the working world with zero resumé other than ‘I know how to spin and turn and look pretty and pose’ it’s not helpful.”
Martel said mandatory educational support for child models could stop the use of underage models completely. “No client in their right mind would pay for a tutor when there are a million girls that are 18 to 25 who are just as beautiful and don’t need one.”
Without costs like regulatory tutors, one of the reasons young models are in such demand is they’re cheap. “You have to pay for the big names,” said Shane Cisneros, a fashion stylist. “If you’re an emerging designer, you don’t have the budget to do that, so you’re going to pay those girls in trade.” Trade means giving the models clothes or accessories instead of money.
It is not only emerging designers who pay their models in trade. Hailey Hasbrook, a 17-year-old model, blogged about her experience working late nights for Marc Jacobs during New York Fahsion Week in February 2012. Hasbrook wrote that the designer had paid her in trade, which Jezebel.com reported last March. Three hours after the story was published, Jacobs’ brand responded on Twitter by tweeting, “models are paid in trade. If they don’t want to work w/ us, they don’t have to.”
Jacobs’ shows are often extravagant and costly: In February 2011, Robert Duffy, the President of Marc Jacobs, told The New York Times that his show cost “at least $1 million.” Marc Jacobs’ company is a subsidiary of LVMH Louis Vuitton Moët Hennessy, which made a net profit of $4 billion that year. In an interview with Buzzfeed’s Amy Odell, Ziff said Jacobs began paying his models in cash in September 2012 – the fashion week following Hasbrook’s interview and its consequent press coverage.
Judy Gearhart, Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum, said she is not surprised there are concerns with models not receiving proper payment for their work. Gearhart, who has worked to eradicate child labor in the apparel industry, said, “This is an industry that has scoured the globe looking for lower wages and lower cost laborers for production of clothing… I’m sure it’s the same line of arguing they make when they look for runway models. Each level of economic efficiency is inhumane.”
The fashion industry is one in which almost every entry point requires an internship or some form of unpaid labor, and Gearhart said this applies to modeling, too. Maki believes that monetary compensation is an essential component of any kind of employment. “Work is for pay,” he said. “Once you remove that out of it, especially in an area where hopes and dreams are such a big part of it, it just seems like the opportunities for exploitation are rife.”
Even when models are paid in cash, making money to keep can still be problematic. Many models end up in debt to their agencies at the beginning of their careers for expensive start up costs that include travel, accommodations, and portfolio-building photo shoots. The agency pays these costs up front and as the model works and makes money, she pays the agency back. Lindsey Hoover, a 22-year-old model, explained how this debt accumulates: “If a girl is a new face and she’s flying to all the shows, she has her rent for all the cities, her plane tickets for all the cities, and since runway doesn’t pay that much money or you get trade, that accumulation puts you in debt. Say you book a job six months later, you won’t see that money because you need to pay back that money you owe.”
The agencies rent specific apartments for models, “model apartments,” and subtract the monthly fee from the models’ salaries. “It can be anywhere from two to six girls in a room, all from different places,” Hoover said. “And most of those girls are young.” The first time Hoover stayed in a model apartment was in New York. “It was a two bedroom. I was in one room with another girl, and there were three girls in the other room, and one on the couch.” Her rent was $1200. “They can charge you any kind of amount they want to because it’s not like you know the prices of the actual room.” Audi Martel, a retired model, lived in a model apartment in New York for which each girl was paying $2000 per month to the agency. It was a three-bedroom apartment, and she said there were seven or eight girls staying there.
Model apartments are not the only suspect fees the agencies are charging. They charge models for printing their portfolios and composite cards (large cards displaying a model’s headshot, other photos, and body measurements), shipping fees, placement on the agency’s website, and more. “Girls should always check their statement,” Hoover said. “Sometimes there’s stuff on there that isn’t true, and you need to make sure you actually get paid for all your jobs.”
Martel said even her husband, who is the CFO of a large advertising agency in New York City, would struggle to understand her statements. “A 16-year-old model doesn’t know how to read an accounting sheet. You could get a wise one, but most of the wise ones stay in school.”
Even if a model is not paid in trade, has worked off her agency debt and has covered her other expenses, she still may not get paid because a voucher system further complicates financial matters. “You fill out a voucher at a job, you turn it into the agency, and the agency is supposed to pay you. However, if the client doesn’t pay, the model does not get paid either,” Martel explained. “Agencies don’t want to rock the boat with the client,” she added, and recalled times she waited months for her paycheck, or clients declared bankruptcy and her agency took her pay back.
Agencies also have models leave a “reserve” in the agency’s bank account, a practice which Martel described as “even more hideous than the voucher system.” She said a reserve is typically $1000. "If you have 500 girls, that’s $500,000. So [the agency] has a bank account with $500,000 making interest. They’re making money off of the girls.”
This type of dubious accounting is now being disputed in a $20 million class-action lawsuit which was filed by lead plaintiff, model Louisa Raske, in October 2012 against some of New York’s top modeling agencies, including Ford, Wilhelmina, Elite, and IMG. Raske alleges that the agencies provided inaccurate account statements and concealed funds received on the models’ behalves.
“I would say that as far as the rights of models in general go, the agency is Model Enemy Number One,” said Martel.
Twelve major modeling agencies in New York City declined or did not respond to comment, including Marilyn, New York Models, Ford, Wilhelmina, IMG, Next, Supreme, Trump, One, Women, Women Direct, and Elite. A female booker in the new faces department at Elite Model Management said, “We don’t usually speak on those issues.”
Trade, debt, and financial exploitation aside, some models do make an enviable living. “Some girls make more on a nine to five day job than what some people would make in six months,” said Hoover.
According to Martel, a model can earn a six-figure salary ranging from $150,000 to $250,000 per year. “That’s like the average ‘successful’ girl – not a supermodel, but girls that work regularly and continue to work for years.” Nonetheless, Martel stressed how rare career longevity and lucrative work are in the modeling industry. “You can never expect to make money in modeling, because it’s like winning the lottery if you do.”
Martel is not the first model to compare the odds of finding success in the industry to winning the lottery. However, there are plenty of teenage models working long hours, suffering educational limitations, financial hardship -- and more.
Last March, the Model Alliance, an organization working to improve conditions for models in the American fashion industry, sent a questionnaire to 271 models in New York and Los Angeles; 85 responded. Although the sample size was small, the results were alarming. Thirty percent of those models reported experiencing inappropriate touching on the job, and 28 percent said they had been pressured to have sex with someone at work. Only 29 percent of those models reported they felt they could tell their agency. Of that 29 percent, two-thirds reported that their agents “did not see the problem.”
In the December 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, cover star Kate Moss revealed the pressures she faced as a young model to pose nude in the infamous photo shoot she did for The Face. She said she was uncomfortable, but was told to either do it or not be booked to work again. Moss said she locked herself in the bathroom, cried, and eventually gave in.
In an interview with Ocean Drive magazine last winter, supermodel Heidi Klum said, “When you have a good body, photographers will often be like, ‘Yeah, let’s take this off, and why don’t we lose this too,’ and you can quickly end up not wearing much clothing. You have to be careful and strong at saying no, especially when you’re younger and on your own. Not everyone has your best interest [at heart].”
Nudity is not always an issue, but sometimes the context of a shoot can be inappropriate for a young model. Amy Lemons, 32, who started modeling at age 14 – “right when I got my braces off,” she said – was tall, blonde, and had the “all American look.” Lemons signed with IMG Models in New York City, and shortly after she was shooting with top photographers such as Steven Meisel and Bruce Weber.
When she was 16, Lemons was hired to pose as a dead prostitute for an editorial shoot. “I felt really gross about posing as a prostitute. The situation scared me, and I didn’t want to speak up because I didn’t want to be a loser, and it was an important photographer and you’re supposed to please these type of people… then I just started crying and freaking out because I was scared.” Lemons phoned her father, and he complained to the magazine. The photos were not used.
“They don’t think about your feelings,” Lemons said in a phone interview. “They think of you as a piece of art to paint on, and to get an artsy picture without thinking about what’s that doing to you.”
One of the many problems with human pieces of art is that they must all be a standard size.
Models must fit into the samples that designers make for runway shows and photo shoots. Samples are measured to fit on “fit models” (a human version of a dress form) who are often young and pre-pubescent; thus the size of a designer’s samples is very small. “Designers want somebody tall and thin they can design on, so they won’t have to work with the shape of a body,” said Shane Cisneros, a fashion stylist. “The girls who are tall and thin and less womanly are the girls who are young.” Valerie Boster, the Bookings Editor at VOGUE magazine, concurred. “It is easier to design on a hipless, breastless, straight-line body.” She added, “Clothes do look better on a body that’s not in excess, or overweight. But I think it just went too far.”
Maintaining sample size is imperative if a model wants to continue working. However, maintaining the same weight before and after puberty is just not realistic, according to Lauren Smolar, Helpline Supervisor at the National Eating Disorder Association. Smolar said many people have a hard time going through puberty and accepting that weight gain is natural, healthy, and necessary for development. “If you’re in that industry, it’s going to be very hard for you to accept that you’re not the same body type you were at first,” she said. That pressure may lead to disordered eating or starvation dieting.
Lemons said her transition after puberty was difficult. “Around age 21, I naturally put on a little more weight,” she said. Her agents would tell her she looked “a little too healthy” and ask her to “get a little bit thinner.” However, “a little bit thinner” was never thin enough. “There was a point where there was no end to it,” she said.
Given the many issues in the fashion modeling industry, one has to wonder why models continue to put up with it all. Former model Audi Martel and model Lindsey Hoover explained that there are hardships in any job. “You’re always going to have highs and lows,” said Hoover. “My friends right now are graduating from college and they’re struggling to find jobs that pay them nothing.” Hoover also said that like most people, models don’t want to fail. “People strive to do well, no matter what their field is,” she said.
Martel agrees. “I think people are optimistic that they will be successful, and someday they won’t have to put up with the bullshit,” she said. Ambition, she said, “Is positive and hopeful and it’s the beautiful thing about youth.”
Both women also agree that models are lured by the lifestyle, glamour, and attention associated with being a model. “It’s the way that people treat you when you’re a model,” Martel said. “There are perks. You can eat for free at places just because you’re pretty, and that feels really nice.”
Hoover said she has heard young models talk about how they feel better when they have designer clothes they earn through trade and how they like the attention they receive. “Photographers are all over fashion week. They’re out on the street outside the shows, or they follow girls to castings. It’s 15 year old girls getting attention, and most 15 year old girls like being the center of attention.”
For those who are successful, there’s also the money. “It’s kind of ridiculous how much you get paid,” said Hoover. “I wasn’t attracted to this job because of the money,” she added. “But I’d say it’s what has kept me in it.”
The desire for this lifestyle or success can drive a model too far. In August 2006, Uruguayan model Luisel Ramos died of heart failure as a result of anorexia. In November of the same year, Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston died of starvation. Under mounting industry pressure to respond, The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) created a Health Initiative in January 2007. The CFDA, along with Boster, and her colleagues VOGUE Health Editor Abigail Walsh, and VOGUE Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, formed a group to address each function of the industry, including model agents, casting directors, and designers.
|Photo: Isobel Markham.|
One month later, 15-year-old Hailey Clauson walked in Von Furstenberg’s runway show (and other high profile shows such as DKNY and Oscar de la Renta). The designer later issued a letter of apology stating she was “horrified and terribly embarrassed.” She promised to instruct her casting agents to demand IDs from models, and encouraged her colleagues to do the same. Nonetheless, in following seasons, many of New York’s top designers such as Carolina Herrera and de la Renta had models under 16 on their runways; Marc Jacobs, the recipient of seven CFDA Awards, featured 14-year-old Ondria Hardin in his show.
“There’s always going to be a designer that’s going to buck the trend,” said VOGUE’s Boster. “But for the most part I do think that it is changing, and I think that we’ve been a part of that change.” In VOGUE’s June 2012 issues, all international editions announced that the magazines would no longer hire models under the age of 16. This age pledge has not been immune from industry cynicism. Damian Bao, a casting agent and photographer in New York City, called it “a publicity stunt.”
“I think the VOGUE initiative means well, and I think it’s great that they’re trying to take the right steps and I applaud them for being vocal about it, but the application itself is complicated,” he said. Bao questioned whether the magazines would include advertisements that feature girls under 16 in their ads, like Chanel’s Spring 2013 campaign which features now 15-year-old Ondria Hardin.
“Unfortunately the pledge is restricted to our editorial because it’s what we can control,” said Boster. “It’s a step in the right direction to encourage older girls, but if there’s one 15-year-old in a Chanel ad, it’s not so bad.”
A few months after the pledge was announced, VOGUE China featured Hardin in its August issue, and VOGUE Japan shot an editorial with 14-year-old model Thairine Garcia for its December issue. Boster said commitment to the age pledge among all editions has been a “slow process.” American VOGUE, however, has stayed true to its pledge, at least on the editorial side. “We really do care about these girls and the image that we’re creating for girls that look up to the magazine,” said Boster.
The CFDA and VOGUE are not governing bodies, so the Health Initiative guidelines are not rules that can be enforced. According to Judy Gearhart, Executive Director of the International Labor Rights Forum, unless strict regulations are in place these pledges will not solve much. “We can tell you from our experiences that the apparel companies will not deliver on voluntary commitments,” said Gearhart. “This has been proven time and time again in all of the work that’s been done trying to improve the rights of factory workers.”
Reid Maki, Director of the Child Labor Coalition, said draft legislation needs to be written so groups like his could educate lawmakers about the need to enact it. Bao doubts that new legislation could be sufficient. As a casting agent and a photographer, he has worked with agents, designers, models, and magazines. “I’ve seen the whole picture,” he said. “It’s not as simple as just changing labor laws.”
Lemons and Boster both said a positive move would be to use only adult models to fit and model adult clothing. They would have finished puberty and their compulsory schooling, they could work adult hours, and designers would be forced to cut sample sizes bigger. “When the clothes are fit on a girl that is over a certain age and has had her period and hit puberty, the sample size will go up a bit,” Boster said. “You’ll see the runway girls go up a little bit in terms of weight and age.”
“And you’ve got girls that have actually lived a little,” Boster added. “What 15-year-old is going to know about love, sex, and heartbreak? [That’s] what inspires or informs certain collections or campaigns or editorial, and how are they supposed to evoke that?”
A criticism of strict limitations on age is that it might hinder a designer’s creativity. “At the end of the day, fashion is about the designers,” said Bao. “Can you stop them if a girl inspires them? This is their work, their art. They choose a girl who they think is the embodiment of their design and who they want to represent it.” For example, he said, “Who is the Chanel woman for Karl [Lagerfeld]? It’s Ondria [Hardin] this season. She went to the Chanel casting with 500 other girls, and she’s the chosen one.”
And so, the abuses faced by young models continue. Current laws do not adequately protect these models, and every facet of the industry perpetuates the exploitation. According to Gearhart, “The apparel industry is in sore need of a complete revamping in terms of the ethics within the industry, where labor rights from the factory floor to the runway are something that are just seen as collateral damage. It’s seen as the price of doing business.”