The Life Of A Fashion Model: Grueling, Not Glitzy

Ashley Mears is the author of Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model.

Many little girls aspire to be fashion models when they grow up. But the lives of models are often far less glamorous than they appear. Fashion model-turned sociologist Ashley Mears shares her stories of the real nitty-gritty of modeling.

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. They have little job security, work freelance in an industry that makes billions, yet their daily pay may be a free lunch. They don't get health coverage, they experience constant criticism and rejection, some wind up in debt to their employers, and they're too old at 24.

They're models who turn out, do grueling work in an industry glutted with glamorous competition. For every Gisele who earns millions, dozens of girls and young women get paid in clothes or in free lunch or $150 for a day-long shoot, which may remind you more of Dickens than glamour.

Today we'll look at an industry and understand why understanding it is important. If you've had experience in the fashion industry as a model, an agent or as a mother, call and tell us your story. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, musician Stephan Said's campaign to move from a message to a movement. But first, Ashley Mears joins us from member station WBUR in Boston. She's an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University, and she studied models by becoming one. Nice to have you with us today.

ASHLEY MEARS: Hi, Neal, thank you.

CONAN: And we tend to think of models as those glamorous creatures traveling by limo who party back - party with their quarterback boyfriends. Give us a snapshot of what the life is actually like.

MEARS: Well, there's a lot of misleading conceptions about what the modeling life is like. In part that's due to the nature of the job. It's what we would call a winner-take-all industry, meaning that you have a handful of winners at the top of the hierarchy who are making very visible and very lucrative rewards, and we see that all the time celebrated in the popular press.

However, there's an enormous pile of people who are struggling to make ends meet or just getting by, that are hoping for their chance to become winners as well. And so when we de-center those winners, and we don't look at them, but rather we look at all the invisible people that are trying to become them, we get a pretty different picture, exactly the opposite of what most people think modeling is like.

It is technically what a sociologist would call - it's structurally a bad job, meaning that it's precarious work.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CONAN: That's a technical term?

MEARS: Right, yeah. No, we would say this is a bad job. It's like nonstandard employment or jobs in the informal economy, in which you don't know when your next paycheck is coming. It's uncertain work. It's unpredictable, it's insecure, and you don't get benefits like health care or a retirement package.

CONAN: Tell us the story of a model you described in your book as Liz.

MEARS: So Liz is an interesting case. When I was doing the work, I was actually working as a model, I met her at a casting, and we talked, and I interviewed her several times and kept in touch with her over the course of several years. And we were in much the same position, that we were new faces, or as they're called fresh faces, in the industry. And we were being sent out to quite a few castings every day.

Imagine that your job is going on a series of job interviews every day, and this is how we met. And she was doing well in the sense that she was working for magazines and testing for photographers, developing her portfolio, as every new model needs to do, but not getting paid very well for it.

She was at the time going to a university in New York, and she ended up dropping out of the university to pursue commercial work in L.A., where it's a market that she had been told models could make a lot of money in commercial jobs, in television commercials, for instance.

And she did well. She went to L.A., and she was really - she hit a high streak. She booked a couple of lucrative jobs that paid her very well and had residuals with TV commercials. But after a few years, her earnings ran completely dry because she ended up getting sick, and without health insurance she had to pay out of pocket for some pretty straightforward procedures that were very costly.

And so she wound up broke again, back in New York, living with her family.

CONAN: And that's - there are a couple of important things to draw out from that story. One of them is that it is a very uncertain and unpredictable life, and you don't have a lot of safety net to fall back on. The other is the distinction you drew between an elite model, I think they're called editorial models, and commercial.

MEARS: Yes, yes. This is a really important distinction. The modeling market is not a singular entity, but in fact very different spheres of different types of modeling work. And the spheres loosely cohere into two categories, the editorial and the commercial.

And they have different logics and different amounts of prestige and pay. So in the editorial world, these are the jobs that are considered more high-end. They're like your fashion week catwalks, your editorial spreads in a magazine, a high-end magazine, for instance, as opposed to a more commercial magazine.

Commercial work are jobs like catalogs, jobs that are considered the bread and butter of any modeling agency. They also include showroom work, which is really interesting, a really interesting segment of the industry because showroom models really don't get any visibility. They literally are behind the scenes with designers who use their bodies to mold garments upon them.

So showroom work, catalog work, that stuff is really lucrative. If you get in with a showroom, you can make 200 to 500 dollars an hour, and you're working repeatedly, you know, many hours over many days. This is very lucrative work; however, it's very low prestige kind of work, that you don't become a supermodel from working in showrooms. You might become super-rich from working in showrooms.

However, the more editorial end of the market, this is high prestige. Walking for one of these Fashion Week shows, you know, like coming up in Paris, the right designers, can really boost your profile. However, this work tends not to pay very well.

So shooting for a high-end editorial magazine may pay you a flat rate of $150 a day. It may pay you nothing. It may pay you in lunch. Similarly, some of the catwalk shows, they might be fantastic for your image, but you might not get paid in cash. You might be paid in what's known as trade. So when you're paid in trade, you get to take home some clothes.

So it's kind of funny because often people think, oh, if you're a model, you know, how great, you get to keep the clothes. But actually, when you're a model, and you're doing editorial work, you're forgoing the economic payment, the cash, for a gift of clothing and for enough prestige that hopefully, the bet is, it's a risky bet, that prestige can accumulate up and land you a high-end campaign like a fragrance campaign or a multi-year, multi-million-dollar contract with, say, Calvin Klein.

CONAN: We're talking with Ashley Mears, an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University, who immersed herself in the modeling industry by becoming one so she could write about it and learn about people's lives. 800-989-8255 if you have experience in that business. Email us, talk@npr.org. We'll start with Gary, Gary with us from Buffalo.

GARY: Hello, can you hear me?

CONAN: You're on the air, go ahead, please.

GARY: Okay. I am - I'm in Buffalo, and my daughter, who is now 22 and a college graduate, had a fairly successful teen modeling career for a number of years. My former wife and I, when we were married, we took her to New York and they liked her. She got an agent, and things went well.

She had a few magazine covers, some European covers that were shot in New York and so forth. But some of the things that happened along the way were strange. At one point, my former wife took her to New York for a shoot when she was like 14, and the photographer said: Oh, I love your daughter. Please leave her with me. I will take good care of her - which is kind of creepy when you think about that.

And then when she was 16 or 17, she had a modeling gig in Toronto, one of these gatherings, and at that point we realized that she was an athlete. She was captain of the volleyball team in high school. She played softball. She ran track. She was a trained dancer. She was well-muscled, and muscle, of course, weighs more than fat.

And even though she looked like a bean pole, she hit a certain weight where they said to her, you're too heavy now, you have to be a plus-size model. And I would look at her, and it didn't look like she was any thicker than my arm. And she cried all the way back from Toronto to Buffalo. And I just said, that's it, you're done, this is crazy. This is an insane circumstance.

MEARS: Right, well, those are definitely hard things for a teenage girl to hear, and yet, as I documented, pretty ubiquitous and not necessarily said with malice either. When I was working in the market, and, you know, using - taking field notes and analyzing all of this data of what it's like to be a model, I definitely saw lots of the kind of things that you are talking about, creepy things, insulting things, things that can make you want to cry and feel really bad about your body.

And when I did interviews with modeling agents, I learned, quite interestingly, that they are also very uncomfortable with having to tell people, young girls especially, that they need to lose weight, that this is an uncomfortable thing for them to do, because they're not jerks.

And they abide by norms of politeness, and yet the industry, in order to be a successful model at the editorial end of the market, that is a size zero through four for a woman. This is a kind of body size that lends itself well to an adolescent girl, not so well as she gets older.

GARY: Uh-huh. Well, I'm happy to say she's a college graduate with a degree in public relations and is employed and doing well.

MEARS: Nice, fantastic.

CONAN: Glad to hear that, Gary.

GARY: Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. These - creepy, that part of it - that's part of it too.

MEARS: Yes, that is a part of it. What's - aside from individual instances in which people may hear creepy things like, you know, hearing what may have been a pass from a photographer to a young girl, that sure, those things can happen, those things can happen in lots of different kinds of arenas.

What makes it problematic in modeling is that you have a lot of young people that are the labor force, young girls especially. And you have young girls that don't necessarily have their parents with them. Modeling agents prefer to have models who are at least 16 years old. However, certainly they can start much younger, and they do start much younger.

At the time that I was in New York, I learned that one of the models that was in a fashion show was a 13-year-old with me, and she had her mother with her. But it's plausible that maybe she wouldn't, she would have maybe a supervisor from the agency come with her.

So that means that you have a vulnerable child labor population, basically. The other creepy part about it is that there are not such great insight - or not such great regulations or oversight built into the market, that if you run into a problematic problem, you might have to work it out on your own.

CONAN: We're talking about the world of modeling, the real world of real fashion models, with Ashley Mears, who's walked those runways herself and wrote about the experience in her book "Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model." If you've had experience in the fashion industry, as a model, agent, or as a parent, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, NPR News. When you flip through the pages of fashion magazines and catalogs, chances are you don't think a lot about the lives of the models you're looking at. The glamour in the glossies is often far outweighed by the demands to be thin, intense schedules and criticism, and lousy pay, if there's any pay at all.

Ashley Mears knows all this firsthand. Her book, "Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model," tells her own story of life as a model. She's now an assistant professor of sociology at Boston University.

If you've had experience in the fashion industry, tell us your story, 800-989-8255. Email talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And let's go next to Jay(ph), and Jay's on the line with us from New York.

JAY: Hi, how are you doing?

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JAY: Yes, I work in production, actually, in commercials and in - mostly in catalog here in the city.

CONAN: And yes, go ahead.

JAY: Oh, so basically what my point is that - that this sort of problem that - this sort of disparity is, I think, it's industry-wide. Put it this way, like I work, you know, basically bringing furniture onto set, doing props, that sort of thing, and I'm - you know, my day rate is possibly a fourth or a third, even, of their rate, and my day can be a 12 or 13-hour day or longer.

And there's a sort of similar dynamic in terms of it's freelance. I don't have any health insurance. It's - I think it's an industry-wide problem.

MEARS: Right, no, definitely. Thank you, Jay, and it's culture industries as a whole. It's not just fashion modeling, of course, it's the people that are working in production, on the sets. It's people that work in fields like publishing, artists, music, graphic design, journalism, that in all these different kinds of fields you have vast inequalities, of people who have hit the jackpot and have like a selling book or a selling piece of art, and they do great, but most people are scraping by a living.

And they are largely freelance jobs that...

JAY: Absolutely, absolutely.

MEARS: Yeah, precarious labor.

JAY: I've gotten - at one point at one job I got heat exhaustion, and they put me on the train and sent me home.

MEARS: Wow, wow, right. And so this goes back also to the last caller, who mentioned that, you know, various creepy things can happen. When you work in these kinds of fields, you're on an individualistic basis.

So in the modeling market, you have an agency, but the agency, technically you hire them, and they just work as an intermediary to put you in touch and kind of play matchmaker to clients, which means that if you have a problem with a client, if a job goes badly, if something creepy happens to you, you have to work that out on your own. You can't go to the head of HR and file a complaint with a company because you're on your own.

CONAN: Jay...

JAY: There's times I've had to chase after money for four and five months for, you know, six or seven hundred dollars that, you know, I need to pay my rent.

CONAN: And the other part of that, Jay, at least in modeling, there's the lottery chance of huge success. Is there that in your line of work?

JAY: No.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

JAY: I mean, for most people I know, it's a means to an end, to get the rent paid, to try to move on to do something else. Usually, you know, it tends to be creative folks, but not necessarily. You know, I don't want to, you know, carry furniture for a living necessarily. That's not what my vocation is. I want to do something creative. So this is - you know, at least I'm not in a, you know, a warehouse in the suburbs somewhere, where I grew up.

So that's how I sort of keep in perspective the sort of - the petty indignities that the industry puts on us.

MEARS: Right, and I found that with models too, that a lot of models are realistic about their chances. Once they get into the market, they realize the superstar structure and the poor chances that they will become superstars. So they readjust accordingly. They take from it what they can, networking, for instance.

These kinds of fields are fantastic in order to build your store of connections that you can transfer out into other kinds of cultural work that hopefully might have insurance with it.

CONAN: Jay, good luck, thanks for your call.

JAY: Thank you.

MEARS: Thanks.

CONAN: Let's go next to Elizabeth(ph) and Elizabeth on the line from St. Louis.

ELIZABETH: Hi, I'm a model that's done some like freelance and agencied work in the St. Louis market and just with a small agency but trying to branch out and get into more major markets. I found just real prejudice against me being a Caucasian woman that has larger hips. Like a Latino woman or an African-American woman with larger hips, they almost have a better chance in the market. I just wanted to comment on that, see what your perspective was.

MEARS: Right, well, that's really interesting. So offhand, I think that that's problematic in itself, right, the assumption that certain kinds of bodies make more sense with certain kinds of ethnicities, that, you know, reproduces all kinds of stereotypes, as it is.

And yet there is a difference in local markets versus large fashion cities markets. So in New York, a modeling agency, they're trying to take on girls - and I don't say girls in a kind of unaware sense, I mean people who are very young and therefore girls - that will do well in the editorial market and the commercial market.

They're looking for models that can both secure the money and make all the prestige, which is good for the agency and potentially also, you know, really great for the model if she hits it big. And those models are very thin, and they tend to be very white as well.

ELIZABETH: I just, you know, definitely felt prejudiced against because I'm Caucasian and have larger hips. So I just kind of come to that realization that maybe that's not my future, and I'm kind of getting behind the scenes in the fashion design aspect. So thank you.

MEARS: Oh, that's really good.

CONAN: Good luck with that, Elizabeth.

ELIZABETH: Thank you.

MEARS: You know, I do just want to add, though, one thing about that. I didn't interview very many non-white women or men for the book in terms of models, but the ones that I did, they also struggled very much with their hip measurements or with their body sizes. Most of the women that I interviewed had problems trying to keep in line with a very narrow set of requirements for their bodies.

CONAN: Jockeys are required to keep weight too. It's a...

MEARS: Right, athletes, lots of different types of athletes, exactly. And there's similar kinds of mechanisms for keeping bodies in line. So different types of athletes - boxers, rowers, for instance - they go through weigh-ins, which, you know, if you don't make weight, then this is a failure of all sorts of different varieties.

And similarly for modeling, we don't have weigh-ins, but models are constantly being measured or asked to change clothes, try on sample-size clothing, which, you know, might be nice and roomy or might be incredibly tight and embarrassing to try to fit into.

CONAN: You talked about the majority of models, at least in New York, being white. There's also a large influx of girls from - and again, I'm using the word girls and young women - from overseas.

MEARS: Yes, so you see a large increase of people that are coming from places like Brazil and from Eastern Europe and post-Soviet societies, and this is due to the increasing proliferation of model scouts around the world, with Internet technology, digital photography, and just the ease of travel, that it's quite easy now for models to be scouted in, say, rural Siberia and then have their images go around the world, and they can wind up in a city like New York.

So there's been this huge, enormous increase of people who want to be models and who are available labor supply of models around the world. But when I say that they go to Brazil, you know, Brazil is a majority mestizo or African heritage country, but they're going to the whitest parts of Brazil. They're going into the southern parts of Brazil, where there's a history of German immigration. So models who are - the people there tend to be blonde hair, blue eyes, looking like Gisele Bundchen, for instance.

So there is a preference for young girls and for fair, light-skinned girls as well.

CONAN: Let's go next to Rob, and Rob's on the line with us from Omaha.

ROB: Hi, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

ROB: Yeah, I'm a 47-year-old male model in - part-time here in the Midwest in a relatively small market. But I just wanted to suggest that I know a lot of the clients of my agency, the models and stuff, they try it on a very part-time basis while they're getting their full-time - like I have a full-time job. So I just do it when I can and have vacations so I can do it and get paid for my job too.

So a lot of people, if they want to venture into the modeling, they - I know I did it with my kids, and they do it periodically, when they have time. You can do it on a part-time basis and then, you know, build your full-time life. And then I know that my agency just took one of their clients to Ford in Chicago and got her signed. So you do have those shots if you have the right connections and stuff.

So it doesn't necessarily have to be all or nothing, but you can have fun with it, so...

MEARS: No, absolutely, absolutely. And I try to do that in the book, to cover the range, I mean the kind of structural instabilities that are inherent in the labor arrangements, but also, you know, working within those labor arrangements, people make of it what they will.

Some people see it as a fantastic opportunity, amazing travel, as you put it quite nicely, the various connections that you don't know where they're going to lead, that people can take all kinds of different approaches to entering these arrangements, as they do in lots of different fields like music or, you know, writing your novel or being a journalist.

You can try it out and then readjust your life accordingly.

ROB: Exactly, because $125 an hour with a two-hour minimum in this economy is fantastic for me, even if I do it a couple of times a month.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MEARS: Right. Right.

CONAN: Rob, congratulations. Thanks very much.

ROB: Anyway, thanks to you. Thanks for your time.

MEARS: Yeah. Thank you.

CONAN: It raises, though, an issue. Again, back in New York at that elite level, the editorial level, are men treated the same as women?

MEARS: No, not at all. So gender obviously matters when we're talking about fashion and fashion modeling, but it matters in pretty interesting ways. When you look at modeling as a labor market, there's this incredible gender paradox, that it's one of the few fields in which women have greater opportunities, and they earn significantly more money than their male counterparts. Significantly more money. I mean, on occasion I documented instances in which women were earning two to three - five times more than the men for equal work. So we're not talking about - you know, obviously there's - you probably can't name that many male supermodels off the top of your head...

CONAN: No.

MEARS: ...I'm guessing. OK. So, you know...

CONAN: I'm better on quarterbacks, to tell you the truth.

MEARS: Right, right. And that would be the appropriate, you know, field - in athletics - that we would see - you know, men triumph in athletics, and they get paid more, generally, in athletics than women do.

CONAN: In tennis, for example, where the, yeah, men make a lot more money.

MEARS: Right. Right. Where, until quite recently, some of the major tennis tournaments had unequal prize monies for the women's competitions than the men's. Right. So in modeling, there's this - like in sports, you would say, that's a traditional gender wage gap. In modeling, we see an inverse - an inverted gender wage gap. We see it also in other fields like sex work, prostitution, pornography performing, for instance.

So when - what was interesting was when I interviewed agents and clients about where this wage gap comes from, about what - you know, why is it that you pay the women so much more than the men, it was a kind of - default explanations would be along the lines of, well, this is a women's business, or, you know, women are better models, women are better suited to the work, that men, you know, they're in it part-time or for other reasons, or we just don't get that excited about male models.

And what I argue in the book and what I try to show is that the prices for a model's time come down to the negotiations that the agents can make with the clients. Central to those negotiations is the amount of excitement or buzz that can be generated around a model. But people are not very excited about male models, that bookers fight not as hard as they would for men, or that it's already a taken-for-granted assumption that if a man and a woman are both in a fashion job together, that she will be making more. And then agents will use the woman's rate as a basis in order to - or they will use the man's rate as a basis in order to increase the woman's rate if, for instance, there was going to be pay parity. Yes.

CONAN: We're talking with Ashley Mears about the world of modeling. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Buzz. Buzz is that intangible quality that suddenly takes one of these young women and makes her a star.

MEARS: Yes.

CONAN: How does one rise above the rest?

MEARS: Yeah. It's the central question I tried to formulate an answer in my research. But it's something that, you know, the agents and the clients and the models themselves don't know. When I spoke to people, they would often attribute it to timing or luck, which is indeed important, and yet it's not a purely random or chance event for someone to make it to the top. Top model careers are made out of the editorial end of the market. Yes, you need to secure enough visibility in the magazine pages or in Fashion Week in order to land those mega campaigns that indeed can make you a star. But in order to get to that level, you need certain types of people to sanction you in the editorial market.

What I found in the editorial market is that what everybody is looking for, the kind of look that they value, is something that they call edgy, which is yet another fluid, fuzzy term. An edgy look is something that is not so mainstream, that it's a little bit different, and you can't put your finger on it, but it appeals to high-end editorial tastemakers. So this edgy look is incredibly uncertain, that it's very hard to nail down.

When you have a market situation in which there's a lot of uncertainty, you find that people look to each other for signals of what to do. What model do we choose if they're all similarly qualified and beautiful and young and thin? Well, we look to what other people are choosing. And they look especially to what other high-status clients are choosing. So you're looking for the people that work for Vogue or the Prada shows, for instance, you know, or Chanel. Whatever they're choosing is a good sign of what is the appropriately edgy look.

Now, trying to get in with a high-status client, that's quite - there is where your arbitrariness comes in. They like you at this moment, or they don't like you at that moment. That's where a lot of the luck comes in, is securing a place under the sponsorship of a high-status client. But the bookers - sorry, modeling agents are known as bookers.

CONAN: Uh-huh.

MEARS: The bookers know this. They know that their best chances of success for any single model is to get her in with a high-status client. So they strategize accordingly. They try to build relationships with the right kinds of clients. They try to build trust with them. They try to work on their own ability to sell, to figure out what is the taste of this high-end tastemaker in order to deliver that look.

CONAN: And, again, like ball players, do they sometimes lie about their age?

MEARS: Yes. And especially lately with the press coverage about the under 16-year-old models, despite Diane von Furstenberg - her endorsement for the industry to use people that are above the age of 16 indicates that she herself had a 15-year-old walk in her show. So people are lying about their ages in both directions; for women, especially, because they start so young. But people may be uncomfortable hiring a 13-year-old for - to model women's wear, for instance. So they may lie about her age and say that she's 16. It can also work the opposite direction that in the editorial look, what they're looking for is something that's very fashionable. They're looking for the next fresh face. If you are already, say, 22, 23, this means that you're no longer a fresh face, that, you know, people have probably seen you. They've passed up on you. Why would somebody take a chance on you? So if you're 22, 23, you might be advised to lie about your age as, say, you're 20 or 19 if you can get away with it.

CONAN: OK. Ashley Mears got away with it. She lied about her age when she was researching for her dissertation, which became her book "Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model." She joined us today from member station WBUR in Boston. Thanks very much for your time.

MEARS: Great. Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Up next, making music with a message and the difficulty of reaching a wider audience. Iraqi-American singer Stephan Said will join us. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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