To the outside world, few careers are as glamorous as modeling. Access to the hottest trends, a seemingly endless stream of perks and benefits, and the chance to hang with A-list celebrities (maybe even becoming a celebrity in your own right), is what aspiring fashionistas dream of.
But, behind this shiny exterior, there is a darker side of the industry, involving abuse, exploitation, and physical and mental trauma. The industry’s narrow beauty standards, lack of diversity, and obsession with thinness aren’t new news, but the poor treatment of models is taking center stage once again, thanks to runway veteran Kate Moss sharing her own traumatic experiences with the world.
In a rare interview with Lauren Laverne on BBC Radio Four’s Desert Island Discs, the 48-year-old shared multiple stories of abuse from early in her career. She recounted a narrow escape at the age of 15, where a male photographer pressured her to go topless. Taking place in 1988, the shoot was one of Moss’s first modeling jobs.
“I had a horrible experience with a bra catalog,” she said. “I was only 15 and he said, ‘take your top off’ and I was really shy and I could feel there was something wrong and I got my stuff and ran away.”
Although she credited the shoot with “sharpening her instincts,” it wasn’t the only harrowing incident in her career. At the age of 16, Moss shot the Face magazine cover that would make her a star. Despite being friends with photographer Corinne Day, Moss was asked to pose topless once again, this time bursting into tears.
She recalled: “[Corinne] would say, ‘If you don’t take your top off, I’m not going to book you for Elle.’ And I would cry. It’s painful.”
Shot at Camber Sands beach in Sussex, U.K., Moss told Laverne that she is too traumatized to revisit the location. Sadly, the industry hasn’t changed much in the two decades since Moss became a household name, with many models sharing their own horror stories on TikTok.
“I Was On A Drip And My Doctor Told Me I Could Have Died After Being Forced To Shoot In A Heatwave”
Riley Rasmussen, 23, was scouted at a Victoria’s Secret store at age 17, and now models full-time. She said her worst experience was a shoot for a major Latin American company in Panama, where she ended up severely ill and in hospital.
At first, there was no indication that the client was anything less than professional. She was picked up from the airport and driven to her hotel in Panama City, which she describes as “very nice and super safe.” But when shooting began the next day, things quickly started to go wrong. Riley and the other models ended up spending 15 hours in the 90-degree heat, despite a 10-hour limit written into their contracts. The second day was even worse.
She told Newsweek: “The [second] day was entirely on location. I had to wear long pants and a t-shirt with a jacket on top. All the models had started to feel awful by this point, and the client was extremely limiting with water.
“By noon, I started to feel lethargic and nauseous. When I went to put on my jeans, I noticed they couldn’t get over my legs. My entire body had begun to swell. This is where my memory gets murky.”
On the bus to the next location, Rasmussen began vomiting. Despite being in “no shape to shoot,” she was forced to take part before being allowed to access medical assistance. It was 8:00 p.m. before she made it to the hospital.
Doctors put her on a fluid drip for three hours due to her electrolytes being “extremely low,” diagnosing her with heatstroke. She was also warned her not to work the next day, or she could “potentially die.”
The following morning, the client attempted to force Rasmussen to return to the shoot, sending a man to her door.
Unsurprisingly, Rasmussen still has both physical and mental trauma from the experience.
“I am forever anxious around heat, I swell easier, and have to be extremely careful,” she said.
“I Was Under 18, Shooting Alone With Two Men, And They Manipulated Me Into Undressing”
Lily Soleil Correa Lewites is a 22-year-old model and photographer from San Diego. She began modeling at the age of 16, after founding her own photography-focused creative collective Picture Party.
She told Newsweek: “It was people just starting off [in their careers], playing around and having fun, which turned into themes and events. Photographers that were attending started to hire me, and then while I was in college I’d put myself into casting calls.”
Like Rasmussen, Correa Lewites took to TikTok to share her experiences, particularly her troubling encounters with male photographers as a minor. From being asked out on shoots to finding herself in uncomfortable or alarming situations, Correa Lewites wants to warn other young models of the dangers.
She describes a scary situation at the age of 17. Alone with two male photographers, Lily felt pressured to undress for the shoot, despite that not being the agreement.
“It wasn’t full nudity or anything like that, but for someone who wasn’t even 18 yet, I realized how [dangerous it was] and how much they manipulated me,” she said.
“I think I was wearing like a shear top with like, some kind of like jacket. But basically, you could see my chest, depending on the pose.
“They just said things like ‘a bunch of models do this. They’ll take off their whole top like they trust us.’ They never sent me all of the photos. I’m sure they exist somewhere.”
For a long time, Correa Lewites shied away from talking about her experiences, due to a fear of being gaslit.
“I wasn’t sure if what was happening to me was serious enough,” she said.
To stay safe as a model, before taking any job Correa Lewites recommends investigating a photographer’s page to ensure you’re comfortable with the content they produce, as well as speaking to other models about their experiences shooting with them.
“Nine times out of 10, especially if they’re women, they’ll respond and give you their honest thoughts,” she said.
She also advises letting someone know your location or taking a chaperone. If they say no to you bringing a friend, that’s a red flag.
“I wish it wasn’t this way,” she said. “It’s not your responsibility to manage the way other people treat you. But unfortunately, until things get more regulated, this is what we have to do [to protect ourselves].”
“I was harassed by a predator for hours and my agent did nothing”
Lena Coco Hunter is a model, actor, and modeling coach. From appearing on billboards to runways and magazine spreads, in her 14-year career Hunter has modeled for some of the most famous luxury brands in the world.
Through her coaching company Modelesque, Hunter shares her wisdom with industry newcomers, including advice on how to protect yourself from photographers, scam artists, agencies, and even other models.
Unfortunately, Hunter has experienced the latter first hand. In 2017, while in Dallas for a runway gig at a mall, a male model harassed her repeatedly to the point other models stepped in to protect her.
The gig involved Hunter’s body being painted from head to toe. Rather than the designs being applied in a separate area, Hunter had to stand in a thong in a communal space shared with the other models.
“They left this male model hanging around me,” she told Newsweek. “He wouldn’t stop staring at me so intensely that even the make-up artists were super uncomfortable.”
Hunter called her agent, who seemed sympathetic on the phone. They asked Hunter to get through the job, promising to drop the male model from their books once the show was over.
“There’s an actual model market in Dallas. They could have replaced him,” Hunter said. “But in that moment, I didn’t think logically to fight with my agent. I thought she was on my side.”
The backstage area was a former pizza restaurant the client had rented for the day. The space had toilets, but no doors. When Hunter went to the bathroom, the male model followed her.
“The male model decides that he needs to see the one square inch of my labia that he hasn’t seen yet,” said Hunter. “Because he’s already seen all of me.”
At the time, there were two other female models in the bathroom. When they refused to let him in to get to Hunter, he pushed them out of the way.
She said: “They both said get out. They both said no. So he shoved them away.”
Hunter thought the show was the end of her experience with the man, until her agency booked them on another job together a week later.
She added: “The first thing he did was get up in my face and make sure I knew he didn’t get dropped.
“The agency [had] literally [been] on the phone with me saying he’s a ‘danger and a predator.’ The whole thing was a f****** lie.”
As far as Hunter is aware, the male model is still working. After several traumatic experiences, she decided to transition into acting. Although she has been able to do this successfully, others aren’t so lucky. She describes her experience with her former agency as “grooming,” with models ‘gaslighted’ into not standing up for themselves.
She said: “I believe that they look at models as chess pawns, and you have a shelf life.
“They’re just going to use you as much as they can until you become a problem or you start speaking up.”
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