Is that Modelling Agency Legit?

The idea was simple. All they needed to do was hire a studio in a convenient part of the central business district and market their open call for new models heavily on social media. With that, they’re agency was born and over the span of just two days they photographed and signed up hundreds of young hopefuls looking for the runway fame. The girls just had to pay KShs.5,000 to sign up and get five pictures taken for their new portfolios. According to the owner of the studio, who wishes to remain anonymous, after the two days that agency seized to exist.

That’s just one example in a sea of modelling agency scams and horror stories that happen both locally and internationally. Then there are those that may have been in the market for ages but just aren’t representing their models to the best of their ability. The studio owner commented that, “most of these agencies start without the right networking structures in place to ensure that they can keep getting their models work. That’s why most fail from the beginning.”

“most of these agencies start without the right networking structures in place to ensure that they can keep getting their models work. That’s why most fail from the beginning.”

The models featured in the TDS article industry unregulated didn’t have any nice words for modelling agencies either. Gloria Baraza knows quite a few poorly managed agencies but says, “[I] can’t give out names because I have worked with them so I’ll just keep it to myself.” Winnie Michaels added, “I think all modelling agencies have a bad reputation in Kenya.” While Paynette Nyawara highlighted their favouritism for only a handful of models while the rest are left without gigs for months. While there are legitimate modelling agencies out there, how can you spot the scams and the bad business management agencies from ones that really work?

The Upfront Fee Sting

Legitimate modelling companies are really selective and won’t want to sign up any model on the spot. Sure, they’ll have open casting calls where ‘no experience necessary’ could be allowed but they won’t try to make you pay for any photographs, or try to sell you modelling classes. They won’t even charge for the audition. They’ll evaluate you from what they physically see and from the headshots they’ve taken and if they decide to hire you, they’ll give you a call. So now you’re probably wondering how they’re supposed to make their money; it is a business after all. There are actually two ways modelling agencies earn income from a model. They either take a pre-agreed percentage from the models booking fee after they find them that job, or they charge the client the fee directly when they book one of their models for a job.

If the agency is charging any up-front fees such as evaluation or signing up fees, it’s a clear indication that there’s not enough money coming in from modelling work to support the agency’s expenses. That means they won’t have work for you so best to turn on your heels and run out of there ASAP!

[Image: We Are Models Agency]

[Image: We Are Models Agency]

Liu Wen [Image:]

Liu Wen [Image:]

Joan Smalls [Image:]

Joan Smalls [Image:]

Rosie Huntington-Whiteley [Image:]

Rosie Huntington-Whiteley [Image:]

Before they were famous - polaroid headshot of Miranda Kerr [Image:]

Miranda Kerr [Image:]

The Portfolio Con

It starts with being discovered. It could be from your social media page, in a nightclub or on the street. Although it is flattering to be asked if you’re a model or to be told you have what it takes, it’s important to be critical about this offer; especially if you don’t have the mainstream fashion industry standards. Because once they’ve got you on the hook, they’ll insist that you require a portfolio and they’ll want to shoot an entire book in just a day with only one photographer that you’ll have to pay for.

Once a professional agency signs you, they’ll be willing to invest in your portfolio and increasing your exposure to get paying jobs. This usually starts with them arranging free or very cheap shoots to build up your images for your portfolio. Some agencies will collaborate with other creatives and may ask you to do free shoots for clients in the beginning to help achieve this but ensure that working free jobs doesn’t become the norm for you. The rest will be built up over time from the gigs you eventually book. You shouldn’t have to spend a fortune to get a portfolio.

An example of a model's Z card [Image: courtesy of Elite Models Agency]

An example of a model’s Z card [Image: courtesy of Elite Models Agency]


Social Media Scam     

The internet has made it that much easier for fake agencies or modelling competitions to thrive. They can purely exist online without a physical address but armed with a working phone number and a Facebook page. All top agencies are office based and have a professional website to promote their models. If you’re looking to compete in competitions avoid glossy competitions that require public voting to get through the rounds of the competition. Legitimate competitions use the structure of judges and industry professionals with vast fashion experience to choose finalists.


‘We only use THIS photographer’ ruse

As we’ve seen in previous articles, there is a need for caution with photographers. It’s highly advisable to firstly research on the photographer you’ll be working with and go with a chaperone especially when starting out. Some agencies may get student photographers to cut costs on getting your test shoots; this is definitely not what you want. Your test shots need to be the best possible images for your book/portfolio and it’s best to get the photographer with experience and their own domain name (i.e. Website) and not Billy with his first professional camera to do it.

Your agency will provide you with a list of professional photographers you can shoot with or give you recommendations but they shouldn’t force you to shoot with just one specific photographer. The only exception to this rule is if your agency has managed to arrange shoots for their models with a reputed, highly professional photographer that isn’t Terry Richardson.

Or there’s the flip side where they say the pictures are free but you incur cost elsewhere such as exorbitant makeup fee for the makeup used during the shoot.

[bctt tweet=”Most importantly, professional agencies won’t ask rookies to do nude or suggestive photo-shoots off the bat. If agencies ask for sexy photos immediately, it’s a red flag, you should pick up your things and go.” username=”FashionKE”]

Most importantly, professional agencies won’t ask rookies to do nude or suggestive photo-shoots off the bat. If agencies ask for sexy photos immediately, it’s a red flag, you should pick up your things and go. Highly artistic shoots such as these require an experienced model to pull it off who knows their angles and are comfortable in front of the camera. If they do ask you to take pictures in a bikini they’d be more of the soft posing than provocative. However, the model should find out what the purpose of having the nude (or semi-nude) as well. An agency should always be working for the best interest of the model and if nude shots won’t help the career path the model wants to take they shouldn’t be done.
‘We guarantee you work’ shtick

Modelling agencies can’t actually guarantee you work because they aren’t employers. They may have clients and a vast network but it’s the clients that decide what they’re looking for. All the agency can do is represent the model and try their best to get everyone work. That’s why you know something is off if the agency guarantees you work. This gets even worse if they’re advertising this on newspapers, magazines or online. For one, professional agencies don’t market because they get new faces coming to them constantly. Secondly, they’re probably about to sell you all their classes in order to get you that guaranteed work.



The modelling industry can be a confusing place, making it difficult to know who can be trusted and who’s just after your money. It’s important to always ask questions and to do your research before proceeding with any agency. Really look into the agency to find out points of interest such as how long they’ve been in the industry, who owns the business and what is their reputation so far, what type of modelling gigs they get for their models, what average pay do the models get and whether the model gets a copy of their own contract. Reputation is also key. If it smells funny or sounds too good to be true, trust your gut and run. If they can’t answer these questions or get agitated at least you’ll know you’ve escaped a bad situation. And remember no money should be exchanged upfront whether it’s for signing or casting calls. Like in every other profession, models too need to empower themselves with knowledge of their rights and keep looking until they find the legit representation that you deserve


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