Three high-profile models have sued their former agency, Next, for allegedly stealing $750,000 of their earnings. And the trio contend that the shady dealings are a pattern of conduct for Next. They want the agency to open its books.
The Polish models Anna Jagodzinska and Anne Aleksandra Cywinska, together with the Estonian Karmen Pedaru, are accusing Next of failing to pay them money they were owed, and of misappropriating those funds for Next's own use. Jagodzinska (center) and Pedaru (right) are extremely successful models; between them, they have graced the covers of American Vogue, Italian Vogue, Australian Vogue, and Japanese Vogue, walked for Chanel, Givenchy, and Valentino couture, and been the faces of brands including Oscar de la Renta, David Yurman, Prada, Tom Ford, and Bottega Veneta. Cywinska (left), who works under the name Ania, has a less high-profile career, but she has modeled successfully in New York, Spain, Australia, and Germany, and her clients have recently included Saks Fifth Avenue and Nordstrom. Full disclosure: when I modeled, Next was my agency in New York and in Los Angeles. I have met Jagodzinska and Cywinska socially. Cywinska was the room-mate of a friend when both were tenants in one of Next's models' apartments. When I left Next, in the summer of 2009, Next paid me my outstanding earnings in full and in a manner I considered timely.
Pedaru, Jagodzinska, and Cywinska all left Next in April of 2010. Their lawsuit, a copy of which I obtained, alleges that when they switched agencies, each had earnings left outstanding, including some payments still pending from jobs going back to mid-2009, and that in the ensuing months, Next has flatly refused to pay up. That would be a little like if you quit your job the day before your pay period ended, only to find that your former employer felt entitled to keep your last paycheck.
Pedaru claims in the suit that she is owed "an amount not presently ascertainable, but believed to exceed $400,000." Jagodzinska estimates the earnings Next withheld at $320,000. Cywinska says she is owed $30,000. Each woman is seeking punitive damages of $1 million.
When the three models broke with Next and switched to the competing agency Ford, Next sued Ford for allegedly offering them unlawful enticements to break their contracts. That lawsuit is ongoing. In their suit, Jagodzinska, Pedaru, and Cywinska argue that they never would have left Next had it honored their contracts by paying them their money on time in the first place.
Modeling agencies do not employ models — models are independent contractors who are paid by their clients. However, agencies hold significant control, financial and otherwise, over the women and men they represent. Agencies give models notice of castings, handle models' resulting bookings and invoice their clients, then agencies disburse those earnings to models, less fees and expenses. Models are dependent on agencies to find work. Agency contracts typically give agencies a monopoly on managing a given model's image in a given geographical area, and in New York, agencies generally take 20% of each model's earnings, plus any management expenses the agency says it has incurred, and often plus an additional 20% booking fee charged to the client. (Sometimes surprisingly large deductions for things like photocopying, messenger services, and for being on the agency website are common, even at high-profile agencies.)
In addition, if a model passing through town needs accommodation, agencies are generally only too happy to make the necessary arrangements — generally by booking her a berth in one of the apartments they maintain for the purpose. And, of course, charging her for the privilege. One month in New York sharing an agency 1-bedroom with two other girls might cost a model $2,000. Those costs and fees are not really negotiable. If your account says the agency spent $178.84 on Fed-Ex on your behalf during the month of May, you just have to eat it, because they certainly aren't going to show you a receipt. If these costs incurred push your agency account into the red, then congratulations: you now have what's known as agency debt. Most models go in and out of debt to their agencies frequently during their careers, often racking up thousands of dollars worth of debt in a competitive market like New York or Paris, only to be sent by their agencies to work it off in less-fashionable but more lucrative markets like Germany and Australia. Rinse and repeat.
Modeling industry accounting can be quite opaque, from the model's perspective. You have to trust your agency completely with all of your financial affairs — "trust" being the operative word, because not much protects you, as an independent contractor in a largely unregulated labor market. Although a model should technically be allowed to request to see her agency account at any time, the typical modeling contract pre-authorizes the agency to make whatever deductions it feels necessary without seeking any model's consent. And while expenses are typically debited from a model's account as soon as they are incurred, payments are only credited when they are received from clients — which can take months, or never happen at all. It is not uncommon for an agency to refuse take measures against deadbeat clients; to an agency, the production house or brand that stiffed that one girl over that one job may represent hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of bookings per annum for dozens of other girls. The potential cost of that one model leaving the agency — if she even did leave — is almost always lower than the potential cost of displeasing that production house or brand. It is very, very common for models to experience difficulties recovering money that is owed them after leaving an agency; it is rare, however, for models to litigate over such instances of apparent theft.
Most unusually, Pedaru, Jagodzinska, and Cwyinska's lawsuit alleges that Next's financial misconduct was so egregious and so systematic that other models are very likely to have experienced similar pilfering of their earnings. The three plaintiffs are suing in part to force Next to open its books to allow the court to examine its alleged "willful...pattern of and course of conduct of withholding compensation from models." These three women say they have reason to believe that Next's breach of fiduciary duty "spans many years" and affects many other victims. If the judge allows that to happen, this could prove to be a very interesting lawsuit, indeed.