A chance encounter with another casting director in early 2014 led to an invitation to visit a modeling agency. I posed for a few Polaroids, wrote down my measurements and awaited the decision. The booker—a kind, freckled man in his 30s—looked me up and down as I stood by the window of his fifth-floor studio, whispering to his assistant. “You could do with some exercise,” he said finally, as though I was an out-of-season racehorse, “but we’d love you to come on board.”
In spite of my reservations, I felt a flood of nervous euphoria. I couldn’t help but be seduced by the idea that I would be paid mountains of cash to lounge around and have my face splashed across billboards. And then I began working, and reality hit: To be a model is to accept that you are a product as well as a person. You are also a target for sexual predators.
A few weeks later, an editor offered to shoot me for the cover of his magazine, with the caveat that I pose naked and join him for a “romantic” dinner that evening. I said I wasn’t interested, but he messaged me regularly throughout the year. His messages became increasingly graphic, including sending me links to porn videos and images of another model whose career he claimed to have launched. In June 2014, a photographer tried to make me commit to orgies while on a shoot, with the promise of getting me “exposure.” He also convinced me and the other male model I was shooting with to strip down to our underwear in the middle of the Bois de Vincennes, a southeast of Paris.
At times, these powerful men behave with a remarkable sense of impunity: While I was conducting research for this article, one powerful fashion designer, high on cocaine, sent me unsolicited naked videos when I attempted to arrange an interview.
In some ways, I got off lightly. Matthew, a British model, signed up with his first agency while he settled into life in Paris (a few months later, he joined Elite, the world’s leading agency). He soon found himself in the studio of a photographer who overstepped the mark.
“It was horrible,” says Matthew, which is his real first name. He has now quit modeling and is a student living in London. “He made me take all my clothes off, including my underwear. His rationale was that he needed to get me over the phase of being awkward and make me more comfortable in my own body.”
Exposing the photographer was impossible, Matthew says. “I couldn’t complain because he was part of my agency.” The man was one of the bookers working at the agency; he freelanced as a photographer on the side.
“In fashion, it is always older people controlling younger,” says René Habermacher, a Swiss-born photographer who works regularly for Japanese Vogue and other leading titles. Ziff, of the Model Alliance, says she has heard about countless situations that mirrored Matthew’s story. “I don’t think I’ve ever spoken with a male model about the Model Alliance without them talking about sexual harassment,” she says.
Their age makes many models particularly vulnerable.
In the summer of 2014, Habermacher joked that I should head to East Asia if I wanted my career to really take off. “They’d love you over there,” the photographer told me, “and the pay is crazy: You can make up to 10,000, maybe 20,000, [euros] a month if you’re busy, but you can be shooting back-to-back for up to 16 or 18 hours a day.” But Habermacher was not actually recommending I make the move because he knew what I would have to do to succeed in Asia. “They like small boys over there, I mean really small,” he said. “You’d have to lose about 10 kilos to really make it.”
The idea of starting a new, thrilling life in Tokyo, Seoul or Shanghai was tempting. Losing 15 percent of my body weight was not. Shedding 10 kilograms (about 22 pounds) would have sent my body mass index (BMI), a scale using height and weight measurements to judge whether somebody is overweight or underweight, down to 16.9, a level the World Health Organization defines as “severely malnourished.”
But I was tempted, in spite of my concerns over my health. Asia offers male models financial opportunities that seem ever scarcer in saturated Western markets and in an industry where men earn far less than their female counterparts. According to a Forbes report, from June 2012 to June 2013, the top 10 highest-earning female models made a combined $83.3 million; from September 2012 to September 2013, the top 10 men made $8 million. The best-paid female model, Gisele Bundchen, made $42 million between June 2012 and June 2013; Sean O’Pry, the highest-earning man, made $1.5 million in the year ending in September 2013.
There’s a gender gap lower down in the market too, with salary data company PayScale reporting that female models can expect an average yearly income of $41,300, compared with the Forbes estimate of male earnings around $28,000 in recent years, approximately $2,000 short of the New York living wage as calculated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
One model from Models 1, Europe’s largest agency, took up his booker’s offer of a summer in the Far East. He agreed to speak to Newsweek on the condition of anonymity. “I came because I wanted to make some money before starting university,” says the model, a 19-year-old British student. Yet in retrospect, he says, specifics were missing from his conversation with his booker. “Money was not discussed,” he says.
He signed a contract to head to Tokyo in the winter of 2015 with little knowledge of the small print. He felt honored to be offered the opportunity and assumed the terms and conditions would be reasonable and lucrative. But when he showed his mother the contract, she was appalled at the conditions he had agreed to. “She basically said that I’m going to come back with nothing and that, at best, I’ll break even.”
His travel and accommodations were to be covered by the agency, but under the terms of the contract the money had to be paid back. He would start receiving payment for jobs only after this debt was cleared. Until then, he would have to live on an allowance of about $87 a week, an amount he could not survive on, so he needed his mother to supplement.
Certain clauses felt particularly exploitative, he says. If he did not book enough jobs, he would have been sent home at his own expense, owing his agency a four-figure sum. If he breached any other terms, including cutting his hair without permission, getting a suntan or putting on any weight, he could have faced the same forfeit.
But the model decided to go regardless, thinking that the experience of living abroad would be worthwhile and that there was always a chance of getting his big break. “I just feel so lucky,” he says, talking via FaceTime from his small Tokyo apartment.
In the fashion world, these laws have few fans—even among the models. The three male models interviewed for this story all expressed support for the idea of limiting the weight pressures they faced but questioned the accuracy of the BMI scale as a measure. Industry insiders also attacked the inaccuracy of the BMI when applied to those under 25 and the idea that it might penalize models afflicted by eating disorders. And then there’s this: The majority of the countries in the world where models work have no legislation protecting these young people.
The fashion industry is so sprawling and decentralized that many industry insiders believe that the only way it can protect its young is if it decides to take on that responsibility itself. Many powerful figures in the industry say they are already acting responsibly. Storm Models, a leading agency, says it abides by minimum BMI rules. “Ultimately, we’re just a supply chain,” says Cat Trathen, head of the men’s division at Storm. “We only provide what our clients are asking for.” She says that any potential problems lie with the editors and brands booking the models she represents. And she was adamant that she and her team already do their utmost to safeguard the models signed to their agency: “We do not have and we have never had one model—male or female—on this board who is underweight.” Trathen says it’s not in the economic interests of an agency to promote models who are too thin: “A model who’s underweight is going to be ill. Ultimately, they’re a commodity, and you have to look after them. If someone is ill or too thin, they're not going to work because they're not going to look their best or have the energy to model.”
One prominent casting director, Noah Shelley of AM Casting, says he bears some responsibility for the pressure to be skinny. “If we were to sit down and round table and say there’s blame to be had, then I would definitely deserve some,” says Shelley. “Nonetheless, I don’t feel on a daily basis that I’m responsible for unhealthy body ideals, but I’m not naïve enough to suggest that couldn’t be happening without my intention, and I have to take responsibility for that.”
Yet Sebastien Meunier, creative director of the Paris-based cult fashion house Ann Demeulemeester, denies that designers are doing anything wrong. “We are not doing anything shocking: We’re making clothes that are perfectly decent and acceptable,” he tells Newsweek. “At the end of the day, [models] are adults. There’s no problem here.”
Valerie Steele, of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, believes the industry is unlikely to self-regulate in a meaningful way. “Everyone says they’re not the ones at fault, that they’re just following orders,” she says. “I suspect there’s a lot of blame to be shared. The casting directors and designers and members of the audience want to see thin, white, young models. They’re all at fault."