By Ella Morgan
Mar 11, 2019

The Model Student

The Exploitation and Experience of Student Workers in the Modelling Industry

*The name has been changed to protect the confidentiality of individual interviewed.

When you think of the modelling industry, images come to mind of beautiful people living glamorous lifestyles. Most people would not automatically think of a third year student living in a three bedroom flat in Hamilton East. However, for Sarah*, both of these situations are reality. Sarah is a full time student at the University of Waikato, and also works part time as a model. She does a range of work, but mainly fashion photography. “It’s been great being able to keep modelling at uni, but definitely a challenge,” Sarah says. “I have to be in Auckland a lot, be back here for classes, and still manage to pay all my bills and finish my assignments. Of course modelling doesn’t pay all my bills; I work in retail too.”

Sarah estimates that at least a third of the models she has worked with are also university students, and commonly turn to modelling to make a bit of extra money while they’re studying. According to data supplied by Careers New Zealand, most photographic models make between $30-$300 an hour. Sarah usually makes about $150 an hour on average, however can sometimes be paid more for bigger jobs. “It does sound like a lot of money when you’re thinking about getting over a hundred dollars for an hours work, but I have to cover all of my travel costs not only to shoots but also to castings, and there is so much competition for every job,” Sarah says. She highlights a key challenge for many aspiring models; the industry is currently over-saturated with models and in comparison to the rest of the world, opportunities to work professionally as a model in New Zealand are slim. As a result, new models who aren’t aligned with an agency are often expected to work for free. “When people try to get you to model without paying you, it makes me really angry,” says Sarah. “People will be making money off of the photos with you in them, and not compensating you at all in return. Would you expect someone to work for free in a supermarket? No, because the supermarket owners are making money because of your work. Modelling should be treated in the same way.” In a country this small, Sarah believes it’s important to keep a good working reputation so that she can continue to book paying jobs. Doing so can require “putting up with a lot of shit,” Sarah reveals.

While the #MeToo movement has made huge strides for womens’ capacity to feel comfortable speaking up about sexual harassment, Sarah believes that the modelling industry in New Zealand hasn’t yet followed suit. “I wish I could afford to be a part of the ‘Me Too’ movement but if I spoke out I’d lose work,” Sarah says. “I’ve seen girls who have spoken out about certain photographers or brands and now no one will work with them because they’re labelled ‘difficult’. There have been times where I haven’t felt comfortable with what I had to do on a shoot or the way people treat me like they’re in control of my body, but it’s something you have to put up with, because the people who do those things are the people who pay your bills.” Sarah’s sentiment echoes a broader trend in the global modelling industry. The late Karl Lagerfeld famously said that “If you don’t want your pants pulled about, don’t become a model,” suggesting that models who objected to this treatment should join a nunnery. Despite this, there are some more hopeful signs that indicate change is on the way. The RESPECT Initiative, organised by advocacy group Model Alliance, allows models to report sexual abuse without revealing their identity, and enforces a code of conduct aimed at preventing the mistreatment of models. While companies and photographers must still elect to be a part of this program, it nonetheless represents a step forward. Unfortunately, Sarah’s recent experience has not reflected this positivity.

“Most of the time I have really good experiences but sometimes people are just downright creepy. At the end of 2018, a photographer tried to make me pose topless, without ever telling me that this was his intention before I turned up. I remember one time during a swimwear shoot a couple of older men came and watched me and the other models, and kept trying to talk to us and get our phone numbers while we were working. Stuff like that just gives you a generally creepy vibe, but there isn’t much you can do. People treat us like they own our bodies.”

Other than sexual harassment, Sarah believes the biggest issue currently facing the modelling industry is body diversity and positivity. “I feel like the industry is definitely moving forward in the sense that there are more opportunities for plus size models. But still if you want to get into catwalk there is only one body type they want and for 99% of people it’s unrealistic.” Sarah considers herself to be part of that 99%; wearing size six clothing and weighing only 56kg, she has been unable to secure any catwalk experience despite a successful photographic career. “I try to eat clean 90% of the time, and then spend an hour doing cardio 6 days a week as well as some resistance training 4 days a week,” says Sarah. “I do think I am just naturally skinny like most other models I know, and use exercise and healthy eating to stay that way. But a lot of models do eventually restrict their eating too much or over exercise. We work in an industry where you are constantly being judged and rejected based entirely on your looks so it’s hard not to take it to heart.”

The modelling industry is ultimately a tough and sometimes even cruel way to make a living, and to aspiring models Sarah recommends thinking in depth about whether you think you can handle the harshness of life as a model. “People look up to Victoria’s Secret Models and want to live what they think is the model lifestyle. The reality is a lot of hard work, and it’s a very lonely job. You don’t get to see the same coworkers everyday like you would with a normal job and you have to travel all the time if you live in Hamilton. It’s hard for people who aren’t models to understand why you can’t hang out on the weekends because you are having to travel to jobs and it makes it tricky to make friends, especially if you’ve only just started at uni.”

While modelling has its ups and downs, there’s no other job Sarah would rather do. “Even though I have to make sacrifices and put up with some terrible experiences I really do love the work, and I will keep modelling. Even if I have to put up with a few assholes along the way.”

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