The fashion industry is like an anglerfish. For the aspiring model or fashion enthusiast, it appears to dangle the enticing glamour of beautiful people, luxe couture and jet setting, luring you closer. This is until you meet the double-edged monster that lurks in the shadows. A world of poor working conditions, delayed or withheld payment and sexual harassment. The reality of the industry is that very few reach super model status that comes with the perks of fame and fortune. Many live very mundane lives or have experienced such offensive employment situations that if it were in a white-collar office, Ministry of Labour would be banging down the doors and dragging the perps out by their ‘designer threads’.
It’s already established that sex sells and the fashion industry is selling a fantasy, however more often than not, the people in power use it for their perverted pleasure. From inappropriate sexual suggestions, blackmailing, suggestive touching to propositioning, models are exposed to extreme situations but remain mum to avoid getting fired or blacklisted.Former head of Elite Paris, Gérald Marie has quite the sticky history. In 2011 model Carré Otis exposed Marie as her aggressive rapist in 1985 when she was 17 years old. In her memoir, Beauty Disrupted she explains in detail the abuse she suffered and kept to herself for more than two decades. Like many hopefuls with limited options and without age on their side, “”I was desperate for his advice, and did my best to please him. I knew that this was my last chance to make it in the business. I knew that Gérald could help me become a star. And I knew that becoming a star meant being at his beck and call.”. In addition, another young model, Karen Mulder, also came forward to accuse Marie, he was caught soliciting a 15-year-old model for sex and bragging about how many teen models he’d have sex with in a year. However, with also this evidence stacked against him, he has never been investigated or prosecuted. Photographer Shaun Colclough was discovered in 2014 to have sexually harassed and assaulted multiple female models and was sentenced to seven years while modelling agent Norwayne Anderson was charged in 2013 with two counts of sexual exploitation and five counts of sexual assault in Toronto, Canada. American Male model, Benjamine Bowers, sued Abercrombie & Fitch in 2012 as well as his modelling agent Brian Hilburn after he was told by a photographer to sexually please himself in order for the photographer to capture his facial expression immediately after orgasm. Feeling that he had no power in the situation, Bowers obeyed only for Hilburn to have exposed himself and began to make inappropriate sexual comments. The stories go on and on. But one of the industry’s biggest boogie man seems to be American fashion and portrait photographer, who has shot advertising campaigns for Marc Jacobs, Aldo, and Tom Ford, Terrence “Terry” Richardson. There are a disconcerting number of articles that expose the photographer’s lewd demands from the female models, with one making it as the cover story for New York Magazine in 2014. (You can read more here, here, here, and here). When confronted about the accusations, his response to The Guardian (US) was, “My rule is that I’d never ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” he said, we should point out that he really has no issue being nude or engaging in sexual acts on camera himself. “At first, I’d want to do a few nude shots, so I’d take off my clothes too. I’d even give the camera to the model and get her to shoot me for a while. It’s about creating a vibe, getting people relaxed and excited. When that happens, you can do anything.” Despite the accusations, he is still the photographer to the stars and is still in bed with regular clients such as H&M, Vogue, and GQ. Many men and women in the industry don’t say anything or even say no to these advances because they don’t consider no as an option. In such a competitive industry, the logic is ‘put up with the harassment and you will get booked to model another day’. However they are left dealing with the ramifications of abuse.
UnderpaymentNot every model will nab $42 million annually like Gisele Bündchen, many models internationally are in debt. They work long hours without job security, have no say about the kind of conditions they work in and must mould their lives and routine to ensure they look good and are available for the clients. And there seems to be gender based discrimination in payment structures too. Surprisingly modelling is the only industry where men earn less than women and treated as less-intellectual. Take for example Sean O’Pry. He’s been on everything from Calvin Klein, Dolce & Gabbana and Ralph Lauren campaigns to one of Taylor Swift’s music videos. Forbes even named him the world’s top-earning male model in 2013. He made $1.2 million in the same time frame that Bündchen made $42 million.
One major hindrance to the models’ economic rights is the lack of financial transparency. It makes it easier for designers, clients and agencies to delay or withhold payment for work given. Many treat modelling as an ‘intern’ experience where they should be grateful to work for free for the exposure.
Butit’s not jus the international fashion industry that has some skeletons in its closet. We talked to three models; Paynette Joan Nyawara, Gloria Baraza and Winnie Michaels, who have 14 years’ experience between them in the Kenyan industry, to get a small idea what it’s like modelling in the Kenyan industry. From sex to measurements,look out for part II tomorrow to get the lowdown of what goes on off the runway.