Fashion

03.08.14

Model Diaries: Escape From Istanbul

Working all day, every day for weeks—unpaid because of a contract in another language with a sociopath.

It was a gray Sunday morning with a constant looming threat of rain. I woke up early, hoping to finally spend an hour seeing the city of Istanbul instead of the suburban holes where we primarily worked. I arrived at the Grand Bazaar and planned to work my way over to the Aya Sofia and the Topkapi Palace.

“Lady! We sell Chanel, Givenchy, whatever you want. Please look inside…,” the vendors shouted at me as I walked through the stalls, enjoying the smells of faraway spices and incense lingering in the air. 

As I paused to examine a lamp, my phone began to vibrate.

“Hello?”

“Hi, this is Gülsen! Where are you?” an angry voice barked at me.

“Sorry, who is this?”

“Gülsen! Where are you?”

“Sorry, I don’t know who you are…”

“I’m the booker at the agency! I don’t speak English.” I put the lamp down (much to the anxiety of the hovering salesman). Was it possible that an agency, which dealt solely with international models in Istanbul, had a booker who didn’t speak a word of English?

“Why aren’t you at model apartment right now?” she continued to bark at me. “You have casting!” She was now screaming frantically.

“Why didn’t anybody call me? I left the apartment early this morning. I’m in the Grand Bazaar. I can be home in 15 minutes,” I responded calmly.

“I don’t have your cellphone number!”

“Then how are you calling me now?”

“Never leave the model apartment! Then we can’t find you!” She screamed back, ignoring my question.

My conversations with my agency in Istanbul always followed this pattern. A frantic phone call from some booker I had never met or heard of, then always some demand to live more like I’m in prison—Never leave the apartment! Never go out at night! Don’t lose your driver! Don’t eat that!

One of your privileges as a model is that you really do get to meet some of the world’s worst people. You meet the biggest creeps and perverts, and you are also likely to meet some of the world’s biggest sociopaths.

My now ex-agent, who runs a small agency located in Tel Aviv, fits this profile. I met her through mutual acquaintances and she offered me a contract on the spot.  I had never modeled until then. Stupidly, and in a state of total disbelief and excitement, I signed the contract. However, I did not read the contract, not least because it was in Hebrew. Nor did I ask for a translation. (Sorry, Dad. Lesson learned.)  I hadn’t realized that in those few seconds I’d signed myself up for five years of bad work, low pay (actually, as it turned out, no pay, as in the five months I’d be with her I’d never receive a single check) and immense frustration—such as I was experiencing now on the phone with this crazy Turkish booker.

After a couple of weeks in Istanbul, I realized the situation was not going to advance me far in the world of high fashion. Some of the girls in the apartment were actually escorts (that is a blog for next week); the jobs the agency sent us to were for small jobs that left the model no money after the agency had collected its fee, and they worked us like dogs— seven days of work a week, and a minimum of 10 hours per day. Exhausted, and slowly losing any mental strength I had left, I called my ex-agent. Let’s call her Gal, for the sake of clarity.

Being a professional, I did not call to complain—moms serve that purpose, not managers. I outlined what I didn’t like about the agency and asked her to resolve the situation. Moments later, my phone rang. The head of the Istanbul agency was on the other line: another harsh Turkish accent screaming profanities at me (angry Turkish accents, in my humble opinion, are the most terrifying of accents of all).

“WHY DID YOU TELL YOUR MOTHER AGENCY YOU WERE UNHAPPY?” She yelled. I began to stammer, caught off guard and a little nervous. “YOU DO NOT CALL AND SAY YOU ARE UNHAPPY. IT IS NOT CORRECT. YOU HAVE NO REASON FOR UNHAPPY!” And then a slew of profanities, in Turkish and English (obviously for my benefit, considerate people!). “YOU STOP CALLING YOUR MOTHER AGENCY!” And then click, she hung up the phone. Shaken, I called my mother, who urged me to get out of there. I changed my air ticket and arranged to fly back to Tel Aviv for Fashion Week. I emailed Gal a simple note: Leaving Istanbul. Situation is unprofessional. Please resolve.

I then found myself a small cheap boutique hotel in the ancient quarter, and collapsed onto the bed, exhausted but relieved. The Istanbul disaster was over. I slept peacefully for the first time in weeks. Bad agencies, dealing with them, escaping from them (because that’s what it actually feels like), anything that has to do with them—feels strongly like leaving an abusive relationship.

When I came back to Tel Aviv, I met with Gal. I told her I wanted to leave the agency, focus on other projects, and back out of my contract. She told me I was wonderful. She told me not to leave a job I clearly loved so much. She promised she would introduce me to people in Milan and New York. She told me we had so much more to accomplish together. She then gushed a few personal compliments, and, lost in her words (I know, I know, naïve), I left the meeting without getting her to comply with my desire to release me from the contract.

In the end, she never paid me for my work. That seemed to me as good a legal violation of contract as any, so I urged her to sue me and left the agency. I started working with another, much more professional agency.

Of course it was not going to be that easy.

Gal began calling me from friends’ cellphones instead of her own once she noticed that I was ignoring her calls, and all calls from blocked numbers for that matter. I became paranoid and avoided her neighborhood, dreading the idea of running into her. She emailed me with threats—to take me to court, to blackmail me, to ruin future professional relationships in Tel Aviv and abroad. She tried to guilt me, and accused me of personally hurting her and sabotaging our friendship. She harassed my family. She told me I owed her money, and that she had created me and that contractually I was her possession.

I forwarded her threats to a lawyer. I moved on. I kept working. I kept doing what I love to do. Like I said, as a model you have the privilege of meeting and working with some of the world’s craziest people—you have to take it in stride, stay strong, and keep your sense of humor intact. I tell myself it will soon be a distant memory that will become an amusing dinner-party anecdote in the future. Just like Istanbul.