The story that American Apparel tells about its models — that they are, to a (half-naked) woman, employees, friends of Dov Charney, "real people" and never professional models — is one much cherished by the company. It's also a lie.
It might have been the case in 2004, when Jane reporter Claudine Ko — in front of whom company founder Charney masturbated repeatedly while she was reporting her story — wrote that most of the brand's models are girls Charney street-casts. Back then, American Apparel was a relatively small company, and girls with non-modelish looks made it onto its billboards regularly. It may even have still been true in 2006, when the Financial Times reported that the company "works exclusively with non-professional models."
It was definitely not true in 2008, when the company said, "Unlike almost everyone in the fashion industry, American Apparel doesn't use professional models and agencies. Our models are mostly people who work here at the factory." (And also: "We don't objectify.") It was demonstrably false by the time Fox quoted the company last month as saying its ads "are evocative because they feature real people instead of professional models done up with makeup artists or Photoshop. American Apparel's website is filled with photos of friends, employees and fans of the company who volunteered or even collaborated by submitting self-portraits." It's a silly falsehood that's nonetheless been repeated by the Guardian, Newsweek, the Independent, the Times of London, and the New York Times, among others. This should stop.
American Apparel's gaggle of utterly conventionally beautiful and slender women are not "factory workers." They may be "friends of Dov," but many of them do not work for the company he founded. You will not bump into an American Apparel model working the register at the store nearest you. For many, despite the fact that the disingenuous little bios that sometimes still run in the ads often claim them as employees, the only American Apparel paycheck they've ever cashed is for the time they spent modeling for the brand. Some may be "real people," and the company may in fact not use Photoshop during its post-production process — although all we have standing behind that claim is Charney's word. But some of them are definitely models. Professional models. Represented by agencies.
If you've ever looked at an American Apparel ad and wondered how the tall, beautiful woman in it could possibly not be a professional model, your instincts are correct. I've personally known several models who've moonlighted for American Apparel for a quick buck, though I won't out any of them here. I don't have to: just this week, 5'11" Australian model Zanita Whittington, pictured, who has a photo blog and is represented by Models 1 in London and Priscillas in Sydney, was confirmed as a face of the company; she's flying to L.A. to shoot the campaign. While it's possible that the company is interested in Whittington at least partly as a blogger — her site already carries American Apparel ads — the fact that she's an international model can't hurt.
The American Apparel model the company identifies as Mele is in fact Mele Vazquez, a 23-year-old and, yes, a professional model. (She appears to be represented by Elite, the same agency as Ana Beatriz Barros, Jessica White, and Coco Rocha.) In this interview, she says she's worked as a model for eight years. Vazquez, pictured here in an editorial for Pig, told Platform magazine, "I started modeling when I was 16. I got discovered at this super cheesy model search that my mom entered me in. Since then I've traveled the world, Australia, New Zealand, all over Europe. I'm still modeling full time here in LA." When Dov Charney "discovered" her, Vazquez had in fact already been a professional model for seven years. Another non-factory-worker American Apparel model is Alanna Drasin. She goes to Brandeis and although she doesn't appear to be represented by any agency, it's a stretch to call anyone who's modeled since she was 17, and can rattle off a list of clients to match, an "amateur."
It's true that American Apparel does not work within the traditional modeling industry system — it doesn't call agencies and request girls for castings, for instance, and the models whom it books don't have to pay their agents a cut. But the number of professionals who end up in American Apparel ads regardless indicates that this policy is largely one of financial convenience rather than any search for a "real" aesthetic. Agencies would certainly negotiate better rates on their models' behalf.
And of course, the company also has models who are not shopgirls, but porn stars. Charlotte Stokely, who originally was identified by American Apparel as an "employee" named "Britney", and Faye Reagan, whom American Apparel called an "employee" named "Jillian" have been appearing in ads since 2008; so have adult stars Avy Lee Roth and Sasha Grey. We've mentioned this before; they are not employees, it is not news.
So why do people keep repeating the lie that all American Apparel models are amateurs, "real people," and not, you know, 5'10" girls with agencies and books full of tears, or women who spend their days making porn in the valley rather than making t-shirts at the factory? The fiction that American Apparel ads are populated by company employees and their friends, and that this circle just happens to be entirely comprised of statuesque, high-cheekboned übermensch who have something against pants, is a very generative construct for the brand. The seductive/reductive concept is, as ever, "Buy this and you will look and feel like she does." The ads certainly carry the illusion of the "real," in the sense that they don't seem overproduced or overly complex — that white space! that Helvetica! it's so simple!
But advertising is all lies. Louis Vuitton's ads are lies; your $500 wallet is not being lovingly hand-made by photogenic leatherworkers who are handy with the awl and clam, it is in fact stitched on a machine in a factory. We should no more believe that "Charlene" is "a cashier at the Los Altos store" and a "part-time makeup artist" than we should believe that the caveman on the insurance ads is an actual Neanderthal. And the cynical news media ought to have learned by now that American Apparel is not a company worthy of anyone's credulity.
If American Apparel actually shot its ads on "real" people, and not professional models, it might be interesting. It might look something like this. It will never happen, but can we at least retire the bullshit idea that American Apparel eschews professional models in search of a more "realistic" feminine ideal?