I Was a Voiceless International Model -- Or Why I Didn't Speak Up When a Designer Spit In My Face

Behavior that in any other workplace would be deemed inappropriate or worse, harassment, in the modeling world becomes normalized, acceptable behavior.
Publish date:
June 4, 2015

Standing against the smooth paper backdrop, I waited for the next shot.

The photographer was off to the side with his assistants, hunched around the computer screen. The stylist was in her clothes-filled cubby assembling the next outfit; somebody in the hallway smoked a cigarette. Blinding lights shone down on me from every angle as electronic music fit for a nightclub blared from the overhead speakers, filling the room.

It was two in the afternoon on a Tuesday in 2009, a below-freezing February day in Munich, Germany.

A man approached me—middle-aged, well groomed, lithe—the head designer for the European-based accessories company for which I was shooting the upcoming, seasonal campaign.

Silent, he flitted around me, making the final adjustments to my clothes: a roll of the sleeve, a tuck of the shirt, a tug at a glove. Next, in a thick accent (that I won’t attempt to replicate in writing), he said, “And now I will blow the hair from your eyes.”

But, instead of blowing, as he stood inches away from me, he pursed his lips together, and with a Ptooey, he spit in my face.

I froze, stunned. He walked away.

The makeup artist, a young woman around my age, which at the time was thirty-one, stared up at me from her seated position off set, her mouth agape. She took the designer’s spot standing in front of me and began dabbing away the spit with a tissue, careful, so as not to destroy the makeup on my face that had taken her hours to apply.

It’s possible that nobody else saw it, but I do know that nobody acknowledged that it had happened. The shoot continued.

At seven that night, after the second and final day of shooting, after everyone involved assured me multiple times that we had gotten everything we needed, I was dismissed, free to return to my hotel.

I flew back to New York the next day and didn’t think about the shoot. It was just another booking. Just another episode in my life as a full-time model, a job that I had held since the age of 17.

Almost two months ago, I learned of France’s potential new law that would punish anyone working with underweight models either by fining them a hefty amount (up to 75,000 Euros) or throwing them in jail. This was welcome news and a step in a positive direction, but I had a hard time believing that the fashion industry in Paris—known by models as being the market the most demanding of thinness—would accept this legislation.

Though a change like this is necessary, the law was spearheaded by a politician, and voted through in lower parliament by even more politicians who don’t understand the fashion industry. I don’t think the law has progressed since this April 3, 2015 vote; I can’t find new information about it anywhere.

In all the literature I read, however, nowhere was it stated that this law was being put in place to protect the models themselves (though maybe that is implicit). Instead, this law was meant to protect the general public, by preventing the “spread” of anorexia as though it were a communicable disease.

Yes, eating disorders are a serious, sometimes lethal issue. But what this highlighted for me was the absolute lack of consideration for models, often young girls who are too young to look out for themselves, too young to know better.

How is it possible that this very visible industry exists—and thrives—with no rules or regulations to either dictate the behavior of those who work within it or to protect those involved?

No wage regulations, no transparent accounting practices, no insurance or benefits of any kind, no job security, no on-the-job-conduct policy—meaning: behavior that in any other workplace would be deemed inappropriate or worse, harassment, in the modeling world becomes normalized, acceptable behavior.

Yes, being a model comes with many perks—travel, VIP treatment, fancy clothes, celebrity encounters, money—that add to the illusory image of glamor. But, everything for a price.

Without any imposed guidelines, from a young age I grew accustomed to being touched, groped, and stared at. To having inappropriate comments made about my body and my appearance.

To having people “accidentally” walk in on me while I was changing, or, having to change out in the open, in front of everyone. To waiting up to 12 months after a job to get paid, to having to fight to get my rightfully earned paycheck, the money either missing or, I imagine, sitting in the agency’s bank account accruing interest. This was all just part of the job. Over time, you get used to it.

When I left my suburban home at 17 to move to New York, my agency promised my parents that I would be looked after. Instead, I was pretty much allowed to do as I pleased, unsupervised, as long as I showed up for work.

Even the line between model and agents is not clear. Technically it is the model who employs the agents, paying them between a 10 and 30% commission for their services, but when you’re not a million dollar-making recognizable girl (which very few models are), it is often the agency that holds the control since they set up castings, determine pay scale, and confirm bookings.

Agents are often little help, anyway. I have been told to not eat. I have been told to not tell anyone I had a university education; it might make people feel bad. So while many shoots are enjoyable experiences and creative collaborations (I do have many fond memories), when something bad does happen, there is no one to tell.

From early on in my career, I learned that to speak up meant to be difficult and to be difficult meant that I might be “overlooked” for the next booking, or worse, never work again. This was somehow implied. Plus, when a booking could potentially come with an oversized paycheck and prestige within an elite industry, I learned to keep my mouth shut.

Most models do.

Especially now in an oversaturated, international market: If you’re not willing, don’t worry honey, there’s a conveyor belt of girls right there behind you who are. Especially now when social visibility is seen by many as a sign of success, meaning more and more young girls are doing whatever it takes to be models, young girls that are all someone’s sister, niece, or daughter.

Now, back to me being spit in the face….

A month later, I got an email from my agency in Toronto, back then my “mother” agency, the agency that coordinated activity between all my international agencies, the agency that is meant to look out for a model the most. In this email, my Canadian agent acted as messenger via Hamburg, the agency that had booked me for the job: Because I had been so difficult on set, the accessories company was refusing to pay; the photos were unusable; everyone was displeased.

This was the first I was learning of this.

Refusing to pay? The amount had been contractually agreed upon before the shoot even took place. Difficult on set? I had done what was expected, assured of the shoot’s success before leaving.

I called my agent immediately to tell my side of the story, but it was futile, as I knew it would be. After several back-and-forths the best my agent could swing was getting me just over half of what I was owed. Better than nothing.

A few days later, a second email. This one directly from Hamburg. A form letter informing me that the agency had done everything they could for me. After a five-year-long relationship, they would no longer represent me.

A few months passed.

One sunny early summer morning as I was getting ready for a day of castings in New York, I got a text. It was from a friend, another model, who was on set in Paris. The text read something like: "Hey, your shots from that German shoot are here, and they are great. You look beautiful!"

I learned that my friend was working with the designer who had spit in my face. He had brought the pictures from our shoot to the set that day—in printed, catalogue form—for my friend to use as a reference of how to move and pose, the pictures that I had been told were unusable. I learned later that this designer had a horrible reputation, that he was known by everyone for being difficult. No one had bothered to warn me.

Six years later at 37, I still have agencies in Seattle and Paris. In April 2014, needing to make a change, I moved to southeast Idaho where I write for a local magazine and work as a community-based counselor. Because I’m no longer readily available, my New York agency recently dropped me. Over voicemail. After almost 20 years in the business, I did not receive a severance package.

Six years later, some progress in the industry has been made. Italy, Spain, and Israel have adopted policies to prevent the hiring of underweight models that hold the interest of the model central.

With the help of an organization called The Model Alliance—a New York City-based group created and run by models, both active and retired—any model under the age of 18 working in New York State is now covered by the same NY Labor Laws that protect child performers. This, however, was only put into effect in November 2013, which means thousands of underage girls—like myself—having gone unprotected for years.

The Model Alliance website also has a link for their MA Support, providing models with a venue for “free and discreet reporting of questionable practices,” offering “quick, confidential assistance.” Discreet and confidential. Speaking up still has too many consequences. Career suicide.

Six years later, I’m most angry about the fact that I didn’t do anything that day. How could I have let a man spit in my face without saying anything? Because I didn’t know I could.

Writing about it brings up the shock and outrage and disgust that I didn’t allow myself to dwell on back then, the anger of never knowing what exactly happened.

Maybe it was because on the first day of shooting I declined the designer’s offer for a drink after he told me that there would be a lot of movement on set and maybe some alcohol would loosen me up; it was ten thirty in the morning. Maybe the designer was just being his typical “difficult.”

Maybe it was because I refused an invitation to join two strange men somehow affiliated with the client for after-work drinks the second day of shooting. Most likely it was because the shots taken of me in studio were meant to be superimposed against existing photos of a horse in motion, and maybe in the end the shots just didn’t match up.

Maybe, no matter what the problem, it’s easy to just blame the model.