“‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”—Nick Carraway on his father, The Great Gatsby
Kendall Jenner triggered a wave of disgust and offense when she detailed her frustrations with the world of runway modeling to Love magazine.
“Since the beginning we’ve been super-selective about what shows I would do,” Jenner, 22, told Love. “I was never one of those girls who would do, like, 30 shows a season or whatever the fuck those girls do. More power to ’em.”
Jenner’s representative later attempted damage control via Page Six, saying that Jenner’s quote had been taken out of context. “She realized the number of shows some models walk a season is closer to 80. The point was that it’s their path and ‘the more power to them.’ She admires their hard work and dedication. It’s an accomplishment.”
Jenner’s representative’s awkward apology did not address the essence of what had upset so many models: Kendall’s comments were flippant and thoughtless, devaluing the extreme experiences of her colleagues.
“The words offended most of the industry that doesn’t come from a privileged place. I think she was looking for empathy, but she didn’t realize that she used wrong examples,” runway model Jac Jagaciak commented to The Daily Beast.
“Not everyone is a social media titan and reality TV show royalty—a lot of people have to use other means,” Madisyn Ritland, a model who has walked for brands such as Chanel, Calvin Klein and Dolce and Gabbana, told The Daily Beast.
“I took it personally. I got defensive of all my friends who work so hard. I think we do tend to take things out of context, and get outraged quickly, and I don’t want to immediately judge her. But I feel like her comment shows, at the very least, that she doesn’t have much solidarity with the other models who she’s referring to.”
Ritland continued: “Anytime someone says 'those'—she said ‘those girls’—I think that’s very 'othering,' and we’re already treated as objects. To have it be such a faceless 'othering' comment, coming from one of our own, and coming from someone who’s privileged and powerful, it’s disappointing.
"She said, 'Whatever the fuck those girls do' so flippantly. There are so many stories and heartbreak, and exhaustion and health—there’s a whole system of abuse that’s happening that needs to be addressed and worked on.”
Sara Ziff, Executive Director of the Model Alliance, said in a statement to The Daily Beast: “I trust that Kendall Jenner means well, but she is in a relatively privileged position and she may not fully appreciate the abuses that many models routinely face in what remains a largely unregulated industry.
"The top 1% of models receive very different treatment than everyone else. That said, she and other prominent models have an opportunity to listen and learn from those models in the industry who are less fortunate and more vulnerable to abuse. Kendall Jenner now has an opportunity to leverage her visibility and clout, and help champion efforts to ensure that everyone enjoys fair working conditions in fashion—not just the lucky few.”
Jenner’s real error was her complete dismissal of her own colleagues' professional decisions. It was mindless and disrespectful.
Jenner's is an established brand. She has many advantages: a TV show entering into its sixteenth season, 94.3 million dedicated followers on Instagram, a subscription blog (starting at $2.99 a month, for the lite version) and the professional guidance of one of Los Angeles’ most influential managers, her mother Kris Jenner.
None of the outrage around her modeling comments should take away from the work Jenner has put in for own career. I’m sure she has faced her own unique challenges which the regular, civilian model has not, and will not.
Kendall Jenner has grown up in a luxuriously-appointed Calabasas bubble, and so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that she would say something so thoughtless. (She was also the star of an infamously tone-deaf Pepsi commercial.)
The runway modeling experience is a far cry from the pantomime portrayed on Instagram and fashion media outlets.
The experience is grueling, often involving little sleep and no food for a month and a half. Models fly from New York to Paris to Milan, often on their own dime, barely breaking even on their expenses as the pay is far from lucrative.
“You’re kind of not sleeping for a month and a half. It’s running on adrenaline and fumes. The first time I did it, it was exhilarating. But afterwards my body collapsed on me,” Ritland detailed to The Daily Beast. “You kind of don’t eat very much. Everyone’s different but I don’t think it’s much of a secret, especially leading up to Fashion Week, people will take on some pretty extreme diet routines. On top of that you’re just so busy, it’s pretty hard to eat at all. It’s an extreme couple of months.”
Sonia Trzewikowska, a runway model who has walked for Sally LaPointe, said, "I respect Kendall as a model, and I even respect the way she got onto runway in the first place. For all of us the path might be different.
"I felt undermined and disrespected by her words. Models put a huge amount of physical and mental work into what they do. At the end of the day they pray and hope to get any show. What Kendall does is not comparable to an average model.
"She also generalizes and disrespects models as just 'those girls,' and their hard work as 'whatever the f**k those girls do.' What I saw in Kendall's comment, was arrogance and disrespect, and a lack of maturity and empathy and a lack of understanding the business, as well as other people's work."
Ziff, who also did the runway circuit walking for designers and brands such as Stella McCartney, Chanel, Prada and Burberry before she focused her attention on The Model Alliance, filmed a documentary (Picture Me) about her and her peers’ experience flitting from fashion week to fashion week.
“Like Jenner, I also experienced burn out. Doing upwards of five shows per day, with no days off, and casting and fittings running through the night—all between four international cities (and time zones) in the span of just a month is a lot for anyone to handle. You are under constant scrutiny, you're not given proper meal or rest breaks, and you have very little control over your schedule or working life.”
The pay spectrum is a range based on clout. “It can be anything from a piece of clothing, $100 dollars, to $10k. There is no rule—you work your way up,” added Jac Jagaciak.
“Fashion Week appears to be glamorous, but the fact is that some shows just pay in ‘trade,’ meaning clothes. Many models are just breaking even during Fashion Week and see it as an opportunity to get 'good exposure' and book paid jobs down the line. Some models actually end up working in debt to their agencies,” noted Ziff.
Because the pay is so low, and the odds of booking numerous runway shows a gamble, models try to book as many jobs as possible. Some models are in the midst of their secondary or collegiate education. Some models are supporting large families far away from the catwalks of shiny metropolises.
“I’ve been modeling for 11 years," commented the Polish-born Jagaciak. "Like many, many of my friends I had seasons when I walked over 60 shows. [The] Majority of girls that walked the shows with me came from Eastern Europe or other non English speaking part[s] of the world, and this job is still basically winning a golden ticket for us. We are proud of every single job we book and it takes a lot of work and courage to be part of [the] fashion world.”
What is the lure of the runway for working models? Why subject oneself to these environments?
In part, a successful season on the runway means a successful season of print work and campaigns—where the real money is.
“It’s just part of your work, any high fashion model walks runways. Fashion Week is where you meet the casting directors, designers, it’s where future clients see you from the first row,” continued Jagaciak.
“The more you dominate the fashion runways that season, the more likely you are to be in high demand print work afterwards,” said Ritland.
“Appearing in top shows at fashion week can make a model's career. It's really a branding exercise, and puts models in the running for big campaigns, which tend to be more lucrative than the shows themselves,” noted Ziff.
In an interview earlier this year with Vogue, Jenner disclosed that at the beginning of 2017 she had decided to be more selective with choosing jobs: “I made it a point at the beginning of 2017 to consciously slow down, take more time for myself, be more selective and not just do whatever my agents tell me to do.”
Jenner is represented by the fashion industry’s top managers and agents. She can refuse a shoot or a runway job without the fear of professional repercussions.
Many models, should they refuse work due to health reasons or out of creative difference, will be severely punished—often blacklisted by clients, casting directors, or their own agencies. Not everyone has it all: financial freedom and the Kardashian family's legal and other staff at their dispense.
On refusing to do a shoot Ritland was “blacklisted at my agency for doing that.” On a separate occasion, Ritland chose to skip London Fashion Week to focus on her schoolwork. Her goal was to finish the schoolwork before the Paris and Milan season started, and hit those fashion weeks with renewed energy and free of academic obligation.
Her agency called Ritland and told her she was wanted for a high-profile job in London.
"When I told them I couldn’t do it, because I really needed to do my schoolwork. I was exhausted, I was crying, and I just needed a minute to catch up. I told them no. They came back to me and told me I had to do it. I couldn’t turn this stylist down. What ended up happening was, for not wanting to do it, I got blacklisted from that stylist. I didn’t work with her for a long time – simply because I didn’t want to go to London for four days and needed to do my schoolwork.”
This week, Ziff wrote an open letter to Jenner, stating: “We wanted to explain why many models reacted the way they did. Many working and aspiring models - girls who aspire to have a career as successful as yours - struggle with various abuses on the job in what remains a largely unregulated industry.”
The Model Alliance has introduced a new program, RESPECT, calling on fashion corporations and brands to sign onto a code of conduct, which would ensure that everyone working in the fashion industry is treated with dignity.
“We welcome the opportunity to speak with you about this initiative and we would appreciate your support in helping us create safe and fair working conditions for all,” the letter to Jenner continued.
On Tuesday, Jenner took to Twitter to clarify her controversial comments (without issuing an apology to those she had offended): “I was misrepresented in a recent interview over the wknd & it’s important to clarify the meaning. It was intended to be entirely complimentary but unfortunately, my words were twisted & taken out of context. I want to be clear.
"The respect that I have for my peers is immeasurable! I get to experience first hand their tireless commitment, their work ethic, the endless days, the lack of sleep, separation from family and friends, stress of traveling, the toll on physical and mental health, yet they still make it all look effortless and beautiful.
"I’m inspired by so many of these people I have had the good fortune to work alongside! There’s no way I could EVER hate on that. I want everyone to win. SLAY ALWAYS.”
Ritland mused, “I think that, especially in an industry where as a workforce we’re treated so disposably, we need to band together and have some solidarity. I don’t think it would be very hard for her to extend a little compassion, and have some room for other people’s experiences—especially when she has so much social power.”
In the Vogue interview, Jenner acknowledged: “I need to be more present and pay more attention.” Maybe she should take her own advice.