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Student Blog Series: Exploitation in the Modeling Industry

Posted: April 13, 2024

Esmeralday Seay-Reynolds was just fifteen years old when Click Model Management scouted her in New York. This was supposed to be her “big break,” but the glamorous bubble of the model agency quickly popped, when the agency told the 5-foot-11, 130-pound girl that she looked “too heavy” since her body had developed. In response to this, Seay-Reynolds dropped twenty pounds and signed with the modeling agency, NEXT. Unfortunately, many models are told that this is what you must do in order to succeed in the industry, so, Seay-Reynolds listened. This comment was only the first of a long line of abuse faced by Seay-Reynolds, and it soon became apparent that the modeling industry was not as glamorous as it seemed.

While signed with NEXT, Seay-Reynolds ended up in the pages of top magazines. To the outside world she was living the dream life; but in reality, her agency continuously exploited her. Multiple instances stuck out to her as problematic. First, when she was sixteen NEXT booked Reynolds on a shoot with a photographer accused of sexual coercison. Second, that same year, her agent advised her to swallow cotton balls to suppress hunger since “they are organic.” Finally, Reynolds was walking the Fashion Week runway around the world for Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Saint Laurent, Fendi, and Marc Jacobs. At one of the first shows, size-zero models surrounded Reynolds, throwing up on either side of her. She performed shows, for six weeks and after she completed all of the shows, Reynolds only received $130. Since no one ever provided her with receipts, she wasn’t sure if that was all she actually made or if her agency took the rest.

Reynolds didn’t realize how bad it really was, though, until she arrived in Reykjaví in 2014 for a two-day shoot on a glacier above freezing, ice-covered waters. The photographer instructed Reynolds to clime up the glacier in heels and a slip dress while the photographer and assistants wore parkas. The models were forced to change on the glacier, getting completely naked in the freezing weather. Finally the photographer asked Reynolds and another model to climb up to a spot with “ice that will rip right through you if you slip.” According to Reynolds, no help or medic was present throughout these shoots. She stated “if you don’t do what they say, they will blacklist you. And not only will that eff up your future career, but everything you’ve done and suffered up until that point will mean nothing.” Despite being plastered on the cover and pages of a magazine, Reynolds was never paid for these 18-hour days in deadly conditions. Upon returning home Reynolds complained about the photographer to one of her agents who dismissed the behavior with a casual “he’s known for this.” NEXT’s co-founder Joel Wilkenfeld says they vett photographers and that an agent would have been fired on the spot if the treatment was brought to his attention, but this story is not uncommon.

Seay-Reynolds is one of the many women subject to the predatory nature of companies like NEXT and Click. This type of abuse runs deep in the fashion industry and women, who simply aspire to make it in the glamorous world of modeling and high fashion, find themselves subject to intense exploitation at the hands of those more powerful. While it may look glamorous and rewarding, the modeling industry creates an environment that fosters relationships with vastly unequal power dynamics, providing a playground for abuse.

New York State is a notably dangerous city for models. This is because New York state laws create a unique system in which the faces that fuel the $2.5 trillion fashion industry are commercially and sexually exploited. Modeling agencies in New York are considered management companies that are subject to a special set of state labor laws. These agencies can employ multi-year, auto-renewing contracts regardless of whether they book their models jobs. This means that even models who have consistent work find themselves continuously in debt to the agencies, leaving them at their mercy. These agencies can also wield “power of attorney” over their models with no legal obligation to detail their accounting or act in the models’ best interest. This allows the agencies to control and manipulate models’ finances and housing situations, while also giving them the power to book jobs, negotiate the models’ rate of pay, and distribute the models’ images. Many young and foreign women will sign these contracts without consulting parents or guardians since they are legally independent. These contracts represent the financial exploitation that occur in the industry, which creates a ripe climate for exploitation as the models are not treated as professionals. When a teenager working to pay off debts incurred by their agency is sent to meet a prominent businessman for a “professional opportunity,” that clear professional power imbalance creates an environment conducive to exploitation. Since modeling agencies can operate without accountability, they can abuse, threaten, and exploit models for jobs and sexual favors, while the models must abide and are simply left with nowhere else to go.

In response to their experiences of abuse in the industry, former models have spoken about their stories and have taken steps to implement reform. One such model, Sara Ziff, states that the “lack of transparency, the power imbalance, the vulnerability of these mostly young, immigrant women” is a recipe for exploitation. Earlier in Ziff’s career she refrained from using the language of trafficking as it felt too extreme, until she realized “that’s what it is.” In 2012, Ziff founded the Model Alliance in 2012 to promote fair treatment for the faces of the industry ­– the models. Further, on June 8th, 2023, the New York Senate passed the Fashion Worker’s Act, which would close the legal gap in state regulations that allows management companies to exercise this power over their models while escaping accountability. Specifically, in establishing a zero-tolerance policy for abuse, the bill would create a fiduciary duty for agencies to act in the best interests of their models, supply them with copies of contracts, and protect their health and safety. However, we still need this bill to make its way up to capitol hill to become law.

Models have the right to try and succeed in their profession without being commercially and sexually exploited, just as every individual in every field does. So how can we help? The most direct way to effectuate change is to endorse and support the passage of the New York Fashion Worker’s Act to close this legal loophole allowing management companies to operate without accountability. To do so:

  1. Follow Model Alliance’s work to stay up to date on the status of the act and ways to get involved.
  2. Sign your name in support of the Fashion Workers Act to further the evolution of the bill into law.
  3. New York residents can contact their senators and assemblymembers to urge them to further the bill, so spread the word to those you know

This piece is part of our first-year law student blog series. Congratulations to author Elizabeth Ellick on being chosen!

All views expressed herein are personal to the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law or of Villanova University. 


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