I began modeling at age 16, and over the course of my 14-year career I turned a blind eye to opaque agency bookkeeping. I did this because of the power dynamic that exists between the agency and the model: I felt I was not in a position to question or challenge unexplained charges because I was dependent upon the agencies to procure work for me to be able to afford to live. Today it is clear to me that the accountants at modeling agencies work for the agency, not the model. Models, unless they have “celebrity” status or bring in a lofty income, have no voice, no power, and no platform to question their agencies’ unclear and unexplained accounting procedures.
“Until last year, my only professional experience was modeling, so I was unfamiliar with the protections and rights that are afforded to workers in other professions.”
Until last year, my only professional experience was modeling, so I was unfamiliar with the protections and rights that are afforded to workers in other professions. But when I earned my BSN degree from Hunter College and began working as a Registered Nurse at a major medical institution in New York City, I gained a new appreciation for the astonishing lack of financial transparency in the modeling industry.
I no longer rely financially on modeling to cover my living expenses, which enables me to speak more freely about my modeling experience. My working relationships with individual modeling agents and the agencies that have represented me over the years have been, and continue to be, friendly and successful. However, my interactions with the accounting departments at my agencies have generally been uncomfortable, unsatisfying and, at times, absolutely deplorable.
I visited the accounting departments of my agency and of the hospital where I work with questions about charges that appeared on my statements. The differences in the responses I got and how I was treated compelled me to write this article.
“As a model, I have NEVER seen proof of the various charges that are made against my account, all of which are typically made without my specific prior authorization.”
When I went to meet with the accountant at my agency, my questions were pretty simple. I believe models, like all workers, should be entitled to a thorough explanation of all costs when a model joins an agency, proven accountability of all charges (would it be so hard to show a receipt for outlays made on our behalf?), a safe, unbiased environment to discuss financial information relating to charges or income — and a clear procedure for disputing unauthorized or incorrect charges. As a model, I have NEVER seen proof of the various charges that are made against my account, all of which are typically made without my specific prior authorization. I’m talking about charges for FedEx, messengers, “Internet fees,” cards, printing, “laser depict,” e-portfolio, ModelWire, magazines, model apartment rental, and car services, to name just a few of the line item deductions that have appeared on my account statements. And by proof, I mean a receipt. I understand that many of these fees are dispersed among all the agency’s models and are billed as a shared expense, but does that mean we can’t see a hard copy of the group cost?
For example, a new fee that has appeared over the last few years is the “Internet fee.” My last agency charged $35 per month — $420 per year — and I am currently charged $610 per year for Internet fees. The $610 is comprised of 2 different fees: what the agency calls “model network” ($250) and “e portfolio” ($360). The former is for the model/agency website and the other I was told is “for the e-sending” of my material. When I inquired further, the agency accountant said the model network fee is for the cost of scanning in pictures to the agency website, maintaining the website and the cost of the Internet itself. E portfolio, the accountant clarified, is for all the “electronic sending of my material to various clients, producers, casting people, et cetera, for the year. The $360 covers the year.” It’s for the technical support it takes to maintain the sending of images; apparently they clog the system and it costs a lot of money to keep the system up and running smoothly. To be clear: by “the system,” what they mean is email.
When I asked for any kind of proof of or receipts for these charges, I was told that the charges are “too fragmented” among various IT departments and tech support people to document. I’m not alleging that agencies are stealing money from us, but I have yet to see any real proof that they are not. I also asked why models need to have images sent via email when clients could be directed to the website to view the images — it’s the exact same content — but I was never really given an answer to the question. My agency’s accountant did say that the “Internet fee” saves us money, because now we don’t pay as much for messenger and FedEx services to physically transport books to clients. But I could easily turn that assertion around and ask why are we still paying messenger and FedEx fees at all when the Internet can be used to transmit images? FedEx fees have not gone down as “Internet fees” have risen.
“Money is a sensitive and highly charged subject, and conversations between a model and an accountant should be unbiased, honest, and, at the very least, should take place in a quiet, private atmosphere.”
My last meeting with my agency’s accounting department — an appointment that I scheduled in advance — took place in a public hallway in front of my agents and the main fashion board. I don’t think this has only happened to me, and I found it extremely unprofessional, inappropriate, and uncomfortable. Money is a sensitive and highly charged subject, and conversations between a model and an accountant should be unbiased, honest, and, at the very least, should take place in an atmosphere of privacy.
In contrast, before I even started working as a nurse, my colleagues and I were given a 4-hour orientation in a conference room by a billing department representative who broke down every item on our statements. The shared costs of my new job are health insurance, life insurance, and disability. (My modeling agency does not provide any of these benefits to me, despite their 20% commission and their many additional charges.) We were given a hard copy of the total annual cost of health insurance, what portion the hospital pays of that and how much we pay. There are no areas of gray and my statements are absolutely clear about where my wages are going. If I have questions relating to the billing, there are many different people I can speak to: the accounting department, the nurse manager, even the New York State Nurses Association.
“Sadly, most models are made to feel stupid or like they are inconveniencing the accountant by asking questions relating to the business side of the industry.”
A key difference here that I’d like to outline is the nature of the interaction between the worker and the accounting department. Sadly, most models are made to feel stupid or like they are inconveniencing the accountant by asking questions relating to the business side of the industry. As a nurse, I have never felt intimidated or scared to ask questions about my checks. Unlike in modeling, questions are considered normal.
Many fashion models begin their modeling career at a very young age, most without any job experience to compare to the fashion industry. Many have never had to balance a checkbook or pay taxes. Many are from foreign countries and English is not their first language. Many have never left their hometown nor been away from their families. Many perceive their fashion agency as a parental entity — one that will have their best interests in mind. I believe agencies have the capacity to provide honest and safe environments for the working minors and adults they represent, but unfortunately, there is work to be done in the area of financial transparency.