Image credit: Barclay Bram.

I want to tell you about a feeling I would have in my stomach before modeling castings. A frenetic energy, a fluttering that carried me each step as I would approach wherever the casting was. Sometimes it would be in the office of the brand, sometimes in a photo studio. Sometimes it would be in hotel rooms, and sometimes a casting director might invite you to a go-see, and you’d meet them, one on one. One time I found myself on my own, in my underwear, at midday on a Sunday in a casting director’s apartment, very aware of how alone I was at that moment. Most castings weren’t like this, though. For the majority of them, I was one of many. I walked everywhere, even in winter, because I wanted desperately to burn calories and because I was never sure I’d be long enough wherever I was to buy a bicycle. I’d know when I was approaching the casting because I’d start to see a few guys with pronounced cheekbones and skinny black jeans among the regular street goers. It would have started already, that pit-stomach feeling, but it would increase. 

In Milan, during fashion week, the city would fill with models. There were castings seemingly everywhere, and so wherever I would turn, I’d see other models. The flutters were constant. I remember one time my agency sent me to cast for Moncler, the expensive outerwear brand. I was excited. Even though I don’t like Moncler jackets (not that I could have ever afforded them, but I thought they looked like inflated bin-liners), it was a big brand. If I could walk in their show, I thought, it would definitely mean something. Milan Fashion Week was twice a year––in pre-pandemic times––once in September showing the following year’s spring/summer collection, and once in February showing the fall/winter collection of that same year. This casting was in early February, when morning mist would hang over the canals, then clear, revealing a piercing, cloudless sky. 

To be in fashion week was to be stepping into the future, a reminder that fashion existed on a speculative timescale. On that February day, when I went to cast for Moncler, I walked down a busy Milanese street, following Citymapper on my phone. I arrived at my destination, stepping through a massive doorway that opened into a courtyard. My heart sank. There was a long line snaking its way through the space. My agency had told me that Moncler was only looking to cast a few guys for its show; they already had a few booked who had done their campaign, and they had a roster of regular bookings. I thought they had given me this information as a boost: they’re only looking for a few guys, but here you are, being called for the casting. Instead, I guess they had said it as a warning. They are only looking for a few guys, and it’s a crapshoot. I couldn’t count the number of models in the line in front of me. It snaked back and forth enough times that I couldn’t get a good sense of it even if I’d tried. 

I waited two hours to get into the casting itself. It was a cold day, so cold that I couldn’t read or hold my phone out because my fingers were numb. I kept my hands in my pockets, rocked back and forth in my black Doc Marten boots, and watched as my breath curled up into a little cloud of steam. The shadows of the other models traced long and skinny along the pink courtyard wall. I heard a guy behind me tell the model he’d come with that he really needed this job. The guy nodded but said nothing. But I think this could be the one, he continued. I have a good feeling about this one. 

They finally called me inside. I was handed a jacket two sizes too small for me, and the second it became clear that the arms stopped somewhere midway up my wrist and I was never going to be able to zip it closed, I was told to leave. Next! I fumbled with the jacket, accidentally dropped my portfolio, and spilled a composite card on the floor. I didn’t bother to pick up. A two dimensional me looked up at the ceiling, only to be stood on by the hopeful guy from the queue. Next! We walked out into the Via Stendhal together, in silence. 

The model-turned-sociologist Ashley Mears calls it “the jackpot.” That’s what we were all doing in that line, what the flutters in my stomach were. They were the judders of the gambler, my body’s version of the clammy hands of the slot-puller. Two lemons and a cherry. Fashion is about fantasy. There was a negligible chance of me getting that job for Moncler, but I still waited for two hours even after seeing the long line of models that slunk its way around the courtyard. Not enough, I went from Moncler to another casting, and another. I kept pulling the lever. 

 

*

 

Now, a few years removed from modeling, I’m interested in why. 

Why did I keep going to huge open castings when the probability of booking them was so slim? What was it about the dream of walking in a fashion show that was so enticing that it managed to draw us in enough to stand in the freezing cold on that Milanese street? The anthropologist Giulia Mensitieri, whose recent ethnography of Paris and Brussels-based creatives working in fashion, The Most Beautiful Job in the World: Lifting the Veil on the Fashion Industry, caused a stir throughout the industry, argues that fashion is “overexposed.” What she means is that the dream of fashion––the money, the fame, the craft, the artistry, the fabrics, the exuberance and excess––is a blinding light. It simultaneously draws you in, mothlike, while it obscures the reality of what is actually going on. The light is so bright that it washes out the edges. This, she argues, is how the fashion industry ends up being so exploitative.  

Fashion, writes Mensitieri, “is the woman who models for Chanel and is paid in lipstick.” It is “clothes that cost 30,000 euros, made by seamstresses and embroiderers on the minimum wage, who are exploited by designer labels that make a huge profit on their work.” Fashion, as an industry and as an ideal, is an exaggerated expression of contemporary capitalism. “Deconstructing the dream of fashion is a way of understanding the ways in which the sector is representative of current types of work, and probably prophetic, in its excesses, of those yet to come,” argues Mensitieri.

There are many ways to describe fashion’s excesses. It’s the toll that it takes on designers like Raf Simons, who caved under the crushing pressure of having to do six collections a year. It’s Burberry burning $37 million of product to maintain brand value. It’s the fact that the industry contributes 20 percent of the world’s global wastewater and trillions of plastic microfibers into our oceans (which then come back to us, in our salt). But the excesses are part of that blinding light, the exact thing that makes fashion so enticing. Mensitieri’s book is important for showing that these excesses provide cover for the exploitation that happens up and down the fashion chain. It’s not just the sweatshop workers in emerging market economies who are taken advantage of, she notes; it’s everyone except the tiniest minority right at the top of the fashion pyramid. It’s photographers working for a magazine for exposure, models working to pad their books and stylists to build their portfolios. All of this unpaid. It’s “unjust,” noted Karl Lagerfeld before he passed, impassive behind his dark sunglasses and untouchable position at the top. 

As a model, the exploitation was fairly obvious. It was my agency charging me a $300 printing fee for a bunch of composite cards, which models take to castings and leave behind with casting directors, and another few hundred dollars for my portfolio—a plastic binder with the agency’s logo on it. It was having to pay out of pocket for test shoots early in my career to build my book, then paying more money to do them over after shaving off the facial hair, which I’d hated, that my agency had told me to grow. It was the models I knew sharing a studio apartment in outer Bushwick, with a shower curtain in the middle of the room for some privacy. (They were each charged over $1,000 monthly by their agency to live there.) 

These were the material, tacitly agreed upon forms of exploitation that were the fabric of the industry. There were the sketchy casting directors, the fad diets, and the mysterious charges the agency would take out of our pay at the end of the month. Admittedly, I faced less sexual harassment as a man than many women in the industry did. In a recent essay for The Cut, the supermodel Emily Ratajkowski writes about the physical and emotional abuse she endured at the hands of the photographer Jonathan Leder. He took naked pictures of her in his private home in the Catskills, then put his fingers inside her without her consent. She pushed him off and was left to shiver alone in a bedroom while wondering whether it might belong to his child. The photos were then sold, without her agreement, in glossy art books he self-published. If that wasn’t enough, he went on to hold gallery shows featuring the images in Los Angeles. 

Ratajkowski’s article is a meditation on ownership. How does she come to own her image and her body after a photographer like Leder is allowed such free reign over it? When Richard Prince, an artist, blew up one of her Instagram posts and printed it on a canvas for his “Instagram Paintings,” she had to buy it off him for $80,000. The artist gifted her a small study of the image, a little black-and-white version, but her ex-boyfriend took it when they broke up. He sold it back to her for $10,000, a price she reluctantly paid to ward off the chance he would leak nude photos of her. 

In this context, her control is predicated on her ability to buy back her image. “I will remain as the real Emily; the Emily who owns the high-art Emily, and the one who wrote this essay, too. She will continue to carve out control where she can find it.” The irony being, as some commentators pointed out, that she is only able to do this because of how wildly successful she has been in selling her own image. She has 27 million followers on Instagram and is one of the top-earning models working today. How does one, given her level of success and fame, ever separate between the “real” Emily and the commodified image of her? It is akin to the question the influencer Tavi Gevinson once asked when she wrote, “who would Tavi Gevinson be without Instagram?”

I was light years away from Ratajkowski’s level of fame and success in the industry. I feel awkward even drawing a comparison to her. But the question of what becomes of your image once you’ve sold it is something that I also wondered about. When I saw myself on a billboard for the first time I remember lying in bed that night, thinking about what I would do if I walked past on the day they were taking it down. Would I ask to keep it? Where would it go? I wondered, I guess in a way not too dissimilar to Ratajkowski, how much of myself was genuinely there in that image. I could look at the image and see myself, and I could remember the day of shooting and the fittings before it. But there was something I found hard to connect to. The image was so much larger than me. The lighting and the make-up made the image of me have skin far clearer than I could ever have in real life. Blemish-free and giant; who was that person? There was also something morbid and fascinating about thinking of it being pulped. 

The fact that you are selling your image also makes the rejections sting in a different way. To be a successful model is to commodify your likeness. You are essentially selling a product, and the product just happens to be the way you look. And while I’m sure it sucks when you sell clothes to be told repeatedly that your product isn’t quite what the customer is looking for, at least there is a sliver of comfort in knowing that there exists a clear separation between you (the salesperson) and your product. In modeling, that distinction is almost nonexistent. I could never quite get over the fact that I was handing over a com-card with a picture of my face on it, and that the “no” wasn’t a complete rejection of me, in my entirety. I started to question everything, not just my looks. The constant rejection was a very intimate way to be hollowed out. 

While this never got easier, the thing that eventually broke me was one that no one warned me about, and thus I had no way of preparing for––the way the industry extracted time. I could never understand why a brand would hold an open casting to see five hundred or so models when they could have pre-selected a handful and still had ample choice? Why make us stand around in the cold all day only for a moment’s consideration? I have often wondered: How much of my time as a model did I spend actually modeling (like walking a runway or posing in front of a camera) versus chasing the dream, standing in lines waiting to be considered, or sitting in a make-up chair or draping myself on a sofa, waiting to be called? 

To model was to wait. To wait for my turn to be cast, to wait on a set, to wait for the shutter-click, to wait to succeed, to make it, to see my face on a billboard, and, even more, to make rent, to pay off my debts to the agency, to simply keep going. This waiting, this never-knowing life of ellipses, is how the dream functions, and it’s the one aspect of the industry that Mensitieri doesn’t touch on. I think the pre-pandemic industry was so good at carving out great swathes of wasted time because to dream requires time. It’s in those wasted moments that we were given space to lean, ever so closely, into the dream. 

Fashion to me was like the sun on that Milanese day, so high that it was far out of my reach. Yet it would occasionally grace me with a lick of ambient heat, and I could turn towards it, just long enough to fool myself that the day wasn’t cold. 

 

*

 

Fashion has always had a fucked-up relationship with time. As a model, you’d shoot t-shirts in the dead of winter, and heavy jackets in summer. 

Once upon a Shanghai winter, we were shooting a lookbook along the banks of the Huangpu River, as tugboats sailed past at a glacial pace. The interns hovered just out of shot. The second we stopped shooting, they’d throw a shiny survival blanket over us and give us a thermos full of tea because we were asked to pose in shorts as if we were heading to the beach. In New York, I wore a sheepskin coat on a summer’s day to shoot a short video that had no purpose beyond providing a photographer with more Instagram content. We took the ferry over to Staten Island to shoot. I was grateful for the breeze coming up off the Hudson as balls of sweat rolled off my body under the thickness of the coat. When we arrived, we climbed a hill, while I clutched the jacket in my arms and the assistant lugged more clothes. Finally, at the top, I turned to see the Statue of Liberty off in the water. I put the jacket on, sighed under its weight, and wore a bright smile between shots in the hope the photographer would like me enough to book me again for a paid job, or at least an editorial in a magazine. He never contacted me again. He didn’t even tag me on Instagram. 

It seems banal to state that working in fashion meant you were always one or two seasons ahead. That’s obvious given the product cycle––things have to be made across giant global supply chains and shipped around the world to their consumers. It takes time. You shoot summer in winter and winter in summer—that’s how fashion has always been. But fashion was, until the pandemic, accelerating. There were no longer four seasons on the fashion calendar. Now there were six, with the recent addition of resort and cruise lines. This was on top of collaborations with other brands, and capsule collections for target markets in regions like Asia and the Middle East. Then there was the resurgence of haute couture, which had lost relevance in the ’90s and early 2000s, but suddenly found a new lease on life as the ultimate marketing tool in the digital age. 

Dolce & Gabbana, for instance, has invested heavily in recent years in its couture Alta Moda line, which it displays biannually in lavish, multi-day parties. When I went to one in New York, they rented out the Met Opera for a dinner and hosted their opening night at the Public Library, followed by a reception in the Rainbow Room. The party lasted four days and then, within a few weeks, the Dolce machine was in full swing again, doing another show in Mexico. That was another issue major fashion houses had; while their prestige was still rooted (and mired) in the fashion capitals of Paris, New York, and Milan, their consumer base was global. The money was elsewhere. Dolce was supposed to host the largest fashion show in human history in Shanghai in 2019 before racist messages Stefano Gabbana, one-half of the designer duo behind the brand, sent to the Instagram fashion blog @dietprada were leaked on the day of the show. D&G lost up to 36 million euros in immediate costs, excluding the damage to brand reputation. The Chinese Communist Party’s Youth League took to social media to call for a boycott of the brand, and their stores were swiftly shuttered up and down the country. 

I was booked to walk in that show and was in rehearsals as the entire thing came crumbling down. We had made it to the final rehearsal, which meant we were already draped in black satin dressing gowns and in shoes we would wear for the show. My shoes had gold sequins and would have nicely complemented the gold-trimmed, disco-like tux I was billed to wear. We sat around in disbelief waiting to see if the show might go on. It didn’t. We sat for seven hours before a producer told us the police were coming and everyone had to clear out. 

I couldn’t help but notice that Gabbana had sent those messages to the blog late at night. I marveled at the cognitive dissonance of someone who can send racist messages about Chinese people on the day of a show that was literally named “D&G Loves China.” I wondered whether he even knew where he was anymore; nighttime in another faceless luxury hotel in yet another timezone, producing yet another mega-show, distracted by another virtual connection. 

That’s what they say happened to John Galliano, whose anti-Semitic rant in 2011 saw him ousted from Dior and briefly excommunicated by the fashion world. It was the pressure, they said. It was the Valium and the alcohol, which he leaned on because of the pressure, he said. (To be sure, pressure is not an excuse for racism or antisemitism, because there is none). Raf Simmons’ departure from Dior a few years later was a reaction to this endless churn. “Like that bird in a gilded cage, creative people at the major fashion houses have everything: a circle of assistants, drivers, first-class travel, access to elegant homes, and celebrity clients. Everything, but time,” wrote Suzy Menkes in British Vogue

There were tentative signs, pre-COVID-19, that the industry was waking up to this. Scott Sternberg, the former creative director of the preppy Band of Outsiders,  had retreated to Los Angeles and was selling high-end tracksuits. In Sweatpants Forever, Irina Aleksander’s profile of Sternberg in the New York Times, we watch as the designer’s choice to do a seasonless direct-to-consumer line of upmarket basics is vindicated by the pandemic. In March, she reports, the brand’s sales were up 662 percent over the previous year. But the brand is still struggling to find investors. Despite record-breaking sales in a time when major players are burning out––goodbye US-based institutions like Barney’s, JC Penny, Brooks Brothers, J. Crew, and Neiman Marcus, for starters––investors are more interested in the quick returns they might get buying distressed assets. “Reviving a corpse was easier than tending to a newborn,” writes Aleksander at the article’s close, as yet another investor passes on Sternberg. 

Stefano Pilati, the former head designer for Yves Saint Laurent, launched his own brand via Instagram in 2017. He posted seventeen looks from his Random Identities project, the line he now runs from his apartment-cum-studio in Berlin. The brand is both gender-neutral and seasonless. It sells via drops that he announces on social media. The first show they did was filmed in the SSENSE offices in Montreal, with models walking past the banks of computers the employees of the e-commerce site use. There was no jockeying for invites. It was streamed online. His brand––fluid, timeless (in all senses), and genderless––is a vision of the future. 

In January 2020, in one of the last flings of the pre-pandemic fashion age, Pilati took the brand to Pitti Uomo, the tastemaking bi-annual menswear trade show held in Florence, Italy, where he was invited as the star designer to close out the event. He showed his collection in a vast abandoned train yard, converting the space into a simulacrum of a Berlin techno party. A red light pulsed from the ceiling in time with deep bass notes resonating from a single amplified cello. The show was well-received by the fashion press. Vogue noted that “as a manifesto for modern dressing, that statement promised much. What we saw last night in Florence delivered and then some.” In i-D magazine, they said, “he’s reframing the narrative and doing something altogether more organic, bypassing the system in the process.”

The first time I met Pilati was in Berghain, the Berlin nightclub. There he was, surrounded by his chosen tribe. It was this crew he took to Florence, sending a beautiful panoply of identities down the runway; none of them random, all of them perfectly assembled. But yet, there he was at Pitti. The dream of fashion, the allure, and all of its rituals are such that even the most forward-thinking and avant-garde designer has to bring his entire world with him. The dream demands legibility. It was still a show, after all. 

 

*

 

The first fashion show I ever attended was a Diane Von Furstenburg show in New York. I had a backstage pass because I was assisting an editor from Shanghai. We arrived four hours early, so he could conduct some interviews and do the rounds. I marveled at the industrial scale of the production; the room full of mirrors and make-up artists, the dozens of dressers, the many models in their gowns idly playing on their phones. There was so much hum and bustle, so many people who had been there since the earliest hours of the morning. There were coffee cups everywhere, and a catering station that had green juices and vitamin shots. The staff looked exhausted. 

About thirty minutes before the show, we were ushered out into the main hall. My editor went to say his hellos, and I was dispatched to a standing spot on a small galley somewhere above the shoulders of the many cameramen. The editor sat in the second row, which displeased him. He had been invited to the after-show dinner though. This pleased him. There are many in the front row who will not be invited to that, he said to me, on multiple occasions. 

The show itself lasted no more than ten minutes. Music thumped, the lights dimmed, and then out came the models. Everyone, it seemed, watched the show through their phones. The glow from the screens made the faces of the guests look ethereal and washed out. The designer came out to bow and then retreated backstage. We then went on to other shows. 

I didn’t get it. I wasn’t that interested in clothes, let alone a high-end women’s line, but the whole thing seemed off-kilter. All that work for such a short payoff. 

It clearly didn’t put me off that much, though. It was on that same trip that I signed with my first agency. The dream was too alluring, the light too blinding. 

I modeled full-time for two years, in 2015 and 2016. I was never wildly successful. I signed with solid agencies in New York and Milan, but I only worked sporadically. The majority of my time was spent traipsing around those two cities, book in hand, desperately seeking work. I was lucky to come out of the experience with just enough money to send myself to grad school—the result of booking two international campaigns. 

I struggled with modeling. I became, unsurprisingly, terrified of my weight. My relationship with food was disordered. I became obsessed with social media but could never find a way to leverage it to my advantage. When I left modeling, I had managed to never post a single modeling photo to my page, because I never felt like I had done anything “model” enough. This was despite attending castings every day and having hundreds upon hundreds of professional photos of myself to choose from. I had only around 700 followers when I quit. I deleted all of my socials then (and came back, ambivalently, only after enough years had passed that I could put this anxiety behind me). 

I hated knowing that one of the only things I had at my disposal to change my career was to craft a good modeling profile on social media, yet was simultaneously too self-conscious and wracked by self-doubt to do so. Having a strong social media presence is one of the few forms of agency a model has. Otherwise, the job is largely out of your hands, assuming you remain within the limits of the sample sizes for the brands your look is good for. You are at the whim of your booker at the agency, making sure they have the right contacts to get you in front of the right brands. When you do go to a casting, you are either the look they want or you aren’t. Next! It is that simple. 

I always knew when I got to a casting that it was a waste of time if the sign-in sheet asked for my social media handle. My agency started to put our social media handles on our comp cards in my second year. I think the limited success I had as a model was because I was in the very last gasp of the analogue era, when you could just scrape by without being very online. 

It has become even harder. Not only do all models have to compete with everyone who has a social media presence (lots of brands now cast directly from Instagram or TikTok), but they also have to compete with digital renderings. In 2019, I traveled to Seoul, South Korea, to visit a 3D animation studio, and got myself turned into an avatar. The whole process took less than one minute: I sat in a room filled with digital cameras, and when they were done they had a perfect rendering of me. It was so accurate you could see the hairs I hadn’t shaved properly that morning. 

Digital, lifelike models have been used by brands like Balmain and Dolce & Gabbana. There are now digital agencies representing these “talents.” A digital model can have proportions and skin that no human being could ever have. Perhaps more importantly, they won’t catch a deadly virus in a pandemic. But the ethics of this trend is questionable. As Lauren Michele Jackson points out in the New Yorker, Shudu, one of the most successful digital models, is a representation of a black woman created by a white man, thus profiting off the already scant opportunities for women of color in the industry. The same is true of the biggest digital influencer of them all, @lilmiquela, who has over 2.8 million followers on Instagram and has identified at various times as a woman of color and a member of the LGBTQ+ community. She is also an advocate in the fight against breast cancer, despite the obvious fact that renderings have no risk of ever dying from, well, anything. 

Even if we could set aside the polarizing politics of representation, there is also the issue of control. In Seoul, the day I interviewed the CEO of the animation studio, a famous K-pop singer committed suicide after years of online bullying. The CEO asked if I had heard what had happened. Yes, I said, it was tragic. Indeed, he responded, then leaned towards me across the table and said, with casual confidence, that this was exactly why a digital singer was better. We control them fully, he said, like a puppet.  

While modeling, I felt keenly the lack of control I had over my fate. To model was to always be on someone else’s time. My schedule would be emailed to me at 5 pm each day for the following day, meaning I could never really make plans of my own. I was always kept on my toes because I never knew when I was going to be called or where I would need to be.

I would have a call time, but that never accounted for the time inevitably spent waiting. I hated this feeling of an invisible hand that was in charge of my life, just as much as I hated the fluttering feeling I’d get as I started to notice the other models. But that is how the dream of fashion works. In all of those liminal spaces between success and failure—those shuffling feet as we edged closer to our moment before the casting director’s eye—we were grasping for the jackpot. I have a good feeling about this one. I felt lucky to be there, among the beautiful people. I had made it, even if it was just a freezing line on a Milanese street. 

The scholar Lauren Berlant calls it “cruel optimism.” “A relation of cruel optimism,” she writes, “exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.” In her work, she charts how, in an ever more precarious world, we grasp outdated models of the “good life” that are no longer achievable or relevant. In reaching for them, we overextend and fall off our crumbling perches. The things that once made sense to ask for—decently paying jobs, fulfilling careers, solid relationships, healthy bodies—are now things that are painfully ephemeral. To grasp at them is to watch them drift away through your fingers. Illusions. Our cultural scripts are decades behind our reality. We dream the same dreams they dreamed in the 1970s, when you could rent an apartment in the East Village and a couple could live on a single income from a bookstore. 

And this is the bait-and-switch of our moment. To feel lucky. Just as fashion’s overexposure blurs the edges of its exploitation, encouraging everyone to continue full speed into the oncoming dream, so, too, does everything in our broken world. To be at a university, even if it saddles you with debt. Lucky. To have healthcare, even with huge deductibles that could bankrupt you. Lucky. To have a job, even if you work 24/7. Lucky. To have a relationship, any relationship. Lucky. And so on. We are lucky as long as we can reach for the handle, crank the wheel and be in the running for even the most meagre of jackpots. We are lucky because we know how many people are waiting to take our spot at the casino. We are lucky because we know how many are excluded from even playing the game.

This, argues Berlant, is why systems don’t change. Because we are so focused on our slight chance of the jackpot, we fail to think beyond the narrow scripts of winning at our disposal. We can’t think of radical new worlds, of non-exploitative futures. So, we keep playing. We are all standing in that line outside of Moncler, whether we want to believe it or not. 

I wonder if the pandemic changes this. I wonder if it will dim the blinding lights that keep us atomized and separated at our own private slot machines. Will we finally see the reality of our world? Or maybe it just makes that feeling of being lucky even greater, our weddedness to the tiniest upsides ever more intense. The light gets brighter and more distant. 

In Shanghai, the modelling industry was bizarre. It was oversaturated, like all markets, but unlike elsewhere the range of jobs a model could do were much broader. I wrote about it a few years ago; I interviewed a model who had been sent to a small city three hours outside of Shanghai. She had been forced to sit on a plinth outside of a shopping mall for an entire weekend while dressed as a mermaid. My friend Adam, also a model from London, had ended up on stage at a plastic surgery conference drawing lines on a giant face while the presenter explained new surgeries to an audience of five hundred. 

Lots of models would get stranded in Shanghai, in debt to their agencies and with no spending money until they got paid at the end of their contract––if they had earned anything at all. They would end up dancing in nightclubs for money, sometimes earning as little as £3 an hour, in a death spiral of free alcohol and exhaustion. 

Shanghai always existed as a strange tangent to the wider fashion world. It was where early career models went to build their books, or models who had tapped out in more established markets went fallow. The market overflowed with models and had jobs that could easily be done by freelancers or students. That’s how models ended up dancing in clubs or dressing like hot dogs to hand out fliers to celebrate the opening of a new fast food restaurant. 

In the wake of the pandemic the industry in Shanghai will no doubt change. Most foreigners are currently banned from China, and it is hard to imagine that the increased scrutiny created by public health measures would not have sent many of the models elsewhere. I heard from friends that a lot have already moved to Bali. The industry might also get significantly less weird. Shanghai could emerge as a fashion capital––major brands have invested heavily in China in recent months as it is one of the few places in the world where physical shows can be hosted safely. Both Prada and Louis Vuitton have held major shows there since the end of lockdown measures in April. Luxury sales look like they will have increased by 30 percent this year, even with the pandemic. 

But at the time that I was in Shanghai, the industry was like a funhouse mirror exaggerating the worst tendencies of modelling elsewhere. One night, in a club with Adam, I heard about a Brazilian model who had just signed with his agency. She had arrived, ready to be a star. Her first job had been in the atrium of a brand-new mall in the outskirts of the city. She arrived and was told she was going to be sitting on a giant rotating toilet, waving at shoppers for the entire day. Sometimes it is more beautiful to dream than to face reality. On the first revolution, Adam told me, the toilet swivelled till she was facing her booker and the production crew. They tried to get her to wave, but she was too busy weeping. 

Despite all of this, models still poured in from all over the world. When I pointed this out to a booker in the city, he shrugged. “When you’re a model, even a shitty model, you feel like you have a more exciting life than an office worker,” he said. 

My modeling career ended in Milan. Soon after arriving my bag was stolen while on a shoot, and because I’d had paperwork to do at the agency, I lost not only my wallet and ID cards but also my passport. With it, I lost my ability to return to the US for a job, and lost my agency there a commission. My agency in Milan, without ever saying so explicitly, moved me from the favored end of their roster to much lower down. I stopped getting one-on-one castings and was sent to massive open calls. The writing was on the wall. Maybe it always had been. You either have it or you don’t. Next! I left modeling, in the end, because I wanted to try and reclaim agency over my life. Importantly, I was done waiting. I wanted control over my time. 

Now I see how futile that was. Every job I’ve had since has tracked a similar path through precarity. And then the pandemic came, and with it a new temporal frame. I’m now on pandemic time, waiting for it to end. Waiting, always. Does the waiting ever become something? When can we think of waiting as becoming? 

All I know is that the fluttering feeling, that anticipation in my stomach, has returned. I am awakened to something I thought I had put behind me. I wake up some days and feel again as if I am on one of those long casting lines. Standing on a dream. Hoping today is my day. Clutching photos of my face, waiting to hand over a piece of myself. 

Barclay Bram

Barclay Bram is an anthropologist at Oxford University’s School of Global Area Studies, and a former model.

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One Comment on “Next!

  1. One of many industries we need to leave behind completely if we as a species are to survive the coming climate catastrophe. All these self-indulgent, exploitative, deeply harmful industries such as advertising, weapons and tobacco have to end, and the sooner they do, the better we will be.

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