Fashion Models Are Workers, Too
To rectify the situation, the Model Alliance set its eyes on rewriting the laws in New York State so that models under 18 can have enforceable protections, including education provisions like on-set tutors in certain circumstances. The proposed legislation would extend to child models the protections that child performers currently enjoy. Child stars on Broadway, for example, have limits on working hours (and can’t work past midnight); they’re provided meals, rest breaks and dedicated study space, and trust accounts are set up to manage a percentage of a child’s earnings. Violators of these regulations face fines of up to $1,000 for a first infraction. The legislation to extend these protections to young fashion models passed the New York Assembly and Senate in June and awaits Governor Cuomo’s signature.
With many runway models performing in back-to-back shows, staying up until the wee hours of the morning for fittings and pulling sixteen-hour days during Fashion Week, restrictions on hours could make hiring underage models far less appealing to the industry. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), modeling agencies and the New York Department of Labor have been discussing how to tailor the law to the fashion industry. Small says it’s unclear whether the current caps on working hours will stay on the books when they are applied to models.
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Since the 1990s, the fashion industry has grown in power and size, and reality television shows like America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway have glamorized modeling and amplified its celebrity status. Yet a young girl aspiring to be a supermodel might as well be aspiring to be the next Beyoncé; a growing number of young people are hitching their wagon to an increasingly unrealistic dream. Scouts and agencies these days recruit wannabe catwalkers from every corner of the globe, and as the number of women trying to break into modeling has grown, turnover has spiked at the same time that pay and success rates have plummeted.
The documentary Girl Model, which aired last spring on PBS, explores the intersecting lives of a former model turned scout, Ashley Arbaugh, and one of her finds, a 13-year-old Siberian named Nadya. Nadya is sent to Tokyo to meet with prospective clients, and although she manages to book a few jobs, she still comes home $2,000 in debt to her agency, a fairly common experience, according to both Ziff and Girl Model co-director Ashley Sabin. Modeling agencies typically front money for travel expenses, lodging and test shots, but these costs must be paid back.
Through the process of making Girl Model, Sabin says she came to view modeling as a form of indentured servitude for many women, where the stakes are very high for women from poor families without many other career options. “They’re indentured to their agency. They’re indentured to their debts and the debt isn’t really disappearing,” she says.
Since the 2008 recession, contract work has increased, replacing more full-time jobs with freelance positions. Studies by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that there are more than 20 million freelancers and other independent workers in the United States. Employers have gotten used to this system of hiring underpaid contract employees, where labor laws are entirely in the employers’ favor. Unpaid work, especially among young people, has also become rampant.
Models are independent contractors and are among the growing number of nontraditional US employees clamoring for more rights and better pay. Boston University sociologist and former model Ashley Mears, whose book Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model investigates the economics of the fashion industry, found that the average fashion model working in the United States earned only $27,330 in 2009, with no benefits. It’s now more like $32,000. The average magazine shoot at the time paid about $100 a day; today, top magazines like Vogue pay $175.
Many models work “for trade” in fashion at some point, meaning they get clothes or other swag but no actual payment, and many view “free” work as a necessary stepping stone in their career. Fox Searchlight, Gawker and NBC Universal are among the corporations that have been sued this year for using nonpaid interns, and this uprising is beginning to spread to fashion.
This highlights yet another, equally insidious reason the fashion industry is so dependent on young girls—they’re cheap, especially those from foreign places. Just as the fashion industry has been attracted to countries like Bangladesh for their low-wage garment producing, there is a certain economic logic to the way scouts find their next fresh faces in underdeveloped countries in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Sabin agrees: “In a lot of ways, it’s a business, right? So they’re about the bottom line. So, which is cheaper? Is it cheaper to have the parents come along too? Probably not, so where can they go where there’s going to be the least amount of hassle? Well, a place where these girls aren’t asking as much or don’t know their rights as much or come from a different kind of historical background.”
Globalization and technology have affected model scouting as much as garment manufacturing. Thanks to the Internet, scouts and agencies can instantly access models around the globe, with photos of new faces traveling from Siberia to Manhattan in seconds.