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Behind the Glamour of Modeling

Modeling agencies are unlicensed, and models are too often exploited.

Key points

  • Modeling agencies span the gamut from highly ethical to outright fronts for sex traffickers.
  • In the ecosystem of brand, agency, and model, the model has the least power.
  • Being beautiful, sexy, alluring, and objectified makes models particularly attractive targets for exploitation.

Modeling is one of the most glamorous industries in the world. Unfortunately, the potential for exploitation is enormous. Modeling agencies are unlicensed, and while many are ethical and caring, some are dubious, and too many are outright fronts for human trafficking.

“It’s a relatively young industry,” points out anti-trafficking advocate Elizabeth Peyton-Jones. “It exploded internationally in the 1980s, moving from established markets into emerging markets.” She explains that there’s little outside monitoring of what happens to young people or verification that the organizations that approach young people are what they say they are.

The System Makes the Model Vulnerable

“Models are extremely savvy,” says Peyton-Jones, founder and CEO of the Responsible Trust for Models, a London-based organization that works with t he fashion industry to make modeling safer and more sustainable. “They are young entrepreneurs who are self-employed and are trying hard to navigate a system that has few international standards, few rules, and is weighted against them.”

In today's ecosystem of brand, model agency, and model, the model is at the bottom, with the least power. The model turns over 40% of her earnings to her agency, and she’s infinitely aware that her livelihood depends on pleasing her agency.

The contract a model signs with an agency is binding, so anyone at the agency who is displeased with the model can see to it that she doesn’t get work. If she gets no work, she can’t pay her bills. “A model can rack up debt just being sent to castings,” points out Peyton-Jones. “She may never get the job, but end up in debt to the agency.”

Being economically vulnerable is a recipe for exploitation. Layered onto the economic vulnerability is the fact that being beautiful, sexy, alluring, and objectified for her beauty makes her an attractive target for exploitation by unethical individuals.

With the best agencies, the model is safe. In Peyton-Jones’s experience, some agencies treat their models admirably. They’re ethical, they’re concerned, they do the right thing.

But not all. Some agencies may overlook misbehavior, such as when a photographer touches the model inappropriately or a casting director wants sexual favors.

In too many cases, unethical agencies may insist that the models attend after-hour parties where the models are expected to be sexually available to clients. Saying “no” may mean being shut out of future modeling work.

Adobe StockStock Image
Source: Adobe StockStock Image

Traffickers Posing as Modeling Agencies

At its worst, the modeling industry doesn’t even involve modeling. Traffickers may pose as representatives of a modeling agency. Their M.O. is to lure pretty girls from, for example, Eastern Europe or Asia with the promise of an exciting and lucrative modeling career. Sadly, a downside of the current popularity of ethnic diversity is that the fake modeling agencies are targeting young people from Africa.

The person who signs up for a modeling career leaves his or her country for the modeling job of their dream. What awaits them is the nightmare of being forced to have sex with multiple strangers every day.

Peyton-Jones knows that the fashion industry is afflicted with a host of seriously bad behaviors. These include sexual misconduct, debt bondage, microaggression, bullying, and if these weren’t enough, there’s also the potential of human trafficking in general and sex trafficking in particular.

Peyton-Jones' models trust targets unethical and fake modelling agencies. Among her strategies is to issue the equivalent of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval to ethical agencies..

The Trust Club Verification System

Modeling agencies that want to be part of the Trust Club agree to having their models anonymously answer a questionnaire that Peyton-Jones and her organization supervises. The questionnaire probes how well and how ethically the models are treated. The agencies that rank well stand out.

In addition, the Trust Club provides, training, support and service providers for models should they need legal or financial advice or just need a person to listen to them.

“Without the Trust Club verification system, It will be a little like getting into an unlicensed taxi. You can do it, but you know the risks”, says Peyton-Jones

Modeling may be one of the world’s most glamorous professions. Peyton-Jones wants it to be safer.