Why there needs to be a minimum age for models.
Last week a 14 year old girl named Vlada Dzyuba sadly passed away in China, where she was on a 3 month modelling contract. She died from 'meningitis compounded by severe exhaustion' after working 13 hour days.
Vlada's death has brought to light how girls as young as 14 (and younger) are sent across the world to work. America is the only country to have legally recognised models under the age of 16 as child performers and to enforce appropriate breaks, chaperones and hours of work. Across the rest of the world, models, unlike underage musicians or actors, are treated as normal adults and expected to work as one.
This is an issue I feel so strongly about. Not only are girls being sent to countries where there are already questionable working practices, they do not speak the language, know anyone at all except their agency who they have likely never met before, have no idea how to get around and do not know how to look after themselves properly. It would be like a 14 year old going travelling to Thailand for three months.
I started modelling when I was 13 years old, but I was very lucky to be living in Cyprus (a small Greek island) and to have my mum come with me on every job I did. I rarely missed school and was lucky enough to make relatively good money for my age by doing shoots and shows (about 80 euro per day!) which I wasn't allowed to touch until I left home. I didn't particularly want to model, my mum just sent in a picture to the one agency in Cyprus and they got me a job that was in UK Vogue without me even signing up to them.
That was a very one-off, lucky experience of child modelling. Nowadays in the western worlds most parents probably wouldn't let their children go alone to China for three months, but that is why model agencies have scouts that go to extremely poor, poverty stricken areas (such as Russia, where Vlada is from) specifically to search for would-be models and offer them a world of fame and fortune. Documentaries such as Girl Model expose this.
Girls are exploited and sent off to countries where they are expected to work from the minute they land.
I have always refused to go anywhere near Asia for work, as I have heard terrible things from my friends. A friend of mine had her entire body measured as soon as she got to China, and was told to lose weight everywhere immediately, even from her head. She was there on a supposedly £14,000 contract, which means that she should definitely have made that much money. Her passport was taken from her as soon as she landed for 'visa' purposes, and she was not allowed to leave China because of this contract and the fact that her passport was taken from her.
She left China with £400. How is that even possible? The agency made up different charges in her name and gave her a complicated Chinese statement, and she assumed that it would be taken care of later.
Of course this isn't representative of every models' experience in Asia, but the general consensus is that they like their models extremely thin and young, and charge them by the minute, taking money off for toilet breaks. It is common to have up to three jobs a day there, and the models have a driver to take them around to castings.
A driver? Lucky them!
Not so lucky actually, as they are all being charged extortionate amounts to have a driver by their agencies. Models that are sent abroad are usually offered a model apartment, which are generally quite bad quality and models are expected to share a room with up to at least three other girls. The irony here is that they are all being charged extortionate amounts of rent, which is also added on to their 'statement', to be deducted from the jobs they do.
Other 'expenses' can include: website fees (to be on the website, I have paid 400 euros a year for this in Germany), composite cards (anywhere from £40-100), fashion week composite cards, 'messenger service' (incase the agency needs to send your pictures physically across the city to a client, as they used to back when the internet was not as accessible), a portfolio book (around £40).
In the UK there was recently a regulation stating that most of the above has to be included in the agency's 25% commission, but UK agencies still charge for things such as special fashion week cards.
This is not to mention 'test shoots', where a model may be paying for a shoot to get pictures for her book. I had a UK agency charge me £200 for a test shoot that I thought I was doing for free as a favour to the photographer! Also anything from hairdressers to nutritionists to clothes fees, if the agency has organised it and seemingly paid out of their own money.
I believe that models under the age of 18 should definitely not be modelling abroad, however it's important to remember to take such care if you are a travelling model, whatever your age may be. I have had jobs shooting abroad where I was left stranded at the airport at 3am, and if I hadn't printed out all of the details beforehand I would have literally had to sleep in the airport. There were no taxi's there, so I had to accept a lift off a random stranger! One of the most terrifying experiences of my life.
Just recently I went abroad for work and the agency there had not sorted me out a visa. When I continued to press them about it they said that 'if I had no problems on the outside, I'd be fine'. I could have literally gone to prison for all they cared. I got the hell out of there, and fast.
My top advice for travelling abroad as a model would be to:
1. Read your contract
Agencies don't like it, and there often isn't that much you can personally change but it is SO vital to read it so that you can get a measure of what kind of agency they are and what they expect from you. I am always reading friend's contracts and have got them changed so that their commission rates have been lowered and unfair terms have been removed. Feel free to contact me if you need help!
Especially look out for things such as the length of time the contract goes on for, how you can leave the contract (and how long you are supposed to 'wait' between agencies, as normally there is a 3 month gap stipulated), how your agency can leave the contract (a few of them say that if a model does not maintain her weight they can drop her!), how much commission they are taking from you and how long they will take to pay you (most contracts say 90 days).
2. Know where you are going
Even if you have a shoot in Timbuktu, make sure you heavily research everything you can about it. Make sure to find out the name of the place you are supposed to be staying, google all of the people involved, reach out to them on instagram if you have a question, make a plan B incase something goes wrong. Find out local hotels and taxi numbers, write down all of the vital information so that even if your phone dies you have it there.
Try and find somewhere to stay if you can, that you can rent privately instead of being in a model apartment if it is expensive. Find out the normal market rates of the area and compare them to what you are paying. There is a wealth of information about foreign modelling markets here.
3. Have a visa sorted
There are so many models who go to work in other countries, assuming their agency has sorted their visa for them. To work in America, you need a visa that is very complicated to obtain, including getting seven letters of sponsorship from separate industry professionals. Make sure you ask your home agency and the agency abroad if you are not sure, and have a copy of your visa incase you have problems at immigration.
It simply isn't worth the risk of working without one, you can go to prison as these models did in China. The agency also has no legal obligation to pay you, seeing as you were working illegally!
4. Stay financially savvy
Commission rates are different in every country, and can change with tax laws. In Milan, 50% of your earnings go to your agency. In Paris, it is 75%. Find out the tax laws where you are going and meet with an accountant to decide how best to register for tax payments. It is SO vital to stay on top of your tax returns - you are self employed and pay your own tax.
Make sure to ask what you are being charged for (such as rent, a driver, cards etc) and how much.
5. Stay safe
Always keep your passport safe, and make sure you do not hand it over to anyone else. Don't go out with club promoters and put yourself at risk, don't underestimate the local area. I was almost lured onto a motorbike in Bali by a man posing as someone from my work because I just assumed it was normal practice there.
Travelling is one of my favourite things about being a model, you just have to be so incredibly careful as the world is a big place. My all time favourite thing to EVER happen to me was shooting in the Maldives last year, for which I will always be so grateful to have had that experience.
Also, I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to come to Australia and model here! Australia is by far the best place I could have imagined working, with the agencies here extremely professional and upfront (I'm with Chic, Scoop and Chic Brisbane) and very good working practices, with everyone speaking English!
I would say that the most important thing is to have a good relationship with your mother agency (your first agency who manages you despite whichever other agencies you are signed to around the world), because they are primarily responsible for where you work in the world. I am so lucky to be with Nevs, who have never-ending patience with me changing my mind!
RIP Vlada. Here's hoping her death wasn't in vain and a change will happen about allowing children to work in foreign countries as models.