British model Louise Donegan didn’t aspire to be a model. She was studying art and had a place at University at The Surrey Institute of Art and Design for radio journalism. However, at age 15, her plans changed dramatically one night when she was scouted by a London-based agency. At first, she was reluctant because she wanted to finish her education, but she decided to postpone college to give modeling a try. Her career quickly took off. She has appeared on the cover of French Marie Claire and worked for brands such as Marc by Marc Jacobs, L'Oreal and Oil of Olay.
As a very young person who was thrown into an adult world, Donegan was a fast learner. Having traveled as a child, she already had a good grasp of foreign languages. Yet she soon learned that many modeling gigs didn’t pay or paid “in trade” (payment in clothes, not cash), and she struggled to cover her expenses.
"How is it that in this day and age, I don't know how much money I have in my account at the agency, unless I call or email and ask for a statement, which will come the day after tomorrow? "
“For a long time it was difficult for me to work for free because I couldn't afford it. I had many other part time jobs, most of which would pay about $40 a day. When you don't have any money, the difference between doing an editorial shoot for free and waiting tables for a small amount of money is huge.”
Simply put, she said, “A pretty picture doesn't pay the bills.”
Like many other models who work internationally, she also found other unforeseen aspects of the modeling business to be challenging.
“There is the self-employed international worker aspect: Paying your taxes in EVERY country, [obtaining a] working visa in USA, maintaining good relationships with all of your agencies around the world, making sure you get paid for jobs in the past, retrieving money when it hasn't been paid.”
Donegan advises aspiring models to seek the help of a good lawyer and accountant before entering into an agreement with an agency. “You will have to sign contracts in many different places, so don't sign anything that you’ll wish you could un-sign.”
Donegan expresses concern over one-sided contracts and lack of financial transparency. “Everything is stacked in favor of the agency,” she said, noting that the agency can drop the model at any time without notice, there is no regulation governing when the model must be paid, and the model must pay the agency for charges to her agency account that may exceed her earnings and lead to debt.
“How is it that in this day and age, I don't know how much money I have in my account at the agency, unless I call or email and ask for a statement, which will come the day after tomorrow? But I do know exactly what models and agents had for breakfast, lunch, and dinner because it's on Instagram.”
“You will have to sign contracts in many different places, so don't sign anything that you’ll wish you could un-sign.”
She suggests a modern, digitized structure that would increase transparency at agencies and, in turn, improve models’ knowledge and control over their schedules and finances. She considers how such a platform could provide models “our balance in real time on one page, our chart in real time on another, my portfolio on another, flights I have coming up, when an ad I shot last month will be released, when the next copy of that magazine I just shot an editorial for will be out.” The current lack of transparency at agencies, she feels, leads to a power imbalance. “Everything in our industry, as it is, is set up to take a lot of the power away from the girls.”
Donegan describes modeling as a career that does not happen overnight and that takes persistence. “Being a model is about building a career and a global network over a period of time. Building a career takes diligence and commitment.”
She also explains how working as a model isn’t like working a 9-5 job.
“When the working day is done, there are still things a model has to do that, if I were working in an office, for example, I would not have to bother with. I have to eat healthy food, exercise, maintain a good skincare routine, maintain good personal grooming, and style myself in a way that will mean clients will book me. That's just the tip of the iceberg.”
In fact, Donegan takes health and fitness very seriously, not just for herself, but also for others. A triathlete, she just competed in the NYC Triathlon and raised money for a cancer charity. She hopes, “that the money and awareness I raised helps people and their families receive better treatment, have a better quality of life, and saves lives in the future.”
As for what it takes to be a successful model, she says self-awareness, a thick skin, social media savvy, and developing a portfolio are all key.
“There are so many aspects to being a good model. You have to be good at posing, have a lot of confidence, not be bashful or a prude. You will have to get changed in public places in front of a bunch of strangers who probably don't speak your language. There is the social media aspect and presenting yourself in a particular way online. Then there’s maintaining your portfolio so that you are always current and have recent pictures that are relevant to the work you are doing.”
Donegan is refreshingly candid about the inner workings of the industry—an industry that has given her so much and that she wants to improve. Not only does she reveal the power imbalances that need to be addressed; in hindsight, she also sees possible solutions for how to promote fairness and transparency in the industry. Thus, it seems fitting that now, through her modeling work, Donegan has the money and a bit of spare time to study the art of making and restoring stained glass—objects that bring both beauty and clarity. “It gives me enormous pleasure to do so.”