With New York Fashion Week approaching, a small army of models, editors and buyers, plus anyone with a blog, will be descending on the city. Along with the familiar stomp of girls down the runway come common assumptions about the fashion industry that have held sway since the time of the supermodels. Ten years in the industry has given me an eyeful of what really happens behind the scenes. Let’s debunk some myths about modeling.
•Models make a lot of money.
Between the yearly Forbes list of the world’s highest-paid uber-models and the huge amounts of money spent by designers at Fashion Week (a 2011 Marc Jacobs show was estimated to have cost $1 million), it would seem most models are swimming in cash. “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day,” model Linda Evangelista told Vogue in 1990. She probably didn’t — Evangelista’s career was marked by multimillion-dollar contracts.
But the median yearly wage for models in the United States, based on 2012 census data, is a mere $18,750, and fashion’s main event is unlikely to contribute much to that balance. Hundreds of relatively unknown models will fly to New York hoping to book a coveted spot in a runway show, which can pay $250 to $1,000 depending on the show and the model — a stipend that’s likely to cover what the model spent on travel and accommodations.
Compounding the problem, some designers pay their models in clothes instead of cash. . But the exposure can be invaluable: International magazine editors sit in the front rows, and a few models might get booked for a designer’s campaign immediately after walking in a show. The runway can jump-start a career but not a savings account. After my second year of runway work, walking for almost every major fashion house, I was $30,000 in debt.
•Models are glorified clothes hangers.
Runway girls are often compared to “human coat hangers.” In other words: Models are just modes of transportation for garments. Even Twiggy used the phrase to dismiss her groundbreaking career, declaring when she retired: “You can’t be a clothes hanger for your entire life!”
But as long as there have been models, there have been muses. A model was the reason the painter picked up a brush, the sculptor a chisel. Just as not every actress is Meryl Streep, models are not all equally skilled or gifted. The best are translators, a visual representation of the story the designer wants to tell.
Last year I published my first book, “Study of Pose,” an anthology of poses inspired by fashion history, art history and pop culture. For the past 60 years, models such as Carmen Dell’Orefice, Linda Evangelista and more recently Karlie Kloss have helped solidify modeling as an art form by collaborating with designers and photographers. Top photographer Mario Testino said of working with models with strong personalities: “I think that you can’t do it any other way. Because then the pictures are nothing.”
Are some models clothes hangers? Certainly, just as some singers can’t reach the high notes. But the best have always had the talent to make us feel something.
•Models are catty with one another.
Decades of media coverage of “catwalk catfights” — the televised “drama” between Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell, the Elle Macpherson/Heidi Klum “rivalry,” a “feud” between Chanel Iman and Jourdan Dunn, Carol Alt “slamming” Kate Upton — is enough to make anyone think that the modeling industry is rife with bad behavior and bad people.
Most models start working at age 14 or 15 and go through a form of “fashion high school,” living in cramped close quarters. The sleepover-like atmosphere produces some squabbles, sure, but everyone grows up.
Models frequently collaborate on projects off the runway and are quick to help one another. In 2011, Caroline Trentini and the legendary Iman gave up a day’s work to pose in the campaign for my jewelry collection with the charity Senhoa, which supports victims of human trafficking in Cambodia. Recently supermodel Christy Turlington heard that I was pregnant and asked me to participate in a campaign for her charity Every Mother Counts, which works to increase access to maternal care in the United States and abroad.
•You get to keep the clothes.
It’s a perennial feature of high- and low-brow publications: the “peek inside a model’s closet,” in which People offers a tour of Alyssa Miller’s wardrobe or the Coveteur photographs Carolyn Murphy’s belongings — glowing shots of Alexander Wang gowns and Prada treasures, some of them gifts from Miuccia Prada herself. It’s enough to make anyone think a model’s closet brims with fabulous frocks, taken from shoots or gifted from designers.
However, models almost never get to keep the clothes they wear on the runway. The garments are usually one-of-a-kind samples created days and hours before the show and have to be immediately packed up and presented to international buyers. A model is more likely to be accused of stealing clothes (we’re always the first suspected) than to be given clothing after a show — when a pair of shoes from a show I walked in went missing, the designer’s team called my agency to see if I had “accidentally” taken off with them.
Once a model is established and starts being captured by paparazzi in her “street style looks,” she might receive gifted items from designers, since that can mean publicity for the brand and the model. But the typical working model is far from that status.
•Models don’t eat.
Eating disorders are real, and they do affect the modeling industry. In 2006, Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston died at age 21, weighing just 80 pounds. A former British model told the Telegraph in 2013, “My modeling career lasted for three years and . . . I’ve had anorexia for eight.”
Sad as such cases are, in my 10 years of living and working with models around the world, I’ve seen that the majority are not resorting to extreme or unhealthy means to keep their physique – they are simply naturally thin. And the industry now has its own checks and balances: Vogue will not photograph models who appear to have eating disorders; catwalk models with a body mass index below a certain level are banned from runways in Italy and Spain.
Like many women outside the industry, models do watch their diets, but they enjoy food as much as anyone — take a look at Chrissy Teigen’s food-centric blog. When I go to events and finish my plate, people often comment about how “amazed” they are that I eat, as if I could live, work and keep up a crazy schedule traveling the world on zero calories a day. At various points in my career, I’ve been called both too thin and too fat — so I will eat that hamburger, thanks.