It’s a brutal industry: 5 top models reveal the reality and horrors of modelling

By Lois Freeman

Published Jul 20, 2023 at 08:30 AM

Reading time: 4 minutes

Many people believe that the modelling industry has diversified. That it has progressed from the highly problematic ‘heroin chic’ and Victoria’s Secret’s annual fashion show, to the exploitation of young girls and runways filled with underfed, overworked women. But after five years spent on the inside, I can tell you that it hasn’t.

Because I wouldn’t expect you to take my word for it, I also interviewed five women, all former or current models, to find out what really happens behind the campaigns and the catwalks. Spoiler alert: nothing has changed. In fact, it’s gotten a whole lot worse.

“The excitement of this career sucked me in. As a teenage girl getting to travel the world, make friends, and wear all these amazing clothes. My agency told me I could be the next big thing if I did what they told me to do.”

All five of my interviewees were scouted at a young age. They each explained to me how they were first discovered: “I was shopping at Primark with my mum,” “I got scouted on Instagram when I was 17,” “It was by a hairstylist when I was 14,” “In my early teenage years, outside my local Topshop,” and “At a music festival when I was 15.” For me, it happened while working at a cafe when I was only 14 years old.

Modelling agencies want you to be young and fresh-faced because this type of aspirational beauty sells products. It also helps that as a barely pubescent teenager, you tend to have the tiny model body which remains an industry essential to this day. Keeping that shape, however, can be difficult.

Modelling is a business that’s completely body-obsessed—duh—and young models are still forced to conform to the so-called “golden ratio” of measurements: a 34-inch bust, a 24-inch waist and a 34-inch hip. It is true that some more liberal agencies now allow models to expand past these tight constraints, but if you’re considered a ‘straight-sized model’ (so not a ‘curve’ or a ‘plus-sized’ one), then luxury clients still expect this precise level of bodily perfection.

“You can access these crazy paychecks—tens of thousands for one day’s work. It was full of potential.”

These are tense margins and, as toxic as it sounds, it is up to the model’s agency to keep an eye out for any deviations. One former model told me: “We would get measured almost every week, and given a new goal each time. Every time I hit the last measurements, the goalposts would be moved. I remember the agents arguing over the amount of exercise I was doing as I stood there mortified.”

Behind agency doors, cruelty is being perpetuated. Another girl recalled: “Models would be asked to raise their arms and if they had ‘bingo wings’, they were laughed at and told to work harder.” Such a scrupulous approach to size can have life-changing ramifications for anyone. “In 2020, I came in to be measured by a potential new agency and was told that they liked me, but I needed to lose four inches off of my hips and come back in six weeks. I ended up with an eating disorder,” she continued.

The worst part about these stories is that they’re not the exception to the rule, they are the rule. Another girl delved into the ways in which food tormented her life: “During fashion week, we were sent home with post-it notes of foods we could eat, which basically consisted of eggs, grapefruit and spinach. I would go for lunches or meetings with other models and girls would say ‘Oh no I can’t eat that, I’ve gotten fat’.”

What you eat can feel so closely entwined with your success. For some of the girls I spoke with, they found eating to be a daily struggle. One individual explained how she felt as though “with each meal, each bite of food was being monetised. If I don’t eat this chocolate bar, if I don’t join in on this family barbeque, then I might get smaller and get higher-paid modelling jobs as a result. Every food decision affected my career. I found that completely exhausting.”

Despite somewhat adequate safeguarding attempts having been made, corruption still exists. So much so that one of the former models I interviewed shared that she knew of agencies who had ‘special’ relationships with Paris doctors who could bypass the changes that had been made in 2015 when the law changed and models were required to get a health certificate for fashion week shows—and specific confirmation that they didn’t have an eating disorder. “I’m not sure what they were bribing them with, but these doctors would approve underweight girls for them. They would take measurements over puffer jackets,” she stated.

As a model, you become increasingly aware of the fact that it would be difficult to come out of this career unscathed. I watched many women rise higher and higher, only to eventually come crashing down because they had starved themselves for too long. You’d hear phrases like “she needs a little break, she hasn’t been very well,” and “she’s taken it a little too far” circulating around backstage.

Modelling can also mean exploitation. From “shooting in the freezing cold with barely anything on” to “being made to change clothes in the street—people were watching me undress,” such abuses begin to seep into the boundaries of the job. Models are meant to be protected by their contracts, but these terms are all too often ignored.

“On one shoot, the photographer made the models lie on a laser photocopier and keep our eyes open while it scanned our faces. I was young and struggled to stick up for myself. My eyes burned for days afterwards.”

The power dynamics between young female models and older male photographers is a delicate landscape to negotiate. Describing one particularly uncomfortable moment, one of the girls recalled: “I got sent to a photographer’s address for a portfolio shoot, which was common. He gave me his own clothes to dress in. We shot in his hallway, in his bedroom, on the floor and on the bed. The poses became sexier. He unsettled me. He asked me to stay and insisted I eat with him, I was a lot younger than him and the whole thing just felt odd.”

Inappropriate behaviour can feel like part of the package deal. Another interviewee explained: “After a shoot abroad, the client came into the dressing room and said to me ‘It looked like you were fucking the camera’ and he came towards me as if to kiss me. I swerved him awkwardly and he kissed my cheek. I brushed it off, but in reality, I felt extremely vulnerable.”

When I look back at the experiences that I had while modelling as a teenager, I am shocked by my own fearlessness. I did things I now wouldn’t dream of doing. I put far too much trust into the agency that was representing me at the time.

The truth is, this career involves long hours, last-minute schedules, and jobs on the side to supplement unpredictable paychecks. “My life is not what people expect. I model part-time and I work full time, 9:30 to 5:30. I get castings done in my lunch break.” An Instagram full of glamorous modelling photos is, for some, hiding a much more ‘regular’ reality.

Many women leave this industry in search of a stabler life. “I felt anxious a lot of the time, which is ultimately why I decided to stop,” one of my interviewees told me. You can get paid thousands for a modelling gig, and be left waiting months for another. Despite the image of diversity that the industry wants to feed you, the darker corners in this dazzling world remain—young women suffering from hunger, control, and abuse of power. These stories are just a snapshot of the reality of being a model.

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