In the wake of New York Fashion Week, former model Jennifer Sky calls for the inclusion of models in the SAG-AFTRA union and an end to the exploitation of underage workers.
Image from Flickr via Art Comments
By Jennifer Sky
September 5th began the Mercedes-Benz biannual fashion week. For the past month, models from all over the world have lined up to fill the runways. Most of them are teenagers: not yet able to drink, not yet able to vote, some of them not yet able to drive. They have waved goodbye to their parents and crowded into model apartments scattered around New York City, often four beds to a room, for which they are charged upwards of $1000 a week. There have been costly test photo shoots to fill out their portfolios, print duplication and messenger services. Before ever getting a job, they have accumulated thousands of dollars’ worth of debt.
We were six girls to a two-bedroom/one bath and were charged over two thousand dollars a month each … We had no healthcare. We had no pension. We had no one watching out for us. Anything could have happened, and sometimes it did.
My first trip away from home was to Japan. It was the summer of my 15th year and I was to spend two and a half months modeling. I was housed in a small one-bedroom apartment with another young American girl. She stayed in bed most of the time, too scared to venture out into this utterly foreign land. She left three weeks later. The agency brought me to my first few castings, but soon left me to make my own way around the beehive of Tokyo. I did not speak or read Japanese. I didn’t know how to use the showers (a steel tank, a drain in the floor) or the public toilets or just a simple laundromat. Every day on the subway hands rubbed against me, secretly grabbing. It was so packed inside I had no idea who was doing it. It could have been anyone. I was told that this was something that happens. It was not a big deal: Japan didn’t have a rape culture, just a fascination with young girls. I made friends with other models who were friends with rich European stock traders. Together we went to clubs where we danced and drank all night. I went home having earned little money and dropped out of traditional high school a few months later to model full time.
I ended up in New York and was placed in a models’ apartment in TriBeCa. We were six girls to a two-bedroom/one bath and were charged over two thousand dollars a month each. Bob DeNiro would walk past our window and wave. Leo DiCaprio would try to kiss us in the clubs at night. Hugh Grant would want us to take rides with him in his white limousine. We were all so young. We didn’t pick up after ourselves or clean the floor. I washed the already washed pots and wore flip-flops in the shower. We had no healthcare. We had no pension. We had no one watching out for us. Anything could have happened, and sometimes it did.
Art is about expression and should be limitless in theory, but these fashion houses and magazines are huge corporations, and their employers are indeed workers.
The current culture in fashion brings to mind the Golden Age of Hollywood, before actors demanded workers’ rights. Before they had on-the-job hour restrictions and chaperone requirements for minors. Before there was a phone number you could call specifically to report sexual harassment or abuse. But why should the fashion world change? There is so much money being made and the people that are being taken advantage of are so young, who cares if a few blow whistles when thousands are ready and able to work? Provocation is the bread and butter of the industry. Art is about expression and should be limitless in theory, but these fashion houses and magazines are huge corporations, and their employers are indeed workers. Every idea is bought and paid for by an audience of consumers that are as willing as they are blissfully ignorant.
This year as we enjoy the coverage of fashion week, noting the draping and the newest lines, let us also acknowledge the people that are wearing these pieces of fabric—girls and boys as young as 14, 13, 12.
Thylane Blondeau made her runway debut in Jean-Paul Gaultier’s spring 2005 show at age 4. She is now 11 years old. There is a Tumblr account originally titled “Fuck Yeah” dedicated to Blondeau’s life and photographs, including ones taken with her in just a top and panties, clutching a cloth dolly, standing on a child-sized bed in the middle of a forest. There is also a photo of her topless, her chest only covered by two long swaths of hair. Neither of these are harmless photos in the way of a child without a shirt or a child playing in the forest. They are created with seduction in mind. Thylane Blondeau is not the first, or even the most recent, prepubescent child being used in the name of fashion. In August, Versace came out with its newest ad featuring Cindy Crawford’s 10-year-old daughter, Kaia Gerber. Last year, photos of Kate Moss’s thirteen-year-old half-sister Lottie Moss started to appear. We would be disturbed to find a community leader in possession of similar photos—say a Boy Scout leader or a congressperson or a minister—and we certainly wouldn’t send our daughters or sons to be photographed by them in this way. But because the photos are in the name of “art”—though fashion is corporate, for-profit “art”—in this context, the sexualization of little girls is seen as ok.
It isn’t that surprising that these children were handed over by their families. We have all heard the stories before. This is exactly why a union needs to be in place, to be there for protection when parents, who should know better (Cindy Crawford) do not. Screen actors today have legal protections and unions. Shirley Temple, who began her film career in 1932, at age 3, did not. The Screen Actors Guild was formed in 1933. Change in the modeling industry is long overdue. It’s never too late to begin.
In March, both screen actors unions, SAG and AFTRA, merged. Film, digital, and radio actors are now under the protection of one union. Thomas Edison invented the Kinetoscope in 1888. There was no sound and there wouldn’t be for decades: only pictures, moving rapidly, frame after frame. I recommend that SAG-AFTRA consider extending workers’ rights to their sisters and brothers, their forefathers, the fashion models. We all work in pictures, don’t we? Let us leave behind this tradition of exploiting children, and let’s grant the support of a union to those that enable the fashion industry to thrive and succeed.
Jennifer Sky is a writer of fiction, nonfiction and believer in magical things. A former model and actress, her work has recently appeared online in Tin House, Interview Magazine, The Daily Beast, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Vol.1 and others. She is a contributing editor for One Teen Story and lives in Brooklyn. You can find her on Twitter at @Jennifer_Sky