BULLIED AND ISOLATED. How the modelling industry hides a culture of exploitation.
It was 11am in Hamburg and Thalita Freiry had skipped breakfast. Shivering and clad only in her bikini, she stood very still in the middle of the office, waiting patiently for the woman kneeling by her side to finish measuring the circumference of her hips. Suddenly, Thalita heard the woman taking a deep breath. Then she felt a cold hand patting her hip. “Somebody needs to work out,” the woman said. As she stood up, she avoided looking at Thalita’s face, missing the tears forming in her eyes.
Thalita is a 31-year-old model from Brazil. She is black, with dark hair and brown eyes. According to the information provided by Nevs Models, Thalita’s modelling agency in London, her measurements are: are 83cm (34in) bust, 63.5cm (25in) waist, and 94cm (37in) hips. She is 174 cm (5.8ft 5in) tall and wears a UK size 8. She has been a model since she was 16.
'You see these curves here? You need to lose that'
Her modelling experience in Brazil and Cape Town landed her a job in London almost five years ago, when she signed up with her current agency. “One day I came in and they told me an agency in Hamburg had asked to work with me in particular,” she says. Her voice becoming smaller, she adds: “But the hip situation is always a problem.”
What Thalita calls her “hip situation” started when she was 19. She was still working for her first agency in Brazil and, in between shoots and campaigns, she daydreamed about modelling in Miami. The Magic City was known among her fellow models as a sea of opportunities.
“I remember sitting across from my agent in his office,” Thalita says. “I’d asked him to find me an appointment with an agency in Miami, and his eyes went like this.” She points at her own eyes, wide open in surprise. “Stand up,” her agent told her. “Stand up, I’m going to show you what we have to do.” He approached 19-year-old Thalita and stood behind her, with his hands ghosting over her hips. “You see these curves here? You need to lose that,” he told her, “and if you really want to go to Miami, we’re going to have to whiten your skin.”
Thalita makes a face at the memory, as if she was still shocked, but a small smile quickly reappears as she continues: “So when that agent in Germany told me I should work out, even though it really hurt, it is something you just end up becoming used to.”
In 2007, images of the anorexic body of actress and model Isabelle Caro were made visible all over Italy under the headline “NO ANOREXIA”. As part of an advertising campaign for the Italian brand Nolita, Caro posed for the camera fully naked.
With her back to the camera, each vertebra visible underneath her paper-thin skin, Caro looked over her shoulder with a sad expression in her sunken eyes. From billboards all over town, those sad eyes hovered over the Milan Fashion Week shows like an omen.
Caro died in November 2010 at 28 years old. Although the causes of her death are still unclear, the acute respiratory disease that landed her in the hospital was suspected to be a consequence of anorexia-related immunodeficiency.
The ad campaign with her emaciated image as protagonist became banned and the billboards were taken down, but Caro’s legacy as a symbol of the battle against anorexia persisted. She was known for saying she’d only agreed to pose for the campaign because she wanted to warn young girls “about the danger of diets and of fashion commandments”.
Thalita’s story is proof that there are still corners in the modelling industry where Isabelle’s warning remains unheard.
According to a study released by The British Journal of Psychiatry in 2012, the glorification of thinness within the modelling industry creates a “toxic environment” that can eventually lead to both eating and body image disorders.
“We live in a society in which there are factors, who benefit from people feeling negatively about their bodies,” says Professor Viren Swami from Anglia Ruskin University. Professor Swami’s work focuses on the psychology of body image and human appearance. He carries on: “When it comes to fashion advertising, they’re selling products that will, supposedly, make us look better and feel better. So it is in their interest that people feel like they’re not good enough.”
'We live in a society in which there are factors, who benefit from people feeling negatively about their bodies'
But the glorification of thinness as a natural ideal of beauty is, according to Professor Swami, relatively new from a historical point of view. In 17th and 18th century Western Europe, women with rounder bodies were favoured over thin women. “It wasn’t until quite late into the 19th century that there was a shift,” Professor Swami says, “from a more flexible ideal body shape to a homogenised thin ideal.”
In her book The Beauty Myth, feminist author Naomi Wolf explores the reasons that led to society’s shift into glorifying thinness. According to Wolf, the harder women fought towards equality, the more effort society would put into relocating their focus on their appearance.
“Between the late 19th century and early 20th century, more and more women were advocating for women’s rights,” explains Professor Swami. “It was also around that time that you’d start seeing newspaper adverts of products that would help you lose weight. From pills to all kinds of weird exercise machines.” He continues: “The purpose was to sell the idea that if you weren’t thin, you were never going to be successful.”
Hannah Janes was 14 when she had her first ever paid modelling job. She found it so exciting, she never stopped. Modelling became a fun and nice thing for her to do outside school, and she enjoyed the confidence boost she got from it. She was a child expected to behave like an adult while on set, so the more she worked, the more she learned about the industry and what she needed to do to succeed in it.
It wasn’t until many years later, when she was 22, that she realised there was something wrong with the wisdom she had acquired. “I used to look at other women and think: ‘Oh, I could never go over a size 12. Everyone above that is just fat.’,” says Hannah. “It’s a pretty horrible thing to admit, but I simply couldn’t understand how you could look like that and be happy,” she adds.
The idea that the pursuit of happiness is inherently linked to the pursuit of thinness had been instilled into her to such an extent, she ended up seeing it as a given. “From the age of 14 to 22, all I’d ever known was that that I had to look a certain way,” Hannah says, “being even one centimetre out of line was not okay.”
For eight years, Hannah remained signed with the same agency, booking clients like Avon and ASOS on a weekly basis. But it seemed her agency had other plans for her. “Every time I had my measurements taken, there was always a discussion on whether I could get smaller,” Hannah says. “It was always like: ‘Can we take an inch off here?’ and ‘Can we take an inch off there?’,” she adds.
When asked whether she remembers what were her measurements at that time, Hannah laughs. “I actually found an old business card in my room earlier today,” she says. Her card would have her dress size, as well as the measurements of her bust, waist and hips written on it.
“Fun fact,” Hannah says, as she stands up and places her hands on her hips. “When they say ‘hips’, they don’t really mean your hipbones,” she explains. “Instead, what they do is they measure the widest part of you, all the way around your butt.”
‘I used to look at other women and think: I could never go over a size 12. Everyone above that is just fat’
At 22 years old, Hannah’s measurements were 80cm (32in) bust, 63.5cm (25in) waist and 81cm (36in) hips. “All of this keeping in mind I am 5ft 10in tall,” Hannah says, “I was on the lowest point on a BMI scale. I was underweight. But what my agency wanted was a 34-inch hip.”
The constant scrutiny over her weight led Hannah to stop going to her agency. After three months of inactivity, she received an email from them. “They had dropped me!” Hannah says. “I’d been there for eight years, and they emailed me to tell me they were dropping me,” she continues. “It just shows a complete and utter lack of respect for models as human beings,” Hannah finishes.
After this experience, and the enormous toll it took on her self-esteem, Hannah struggled to find the confidence to work as a model again. When she finally gathered the courage to arrange a meeting with a new agency, Hannah admits she was extremely nervous: “My constant thought was: ‘They’re going to think I’m too fat.’.”
But that was not what happened. Her new agency did not think Hannah’s curves were a hindrance, but an asset. “From the moment they were taking my measurements and they said: ‘Oh yes! You have boobs!’ I knew I had found my place,” Hannah says, smiling.
Today, at 26 years old, Hannah is a successful curve model. She wears a D cup, has gained over 10 inches on her hips, and she admits she feels happier being the biggest she has ever been. “Now I know that, from a mental and a physical health point of view, this is a far better choice,” she admits.
‘I was on the lowest point on a BMI scale, but my agency wanted a 34-inch hip’
Hannah’s newfound confidence has also led to her being more outspoken on social media. By posting before and after pictures of her weight journey, Hannah aims to start conversations that will challenge the industry’s portrayal of healthy bodies.
She says: “The only real difference between me today and me back then is that the person I was all those years ago would have never spoken up about everything that was wrong with the system.”
It was the power dynamic within the industry that kept Hannah from speaking up when she was younger. “You’ve got to tiptoe the line very carefully,” Hannah explains. She hesitates for a second, but then she adds: “They have the power to not send you to clients, so you never really want to piss off your booker.”
The survey Self-esteem and Body Image in the Modelling Industry, which was shared on the Model Activist Google group, shows that 72.5% of the models surveyed have felt pressured to change their bodies since they began their modelling careers.
The survey also showed only 10% of models consider body positivity campaigns, like The Be Real Body Image Pledge, which advocates for a more responsible portrayal of body image in the media, to be truly effective. 72.5% admitted that, although they did find them effective on an individual level, they did not think agencies were influenced by these campaigns. 17.5% said they did not find them effective at all.
Nimue Smit, who began her modelling career at 16 and has names such as Vogue and Prada in her portfolio, thinks that one of the biggest issues with the modelling industry comes from models not feeling entitled to ask for basic workers’ rights. “The whole industry is set up so that you as a model don’t feel like what you’re doing is serious work,” Nimue says. “You don’t feel comfortable walking into your agency and acting like it’s business, because it doesn’t feel like business.”
Part of this issue, Nimue says, comes from the extreme casualness most agents and bookers talk to models: “It’s always ‘Hey darling!’ or ‘How are you, sweetie?’, which is a style of conversation you expect from family and friends, but that you would never hear in other industries.”
This seemingly relaxed and overly friendly environment results in models feeling uncomfortable prioritising their own needs. “The position we’re placed in is one of such little power, many of us never learn to negotiate for themselves,” explains Nimue. “You don’t learn to negotiate your rates, your contracts, your conditions… and when you do, you’re seen as the bitchy or the whiny one,” she says.
This culture of silence and eagerness to please is something a lot of models assimilate from a very young age. Whilst attending an event for young models working during Fashion Week, Nimue remembers being shocked by the way one of the agents addressed the girls there.
‘During Fashion Week everyone’s going to cry’
“This agent kept saying things like ‘During Fashion Week, it’s normal to cry. Everyone’s going to cry’,” Nimue says, shrugging her shoulders and raising her hands in front of her face in a disbelieving gesture. “The idea that it is okay to make 16 to 25 year-olds so tired and exhausted that they’ll end up crying, and then telling them that’s just part of the industry… that’s a big problem.”
It was also very recently that a dark thought dawned on Nimue: the many times her agencies have sent her to castings organised by people they had never either heard about or met in person before. She counts herself as one of the lucky ones: “I don’t depend on this job, emotionally or financially, but…” Nimue becomes quiet for a moment, then carries on: “Imagine if they sent a younger girl, who wants to do this job badly, to a photographer’s house by herself. People will do a lot of stuff when they want something badly, and to feel like you’re not in a position to say no in a situation like that, well.” Nimue stops again, trying to find the right words. “That’s just a very, very terrible situation to be in.”
‘Isolation as a worker is a dangerous thing, because you don’t have a place to go and ask: Is this normal?’
When she was 18 and living in Beijing, Janice Sommer quitted modelling for good after finding out she had been drugged by a man who claimed to be a freelance modelling agent. “He said to me and other girls that he could bring our freelance work to a more professional level,” Janice says, now 29 years old and based in London. “He told me he’d invited all the girls he was representing over to his place for drinks,” Janice continues. “But when I got to his flat, it was only him and another woman in there.”
Janice accepted the drink she was offered, and the next thing she knew was that she was really, really drunk. “I’d only had half of what I thought was a gin and tonic,” Janice says. “Realisation then hit of just how weird the whole situation was, so I took my handbag and ran.” Janice heard the man running after her, but she managed to get away. “The morning after I went to the doctor and they told me the stuff they’d given me was so strong, I had to be on antibiotics for a week,” says Janice.
Two years ago, after having given up modelling completely to pursue a career in finance, Janice decided to give modelling another go. “I was just sick of my job,” Janice explains. “I went to an open call casting in Munich and ended up signing with Munich Models.”
The experience of separating herself from the industry only to return years later, more experienced and mature, is something for which Janice feels thankful. “I’ve become the type of person that researches a lot,” Janice says.
When she was still trying to decide whether or not to go back to modelling, Janice came across Leanne Maskell’s book The Model Manifesto: an A-Z anti-exploitation manual for the fashion industry. “This book helped me re-enter the industry with open eyes,” explains Janice. “There is even a chapter on contracts, where it highlights the lines you’d often find in a modelling contract which you really, really, really shouldn’t agree to.”
As an example, Janice mentions a contract she was once offered to sign by an agency in Singapore. One of the conditions listed were Janice’s measurements could not be one centimetre either under or over her original measurements, which refer to the ones they would take the day she is casted. “Other models told me agents rarely enforce these conditions, but if they don’t, why put it into a legal document, then?” Janice asks.
Discovering The Model Manifesto expanded Janice’s knowledge about the industry, but it also opened her eyes to a bitter reality. “There is a huge need for better education for younger models,” Janice says. She carries on: “Modelling is not like other jobs, where you can meet colleagues over coffee. You have a new team for every job,” explains Janice. “The industry isn’t built in a way models can bond with other models,” she finishes.
Inspired by this thought, Janice became involved with Model Mafia, also known as Model Activist, a community-building hub for models, which works towards a more equitable, just and sustainable fashion industry. The initiative, which started in New York, was brought to life by models and activists Cameron Russell and Áine Rose Campbell. Through a self-moderated Google group that connects models from all over the world, Model Mafia offers a sense of community to hundreds of fashion models.
'The industry isn't built in a way models can bond with other models'
Both Janice and Nimue helped them launch the Model Mafia London hub. “It’s about providing a safe space where models can engage with other models to talk about the shadowy side of the industry and encourage each other,” says Janice.
Nimue adds: “I wish something like this had existed when I was younger. Isolation as a worker is a dangerous thing, because you don’t have a place to go and ask: ‘Is this normal? Am I being treated right?’, Model Mafia created just that.”
The success of this community, according to Janice, lies in its diversity. “Some of the girls in our community have written books, others have become nutritionists,” she says. “One of them has even founded her own modelling agency, UBooker.”
Model Mafia member, Claudia Wagner, launched UBooker in New York in 2017 along her husband Nicola Scagnolari and fellow model Diana Gaertner. As other model agencies, UBooker acts as the link between clients and models, but its system is unique in the way they “eliminate the middleman”, as co-founder and CEO Nicola Scagnolari puts it.
‘It isn’t legal in the UK for agencies to sign models exclusively. And yet many agencies include exclusivity clauses in their contracts’
Across Europe and the US, agencies typically take up to 50% from a model’s booking fee, but this amount varies between countries. Agencies often also charge clients an extra fee, sometimes another 20% atop the original booking fee. This means, if a model’s day rate is £1,000, the agency will charge the client £1,200.
At UBooker, they retain a 10% commission from the models’ bookings and charge the client a 10% extra fee. “We thought the entire system could use some rethinking. Because, frankly, the model is the one doing the work and the client is paying the money, the agent is only a connector,” Nicola explains.
Via their app and website, UBooker provides clients such as Yoox and Net-a-Porter with a wide variety of models to hire. “When we started, we only had 75 models,” says Nicola. “Now we have 1200 models all over the world.”
Models that are signed with UBooker are also free to accept jobs from other agencies. “It isn’t legal in the UK for agencies to sign models exclusively,” explains Nicola. “And yet many agencies include exclusivity clauses in their contracts.” Nicola adds: “The terrible thing is, if a model goes on to work independently with a client, their agency will drop them.”
Nicola firmly believes UBooker could be the future of the modelling industry. “The difference between a company from the 20th Century and one from the 21st Century is that our purpose is not just to make money. We created UBooker because we want to make changes in this industry, because we want to make it fairer. That’s our real purpose,” he concludes.
'I think the problem’s bigger than that, and it’s more about the way models are treated like they’re replaceable, like they’re not people'
Back in London after returning from Germany, Thalita continues to struggle with her insecurities. The words “somebody needs to work out” haven’t really left her mind.
But would it be any better if she had an army of fellow models on her side? Could a friendlier, more understanding agency really make her feel better about the industry, or even about herself? Thalita thinks for a long time, but in the end, when she has her answer ready, her dark eyes look sadder than before.
“I don’t know,” she admits. “I think the problem’s bigger than that, and it’s more about the way models are treated like they’re replaceable, like they’re not people.” Thalita becomes quiet. Her words echo Hannah’s fury after being dropped by her first agency, Nimue’s silent fear at realising her agency had put her in potentially dangerous situations, and Janice’s shock at being asked to sign an unfair contract.
After another long pause, Thalita continues: “Imagine if I had spoken up,” she says. “Imagine that I had said something on social media and that woman that was rude to me in Germany never speaks to another girl the way she spoke to me again,” Thalita continues, “the damage was already done. I would have still gone home to look at myself in the mirror and ask myself: ‘Are my hips really that big?’.”