Supermodel. Almost every girl has had a thought of what it would be to take to the runway or work the camera for a high fashion shoot. For Paynette Joan Nyawara, Gloria Baraza and Winnie Michaels, who have 14 years’ experience between them, have seen it all. They’ve worn designer clothes, have worked with the fashion industry’s top players and even travelled for fashion. But is it really all glitz and glamour. We talk to the three professionals to get a small idea what it’s like modelling in the Kenyan industry.
Some of the biggest fashion shows or commercials or fashion editorials you’ve featured in:
P: Fashion Shows, I’ve walked at Doreen Mashika Zanzibar, Tribal Chic Fashion Show, Nairobi Fashion Market and Origin of Africa. Editorials, Vogue Italia 2013, Couture Africa Magazine Cover 2015, Healthy Woman Magazine 2015, and Drum Magazine 2015.
G: Swahili Fashion Week, African Woman magazine, Healthy Woman magazine, True Love magazine Kenya.
W: I determine a big show by the amount they pay models, most of the big shows I have done I’m still following up on my payment. I have however done two editorial features with Healthy Woman Magazine’s Fashion segment. I’ve also done print for Co-op bank Kenya.
How young do people start out their modelling careers in Kenya?
P: Most young people start out through beauty pageants organised either in or outside campus.
G: Around 17 years mostly
W: Most young people start as early as high school level, some that have a passion will continue even after high school and would do part time jobs while in college like ushering. Through this they’d meet people both in runway and commercial modelling industry hence make those [necessary] contacts. With time they shift and do major runway jobs or commercials. However, there’s no defined steps as to how one has to begin being a model, everyone has a story.Are you affiliated to an agency currently?
P: No. I am not signed to any agency
W: Yes. I prefer not to mention the name.
What has your experience been with agencies?
W: I think all modelling agencies have a bad reputation in Kenya.
P: Where to start… Most agencies have favourites, the same people doing shows while others are just there for the numbers.
W: Oh definitely. Many agencies in Kenya mostly have a lot of models signed with them. They can’t always be able to refer all these models for jobs hence within the agency they have their favourite models. In this case if you are not on the “favourite” list however good you are, you’d always miss out while the favourites gets the jobs.
P: They also do not teach models. Once you are signed, you do one or two photoshoots then you wait to hear from your agent when/if they call you for a job. Most lack proper marketing tools such as zed cards or portfolios for their models while still signed and even after they terminate their contracts.
G: My experience has been fair.How do they mistreat Kenyan models?
P: The biggest problem with the modelling industry is payment. Either clients or even agents sometimes, promise to pay, put it on paper that they shall pay and still fail. Clients pay six months to one year after the job is done and get mad when you ask for your pay, and the agency does not bother following up for the model.
W: I wouldn’t use the term ‘mistreat’, it’s more that they lie; a lot.
P: Some agencies accept little to no pay from clients, instead of fighting for their models to get decent wage. And then the agent wants to pay half or less than half of the little they are getting, sometimes after making you do extra work. Then there are those agencies that underpay their models, or do not pay at all in the name of “exposure”, even when the job is paying or after numerous “exposure” jobs.
G: It’s definitely low payment and delay of payment!
P: Agents do not consider pre-event commitments. For example, you need to be in good shape, go for fittings and rehearsals, get all sorts of brand new shoes in all colours, and pay the model for only the day of the event.
P: Current state of affairs, catwalk ranges from KShs. 5,000 to KShs. 20,000 of which sometimes models get way below 5,000, sometimes even 1,000. Editorials are quite in sync. [Editorial]Cover KShs. 20,000 and the spread ranges from KShs. 8,000 to 10,000.
G: Editorial from KShs. 8,000 and for runways it gets as low as KShs. 4,000 depending on the client
W: I’d say the average pay for editorial spreads are KShs. 10,000 while the runway pays KShs. 15,000.
Are you a full time model? Why?
G: No, with the low payment situation it’s not a career here [in Kenya] that one can survive.
W: No. Because one can’t rely on modelling alone considering payment issues and job availability.
P: I am not a full time model. Modelling in Kenya, does not pay you enough to even buy food for a month. The jobs are very seasonal, the pay is little and the time taken to pay is too long. If for example, I did three jobs in December and all three want to clear my payment in March, what shall pay my bills in January and February? Because in January and February there are no jobs at all.How would you describe the sexual harassment in the industry?
G: There are clients who want to be given sexual favours…if models refuse they lose the job.
W: I have never been sexually harassed, however, most people who have gone through it never talk about it. So it’s not easy to get to know.
P: Sexual harassment is a bit relative. What I may consider harassment may not be considered the same by someone else. Sexual harassment happens mostly in beauty pageants and they are quite a number nowadays. Male judges or choreographers asking for sexual favours etc. Some jobs are also quite degrading. Clients want you to wear clothes even they wouldn’t wear and want you to sell the outfit
Are you often asked to disrobe during casting calls? How does that make you feel?
G: Personally, not really.
W: Yes. Sometimes the clients are so specific, they’d however let you know in advance before attending the audition what to wear or how to look. It’s upon the model to choose and do at their own comfort.
P: I have not been asked to disrobe before. I have been asked to wear a booty short and vest, with no bra; which I considered very offensive. According to the person, we needed to work out without bras to firm the bust, so that when you walk your breasts don’t bounce. I felt offended, there are gym clothes for a reason.Do they offer you agreements to protect who gets your images and how they’re used – if they are semi or full nude?
P: Most of the time, people want you to release your photos fully or exclusively. There are no proper contracts for work, just verbal agreements.
W: Which shouldn’t be the case. There must always be a written contract between the parties unless someone wants to get shady.
G: Typically models don’t get contracts to sign for the jobs they are doing and if they get one they are not given time to read and understand it so mostly the clients end up using the photos the way they want.
Have you been pressured about your looks and weight?
P: The pressure is never direct, it’s something you pick up from conversations. A designer may make a blunt comment or a photographer mentions for example if you were a bit smaller the pose would have looked good on you. When I had hair, I wasn’t considered for shows a lot, and the hair was natural and long. When I cut my hair, everyone wanted me. For me, it has been a journey of self-acceptance. You will not fit all jobs, that’s fine…the ones I fit, I make the best of them.
W: No. Confidence is everything, it’s not my loss if a client doesn’t choose me for who I am. I say, everybody is unique and works differently.
G: Yes, sometimes they tell you that you are too skinny or fat, too dark for what they want.In your opinion, how does Kenyan modelling industry compare to the international market
W: In my opinion, Kenya appreciates a little more diversity. Compared to a country like Italy, there are strict and specific measurements e.g. for a runway model. In Kenya, we do it short, skinny tall, long, lengthy, huge, slim, slimmer, slimmest, brown, yellow, white, black, blacker blackest as long as you are a model and the client like how you bring out the product.
P: Everyone is a model. Nowadays as long as you can walk on heels, you will be picked.
G: So long as you think and feel like you can model and know the right people in the industry you can get jobs.
It is clear that the modelling business worldwide is grossly unregulated with sexual abuse and systematic theft occurring rampantly. While not everyone’s experience is a horror show, several of their peers are getting a raw deal. And the worst part is that they don’t speak up about it, choosing only to speak amongst themselves or not at all. Or when they do, they refrain from revealing names or perpetrators. Then again, with no structures, especially in Kenya, would the claim be pursued to the full extent for justice’ sake or would the model end up publicly ridiculed?
The change has to start in how the audience, the fashion industry and legislation views models and go a step further and give them a voice. It is really time we stopped burying our heads in the sand about an industry that dehumanizes individuals and make the necessary strides to give them the same rights and protections as all other workers are privy to.