Adorned and Adored
Model, mannequin, clothes horse. The many names of the fashion model- conjuring images of beauty, exclusivity and desire. Long of limb, gleaming of teeth and shining of hair- how envious we mere mortals are. A familiar sight; striding the length and breadth of London streets, defined by their height, beauty or sheer otherness. Their world is different to ours, grimy tube stained everyman that we are. A world of beautiful clothes, beautiful boys and beautiful girls- adorned and adored.
Is it ever this simple? A slew of recent books and tv shows have showed the uglier side of modelling. Both from the agency side and the individual model, from “America’s Next Top Model” to “The Face” – the public can’t get enough of these behind the scenes looks into the secretive and mysterious modelling world. Carol White, founder of Premier model agency (think Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista et al) has released her memoir, “Have I said too much?” revealing the tears and tantrums of model life. Discussing the seedier aspects of the industry in an interview with The Guardian, White admitted “the fashion business is cruel. It eats you up, swallows you down and spits you out… Everyone is greedy for the new face.”
‘Someone once Spiked her Shampoo with Bleach-’
These fly on the wall insides have shown a side of industry that has proven to be exhaustive, controversial, and exploitative. To get the most mileage out of a model, agencies often head hunt from the age of 14, sometimes even younger, with the hopes of getting the kid on the books and then wringing every last drop out of their youth. Often far from home in strange and unloving cities (let’s not forget the cultural and social shock for many models from third world countries, flown in like commodities for consumption) – the high octane glamour they were promised seems like yesterday’s fantasy. An experience that Alice*, now 28, knows all too well. An old friend of mine, Alice left school early one year to try and break it as a model in London. It seemed so adventurous- discussing her plans with a plate of soggy chips in our saggy uniforms, hiding from the roaring heat of Australian summer. We were so envious, so excited- sure that she was about to break it big! Schadenfreude was in full swing. Off Alice went, gorgeous, 16, ready to take on London, and then, the world! At first the phone calls home (in those heady days before Facebook) were confirmation of this imagined lifestyle. Usually giddy with excitement she told of amazing photoshoots and fun, pissed up nights out in pubs where no one questioned her age.
Then the other calls set in. The sobbing late night cries of loneliness. The dirty, squalid state of model houses. Other girls’ jealousy, usually displayed in petty acts of meanness- sometimes overstepping into dangerous bullying territory. Once someone spiked her shampoo with bleach, Alice only just realising in time. It could have just given her an unfortunate dye job- it also could have blinded her.
By the end of her three month stint; Alice had lost over a stone, her lust for life and her faith in people. It put her off modelling permanently and forever tainted London in her mind- the city of dreams turned nightmare. But is this a fair representation? This was nearly ten years ago. Surely the modelling world has changed, moved on from those early noughties hey days.
‘They are Very Protective.’
So what of the modern modelling experience? Johnny* 16 was scouted aged 15. At 6’3 with wide set eyes and a cheeky grin- you can see why he would be a bookers dream. Johnny, who is speaking to LONDNR on the condition of anonymity so as not to compromise any work contracts, could not be having a more different experience.
“It’s been really good. My booker is such a nice guy, they (the agency) do all they can to help me out no end when it comes to college. They are brilliant. I couldn’t be happier really.” For Johnny, modelling is an opportunity to make some money before he embarks on his ‘real’ career, behind the camera as a media producer and editor, which he says the agency are fully supportive of.
“The agency are quite demanding when they tell me to stay in school. Like they want me to stay in college…they obviously want me to come up for jobs and castings but they are very, very set on me finishing my education. They are very protective. There’s a common misconception that everyone is a knob in the agency, but it is so not true at all. That has not been my experience…all the models I’ve met are lovely people, just having a laugh and they are in the same situation I am…just coming up (to London), cracking on when they can.”
This view is echoed by Phoebe Gaydon, who worked at Premier for a short stint as a booking assistant, “the people there work unbelievably hard, not only the bookers but the models themselves.” Now working in editorial for Conde Nast, Phoebe knew working for the agency wasn’t a long term option. “I’m really grateful for the opportunity, I couldn’t have the job I am doing now if not for Premier.”
So Johnny and Phoebe’s agency experience has been one of hard working individuals and supportive business. Yet why this sudden push to force the young models to stay in school? Does this not hint at some broader context at play in the modelling world? One can speculate that knowing how short lived these potential careers are- not everyone is going to be a successful fashion model – perhaps they are exploiting them in a much more subtle, a darker way, than before. By ensuring that these kids finish their education- while simultaneously demanding that they be available for shoots and castings – enables them to relinquish responsibility. It’s like chocolate coated child labour. By dressing it up in this sexy, glamorous show, young models can forget just how controlling the agency is. Control in the form of how they look, their length of hair, whiteness of teeth, their social media accounts and even where they live. These are all monitored. Systematically dished up not by the individual, not even by their parents, but by the agency. Whichever it is.
This is all pretty standard for any model, in some sense- you can never really forget that modelling is selling your body and face as a blank canvas for clients to paint as they please.
‘A Designer is not going to see a 14 year old different to a 20 year old. They are just two models…’
So what of the rumours of exploitation and unhealthy demands on behalf of the agencies and bookers?
Johnny acknowledges that there is a certain disparity between the experience of male and female models. “I’ve had a couple of experiences…I’ve seen people shout down the phone to female models, you know complaining that the clothes aren’t fitting.”
As in weight wise?
“Yeah… I was at a show once and me and the boys were just sitting there and they brought out food for the models and none of the girls would touch it. We were just eating and eating and eating but you know, these girls just wouldn’t touch the food…I did not like that at all. I know some of the girls are just 14, 15 years old. Sometimes they lie about their ages…I don’t think it’s right at all. Because at the end of the day a designer is not going to see a 14 year old different to a 20 year old. They are just two models. But obviously there is a big difference…they are still really young. I just, yeah. I feel for them a little bit.”
To clarify, in the UK, the British Fashion Council has implemented a few rules- namely to do with age and size limitations. Carole White confirms this “the climate’s changed a lot now, so in the UK we don’t let girls go on the runway until 16 and we can prove it to the BFC [British Fashion Council].” It is worth bearing in mind these restrictions can only be reinforced when it comes to runway shows- so this does not apply to editorial shots or any other modelling work. So though the times are changing, they haven’t changed that much. And though my friend Alice may have had a terrible time- the same can’t be said for Johnny- still so early and hopeful in his career. In fact, the constant stream of derision and clichés that surround the modelling world annoy Johnny.
“It is frustrating. You know, people ask me questions and assume I’m just going up there and just standing in front of the camera and getting paid loads and loads of money for it. There is this whole misconception of the whole business and people don’t understand what it is actually like. This portrayal of all the controlling agencies and forced diets… that is not my experience. That is not my experience at all.”
As Johnny leaves our interview, I notice heads turning as we walk down the street. With the confidence born out of the sheer charisma of attractiveness- he may lament having missed the modelling hey day.
It seems that our fears, the ones about size zero and anorexia, pressure on teenage girls and unhealthy expectations are in some ways justified. It’s the girls who are having a bad time. Why? Are women naturally more self-critical? Is the fashion industry – which still caters predominantly to women – secretly, deeply sexist? Or are we just over-saturated with female forms vying for modelling jobs, making competition steeper? Either way, clearly the boys aren’t facing the same problems. Perhaps it’s an inherent difference between male and female personalities. Women thrown together become catty, men develop comradery. Or maybe just like modelling itself – getting a live person to pretend to be an inanimate object, a mere ‘clothes horse’ or ‘coat hanger’ – the issues surrounding modelling make no real sense.
* names have been changed.