As Twitter and Facebook posts hashtagged #MeToo spread across the internet, 23-year-old Sara Leslie Hamilton was reliving her own memories of sexual assault. “I started modelling around three years ago. Almost six months into it, I was offered an opportunity through the Instagram page of this agency called So-fine models,” she recalls. “I was so excited!”
But the excitement was short-lived. When Hamilton drove from her home in Langley, B.C. to Vancouver to sign a contract, she realized this wasn’t the legit modelling agency she’d hoped for. So-fine’s “office” was a room full of “grungy-looking men,” she says, who proceeded to blatantly ask her for nude photos of her chest, butt, thighs, vagina, plus full-body shots, back and front.
“I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m doing this,’” she says. Terrified, she wanted to run out of the room, but the men insinuated she couldn’t leave. “They got very angry and told me I wasn’t ‘allowed’ to go until they got the photos I owed them. I thought I was going to be kidnapped!”
Fortunately, she was able to orchestrate an exit by telling them she hadn’t signed anything, so she wasn’t bound by a contract yet. She later learned the company and its website was just a cover to sell nude and pornographic photos online. (FLARE reached out to So-fine multiple times, but didn’t receive a response. The company appears to have changed its name and now has only a single page of suggestive images on ModelMayhem.com.)
An “Industry Ripe For Exploitation”
Hamilton is just one of many young models who have faced abusive behaviour. Last month, following news of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of alleged abusive conduct, model and activist Cameron Russell launched an Instagram campaign, #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse, calling for her peers to share their experiences with harassment and assault. Over 75 models have shared their stories with Russell, highlighting how deeply entrenched predatory behaviour is within the fashion industry.
“Modeling is an aspirational business, where there are many more people who want to work as models than are going to get legitimate modelling work,” says Sara Ziff, founder at Model Alliance, a NYC-based non-profit labour organization for fashion models. “The modelling industry also remains largely unregulated and relies largely on a labor force of young women and girls. This makes the industry ripe for exploitation.”
Frankly, it’s been a problem for years. Amy Elmore recently revealed she was raped by a “famous musician” when she was 17, and later had to navigate predatory fashion photographers. A 2012 Model Alliance study of working female models found 87 percent of respondents had been asked to pose nude at a job or casting without prior notice, 30 percent of respondents reported experiencing “inappropriate touching” on the job and 28 percent said they had been pressured to have sex at work. And in back in 2014, FLARE reported on the allegations against Terry Richardson, the famously problematic photographer who shot just about every female celeb in the mid-aughts. (Post-Weinstein, Conde Nast International said they would “no longer be working with” Richardson.)
The Rise Of Online Scams
But it’s becoming an even more common problem thanks to a sharp increase in online scams. In Canada alone, the numbers on cybercrime are disturbing. According to Norton Cyber Security Insights’ 2016 report, 8.5 million people in the country were targeted online, last year. Looking specifically at the fashion industry, Consumer Protection Ontario received 58 inquiries, incidents and complaints regarding modelling and talent agencies between January 2016 and September 30, 2017.
Instagram has become a hotbed for this type of crime—partially, because it’s pretty easy for unscrupulous users to deceive people on the platform; sites like InstaBoostGram, Buzzoid, and iDigic enable users to buy 10,000 followers for less than $70, which means their accounts look legit at a glance. (The same isn’t true of Facebook and other social media platforms, where it’s harder for users to acquire verified status or buy ‘likes’ at a cheap price.) But scammers also take advantage of the fact that legit agencies, such as IMG, do scout for models on Instagram from time to time using their #WLYG hashtag.
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That’s what happened to Gloria Thompson, a New Jersey native who has worked in Canada and the U.S. and is now based in New York. When a niche clothing brand announced on Instagram that it was casting for its latest editorial shoot, she excitedly sent a DM expressing her interest. It was 7 p.m., but the designer/photographer responded almost instantly, asking her to come down to his studio—which turned out to be a “junky looking room” with a broken door, as Thompson describes it.
Things immediately seemed sketchy, broken door aside. The photographer showed her the latest pieces from his collection and asked her change into them—but he hesitated before leaving the room, clearly hoping she’d undress in front of him. During the shoot itself, he kept calling her “sexy” and “cute.” Then, he asked her try on a bathing suit and suggested she put on some baby oil to make her skin “look less dry.” But instead of handing it to her, he advanced to apply it on her himself.
“I think that he uses his clothing line to touch, feel and do god knows what else, to young women like myself. I met another girl who did a shoot with him and she experienced the same thing,” says Thompson, who regrets not calling him out and wishes she’d left early on. “He was more forthcoming with her.”
Still, she doesn’t want to name him or the brand, because it continues to operate as a legitimate fashion business in New York and she doesn’t want to risk professional repercussions.
Agencies May Not Offer Enough Protection
Top modelling agencies such as Dulcedo Management and Elite Model Management advise models to always sign up with a trusted agency when looking for work to avoid such encounters. But Ziff believes even agencies are sometimes part of encouraging an abusive work environment. “Our study also found that of those [models] who had experienced sexual harassment, only 29 percent reported it to their agencies. And those who did report harassment to their agencies, the vast majority indicated that their agencies did not see the problem. Some models even reported that their agents encouraged them to sleep with their harassers to further their careers,” says Ziff.
Taquirah, who asked us not to use her last name, can reel off several exploitative encounters, the “scariest” being a seemingly-legitimate agency with real offices that seemed “very professional.” Nine9 has outposts across the United States and promises exclusive “casting opportunities” to the “99 percent” on its Instagram page, suggesting they work to provide auditions for models and actors who wouldn’t ordinarily find representation.
Originally from Chicago, Taquirah was invited to their New York City office after responding to a casting call on Instagram. “At first, I felt grateful to get a callback, but an hour in, I realized it was not real. I was talking to two women who switched in and out of the room, each trying to persuade me to pay US$500 to ‘jump-start’ my career,” she says.
Her suspicions increased when, after she hesitated to pay the money, the women ramped up the pressure. “They kept asking how soon could I get [the money] or if they could get my [credit] card number. They wanted me to sign papers that I couldn’t have a copy of,” she says. Then, more women started appearing.“I didn’t realize it right away, but they were sending in several women to make me believe I was safe,” she says. As a model who’d had some previous bad experiences, Taquirah intuitively felt something was off. And when she noticed the women’s entrances and exits were perfectly timed at regular intervals, she realized their only purpose was to make her feel like she wasn’t trapped. “That’s when I took off my heels, I put on my gym shoes and I left,” she says.
Nine9 founder Anthony Toma refused to talk about Taquirah’s claims on the record, but he did express regret that she was upset by her experience with the agency.
“Nine9 tries to take the pressure out of it for people just starting out in the industry. We strive to be as open and welcoming without pressure,” he said in an email, noting that the industry is very intimidating, and his company “promotes integrity.”
Safety Tips For Aspiring Models
Clearly, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for aspiring models to to identify legit avenues into the industry. But it’s safe bet that that if you’re approached on social media, it’s too good to be true. “Models should have a sense of distrust if they get approached on social media and not jump the gun on the opportunity, as they have to keep in mind that there is a reason they’re being contacted directly and those reasons are more often dishonest than honest,” says Monic Noemie, director of the model division at Dulcedo Management, which has offices in both Montreal and Toronto.
That’s why doing your research is non-negotiable. Look up the agency, director or brand online before committing to a contract—the Better Business Bureau, Report Scam and Rip Off Report are good sources to check the legitimacy of a company. And many experts, including Hollywood and commercial casting director Katie Taylor, say you shouldn’t stop at reading reports; you should make your own, too.
“The most important thing you can do to help prevent others from getting scammed is to share your experience online,” says Taylor, who has cast for brands such as Nike, Puma, Amazon, Reebok, and Cadillac. “Make a Rip-off Report. File a claim with the Better Business Bureau. Yelp them! Put the information and your experience out there for others to learn from. Just be sure to stick to your opinion and experience which is protected free speech.”
As for Hamilton, the B.C. native says she’s no longer shocked when an opportunity isn’t real. But still, she’s disheartened by her experience in the industry. “My step-mum used to be a model so I learned a few things early on. But after being screwed over so many times in different ways, I’m not so sure anymore,” she says. “I wish I had a great agency looking out for me. But the truth is, in this industry, you’re really just on your own.”
Models can find resources and support on Model Alliance’s website—and if you’re in New York City or are working there, a Model Alliance representative can offer more specific guidance. If you have been sexually harassed or assaulted, contact the Assaulted Women’s Helpline at 1-866-863-0511 or find a rape crisis centre or women’s centre in your province via The Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres.