By Ena Lupine
It is easy to imagine the lives of models as being charmed and glamorous, a stream of champagne and adoration. But David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s documentary Girl Model is a strong defense against model envy. The film reveals the disturbing pattern of child labor and exploitation in the modeling business, showing the industry to be unregulated and often abusive. The film follows the unsettling story of a 13-year-old girl’s journey into the fashion industry—a story that is unfortunately familiar to that of many other young models.
The film opens at a casting call in Siberia in which hundreds of pubescent girls in bikinis line up on a brightly lit stage, hoping to become the fresh new face of Switch Models. As the girls strike poses before modeling scout Ashley Arbaugh and other adult judges, the onlookers criticize their bodies without regard for their fragile teenage egos. One has hips that are too big, another has acne, another simply doesn’t have “the right look.” When Nadya—a leggy 13-year-old with long blond hair and a tiny bikini clinging to her childlike frame like loosened shrink-wrap—walks onstage, Ashley instantly zeroes in on her. Because Nadya looks so young, “almost like a pre-pubescent girl,” she is “perfect for the Japanese market.”
It quickly becomes clear that in seeking financial security, Nadya has been thrown into a world in which she is powerless, unable to control even the most basic aspects of her new career.
When Nadya is hired, she and her family are elated. Modeling will be an opportunity for her to escape the economic confines of her small village in Siberia and give her a way to help support her family at home. They quickly sign the contract, written in English, which guarantees Nadya at least two jobs and $8,000 USD. It is only later that other clauses of the contract are revealed, like one stating that the contract can be modified on a day-to-day basis and another in which the agency reserves the right to dismiss the girls without pay if they gain one centimeter on their chest, waist or hips.
Nadya’s grandmother, in an emotional interview, says “the only thing I wish for her is independence.” Yet it quickly becomes clear that in seeking financial security, Nadya has been thrown into a world in which she is powerless, unable to control even the most basic aspects of her new career. Her story unfolds in the passive voice: She is flown to Tokyo without a guardian or translator; she is told to lie about her age. She is at the whim of adult clients who decide how she is portrayed in her photos and how these images will be used. In one scene, Nadya finds a picture of herself in a magazine, a photograph she had never seen before and was not aware had been released. Her young eyes twinkle excitedly and she buys the magazine, not recognizing that her agency has taken advantage of her.
The other protagonist in this film, an American model-turned-scout who is responsible for bringing Nadya to Tokyo, adds another layer complexity to the story. Ashley Arbaugh was also discovered and sent to Tokyo at a young age. Just as we watched Nadya’s tearful conversations with her family, we are sent back to Ashley’s own experience as a young model through videos that she took of herself at 18. In close-up soliloquys taken from a hand-held camera, Ashley vents about the emptiness of the industry and how she longs to escape it. But 15 years later, she is deeper inside than ever, perpetuating the very system that she used to hate and continues to question. The adult Ashley is often a sympathetic character, openly saying that while she recognizes that the industry “is based on nothing,” she still feels trapped inside it. “It’s like an addiction,” she confesses. “I stick with what I know because I’m afraid to try new things.”
Yet Ashley is also capable of shocking callousness—in her eyes, it is simply not her responsibility to warn these girls of what awaits them in Tokyo or to protect them once they arrive. At the end of the film, Ashley tells the Russian press at yet another casting call in Siberia, “unlike other markets where they [the models] might go into debt, they never do in Japan. They only win.” Nadya has just returned home from Japan, $2,200 in debt to her agency.
At a screening and panel discussion of the film in New York this June, models and others in the industry discussed the film and its context. Similar instances of child labor, breached contracts, agency debt and sexual abuse (to which the film alluded, but never fully addressed) are pervasive largely because there is no regulatory oversight, and because there are no unions in the industry to ensure fair labor practices. Former model Sara Ziff started the Model Alliance (the organization that hosted the screening) to address this problem; her non-profit works to organize models and help them establish basic rights and protections in their workplaces through collective bargaining. In a panel discussion that followed the film screening, Ziff explained that she had opted for non-profit status because past efforts to start model unions in the US had failed.
When you’re 13 and in a room full of grown-ups, it’s very hard to stand up for yourself.
What is it about the modeling industry that makes it so difficult to unionize? According to Rachel Blais, a Canadian model who appeared in the film and the panel discussion, efforts at unionization have been unsuccessful because the modeling workforce is young, vulnerable and replaceable. The competitiveness of the business is a double-edge sword: being chosen can feel like winning a prize, and the excitement supersedes any interest in discussing workers’ rights. At the same time, the rows of girls waiting in the wings mean that employers can treat their models as if they’re expendable. “The young girls aren’t interested in talking about it” she said, “but I have not yet met a model over 20 who does not think there needs to be more regulation.” Rachel herself was dropped by multiple agencies after criticizing the fashion industry’s labor practices in “Girl Model.”
It is easy to understand how inexperienced models like Nadya would have difficulty identifying labor abuses in their workplaces and organizing to change them. They’re not just young; they’re far away from their homes and in need of money. As Model Alliance director Jenna Sauers (herself a former model who was scouted at age 7) pointed out, “that’s the power dynamic, when you’re 13 and in a room full of grown-ups, it’s very hard to stand up for yourself.” When the former-model panelists were asked their advice for young girls getting started in the industry, they all agreed on one answer: “Learn to say no.”
Girl Model is shocking and tragic at times, but funny and tender in others, particularly in moments that Nadya spends with her roommate Madlen, exploring Tokyo, making fun of Ashley or devouring chocolates in an effort to gain weight and be sent home early. The film is a complex and intimate view of the fashion industry from the perspective of models, modeling agents, and Ashley, who bridges those perspectives. It is a fascinating portrayal of the exploitation and sexualization of young girls in this industry—an issue that gets far too little attention in contemporary labor discourse.
Perhaps the most tragic aspect of the film is its ending, in which we learn that Nadya left school to continue modeling in Asia, even after having twice left Tokyo indebted to her agency. Although she has never seen the film, she has reportedly rejected its negative depiction of her time in Tokyo. Switch Models clearly took advantage of Nadya’s youth, economic vulnerability and ambition, but they have also promised her a glamorous and lucrative career.
Nadya’s reaction is one of the most interesting components of the film. What happens when the person being exploited doesn’t recognize the treatment as unfair? Nadya’s situation—working and traveling and winding up indebted to her employer—is shocking, but the dynamics that make it possible aren’t limited just to the fashion industry. As unpaid internships become practically pre-requisite in many industries and the current economy teaches workers to view their jobs as gifts, it’s appropriate to consider how much one should be willing to sacrifice in the hope of future opportunity. What is it that separates fair labor from exploitation? It can be surprisingly difficult to know where to draw that line.
Ena Lupine is a writer living in Queens.