What I Owe: The Financial Exploitation of Models

In the summer of 2007, in the middle of a famous credit bubble, I was in the fortunate and unusual — for my generation — position of owing no money to any bank or government. This was because the college I had just graduated from had been a large, rather un-special public institution, which I chose largely because it was “cheap.” I was able to pay for my education in full as I received it because I worked 20 and 25 hours a week for six-fifty an hour in a bookstore and for five-fifteen an hour on the copy desk at the student newspaper, where my colleague was a taciturn M.F.A. poetry candidate who left raw ramen crumbs all over our desk. This lucky circumstance of my being debt-free was also due to that large, “cheap” college having seen fit to reduce my tuition by some $20,000 in scholarships annually. (Each September, the registrar’s office sent me a list of names and addresses, and I wrote letters to my benefactors that began, “As a recent immigrant from New Zealand, I relish the opportunities that living in Iowa affords me…”) And credit is also due, no doubt, to certain social and cultural advantages of my upbringing: parents that rewarded my nerdy leanings, a good high school English teacher, and the modest college fund my family had amassed. Thrift — and, if I’m to be honest, a degree of scorn towards the largest and most visible social group at my college, amiable Americans who seemed to find the undergraduate experience interesting mainly for the opportunities to wear flip-flops and to pop the collars of their extravagantly colored polo shirts and to drink keg beer from plastic cups that it afforded them — influenced me to tarry at university no more than three years. (I knew how to use a library and how to please a professor, having been raised by one.) And I furthermore did not then see the point of running up any credit-card bill I could not pay. For all these reasons, I entered the workforce at the age of 21, beholden to no-one and inclined towards a stern, self-serious financial rectitude. A financial rectitude that, as it turned out, took only a summer and a chance encounter and a few Polaroids and a bit of puffed-up talk to leave me. My debt disaster began when I started working as a fashion model. Within eight weeks I owed €4 255,65 to the Elite agency in Paris. I kept at it another two years, until I owed over ten thousand dollars to agencies, friends, and Wells Fargo Card Services. This is a partial accounting of all the bad decisions I made in that time.

- €4 255,65 (amount I have not repaid Elite Paris as of April 25, 2011)

I’d modeled before, as a child and in high school, and I’d earned embarrassing sums doing it. Eight thousand dollars and three days off school shooting a Korean catalog in the Southern Alps; twelve for a Hong Kong television commercial; four for a one-day shoot for an Australian department store. I was earning one hundred dollars an hour when I was eight years old. This is not normal — in fact this is very, very far from normal — and I mostly didn’t think about my outrageous fortune, so as to avoid incurring feelings of shame as I banked my checks. (The very last of this money, halved into American dollars, went to the German-American landlord who leased me an apartment with an unheated living room my middle year of college.) In the spring of 2007, as I was about to graduate, I met a St. Louis husband-and-wife model scouting team at a Dillard’s in Coralville, Iowa, and I told this very nice couple that, yes, I could reduce myself to the dimensions of my girlhood, and yes, they could attempt to re-acquire me agency representation. I held no illusions that modeling was in any way meaningful — I knew by then that it wasn’t as much fun as shelving books, or correcting other people’s mistakes — but I did believe that modeling was remunerative.

+ NZ$24,000 (minimum amount I made as an overpaid child & teen model in New Zealand)

By the end of the summer of 2007, I was working as a machinist for a small San Francisco messenger-bag company, sewing nine hours a day in a sunny North Beach workshop. I was paid twelve dollars an hour, cash, every two weeks — although sometimes my boss was late with it, and I had to decide whether or not to bring this up with him. “Machinist at a messenger-bag company” was not one of the thirteen-and-counting jobs in journalism and publishing to which I had applied since graduation, but it was a nice way to listen to a lot of NPR and John Cale, and I knew as I manipulated pieces of ripstop nylon and vinyl-coated polyester under the needle of the big, industrial Juki that what I was doing would eventually be of use to someone.

+ $1,198 (my last paycheck from the messenger-bag factory)

One Monday in September, I received an email from the St. Louis couple asking if my passport was in order. It was. They said there was an agency in Paris, and a possible job for the fashion label Jil Sander. They asked me take some digital snapshots, showing the angles of my un-made-up face and my body. So I got dressed in a pale blue Old Navy string bikini and a pair of beige second-hand Gucci heels I’d bought on eBay for $8.99, and which I could not wear for more than five minutes without acute discomfort, and I stood on my apartment’s terrace. It is hard for me to look at those pictures now without evaluating the girl depicted in them against the very distinct set of criteria for aesthetic and bodily critique the industry would teach me, without noticing the way I had not then learned to camouflage my slight scoliosis by cheating my left shoulder higher than my right, the way I had not then practiced how to counteract my right eye’s instinctive narrowing when faced with a camera’s lens, without noticing that the bathing suit was tragic and the jeans were wrong, that my thighs were fat and that my posing was at once naïve and trying-too-hard. All these things are true, and they make those photos disappointing and even vestigially hurtful to contemplate, but I still think that set of snapshots remains, for whatever it’s worth, some of the flukey best photographs anyone has ever taken of me. My hair was freshly washed and curly, my skin was somehow unblemished, and the light really was just about perfect. It would be incorrect to say I was flabbergasted or even more than moderately surprised when the next email contained an e-ticket in my name. I called my boss and told him I wouldn’t be coming in Tuesday.

- $8.99 (the shoes, which I later determined were a business expense)

When I rolled my suitcase into Elite’s offices, the head booker, a deeply tanned chainsmoker named Vick, cocked his head to one side as he looked at my hips and then took my just-printed schedule of castings from my hands and tore it up. The agency apartment cost €800 a month; I shared it with two other girls. I made a can of lentil stew last three days. Nobody at Elite had ever heard of any job for Jil Sander, which is in any case, as my booker explained, headquartered in Milan, not Paris. (My booker was the wannabe-actor son of the fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh. I would work with Lindbergh once, years later. He told me I had beautiful eyes and pulled me out of a group of girls to do a solo shot for American Harper’s Bazaar. It was never published.) I owed Elite €937,19 for the plane tickets and €142 for plane ticket change fees. I owed €92,40 for composite card printing in the month of September, a print run which incorrectly advertised to clients both my height and my eye color, €113,40 for corrected composite cards in the month of October, €107,64 for November’s cards, and €12 for a Paris city map. To live on, I was permitted to withdraw €80 cash from the agency once a week, against future earnings I began to understand were notional. The agency referred to this €80 as my “pocket money.” To hasten my weight loss, I stopped taking the pill. I owed €92 for a portfolio book, €555 for “tests” with the fashion photographers who would tell me about the eye and the scoliosis and the way the right corner of my mouth has a downward cast that must be anticipated and corrected for. And I owed €420 and €250 for two line items that appear on my final statement as just “Jenna Rose Sauers /512110” and “Jenna Sauers /5121110.” During the two months I spent living in Paris, I went to over one hundred castings. I booked four paying jobs: I worked for Issey Miyake for four hours and earned €215,98. For eight hours shooting pictures for internal use by a major French beauty company, I was paid €240. Italian Glamour booked me twice, at €50 a day. From those sums, the agency deducted its standard 70% commission, and then applied the remaining 30% to my outstanding debt. Glamour gave me a cover try — “Think of the message you want to send the people, on the newsstand!” encouraged the fashion editor — but six months later when the issue came out, the face on the front was not mine but that of the 17-year-old Russian whose topless figure had surprised me when I opened the photo studio door. Her cover was definitely better than mine.

- $1,896 (the balance owed on my Visa after leaving Paris)

I didn’t get my job back at the messenger-bag factory.

+ $2,732.08 (total life savings, as of my university graduation)

When a model goes into debt to an agency, one of several things can happen. For example, if a model is in demand but in debt — a not-uncommon situation, when expenses are high and rates for the most prestigious jobs can be low — a competing agency might buy her debt and thus acquire her contract. Come tax season, an agency might write down or write off the debt as a legitimate business expense. Or, the prospect that is perhaps most likely but most psychologically freighted for the debtor, the debt might simply recede from view. Modeling agencies are not fully interlinked; even agencies that share the same business name and provenance may not work together closely. (Ford in Europe and Ford in New York City not only do not share a common accounting department, they actively regard each other as rivals.) So it is still possible for a model to accrue debt in one city (or, to use the industry parlance, one “market”) and for her to never hear of it again in another. Imagine MasterCard Illinois not only not communicating with Equifax or Trans Union, but also not talking to MasterCard Indiana, such that debts run up in Gary would probably not be garnished from wages earned in Chicago. Bully for models, then. The industry offered a loophole just big enough for someone with a 24” waist to slip through.

+ AU$3,360 (total earnings from two months working in Sydney)

But owing significant debt in a market, I came to realize, meant that in practical terms that market was dead: Although Lindbergh Junior had said a warm “A bientôt” when I left the agency for the last time, there was little hope of my ever going back to Paris. My debt was a four thousand Euro handicap. To return, I would certainly need another advanced flight and advanced rent and advanced “pocket money” — and for that outlay, there was still no greater likelihood of my working. My “career” as a model became a kind of shell game: could I get a new agency in a new market to take a chance on me, and, at the conclusion of one or two deeply mutually fiscally unsatisfactory months, could I get another new agency in another new market to take a chance on me? Markets went dead progressively, like a body undergoing organ death; a disastrous incursion into the spleen of Milan would be followed by a retreat to the break-even liver of Sydney, or the strike-it-lucky heart of New York, which for some reason always beat for me, however faintly. I needed to continue modeling because the deeper I sank into debt, the more I needed to at least have a chance of booking the unjustifiable day rates only modeling offered, the $15,000 television commercial, the $10,000 catalog, or even the $40,000 campaign. I had to keep playing the game not in spite of the fact that but because I was losing the game.

- AU$3,234.30 (total expenses my Sydney agency debited from my account)

The systemic effect of this kind of debt is noxious to any financial system, let alone an economy as fragile as that of the modeling industry. “Fragile” because the ratio of high-flying and extremely well-paid models to semi-indigent migrant-worker models must be very carefully calibrated: the agency needs the former because enormous fees mean enormous commissions, which keep the lights on, but the agency also needs the latter because workaday models round out the pack, and every once in a while one will quite without warning leap into the big leagues. (See: Stone, Lara.) The normalization of such debt encourages a kind of industry-wide fiscal lassitude which has few upsides. Agencies, because they bear so much unsecured risk, are incentivized (and in certain cases I believe probably feel entitled) to overcharge, to nickel-and-dime, or even to steal outright. There are many ways for an agency to hedge its bets. (“Jenna Sauers /5121110.”) I remember working in Los Angeles and living in a models’ apartment, a kind of dumpy Spanish colonial-style one-bedroom off La Brea. There were two sets of bunk beds in the bedroom, and the living room futon slept two. The apartment, which belonged to my agency, Next, was full for most of the six weeks I spent in it. Each of the model residents paid Next twelve hundred dollars a month to live in Next’s apartment. I do not know what the monthly market rate for a dumpy colonial-style one-bedroom off La Brea is, but I do not believe it is $7,200. During one stay, the gas and electricity were turned off for two days because someone forgot to pay the utilities.

- $5,412.73 (amount I owed on my Visa at the peak of my debt crisis)

Many, even most, models do not start out in the industry with the advantages I had in life: a relatively happy middle-class upbringing in the First World, a solid command of English, a high school diploma. I felt the strain of my debt dully, incompletely. It was widely distributed, so I never had to face it in the aggregate (which risked to be frightening), and I at least lived (as much as I lived anywhere) in a country with a formidable currency. I was not a seventeen-year-old from Lithuania racking up in one month a debt in Euros equivalent to my country’s annual per-capita GDP. I was not a fifteen-year-old from Poland having to choose between sitting my final exams and shooting a magazine editorial. I was not a sixteen-year-old from Brazil being sexually harassed by a photographer my booker had warned me to “impress.” When you are a small and under-capitalized model, and a large and wealthy institution that holds significant sway over your career is doing the asking, it can be difficult, I imagine, to say no. When you are a model who owes the career-defining institution many thousands of dollars and counting, saying yes becomes just about the only sensible choice. Eventually, all bills come due.

+ $3,794.50 (the largest single check I ever cashed in my post-graduate modeling career)

At the end of my first month in Italy, I owed Elite Milan over two thousand Euros. I had gone to a half-dozen or more castings daily, but I had booked not a single job. Then, on my second-to-last day in town, I got a gig shooting fake real-people pictures for a pamphlet advertising a chain of European outlet malls. I won’t say that landing that job was exactly like the bit in Mulholland Drive where the mobster with the big hands tells the director which girl he’s going to cast in his next movie, but it was a little bit like that. My booker, not customarily a man brimming with confidence in my modeling abilities, sounded suspiciously unsurprised when I told him the casting went well. The value of the gig was almost exactly equal to my Milanese debt. I don’t know what favor-trading may have gone on to get me in (as opposed to any of the other similarly under-worked and indebted models Elite Milan was good enough to host in July, 2008), but I did the job and my Milan debt went away. For the agency’s purposes, my sojourn in the market had thus been unspectacular, a fiscal wash; for mine, it had been an almost unmitigated disaster, yet another month of steep rent (studio, hot plate, three girls) and charging groceries. The difference that job made to the agency’s bottom line was crucial. The difference it made to mine was null. The longer I stayed in modeling, the more I realized there always seemed to be a That Job; you can’t beat the house. The strange and perhaps funny coda to this story is that a couple months ago — which is to say, a year and a half after I finally quit modeling and got my financial house in order by becoming a freelance writer — a friend who’s still in the game sent me an email. She’d been in a tourist information center in Milan, and she saw my outlet-mall pamphlet. Selling the rights to one’s image is not, in my limited experience, a good or particularly healthy way to make a living; it is also not a “learning experience.” But it’s not without its cheerful coincidences, either.

Milan discount-mall pamphlet

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