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How the modelling industry changed in the 2010s

Over the last decade a sharp shift has happened in the way the modelling industry both operates and is perceived. Here's one former model's take on the changes – from increased diversity to the social media revolution.

by Rolien Zonneveld
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18 December 2019, 2:00pm

Left: Adut Akech for Valentino AW19, middle: Nathan Westling for Helmut Lang SS20, right: Mama Cax for Chromat SS19, all images by Mitchell Sams

It was almost ten years ago, in the summer of 2010, that I decided to quit full-time modelling. I was nineteen years old, living in London and had just experienced what few would consider a bad gap year between high school and university. I’d travelled to places such as Iceland and the Canary Islands for photo shoots, dabbled in London’s creative scene, and met some interesting faces along the way. Financially, I’d enjoyed some minor successes -- none of them particularly mind-blowing, but enough to keep me afloat.

Despite all this, however, I felt decidedly out of place for the majority of the time I modelled. It took some time to realise why, but I concluded that I’d felt misunderstood and struggled to retain a certain level of autonomy throughout my career. There were countless instances that fuelled this feeling. When I was made to go to a denim brand casting, already safe in the knowledge that I wasn’t going to fit the jeans. Regardless, I still had to wiggle into them in front of the client and other waiting models -- changing rooms weren’t considered necessary. Or there was the time I was told off by a fashion week casting director who had called my agent asking “if I could just dress normally for once,” as clients couldn’t see the shape of my body. Or when I was told by a hotshot Paris agent that I could be successful if it weren’t for my “puffy face.” I felt closely monitored all the time and I started to second guess myself: was it my own lack of dedication that was preventing me from breaking through?

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Author, shot by Daniel Sutka, December 2009

It became clear that wearing tight skinny jeans with a tank top, while showing the clients my book and smiling politely, was the way to go about things. I also learned that when you were on a photoshoot or at a show, being both flexible and complacent was key. Never complain when you want to change somewhere a bit more secluded. And definitely do not notify an agent if you don’t want to work with a certain photographer anymore because he made you feel uncomfortable on set. You don’t want to have a reputation of being ‘difficult’ out of fear of replacement or reprisal. ‘Just be pretty and mute’ were the tacit lessons instilled by agents, clients and fellow models. After a year of full-time modelling, I decided I’d had enough.

It was the end of a decade in which models like Gemma Ward, Sasha Pivovarova, Lily Cole, Agyness Dean and Daria Werbowy had dominated catwalks, magazine covers and billboards. These models represented quite a breakaway from the breed of supermodels for which the nineties were known -- glamazons such as Cindy Crawford and Linda Evangelista, who had become a worldwide obsession, hijacking nearly every advertising surface on the planet. As a counter-reaction to all this glamour, ‘edgy’ and ‘quirky’ models, with alien-like features, long skinny limbs and an androgynous or bohemian style came into vogue. But notwithstanding this unconventional aesthetic, the 00s were a decade in which the modelling industry's beauty standards generally excluded anyone not extremely thin, tall, young, able-bodied, cisgender, and white.

And then the 2010s came along, and with it a sharp shift in the way modelling was both operated and perceived. It was a decade in fashion shaped by the advent of social media juggernaut Instagram. With its focus on visual content, the platform facilitated a new way for users to share their lives and experiences. Starting life as an innocent platform where users could upload their personal, and at times banal, content -- holiday selfies, açai bowls, and the occasional inspirational quote -- it quickly assumed an unparalleled power within the creative industries, as brands and people working in photography, fashion design, retail and the media started using it as a tool to market themselves.

When I was modelling, however, social media was yet to really take off. It wasn’t even common to own a smartphone. The portfolio you were carrying -- full to bursting with magazine tear outs -- was the only marketing tool at your disposal. With Instagram, however, models had endless online possibilities for self-promotion. Beautiful selfies and pictures from professional shoots could quickly garner big followings, which didn’t go unnoticed by clients. Where once your chances of getting booked came down to things as arbitrary as a client’s taste, now, the more followers you have, the better chance you stand of booking jobs. On an agency’s website, a link to your Instagram account as well as your follower count is now listed alongside your measurements.

For many models, this only added pressure -- not only did they have to be thin and beautiful, they now also had to have a compelling online presence. Their accounts often had to be monitored by their agents as well: I’ve heard of cases where models had to have their posts approved before they could upload.

For a select few, however, Instagram allowed them to create their own fully-fledged brands. They used their individual social-media presence to forge lucrative advertising partnerships and collaborate with major fashion houses on collections -- as Gigi Hadid did with Tommy Hilfiger, for example. They managed to achieve that by giving us the idea we knew them. We were given behind-the-scenes access to their lives. We saw them hanging out with friends, attending parties, dating. We got a sense of their values and beliefs via the quotes that they published. The platform bred a new generation of models, the ‘Instagirls’, with faces like Gigi and her sister Bella, Kendall Jenner and Cara Delevingne leading the pack.

But apart from its commercial merit, Instagram also became a platform where grievances could be voiced and abuses of power called out. In the wake of #MeToo, Cameron Russell shared gut-wrenching stories DM’ed to her by fellow models recounting stories of sexual assault and abuse in the fashion industry. In the wake of this and other social media-amplified exposés, conglomerates such as LVMH and Kering signed a charter to safeguard models from abuse and create better standards for shoots and shows.

A more lighthearted but equally poignant account is @shitmodelmgmt, created in 2016 and run by four anonymous models "exposing the truth" about modelling. It started off with a couple of self-created memes touching on a range of problems that models face: from dealing with pushy agents to model apartment nightmares. It was a place where models could laugh about the absurd parts of the industry, and an outlet to vent frustrations regarding clients, colleagues and agents. However, as its following grew and the platform gained more traction, its founders realised what power they could leverage. In 2018 it decided to compile a blacklist calling out photographers, designers, stylists and agents who had been reported as crossing boundaries with models. Consequently, the account’s inbox exploded and countless names flooded in. Shortly after the blacklist had to be taken down, as the account’s administrators were receiving death threats from some of the people listed. Although the list was short lived -- and occupied something of a legal grey area -- it illuminated the sheer scale of misconduct perpetrated in the industry.

Both accounts really made me reflect on my own experiences in the industry. I concluded that in my years as I model there had definitely been moments in which the boundaries I thought I had set for myself were crossed, like the time I was sent to an unknown scout from Japan in a hotel room, for example, and it was just assumed that I would strip down to my underwear for polaroids to be taken. Situations that, while strange to the outsider, are very much normalised within the industry. Many years later, as an editor, I decided to debunk some of the stubborn myths around modelling: that it was easy money and a glamorous job filled with travels and interesting people. By speaking to three models, who had each battled burnouts in their career, I wanted to shine light on what it is like to work in a poorly regulated industry, one in which models who are struggling with their mental health can easily fall between the cracks. They spoke about how hard it had been to set boundaries and how they resorted to harmful mechanisms, such as eating disorders, to regain a sense of control. They also spoke about how little room there had been for addressing these issues, and how they hoped to raise awareness by telling their stories. In the present day, they have picked up modelling again but only do jobs on their own terms.

It was encouraging to see that, as we as a generation became more conscious of the different forms of oppression and injustice in society, models started to be much more vocal. From the mid 2010s onwards we saw a steep rise of activist models. Adwoa Aboah, who opened up about her former drug addiction and mental health; Teddy Quinlivan, who wants to raise awareness for transgender rights; Paloma Elsesser, who challenges outdated body ideals; Hanne Gaby Odiele, who disclosed her intersex status and subsequently became an ambassador for the community’s cause; Mama Cax, who fights for greater representation of models with a disability -- they all used their wide reach to campaign for issues that matter to them. This very personal activism feels quite different from the more generalised, philanthropic efforts of the previous generation of models (think Natalia Vodianova, whose causes included helping children with special needs, or Doutzen Kroes, who set up a charity for saving elephants). It's also evidence that the voices of models are being taken more seriously than ever, and it makes me feel hopeful.

If the 2010s was an era of increased diversity and outspokenness in the modelling industry, the challenge for the upcoming decade is to make these changes stick. Broader representation cannot just be a box for brands to tick, or a means to rake in higher sales – it means challenging the very concept of exclusion that underpins the fashion industry. Similarly, regulated and safe working conditions is not something models should have to endlessly fight for, but must be acknowledged as a basic right. Modelling is a job, and has to be treated as such.

It’s shameful to admit but sometimes I get a twinge of jealousy when I realise that these times of body positivity -- of being unapologetically yourself, of celebrating bodies of all sizes, colours and genders -- came too late for me. Or I feel bitter that my ‘in-between-ish’ body was never good enough, and that standing up for myself by not giving in to outlandish beauty ideals punished me because the only option it left me was quitting. But those moments are rare, because mostly I am thrilled by how far the industry has come, and how many conversations have been broken open in the space of just a decade -- it makes me excited about what’s yet to come.

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