Pay Models Properly: Inside Fashion’s Unfair Favor Economy
In professions like modeling it’s not uncommon for models to be expected to work for no money—and this shadowy economy is anything but fair.
Imagine this. You have hired a technician to fix a broken computer in your home. You don’t feel like spending a lot of money, but the level of damage on your computer is making it an expensive repair job.
Do you think that you should pay the technician less to fix your computer—rationalizing that, being someone who is good with technology, he probably enjoys fixing your computer, he’s probably built a computer, this would be fun for him, and not work?
Why bother pay someone for a job, if there is the possibility that they might enjoy themselves as they work?
Sara Ziff, founder and executive director of the Models Alliance (and also a former model), said: “[A] Lack of financial transparency and resulting wage theft is a widespread problem in the modeling industry.
“The amount a model is paid for her work is negotiated between the agency and the client. However, models are not always notified by their agencies of the anticipated rate of pay or compensation in advance of the booking, nor are they always given the opportunity to turn down work.
“Models—many of whom are minors—have low bargaining power and are frequently not paid all of their earned wages, are paid wages late, are paid only after complaining about non-payment, are paid in ‘trade’ instead of money, or are simply not paid at all.”
The modelling industry is rife with the practice of “secret fees”—additional agency commissions charged directly to the client, often without the model’s knowledge. These commissions are of course deducted from the model’s ultimate pay, often without any disclosure at all.
As to why this lack of financial transparency is so accepted in the industry, Ziff said: “The labor force is young and female. If they were predominantly white middle-aged men, models would be treated very differently.”
Personally, I have been asked to work for 8 hours and was told that the “photographs for my book” would be compensation enough. After all, didn’t I want photos for my portfolio? Didn’t I want to show the diverse body of work I was theoretically capable of?
The attitude towards models—the attitude of “this is glamorous, so it’s a privilege for you to be here, payment or no payment”—must be eliminated from the fashion consciousness.
We all look for ways to cut corners on cost, but to argue that some services are more essential than others, that there are those services worth paying for and other services not worthy of payment is very insulting.
A photographer friend of mine recommended me for a job. The client called me directly and offered me the gig. I asked immediately how much I would be paid. A price was agreed upon. A week later, the client began to get uncomfortable and asked me if I would accept a gift card to her store instead.
A gift card? If only my landlord accepted those instead of cash. I told the client that unfortunately, I had bills to pay and none of them would accept a gift card. Things worked out in the end, but there was much pushing and shoving.
Another friend was contacted on Instagram by a bikini designer interested in my friend’s look, but a new designer with no budget to spare for a model.
When my friend told the designer that she would need to take a day off of work (she’s an office manager by day), and could not possibly work for free, the designer berated her.
She insulted my friend’s perception of “business”, saying that this is how things worked, and my friend (despite her years of experience) was clueless. My friend ended up not getting the job—the designer went on to say that because of my friend’s lack of Instagram followers, she wasn’t a big enough deal to add some celebratory PR for the bikini label launch.
My friend’s feelings were hurt. I saw it as a designer looking to cut all corners, by avoiding paying models and a PR team to help her launch her project. The designer also tried to make my friend feel guilty in the process by relaying their own “broke artist” narrative.
Sometimes agents and bookers arrange for models to work for free, while another model may get paid on the same job.
A friend of mine, Amanda, who is modeling in Istanbul told me her agent booked her a 10-hour day shooting a catalogue for a local up and coming designer.
In the email Amanda’s booker had sent her with the details for the next shooting day, the booker had also included this sentence: “You will be paid (sum deleted) for the day, but say nothing to the other model. She isn’t getting paid.”
Amanda told me they worked the same amount of hours, they were both professional. She felt guilty the whole shoot knowing she was getting paid and the other girl simply wasn’t.
How are people getting away with this? Loopholes and wording, and an expectation that the exploited won’t realize how they are legally being exploited.
Cyrus E. Dugger of The Dugger Law Firm, based in New York City and dealing with employment and labor law, has worked with a few models who have sued their former agencies for withholding payment, and illegal deductions from the models’ salary.
Dugger and I spoke by phone, he detailing some contractual absurdities he has come across when reviewing the modeling contracts of his clients.
“The modeling agency employs the model as a contracted freelancer, which in other industries permits the contracted party to work with a group, and then also with others [thus making him or her a freelancer, as opposed to an employee],” he said.
“In a modeling contract, there is a binding penalty for the freelance contractor to work exclusively with the Agency, but the Agency is not legally bound to provide that professional relationship with any of the legal privileges extended to an employee.”
Under New York State law, to take away from an employee’s pay check is illegal, which would make what most agencies deduct from a model’s pay check illegal—if the model was viewed as an employee of the agency, rather than a freelance, paid contractor.
Because a model is viewed as a freelance contractor models are not “entitled” to be paid to go on go-sees, earn the minimum wage, be paid within a certain window of time—or be paid in liquid damages by the client should regular payment be unavailable.
The Dugger Law Firm has represented models with misclassification claims within the fashion industry, and models who have been subjected to sneaky deductions.
A final anecdote: I was working in Israel—this was about two or three years ago—and my weight had dropped extremely.
I was about 49 kilos at a height of 175 centimeters (my skin was always out of control at that time; zits, acne everywhere, and I felt as if the only thing I could control was my weight).
I had been booked for a catalogue job for a clothing website. It was a long shooting day: about 9 or 10 hours. I completed the shoot, and went home. The next day I got a call from my booker saying that the website was not going to pay me for the work day: they decided I was too skinny and looked too unhealthy and the pictures were unusable.
“But, why wouldn’t they tell me that at the beginning of the shift?! Couldn’t they see when I walked in or was putting on the clothes there was a problem?” I asked my booker.
“They just can’t use the pictures,” my booker responded.
“But I still worked a whole day!” My booker shrugged her shoulders. I walked home, my pockets feeling a little lighter, and my brain manically trying to sort through how I was to pay my overdue rent that month.
This practice of avoiding paying workers for their labor is unacceptable in all other industries. Why is it so tolerated in the creative sphere? Should pleasure truly be payment enough? Of course not: a proper, above-board fee equals professional respect.