I was a teenager when I first moved to New York to be a professional model.
Pressured by my agency, my parents removed me from high school on the first day of my eleventh-grade year. I joined an industry that was, in some ways, eager to treat me as an adult. I traveled the world on my own, obtaining my high school degree via a home school program. My destiny, safety and security rested solely in my hands.
But because I was only 16, I had few of the rights granted to adult workers that, like me, came to New York to earn a living. I could not rent an apartment on my own. I could not rent a hotel. I could not drink, vote or even rent a car. I was an underage worker with no where to go.
Which is how I found myself, in 1994, moving into an agency-sanctioned model apartment on N. Moore Street, in what was then-still-industrial Tribeca. My new home was a two-bedroom converted loft with pre-fab walls. Eight underage girls lived there. Four twin bunk beds were placed in each room. Broken stilettos, milk cartons and candy wrappers were piled forgotten in corners. It reeked of CK One. It cost me $800 a month.
With the runways of fashion month at an end, I would like to draw your eye to the hidden-in-plain sight workforce that walks so stealthy along those glittering catwalks: the models.
At the end of the long work day, the models — an often-underage and female workforce — will shrug off the clothing, wash off layers of makeup and return home to overpriced, short-stay accommodations referred to as "model apartments." Once New York Fashion Week is over, this powerful team of professionals moves on to London where they will work for one week, then travel to Milan to work for a week and finish fashion month off in Paris. You can see how housing can become a problem when there is no definitive place to call home.
Housing its teenage workforce has long posed a problem for the modeling agencies that provide temporary workers to the ad men of Madison Avenue. As a solution, agencies have turned to such model apartments — short-stay accommodations in which underage girls, often from foreign countries, live almost unsupervised, at exploitative rates.
In my apartment, a Polish photographer named Jasper kept occasional tabs on the disparate collection of girls from international locales like Germany, Brazil and Canada, and domestic ones like the Midwest and Texas. I was 16, from the swamps of Florida. We were teenage girls released from backwater towns into a city with too much opportunity and too little supervision. Anything could have happened, and sometimes it did. We quickly grew feral.
But we were lucrative. During the month-and-a-half I stayed at N. Moore Street, for instance, the apartment was always at capacity. Eight girls at $800 a month is $6,400 a month, and $76,800 a year — about the equivalent of $125,000 in today’s dollars.
Today, world-renowned modeling agencies charge their out-of-town clients roughly $1,299 to $1,799 per person, per bed, or $150 a night to live in these temporary accommodations.
This windfall of sublet fees agencies and their subcontractors collect must all be earned back by the model-occupants on jobs before they see a dollar of their paychecks, making them, essentially, indentured to their agencies.
Taken off the top of checks are thousands of dollars of erroneous fees. These "incidentals" include rent, plane tickets, copies of portfolios, composite cards, website fees and long-distance phone charges, as well as hundreds of dollars in blanket postal, FedEx and messenger fees.
It is often that these so-called "incidentals" actually amount to more than the small paychecks models are issued, forcing debt to carry over month to month — essentially turning its teenage workforce into modern-day, industry-specific indentured servitude.
Models are currently misclassified as independent contractors. They do not have employee workplace protections, including protection from sexual harassment. Model management companies are employment agencies. The management company fields the call for temporary work and passes it on to their model or contractor, who then interviews for the job. The management company then collects the wages for the models, cashes the checks and takes their commission. Model management companies typically take 20 percent commission from the model and 20 percent from the advertising agency – that's a 40 percent commission windfall off every single job each model books.
With the money left after commission, the model management company then deducts its expenses. Hundreds of dollars are removed from each check before a model sees a dime, including housing. Overreaching, exclusive contracts shelter the management companies and leave models with few options to fight this blatant wage theft.
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that many modeling jobs pay little to nothing. Runway gigs pay between $150 and $500, but often pay in "trade," or a promise that the model will be given clothing for their work; often, this doesn't happen. Editorial jobs may pay $150 a day. If a model is lucky enough to get catalogue, e-trade or campaign work, these can pay between $1,250 to $5,000 a day.
Other artists are being payed properly; New York Fashion Week brings in more money for the city than a Super Bowl.
I recall many days spent doing half-day gigs at the rate of $450. And I went on between four to six "go sees" a day. A "go see," of course, is a job interview that your modeling agency sets up, but it is up to you as the worker seeking employment to get to these interviews on time and looking good. This is where treating teenage girls as adult women becomes an even greater safety liability. Agencies send underage girls out all over the city, unchaperoned, to interview with a handful of photographers a day.
When I was 15, I was offered a contract to model in Japan for a summer. I was sent out on public transportation, again, unchaperoned, to find my way to appointments all over Tokyo — an unfamiliar city where I didn't speak or read the language. I was sexually assaulted by men on the subway several times. When I reported it to my superiors, they said it was just the way Japan was. I stopped taking the subway. I stopped attending "go sees." I stopped working and was sent home in debt to my agency. I never returned to Japan.
A Cruel History
Fashion has a long, cruel history of treating their young workers as little more than meat. The first reported model apartments appeared in the early 1900s in Paris when couturiers had "house models" living on the premises.
Before humans were asked to wear fashions un currante, a dolly was employed. Fashion dolls date back to the Italian Renaissanc, but became popular in the 1600s and were henceforth referred to as Pandoras, or poupées de mode, or Queen Anne Dolls. Pandoras showcased the latest coming out of Paris and held such importance to the aristocracy that they were exempt from the embargo on enemy imports, as well as received diplomatic immunity and sometimes, even, a cavalry escort.
Unfortunately, once the trend swung to real-life girls wearing the fancy duds, the in-house models weren't offered such lauded status. Instead, women and girls were expected to live on the premises, were paid poorly and were degradingly referred to as "mannequins," a term that models have never been able to shake. These models worked in what would be in today's parlance a mix of fit modeling and showcase presentations.
Additionally, models were made to wear a full-body, black satin sheath-like undergarment called a "fourreau," used because the couture houses' high-brow clients did not want to buy the garments if they had touched the lower-class model's body.
In the United States, Eileen and Jerry Ford ran one of the first state-side model apartments out of their own home. A charm-school type living arrangement was what the Fords provided to the lucky young women they cultivated. Models were assigned household and kitchen tasks; night curfews were expected to be obeyed; and during the warmer months, they were also allowed a bed at "Tara" — the Fords' weekend Hampton home. Sheets were expected to be laundered before you left.
Meanwhile in Milan, in the '70s, young models starting out their careers were placed in a hotel deplorably dubbed the "Fuck Palace." Another models' accommodation was gauchely referred to as "Principessa Clitoris."
My time eventually ran out. When my booker at the agency that was housing me heard that I had taken a meeting with a larger agency, he threatened to throw me out of the N. Moore apartment — the only home I knew in the city. I had my first panic attack and called my mom. My mom called my agent and said, "If anything happens to my teenage daughter, I'm going to come up there and kill you." I was allowed to stay an extra week, but my agent continued to retaliate. He permanently withheld all of my money; I would never again receive a paycheck from my former modeling agency.
For models, often teenage girls from underprivileged backgrounds, or from foreign countries who have never before been away from home, this abusive system has long been in need of an update.
Modeling agencies are in the unique position to build supportive systems of housing for this community of visiting young people as they transition from country to country. Instead of looking at models as something to exploit, the fashion industry should begin to see the glimmers of potential in this impressionable, yet powerful group. International travel is a unique education and opportunity for any young person. This, combined with the exposure of being the face of a world-wide brand with the right mentors, these talented young women could grow up to be the global leaders of tomorrow.
Homepage photo: Imaxtree