An in-depth interview that may help you decide whether you'd like to become a model.
The interviewee wishes to remain anonymous. The name 'Ashley' is used as an alias.
To learn what it really takes to make it in the fashion industry, I spoke with a retired model about the good, the bad, and the ... well, less than glamorous sides of the career. Although Ashley doesn't look a day over 24, she has already travelled as far as Tokyo, New York, and Paris, working for top international clients and events such as Fashion Week.
During our interview, I learned that modelling is nothing like what you see on America’s Next Top Model. The days can be long, the pay underwhelming, and the agents untrustworthy.
Ashley tells me that in order to be successful in this competitive industry, you need to take care of yourself. "Eat really well," she advises, "Establish your own boundaries and be ruthless about it."
How long did you work as a model?
And when did you leave the industry?
The end of 2011.
How did you get into modelling?
I was in Squamish. I grew up whitewater kayaking. There was a commercial acting agent who had an agency specifically focused on athletes... He came to our kayak spot in Squamish and scouted people who had those skills, and then I ended up being represented by him. They asked to do doll commercials. I did a couple, and I got headshots done because of that. Then around that time, a modelling agent from Vancouver lost her dog in the woods near my parents' kayak shop. She went into the shop asking if anyone had seen her dog and ended up talking to my mum...
At first I was too short and too young (I was twelve). Around the time that I was just fourteen, I met with her a second time and she wanted to represent me.
That's a pretty bizarre way to get into a career. Is that sort of story pretty typical in the modelling world?
There are a lot of mall stories — being discovered in malls — or ... getting scouted at the pizza place or the Tim Hortons where the girl was working. But there's also made up ones. Origin stories are part of the marketing approach or strategy.
Is that because you're very much a brand when you're a model?
Well, you're a product.
I think it's fair to say that you're both a product and a brand. Especially now, more and more, with Instagram and social media. There's more and more of an expectation that you're constantly working.
You're both a product and a brand. Especially now, more and more, with Instagram and social media. There's more and more of an expectation that you're constantly working.
So what attracted you to the job? Why did you get into it?
[Laughing] I was fourteen, and in elementary school, people talked about how modelling was really cool.
And that was all it took to get you interested?
I think the things my agent said to me were: it will help you pay for school, and you'll get to travel.
What kind of training or experience do you need to become a model?
Most people have no training or education related to it. Some companies have schools or classes, but they're generally considered to be a scam. I think it's most common for people to ... just learn on the job.
What made the career a good fit for you?
I was able to do it very part time, especially when I was in high school. It was easy to just skip, say, half of the day of class to be on Breakfast Television. Being in high school helped. Having summer vacation helped.
Why were you successful? What made you a good model?
What made me successful? Partly, I guess, that when I started I was very young and very thin. Some of it must of had to do with personality — being able to connect with the people I was working with and make them want to work with me again. The relationships matter.
How do you end up getting jobs as a model?
Sometimes you've worked with someone before and they ask to work with you again. But most models have agencies ... The same way that models will have relationships with clients or stylists or makeup artists, agencies will have relationships with clients. They use those relationships to get other models on the roster jobs.
There are also direct bookings. Once I did a job in Buenos Aires. It was some client who had a relationship with one of my agents in New York and they recommended me. They just saw photos and they booked me. But that type of booking, I think, in retrospect, has way, way more to do with the agent's relationship with the client than with me as a model. It also depends on how much an agent likes a person. Agents decide not to promote some models all the time, often without them knowing it. Perhaps because they are promoting another girl for a job or because they want more control over a model who maybe isn't as acquiescent as they'd like.
Agents decide not to promote some models all the time, often without them knowing it. Perhaps because they are promoting another girl for a job or because they want more control over a model who maybe isn't as acquiescent as they'd like.
What kinds of people tend to do well in this industry?
I think people who are already upper middle class or upper class--who come from families with more money. I think that they are maybe better at seeing themselves as equals with the people on the set. Going to castings and feeling confident ... being a part of that exchange ... And they're more likely to dress in a way that looks kind of expensive. If you wear expensive looking clothes, then a brand like Burberry is more likely to respond, whether subconsciously or consciously, to that in a favourable way.
And then there are people who maybe don't come from a lot of money but are very smart about all of this stuff--the social and performative aspects of getting jobs. They're really good at networking and at faking it till they make it, basically.
What was the best thing about a career in modelling?
And what is the worst thing?
You mean there's a lot of stress involved?
A lot of stress. A lot of encouraging eating disorders, harassment, even sexual assault.
Wow. That's a lot to grapple with. If you were speaking with someone who was trying to break into this industry, what kind of advice would you give them to help them deal with all of that?
To never be dependent. Never be dependent on modelling, never be dependent on any particular agency or job or trip. As much as possible, build connections with people wherever you go so that you can find a different place to live if need be. And if you're somebody who is good at Instagram and social media, having your own following ... gives you more power. It basically gives you more bargaining power and will make sure that your agent or whoever respects you more.
Also, establish your own boundaries and be ruthless about it. There are models that I know who will not shoot topless, or will not shoot in lingerie. They get a hard time from agents and maybe sometimes clients, but ultimately, I don't think it has hurt their careers.
Can you walk me through a typical day?
There's no such thing as a typical day?
There's not. It's very unpredictable. But I'll give you some examples:
If I was in Tokyo, sometimes I would get up 4 am, get picked up by a van. Everyone on the crew would be in that van. Drive to a studio, often somewhere outside of the city. Shoot for, maybe, eight hours. Come back into the city, and do four more hours of castings, where I'm in a van with maybe six other models, getting driven around from casting to casting. Because Tokyo is so big and so hard to navigate, models are almost always getting driven around castings.
In Paris, say during Fashion Week, I might go to ten castings or fittings a day, so I'm running all over the city all day. But sometimes I'd have only one or two or three castings; it really depends on the season. In Paris, it's normally just the models who are in a campaign making hundreds of thousands of dollars who are being driven around, because it's really expensive there. I should say: during Fashion Week and all those castings, you're not getting paid for any of that.
Sometimes there's no castings ... but your agency's like, "You have to be across town in twenty minutes." I'd show up at my agency and they'd be like, "You didn't check your phone!" You had to be always ready.
So, in general, the hours are all over the place?
If you're going on castings they usually don't start too early in the morning — after 10, but maybe 9 during fashion week. During fashion week you might have a fitting at 11 pm that goes until 1 am. Probably later, actually. Jobs can start at strange hours but often it's similar to castings — you might have a 10 am call time .... For the most part it's similar to a typical work day, maybe eight hours on set — but 10 isn't too unusual and I did a lot of 12 hour days.
How long does a casting typically take?
It depends: sometimes hours, sometimes twenty minutes. There's this thing called an open casting where basically all the agencies send all the girls — sort of a general casting. So you might be waiting there for an hour. Then once you actually are in front of the client, it might take five minutes. It might take two minutes. They might take your card and throw your book into a pile. Pretty rude.
You might be waiting there for an hour. Then once you actually are in front of the client, it might take five minutes. It might take two minutes. They might take your card and throw your book into a pile.
But there are many different types of castings. There are request castings, where clients have asked to see specific models. There are callbacks, where clients have a shortlist of models but want to see them all again before they decide. Fit-to-confirm castings are another version of a callback; the client wants to see the model in the clothes, usually for a fashion show.
What is a go-see? Is it like what we see on America's Next Top Model?
Go-sees are just when an agent sends a model to go meet someone at a magazine, or a client or a photographer who might be looking to book models down the line. They'd want you to meet the person so that they would keep you in mind, but there's not necessarily a specific job like with a casting.
There's also being "on hold," which is where a client has booked off certain days in your schedule and they might want to use you. Sometimes you have multiple holds--one, two, three jobs stacked up in your schedule — then, all of a sudden, those might just disappear and you don't necessarily know why. Sometimes when you're going to a fit-to-confirm, you have to try on these clothes, walk, and there's all these other girls there. And then ten of you are just taken and told, "We don't need you."
And in those cases, are you getting paid for your time?
No. You've already paid for your flight to the city, you're paying for your accommodation and all your expenses, and then you're going around, going to all these different castings for multiple clients. Once — once in seven years — I got flown to Hamburg for a casting. My agent had a good relationship with this particular client. They could afford it and they really wanted to see some of the models. A lot of us got it. Maybe they took ten girls, maybe they flew twenty or thirty there.
So to get started in this industry, you need to be able to invest some capital in yourself?
If you live in a city that already has a modelling market, then not necessarily. Well, yeah, you might need to buy heels, you might need to buy an outfit to wear to a casting. Sometimes you can build a portfolio by doing free photoshoots with young photographers and designers. You're probably paying for prints and an outfit and cards, maybe, but your agency might also just print sheets with your measurements and photos, just on regular paper. You need card mock ups, but even that, generally, is getting charged to your account. And if your images and measurements and all that information are on the website, you're paying a fee, every year.
There's also lots of agencies that steal money from models. There's been models suing agencies in the states. After I left my agency there were changes in the management, and it was because someone had been charging higher prices for flights to models accounts. So models were paying, say, 800 euros, when a flight actually cost 300, and the agent was keeping the difference.
How exactly does modelling work, then, financially?
I can give you examples. In terms of what a model's fee is, say, in Paris, if I was getting paid a thousand euros, the agency gets paid twenty percent. The agencies always take 20% of the girl's fee. And then the French government would take 50% ... then I would make 30%, so I would have 300 euros. It's really hard to make money in Paris.
But, say if I was in Vancouver or Toronto, and I was getting paid a hundred dollars. I would generally make about eighty. If a model's fee is a hundred dollars, the agent is taking twenty dollars from the model, but they're also — and I didn't know this until after I quit — they're also charging the client $120. The agency charges the client a fee and it charges the model a fee.
But yet you still say that the money is the best part of modelling. So when do you actually make money?
Big campaigns. Campaigns and commercial jobs. There's some loophole in France that if you do a big campaign, there's an option to pay less taxes. It's weird. Then there's editorial jobs, say a spread in a magazine, which usually pays a hundred or two hundred dollars. And covers, which pay nothing. Because all of those are considered good for your portfolio, and good for your reputation. Those are the things that make you "cool."
I just got lucky, or something, and I was always working. So every few years (and this happened twice in my career), I would get some campaign that would pay me a lot of money.
What are the people you work with like? What kinds of relationships did you develop with the other models?
Most of the models are quite intelligent and interesting--I mean, generally, not necessarily. You really get to choose who you socialize with. At castings and stuff, you can talk to people. Often you get to know the models who are with your agency better. You'll see them at your agency. When you're in Tokyo, you're in a van with them, you're living with them in the model apartments.
Model apartments? What are those?
Model apartments are either leased or owned by the agency. They'll often put bunk beds in them. Sometimes they'll have eight girls in a two bedroom apartment in New York, and they're each paying about eighty dollars a night. Sometimes people stay there for months .... That's the most common thing for a contract in Tokyo: 60 days. You normally are paying off your expenses for the first six weeks, and you only really get to keep the money you make in the last two weeks. It's often very, very expensive. Modelling's a rip off.
It's often very, very expensive. Modelling's a rip off.
Can you tell me a little more about the work culture? The modelling environment?
I think for the most part, on set people are pretty nice. Though oftentimes people are working with so many different models and they don't learn your name and they'll just call you "her" or "girl" all day. But oftentimes I wouldn't learn the whole crew's names either.
Would you say it's a social industry?
Yeah. And it can be fairly creative. It's a creative environment, generally. But models aren't usually considered to be important, they don't necessarily have a say in terms of contributing to that creativity. You get to be creative with your facial expression or your body movement, but you don't necessarily get input. The photographer sometimes makes the final call and other times it's someone from a magazine, a client. There's always a hierarchy.
And where does the model sit in that hierarchy?
That's the weird thing: you're essential, so you can kind of be a spoiled bitch. But at the same time, you're super disposable. For the time being, they really need you, but, ultimately, you're nothing.
You're essential, so you can kind of be a spoiled bitch. But at the same time, you're super disposable. For the time being, they really need you, but, ultimately, you're nothing.
And what kind of person would you recommend a career in modelling to?
Someone who is naturally healthy at a size that agencies and clients are willing to book them at. Because if you're having to diet just to get into the industry, it's not going to be healthy in the long run. It's hard enough to stay healthy with all the travel and the schedule changes, let alone if you're over-exercising or not eating properly. So the other advice I would give is eat really well. There are, I think, more and more models who are managing to not be super, super thin.
What kind of career trajectory is typical for modelling? How long do people stay in this career?
Generally when you get to a point where you're travelling and you're making a profit, you're a working model. If you're a working model and you're making a good income, you can generally model — if you start when you're fourteen — for ten years, or even longer. There's an impression out there that models expire, but I think, partly because of retouching and just the way that has changed the industry in the last ten years ... models can keep working until later in their lives.
Do models tend to stay with just one agency for a long time?
Sometimes. Models have a mother agent, generally, who's the person who scouted them, the person who started developing their career ... There's always a lot of change over within agencies. Especially in New York! All of a sudden, everyone will leave an agency, or everyone will be fired. When an agent leaves, that will cause models to move around.
But there's also such a thing as freelance. Almost always models have agents, but I have met models who don't. In which case, you really have to have connections.
What was your work-life balance like as a model?
Nonexistent. I don't think I really understood the concept of self-care. I started when I was fourteen and I believed my agents when they hammered it home that I needed to be always available and acquiescent and pleasant — that if I was difficult, that would be it for my career. But ultimately I think that that hurt my ability to stay healthy and balanced and happy. In a way, that made my life more difficult, made me less successful, and made me quit earlier than I would have.
I started when I was fourteen and I believed my agents when they hammered it home that I needed to be always available and acquiescent and pleasant — that if I was difficult, that would be it for my career. But ultimately I think that ... made me less successful.