26 Mar 2013
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The documentary “Girl Model” has created a lot of attention about some of the seedy people involved in our industry and the tactics they use to influence young girls. Exploiting their dream in countries where they, and their parents, feel trapped by their impoverished circumstances.
I have never made a documentary and am fascinated by talented directors who tell the story of a subject they are not intimately involved in, and on a limited budget. To me, many elements in the film were disturbing and intense, and yet, it is limited to a small slice of a much bigger story. I liked the way it was directed and filmed; connecting two stories simultaneously, the young model from Siberia and the scout who sends her to Tokyo. The scout who guided the journey for the documentary, Ashley Arbaugh, made some disturbing points in the film about the business of modeling. However, her ambivalence towards the young models, what happens to them and how they are cared for, was a bit shocking to me as it does not illustrate my experience.
In my years in this business, I have never crossed paths with Ashley and don’t know her beyond what was in the film. As the viewer, we witness some intimate moments with Ashley, which left me a bit numb. Her unhappiness and distain for the industry throughout the film seemed an odd portrayal of someone working in it, and it takes us into a bizarre psychological twist that is the prevailing story. It was uncomfortable watching her position her dolls, discussing dissecting one, and playing with pictures she took (some secretly) of model’s body parts as if they were not human to her.
Scouts are paid on commission, and therefore do have an investment in the outcome and end game of each model. I found it uncomfortable that she was unable to personally connect with the models, even in their terrible housing in Japan. Scouting in Russia for Japan seemed to generate money by an impersonal approach to the models and gaining profit by volume. Each country has it’s own wall of shame reflecting model scouting and the business actions adults use to “sell” young children and their parents. We all have work to do to improve. Modeling is not for everyone, and deciphering the proper character early on can eliminate a lot of disappointment for a young girl.
Ms. Arbaugh discusses prostitution in a disconnected vague style as if it has never touched her or any of the agents she works with in Russia. However, in the comments at the end of the film, the directors point out that this is one of the premises she approached them about in the beginning. And it is the reason they paused to consider their involvement.
My perspective may be slanted as I have been fortunate and worked with some of the best and most respected people in this industry. And as my career expanded and I gained experience, I evolved in many ways as did my opinion and code of ethics. “Girl Model”, produced and directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin, highlights some of the most disheartening elements that don’t protect models. Iffy contracts not presented in the model’s native language, guarantees that aren’t really guarantees, advances and expenses that are not identified, and accounting systems that are hard for adults to dissect. Models in foreign countries on budgets that don’t encourage healthy eating but weight and measurement restrictions monitored. No one picking them up at the airport, no phone to call home, and familiar to see their main source of information to come from their roommates, not their agency. And that is because they are too afraid to ask questions, and possibly a language barrier to communicate. The young Siberian model in the film, Nadya, was quite brave I thought and without knowing how her story would unfold, she allowed strangers to film her. Most of the points above are the responsibility of the Mother Agent, or home town agency to request and confirm for the model.
Models are independent contractors and yet, especially when they are starting, they feel like the agency is the boss. This often is a cultural difference based on how women are raised and viewed in other countries. Think about it from their perspective. They have a dream. It seems easy, glamorous, and they could be rich and famous. They are encouraged to go to a “model casting” in their hometown, usually by their family. They have little access to information and go to see what happens. They meet the person in charge, in power in their mind, and trustingly accept the information they are told by someone who speaks their language. When the young teenage girl receives an invitation to travel, it appears so selective and so special to be chosen, she and her family are caught up in the illusion like it is a prize. This is what happens to young girls in countries that they feel the need to escape to survive or provide for their family. In the film, the Russian agency stated that parents should decide on modeling for their daughters between the ages 5 and 10. The agency is the beneficiary by knowing the family early but success of a fashion model has nothing to do with the looks of a child. This type of exploitation is riddled with so many challenges, that it is easy for predators to take advantage of young girls and their parents. In the New York Times review of the film, Jeannette Catsoulis, described the players in the film clearly,
“Occupying the profiteer role is her creepy agent (“I’m trying to save all these young girls”) and his shadowy Japanese counterpart. Linking all three is Ashley Arbaugh, a troubled scout and former model who despises the business yet willingly sends Nadya and her kind to Tokyo with neither chaperon nor fluency in Japanese.”
There are some excellent, respectable and legitimate scouts and agencies all over the world, however they are not all of the same caliber. It is imperative to educate yourself on what differentiates them and why. In the U.S. we have our own dishonest modeling ventures and I hope one day we can change the system. Every parent who has a daughter interested in modeling should see this film, regardless of country. Not because it is shocking and might scare them from the modeling world, but because valuable information lends to important questions and knowledge is power. If it sounds too good to be true, too easy, someone promises to make your daughter a star, or a cosmetic contract is right around the corner, etc. run as fast as you can. There are no guarantees and no promises in this business. There are scouts, such as myself, who have experience, management and success to share with you that differentiates us from other. This business is a maze of information in the beginning that is significantly different for every individual.
Recently, The Model Alliance, created by model Sara Ziff, has come to the forefront to speak out and change the industry. As advocates, they have created a petition to create and enforce fair labor laws for fashion models who are under 18. Young girls who have a dream don’t know that they need protection; they are not mature enough to know yet. At times they are told, “this is just how it works”, even when there is a legitimate reason that should be explained to them.
When an underage model with no chaperone works until 3 in the morning, I think it is time to look at what is not working anymore.