Lots of girls dream of becoming fashion models – who wouldn’t want to be young, beautiful, glamorous and rich – all at the same time?
Well, behind the pictures, there’s often a different story. The clothes and jewelry are all borrowed, the hair and makeup take hours, and are done to someone else’s liking, not yours. The hours can be grueling, and there are so many bookings that pay nothing. That’s right, they pay nothing – but they’re highly visible, so they could make your career.
And you have to start young. There are a few girls (and they’re always called girls) who get scouted while in college, but the vast majority of models start working in their teens, with over half starting work between ages thirteen and sixteen. And while my sixteen-year-old self would have much rather been modelling than working the gyro stand at the mall, there are potential problems with this.
Fashion models weren’t always so young. When designers first started showing dress collections on live women, the women were usually shop assistants, or their own customers. A young socialite made an excellent model for a local couture house – it was something to talk about with their friends (who would coincidentally be hearing more about the brand). You could say they were early influencers. But in the era of mass media, beauty and youth eclipsed family connections as selling points, and the arms race to find the most beautiful women to sell clothes and makeup was on. Now talent scouts look for girls as young as twelve who might become the next Kate (who was scouted at fourteen).
Behind the scenes, we see the more successful ones: the girls who leave school at fourteen or fifteen and rise to the top. And we see their drama too: everyone loves them, but love in the fashion industry is highly conditional, and a fifteen-year-old can tell. There’s a lot of isolation, and a lot of not really nice people.
And no protection. Somehow, while child actors, dancers and musicians have been steadily gaining legal protection against danger, fraud, and lack of schooling, fashion models are not covered by those laws. So most of the teenagers who work as fashion models never finish high school, work long hours under sometimes dangerous conditions, and have no right to financial transparency from the adults who manage them.
But this is set to change. Thanks in large part to the efforts of The Model Alliance, the New York State Senate and Assembly voted unanimously to recognize fashion models under eighteen years old as child performers, a distinction that affords them legal rights to schooling, financial trusts for their future well being, and even a responsible adult on set when they work (which is asking a lot from some photo crews!).
Labor rights won’t solve every problem facing a young model, but the requirement for financial trusts and tutors will help a lot of girls coming into the industry, at least in New York. And maybe…it won’t just be Brooke who can go to Princeton when she’s done modelling for Vogue.