Modeling. I'll be honest: I didn't really give much of a shit about the plight of its willowy practitioners before I met Tatiana. Now, Tatiana's going to be okay: she's doing this to travel and learn and meet the sort of people you wouldn't meet performing the other types of slave labor to which educated young twentysomethings generally subject themselves, but the rest of them remind me of all those once-promising high school basketball players languishing in foreign club teams and living paycheck to paycheck in incredibly cramped quarters with nothing getting them up in the morning beyond the whole "Well, I've held out this long…" rationale. Which is to say, models are just like us. Except! In what other industry can your boss get away with telling an 108-pound cash cow like Coco Rocha: "We don't want you to be anorexic, we just want you to look it"? I mean, sure, it's one thing to "look" anorexic to me, an objective observer, but this is an industry, as we found out yesterday, in which the conventional wisdom holds that Karolina Kurkova is "fat"? Anyway, after last week's harrowing experience volunteering for the Plutocracy, Tatiana came up with some good ideas for reforming the business. We really do hope the agencies of the world take her advice!
It occurs to me that frequently in these columns, there is a moment where, finally alone and generally late into the night of a long day, I find myself reduced to tears by some list of knocks and slights. Perhaps this only means I need a new device; I don't think of myself as such a sad sack figure as all that. But this week, actually the night after my spirit-crushing turn as a volunteer clotheshorse for a designer who most definitely could have afforded to pay me, my sadness metastasized not into tears, but into a rage-inflected political platform that just might transform my industry.
Well, OK, first I cried. Then I thought: models should unionize to work for better conditions and rates of pay.
It's a common misconception that modeling is easy, safe and highly lucrative - the reality is that the girls with the million-dollar campaigns are so rare I wouldn't believe they actually existed if I didn't see them at night clubs during fashion week. Most models I know are lucky if they are working at all; between agency commissions (70% in Paris, 50% in Milan, 20% in New York), travel expenses, and rent in the various pricey cities in which we are required to live, your eventual wages come so garnished I've known plenty of models who can't always afford food. Even the girls who are lucky enough to work every day are doing well if they break even, and can sneak off to Germany or Los Angeles or Hong Kong and make a quick buck shooting catalog jobs every once in a while.
And safe? Once I was staying with a girl from Seattle in a shitty one-bedroom (total number of models: six! Minimum in rent our agency would've made from the shitty one-bedroom that month, assuming a consistent model population: $5400!). We were both on option for the same editorial (daily rate: $150 and lunch). She got the job.
She returned home nine hours later, hair and body painted silver. The magazine was doing a "green" issue; this eco-conscious theme was enacted in, variously, shots in which the poor Seattle girl had a tulip plant placed in her mouth, shots in which she had to lie on top of a scratchy 8 ft. hedgerow while the photographer shot from a crane, and shots in which she closed her eyes and shards of broken glass were applied to her face. They put dirt in her mouth and glass on her eyelids and painted her silver from head to toe. My roommate showered twice and vomited once that night.
Models have incredibly short-lived careers, and our collective youth, third-world origins, and the instability of the market we work in makes our bargaining positions, individually, weak. For every 15-year-old wunderkind who stalks 40 runways a season and books $100,000 perfume campaigns for college money, there are at least a hundred girls who turn 25 with a few grand in bank at best, realize their careers are over, and that they never graduated high school.
It's also no wonder given how close many models are to insolvency that there are areas where modeling shades into prostitution; modeling sort of prepares you - trains you, even - to see your income in your own body. And also to hang around with plenty of creepy, older, rich dudes. A + B can = C. The BBC did an exposé in 2000 that caught Milanese businessmen on hidden camera trying to buy sex from models as young as 13 in night clubs, and uncovered evidence of agency bookers acting as procurers and drug dealers. In the furor that ensued, Gérard Marie and Xavier Moreau, two top executives at the Elite agency, lost their jobs. The industry promised a clean-up. There was talk of "standards," of girls younger than 17 being accompanied by chaperones at all times, of blacklisting clients who used or promoted drugs.
Gérard Marie - who was filmed soliciting a reporter who he thought was a model for sex - is currently back at the helm of Elite Paris. I do not know if the man who explained his desire to sleep with underaged models thusly: "We are men, we have our needs" has reformed. I do know that such episodes of revolving-door contrition and forgiveness fill me with disgust, and that one of the biggest tasks of any models' union would be to keep its membership safe.
A union would also offer, obviously, the benefits of collective bargaining. The overwhelming counterweight of the fashion business class's wealth give models an unacceptably weak negotiating position. A union could help insure models' best long-term interests are served by their jobs - a union could argue for retirement benefits, and, in the USA, health insurance coverage. A union could mandate that sufficient time be given for models under 16 to attend school, without setting back their careers. A union could also serve as a voice for models' interests in the ongoing debate over what is perhaps our biggest immediate health issue - the slightly-underweight physique we are required to maintain. A union could protest and shame under- and non-paying clients, a union could mandate that appropriate food be available at every job, and a union could ensure that conditions on the job site always meet safety standards, so nobody has to pose covered in broken glass or eat dirt ever again.
The obvious counterpoint to modeling is, of course, acting. The Screen Actors' Guild does an admirable job of representing the interests of a workforce that is dispersed over a vast geography, and which enjoys short-term contract-based employment, when it gets employment at all. It's ironic that one of the reasons commercial modeling - catalogs, television ads and their ilk - is so rewarding when compared with high-fashion modeling - magazine editorials, runway, etc - is because of SAG's vigilance; commercial castings in Los Angeles are not infrequently stated union jobs. And even the ones that are non-union are pretty highly paid. I have friends who are only able to work full-time in Paris because they have commercials still airing in the U.S., and receive the appropriate checks quarterly.
Individually, we are weak, and wealthy white men manage to make an awful lot of cash off our bodies and labor. Collectively, we could hold the industry we work in to a higher standard, and perhaps even change the nature of fashion itself. I imagine the union would have an awful lot to say, for instance, about those clients who put "NO ETHNICS" on their casting notices, and those agencies who fail to notice, or care, that certain of their charges have eating disorders.
Of course there are plenty of reasons to doubt any of this will come to pass. The economy is especially dreadful right now; any moves to unionize would be viewed as a threat by the class that controls the fashion capital. Besides, every year there's a new raft of 14-year-olds from countries with economies far shittier than ours, and these 14-year-olds are all six feet tall and very, very hungry. And, through no fault of their own, they exercise a huge deflationary force on the modeling labor market. But it occurred to me, as I was working that presentation for that designer who amuses herself by collecting Picasso, that the reason she was paying the security guards at the event and not me was because the security guards have a union. And I don't.
I want to at least try my best to change that.
E-mail Tatiana at Tatiana.Anymodel@gmail.com