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.

9 Responses to The Case For Greater Financial Transparency

  1. Me says:

    Sorry, nevermind. I just saw your comment about the agency not providing that. I actually found this blog because I googled “Modeling” and “Health Insurance”, and so I was searching for where you referenced that, but couldn’t find it originally.

    That’s a shame how much models get ripped off like that!

  2. Me says:

    Thanks for writing this! Just curious. Were you offered health insurance at your modeling agency?

  3. Sabrina says:

    Lisa,
    What you and others are revealing here is absolutely amazing. Before I began researching this information for myself, I was completely clueless as to how little basic workers rights models actually have. I’m so glad that you and others are sharing your stories. I think it is really important. Anyone who tries to justify the wrongs against you by using the “they should know better blah blah blah” excuse has now idea what you really have to deal with. I loved what Dorian Worren noted when he said “People laughed when professional athletes came together to challenge some of the conditions in their industry”.
    -Sabrina

  4. Chari says:

    @Chris

    Along with my pay, I request a copy of the actual check stub that was sent to my agent from the client. This will contain all payments received; the breakdown of your pay, the agents booking fee, as well as any taxes if they are taken out. You could (and should) have the productions/agency payroll department info to also request a copy of the checks sent to your agent. I had an agent rip me and all her other clients off 15 years ago and it resulted in her losing her agency and being sued which sucks for any new agents (and myself) when you feel the need to demand transparency. It’s amazing (and sad) that transparency is still an issue in this industry! Good luck to you all :(

  5. M says:

    Thank You Lisa….
    I have to agree there is little to no transparency in the industry. There are rules but it seems that many agencies do not stick to them. However I think the Model also needs to take a bit of responsibility as we allow agencies to get away with far too much, but like you have written, I agree that it is often very uncomfortable to discuss and we are often made to feel like we are not allowed to question things. The other thing is with our money being paid across directly to the agency we cannot withhold payment of these costs. The model is the least as well as the last paid and gets charged to death or non existence and even into debt with agencies, but so many girls desperately need the money they earn, as agency staff and other individuals that work, we also have bills to pay. In my case I am charged an “advancement fee” of 10% if I request money before it is paid into the AGENCY account. I only receive my money in my account IF I ‘need” it or ask for it, and then it is only what I ask for. Why should you as the model have to ask for your own money. Once the money is received by the agency it should, without question, be paid into the models banking account, unless otherwise stipulated by the model. Is the interest the agency earns on your money in their banking account ever paid across onto your page or into your account, absolutely not. A model pays the agency they are with between 20 to 25% commission, over and above that I pay 20% Tax, so in my case I lose about 45% of the fee. I too never know what the actual fee is as I never see the booking sheet or job card. I just have to believe what I am told. The agency’s client is then also billed a further 20% (in my case) booking fee for booking me. So the agency gets 20/25% from the model and 20% from their client. The agency certainly earns a lot more than I do. What I would like to know is what the 20/25% commission the model pays to the agency is for, purely a booking fee? Should that fee that the model pays not be used for “the office costs” like z- cards, internet fees, couriers costs, and all these other miscellaneous costs that spring up every month?
    Are other models told what their rate is? What model expenses are covered in this rate?
    Where in the world does anyone who is employed have to wait 90days plus to get paid? I feel agencies should have enough money in their accounts to pay at least 30 to 50% of the fee within 30 days to the model, and they should, like any other business be able to produce all receipts for all costs that they charge for. For example fax transmission reports, copy emails to prospective clients, printing receipts, and any other receipts they charge to models, especially when it is not their own money that they are spending. This will at least show the model that the agency is ACTUALLY doing what they are supposed to be doing. The funny thing is that when an “International” model works a season and returns home, they are paid in full what they are owed, no waiting 90 days. Can someone please explain that. The problem I have is that a lot of model management agencies should rather just be called booking agents rather than Model Management agents as management does not fall into their job description.
    The comments above are not aimed at any specific agency and comments are based on my actual experiences over 10 years with various agencies. Going to your local Model Agency Board is also a waste of time as they represent the Agencies as its the agencies that pay the Board a fee so who are they going to support, the Model? I don’t think so. I have changed agencies a few times and I have an agency now that doesn’t rip me off and does actually pay me as soon as they are paid, so I have gone from payment of 90 days plus to about 45 days which is a lot more acceptable.
    It is about time that something gets done to make things a lot more transparent and happier for all.
    Thanks for sharing your story and I am sure you know that you were and are not alone in this boat.

  6. Chris says:

    I often wonder…. How do the models even know the rate they are being told is the actual rate?
    That is, the agency tells you what you are getting pAid- but how do you verify that?
    Nobody uses the receipts anymore and you aren’t supposed to talk money at a job.
    How do you ever really know if they are truly paying you what was offered?

  7. madison says:

    congratulations you have discovered the truth.

  8. D says:

    The other issue on financial transparency is the length (timing) to which models receive the money in their hands. I’ve heard of girls who received their money after 6 months + of the job done, which sounds ridiculous! A worker in a corporation receives his/her money every 2 weeks or so. Let’s not forget that we, models ,work for our money, so, is not the agency’s money ( although they are the ones who collect, and give them to us, after commission and expenses…). Timing is a big issue in the accounting transparency subject and needs to be changed with some rule or law about it…

  9. Naomi Nichols says:

    This is a very well-written representation of the frustrations so many models have endured regarding their account statements. When I modeled, I would frequently return from two month stays abroad only to be confronted with huge charges on my account for cards and Fedex deliveries made during my absence. Rarely could my agency even provide the name of the client to which my book was taken. Nor could they justify why they spent so much of my money promoting me while I has half a world away and unavailable to work. I never had the courage to fight the charges for fear of gaining a reputation with my agency for being “difficult.” I no longer model, but hope for change for the young girls who now face these problems. Kudos to Ms. Davies and the Model Alliance for giving them a voice.

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