Models, Labour, and Gender: The Economics

Modeling is a female-dominated industry, but the women employed in the industry face immense amounts of social censure both from the public, and from their employers. This first part in a series on models, labour, and gender will explore the economics of the industry.


First, a bit of context:

In the modeling world that existed pre-social media, people — usually girls, often underage, almost certainly white, [1] and working as independent contractors [2] on the very edge of what child labour laws and ILO edicts would allow — would get ‘scouted’ and/or ‘signed’ by an agency or talent organisation. This agency would then book test shoots either in-house, or contract out, and the model would open an account with the agency, incurring debt for expenses, and earning a median income of roughly $27,330 per annum (in the USA) with no benefits (and paying for most expenses out of pocket), [3] if working full time. This ‘deal’ with the agency often included exclusivity, morality clauses, strictures related to weight gain/loss, hair cut/colour, and an expectation of control over room and board (crammed in agency-owned or affiliated, expensive, and shared model apartments), with other financial details that were opaque, as ‘favours’ and negotiations happened off-paper or under the table. As independent contractors often working transnationally, models have traditionally been outside of labour regulations, meaning they have no legal grounds to pursue things like 8-hour workdays, breaks, minimum wage, benefits, or protection from workplace sexual harassment. Marc Jacobs, for example, has notoriously employed underage workers and paid them only in trade; [4] Terry Richardson has been accused of sexual harassment and assault numerous times, but because of the limited labour protections offered to those who would accuse him, he has never faced any punitive measures. [5]

Several factors have brought about a shift in how models navigate the conditions of their employment. Most notably these are: I: the surge of hobbyist cum ‘professional photographers,’ given the relative ease with which camera equipment and photo editing software can be purchased or downloaded illegally; II: the growing acceptance of models of colour, plus sized models, and tattooed models in the mainstream industry, (and also the growth of an independent ‘alternative modeling’ community); and III: the rise of social media and model/photographer networking sites (such as modelmayhem or purpleport), which has allowed models to forgo the traditional agency system, become their own agents and gain notoriety.

Both before and after this shift, there has existed a generalised contempt for the idea of compensating models for their labour; the reasons for such are normally articulated in terms of gender stereotypes: the idea that models speaking out about wanting minimum wage or travel expenses is brash or unfeminine, that the industry is flooded with “attention whores,” that “standing and looking pretty” isn’t work, or that models–again mostly women–should be grateful for the mere opportunity of having their picture taken, because women are supposed to love being made beautiful. From my own experience working as a model, I encountered the idea that expecting to be paid more for nude work is “prostitute’s logic.” Nowhere in this calculation of the worth of a model’s labour is a discussion of what is essentially a purchase of the rights to use and manipulate the model’s personal image for public view, presenting more consequences for the model who is in the public eye, than for the employer who remains unseen and largely unscathed should the critical reception of the photograph or campaign be negative.

This reticence to compensate models for their labour is arguably an aspect of a larger labour issue: that of the “pink collar” sector. The pink collar sector is comprised of professions that are female-dominated, low-wage, low-prestige, and often come with unwritten expectations for surplus emotional or sexual labour. Modeling comes with a host of expectations for behaviour that is traditionally feminine; models are expected to be happy with what is given to them: quiet, compliant, always smiling, willing to be posed, moved, touched, or flirted with, in the name of banter and rapport. Negative descriptors of model behaviour all relate to stepping outside of the ‘wilting violet’ feminine stereotype: chiefly among these negative descriptors is “diva,” and indeed, demanding pay or demanding safe working conditions are situations in which a model can be branded “diva” and face professional consequences in a reputation-based business.

While the growth of the industry to encompass older, wider, more racially diverse, and tattooed looks has been a positive outcome of the internet and social networking’s influence on the industry, the aforementioned surge in professional photographers had bred a few stereotypes about the underbelly of the current modeling world. The prevalence of the “Guy With a Camera” or “GWC,” a man who purchases an expensive a camera and typically shoots on a white sheet in the basement (while getting handsy with models) has become the bogeyman of the industry. With so few ‘professional model photographers’ offering compensation, however, the “GWC” making a home on modelmayhem is often the only one paying. The higher a model’s “levels” are (ie. the more willing she is to do nude or erotic work), the more likely it is she will have a paycheque.

Social media and networking sites have also allowed for the amateurs or civilians to essentially pay to do work for private companies and magazines, work that professional models and photographers would have (in the past) been paid to do. While previously it was just models at the bottom of the totem pole being expected to work for free, or work for low wages and ‘perks,’ now it is such that photographers and digital artists are also being expected to produce work for something as ephemeral as ‘recognition.’ This inversion of the industry has led to photographers demanding pay from models as clients, instead of demanding pay from clients such as magazines or the private companies for which they wish to produce imagery. In the age of social media, a freelance model is more likely to set up a “fan page” and pay for photoshoots, and then be duped into working ‘TF’ (time for print, CD, images, etc.) for years on the promise of gainful employment down the road, when such gainful employment doesn’t properly exist in the current market, but for a select few success stories. As the range and amount of commercial or paid magazine work offered to an ever-growing number of photographers has decreased, photographers have begun looking to aspiring models to foot the bills, effectively turning the industry on its’ head by depending on low-income women to pay the hourly rate instead of receive it. In the amateur-ish modeling/photographic community, it is not uncommon to encounter a ‘model photographer’ who has never actually hired a model, or who wouldn’t ever consider paying a model for her labour; indeed, the idea is more often than not confronted with outright hostility.

It is likely in the current economic climate that the profession of modeling will be altogether replaced by civilians working for free or at their own cost, as social media has allowed for a surge in “site modeling,” “modeling contests,” and plethora civilians are eager to purchase a product, take a photo with it, and send the photo to the company for display in a fan gallery, which replaces the need for a professional image for which the company would have had to pay. Recognition, likes, and shares have become a sort of currency.

When attention is the currency, the stereotypes about who puts themselves out there for it become more vicious. Next week: Scene Queens, Sex Kittens, and “Attention Whores”: how the public reacts to the moderately famous (but mostly uncompensated) model in an age of two-way media.


1. Fashion is racist: insider lifts lid on ‘ethnic exclusion,’ The Independent

2. What I Owe: The Financial Exploitation of Models, Dis Magazine

3. What’s the Median Income for a Fashion Model in the U.S.?, Freakonomics

4. Marc Jacobs Doesn’t Pay His Models, Says Model [Updated], Jezebel

5. Meet Terry Richardson, The World’s Most F—ked Up Fashion Photographer, Jezebel

One thought on “Models, Labour, and Gender: The Economics

  1. Pingback: The Rich Get Pretty: The Politics of Advancement in Modeling (and what this has to do with Rebecca Black) | Model on Mars

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