In a society littered with advertisements that reinforce the idea that beauty equates power, many young women view modelling as a glamorous outlet that promises success and luxury. But few who try to break into the industry are aware of the pressures attached to the business.
Often, young talent fantasize about the designer clothes and the glamorous appeal of professional photo shoots, and don’t see modelling as a full-time job, says Aubush Little, an agent at Elmer Olson Models, one of Toronto’s top modelling agencies.
“It’s a small component of the business in terms of the work that you do and what you have to put into it,” Little says. “The rest is travel, getting clients and working on your portfolio.” Striving for an almost impossibly thin body weight is one of the biggest problems of being an agency model. Because of the competition to be thin and pretty, a career in modelling is largely connected to eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia.
“It’s like being an athlete,” Little continued. “If you’re Michael Phelps, all of the work and training and dieting that you do in order to get to that level comes down to the swimming taking minutes; the rest is working towards a goal.”
The industry has specific standards that mandate whether a woman has the right look that will get her signed, the most important one being height (agencies typically seek out women who are at least five-foot-nine). Many women who do not meet the agency requirements still continue to pursue commercial modelling using a different platform.
Freelance modelling has become a popular outlet for women who do not fit the industry norm, but are still attracted to the modelling lifestyle. Kelsey Johnson, 22, joined an agency at 16. Shortly after walking the runway at World Master Card Fashion Week 2011, she called it quits. “I couldn’t balance school with the commitment that my agency expected from me,” Johnson said. Standing at five-foot-eleven inches with the heels off, Johnson could have tried signing with another agency. Instead, she opted for freelance modelling. There’s a big difference between being an agency-represented model and a freelancer, Johnson said.
“Being freelance I can accept the work that I want to do and decline the work that I do not want to do,” she said. “I can eat what I want without having to worry about any repercussions, without somebody telling me ‘your hips are too big’. Modelling agencies have expectations. You are to be of a certain stature: slim, in shape, at least five-foot-nine in most cases, with a dress size of zero to four. It’s a lot of pressure.” Since becoming a freelance model, Johnson has landed work for many famous names, including skin care giant Shu Eumera.
Freelancing gives models a chance to work independently, but it also permits the possibility of a high-risk lifestyle. With no agency to represent them, young and inexperienced girls often fall victim to scams orinappropriate behaviour from clients.
“I don’t recommend it [freelancing] because it doesn’t have a system of checks and balances in place,” Little says. “Part of our responsibility as agents is making sure you get paid on time, that it was the right amount of money and as a freelancer you just don’t have that protection.”
Anika Heinmaa, 21, created an account on Model Mayhem, a popular online modelling community. At five-foot-two inches with piercings and tattoos, Heinmaa branded herself as an alternative model who simply wanted to create beautiful photographs. After several inappropriate encounters she removed her profile. “There was absolutely zero accountability. Profiles are easy to delete and re-create, and networking, similar to adding large volumes of friends on Facebook, allows anybody to look legitimate,” Heinmaa said.
Even at an agency level, there is still an emphasis on personal responsibility. “At the end of the day, modelling agencies hire girls but in no way do we represent them,” Little said. “They represent themselves and are responsible for the paths their careers take them down.”