Working as a model, there were numerous times that I had trouble getting paid the money I was owed.
While working with the Italian agency Paolo Tomei in 2002 and 2003, I had perhaps the most successful show seasons of my career. I was walking the runway for many of the top Italian fashion houses, averaging 26 shows per season, and in that period I amassed earnings of over €240,000.
I had yet to receive any payment when I learned the agency was declaring bankruptcy, and that the financial backers behind the agency had allegedly siphoned off their models’ money to private bank accounts in Luxembourg and Switzerland. Shortly after the bankruptcy the agency founder, Paolo Tomei, moved to another agency. He continued to work in the industry for years.
"I was advised that any lawsuit was extremely unlikely to ever reach court."
I consulted a lawyer and attempted to retrieve my money, but my efforts were hampered by my classification as a model under Italian law. As in the U.S., models are in Italy are self-employed, and technically they engage the agency to work on their behalf. But apparently to prove what was owed me, I would have had to call every single client I had worked for — Miuccia Prada, Domenico Dolce, Stefano Gabbana, Angela Missoni, and so on — to testify in court that they had hired me for my time. I was advised both by my lawyer and agent that this would not be in my best interest if I wanted to continue to work as a model, and that, regardless, any lawsuit was extremely unlikely to ever reach court. I was not the only model to lose money at the closing of this agency, and I did not incur the largest loss. Some girls lost upwards of €400,000. To my knowledge, no monies were ever retrieved.
Years later, working as a model in the U.S., I would find myself in a similar situation. I moved to California in 2009 and worked regularly for the clothing company BCBG. I was shooting for their catalogue and would work several times a month for them. The jobs were always booked through my agency in New York. It was a time, as we all know, when the economy was severely depressed and I was glad to have the steady work, especially in a new city. I had worked for the brand many times previously and had a lot of respect and admiration for the owners. But after several months of being paid promptly for my work, things started to change. BCBG’s checks took longer and longer to arrive. Several more months went by and then I was not being paid at all.
"After several months of being paid promptly for my work, things started to change. BCBG’s checks took longer and longer to arrive. Several more months went by and then I was not being paid at all."
I repeatedly inquired with my agency about the troubling delay. Eventually, my agency told me that BCBG was in financial difficulty, but that the company had privately assured my agency that I and the other models with outstanding invoices would be paid. They just couldn’t say when. Despite the months of non-payment and the risk of loss, the agency was still booking me and other models to work for BCBG. As more and more time went by without payment, I did something models are pretty much told never to do: I declined to work for them until I received all the money I was owed.
That sum — many thousands of dollars — was hardly forthcoming. After multiple inquires, and after the better part of a year had passed since BCBG ceased paying me and other models for our work, I finally received an email from my agency’s accounting department notifying me that the client would begin making partial payments towards the amount it owed. “We already paid you first instead of splitting it among the other models,” scolded the accountant. “We should share part of the money with the others.”
After I finally recovered all monies owed, I was left feeling that my agency had looked out for the client’s interests far above those of “us girls” who they were supposed to represent.
This post is part of a series highlighting the difficulties fashion industry freelancers, including models, can have with getting paid for their work. The Model Alliance supports the Freelancer Payment Protection Act, which would help protect freelancers from deadbeat clients and from wage theft. For more information about this series, the FPPA, and how to get involved, read Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff's introduction.