We are honored to welcome Claudia Wagner, a model and the co-founder of UBOOKER, a global bookings platform for models; Madisyn Ritland, a model and the co-founder of The Lions Management NY; and Sanjay Pinto, a sociologist and fellow at The Worker Institute at Cornell. Together, we discussed the traditional modeling agency structure and the degree of independence and control (or lack thereof) that models have over their working lives. We also discussed how advances in technology, more democratic structures, and greater awareness for workers’ rights could empower models to have self-determined careers and greater cultural influence.*
SARA: Claudia and Madisyn, what’s your background in the modeling industry?
CLAUDIA: I’ve been modeling since I was 19. I was “discovered” earlier, but my parents wanted me to finish school before embarking in that adventure. I am lucky to have worked with many of the most prominent fashion brands, agencies and photographers. The peak of my career was between 2002 till 2008.
MADISYN: I was 15 when a friend from school connected me with a “mother agent.” At first I worked locally and traveled to Milan for the summers. I started walking the couture shows at 19. That was really when my obsession with the fashion industry began. After a few years, however, I struggled with my mental health and my relationship with my body. I was completely burnt out, so I took time off. That was the same time The Lions Model Management NY started to take shape. I felt I had learned so much the hard way and I hoped, in founding a new agency, I could help other models avoid some of the same pitfalls.
“I felt I had learned so much the hard way and I hoped, in founding a new agency, I could help other models avoid some of the same pitfalls.” – Madisyn Ritland
SARA: Claudia, what sparked your interest in founding UBOOKER?
CLAUDIA: After 20 years in the modeling industry, my friend Diana Dietrich and I knew that it was time for a new way for models to book jobs. With UBOOKER, we’re leveraging technology to let models book jobs quickly and easily, while also increasing their exposure to potential clients through the platform. We’re excited because we’re providing models with a way to become entrepreneurs. With UBOOKER, they have control over their careers, including full transparency, access to more jobs, and a way to increase their earning potential, including supplemental income.
SARA: Modeling agencies have been slow to innovate. What are the problems that you see with the traditional agency structure?
CLAUDIA: The main problem is that modeling work has evolved, but the agency (aka “model management”) structure has not. The business has moved online and the culture of celebrity has created massive changes. Most jobs pay less, few jobs pay a lot, and only a handful of supermodels or “it girls” book these high-paying jobs. The middle tier in the modeling industry is shrinking. This leaves many professional models just trying to make ends meet.
For this reason, there is a need to be more democratic in the approach to booking models’ jobs and managing their careers. Charge the models a lower commission for procuring them certain jobs. Don’t charge them fees for things that should be granted in 2017, like being on the agency website (duh!). Leave them free to move around geographically in the way they think is best to get more exposure and jobs. Thank God the technology is now here, and the marketplace is helping freelancers in all industries, so why not the models?
“Thank God the technology is now here, and the marketplace is helping freelancers in all industries, so why not the models?” – Claudia Wagner
The fact that models are generally considered freelancers by the industry, but are treated more like employees when it’s convenient, is troubling to me. On one hand, they have to face the adversity that comes with being a freelancer, such as income insecurity, difficulty getting health insurance coverage, lack of labor protections, etc. And on the other hand, models are sometimes treated more like the agencies’ employees, with visa restrictions if they are foreign, exclusive contracts, and a de facto lack of freedom in managing their time and careers. They really are offered the worst of both worlds.
SARA: How is your approach different?
CLAUDIA: Our approach is different because in the absence of laws and regulations that treat models as employees, we at least recognize fully the nature of modeling as a freelance job. We don’t require the models to sign an exclusive contract of representation. We have a calendar where the model can book herself out, no questions asked. We don’t ask a penny for our services beyond our low commission when the model works via us.
We also have a feature that allows the models to change their location, and we will propose her to clients in the new location. In other words, we are trying to keep the good of the traditional agency system and leave out the bad. We are a highly curated online platform, so we only take professional models. But once we accept them into our family, we offer them personalized support enhanced by a sophisticated technology.
SARA: Sanjay, what insights can you add as a labor expert and scholar?
SANJAY: Let me start by building on some of what Claudia said. Given the struggles a lot models face making ends meet and asserting basic rights in the work they do, there’s clearly a need to think about how worker voice in this industry can be expanded. Yet the prevailing structure of the industry makes collective organization difficult.
There’s a lot of discussion these days about the growth of independent contracting, and the modeling industry provides a glimpse of the challenges this presents. The fact that most models are freelancers means that agencies and clients can often evade responsibility for the conditions under which models are working and harms they experience such as sexual harassment and wage theft. It also prevents models from being able to bargain collectively over pay and other working conditions by forming unions.
“While some models do successfully operate as independent contractors, the vast majority of us do not actually fit that definition.” – Madisyn Ritland
MADISYN: I agree with Claudia: While some models do successfully operate as independent contractors, the vast majority of us do not actually fit that definition. I say this because, according to the NY Department of Labor, independent contractors are suppose to be free from supervision, direction, and control in the performance of their duties. However, in my experience, many agents heavily supervised and directed my eating habits and certain powerful clients controlled which jobs I accepted through manipulation and threats.
An independent contractor is also supposed to set his or her own schedule. During my career, I found I had little to no control over my chart; the blocks of time I reserved for schoolwork were rarely respected. Additionally, I did not feel free to refuse certain work offers or to negotiate my working conditions. Most importantly, in my experience, the majority of models (excluding supermodels) are not able bypass the middle infrastructure of agencies and casting directors and to access jobs on their own. I applaud Claudia and UBOOKER for taking an innovative, technological approach to this issue.
I do think, even in this tech savvy world, agents and agencies still have an important role to play. As an activist, I often find myself sharing my most negative experiences with modeling. However, I also learned from and was shaped by hundreds of talented and kind fashion professionals! I am very grateful to them. Many people believe that models are born, that you are discovered and, wah-la, you become a model, but that is just not true.
Modeling is, in my opinion, a learned skill, a craft, a sport, and--at the best of times--an art. There is a long history and a complex structure to the business. Yes there is a biological lottery involved, but modeling itself is less about looks than it is about presence, performance, and professionalism. Agents take on a valuable role in the initial development of a model’s skills.
“Yes, there is a biological lottery involved, but modeling itself is less about looks than it is about presence, performance, and professionalism.” – Madisyn Ritland
There is no one simple answer as to why model agencies have been slow to change. A large factor is an industry standard blame game. I have heard from many well-intentioned agents that they wish the industry would change, but they don’t control the sample sizes or the market’s appetite for young, white models. “It just doesn’t sell.” “It would cost designers too much to diversify sample sizes.” You hear a lot of generalized statements about what consumers will tolerate but not a lot of data supporting these accepted “truths.” True, there is no single link in the chain that can be blamed, but I am certain that personal accountability and individuals taking risks to stand up for basic labor rights are critical for impacting the larger system.
SARA: So what, then, are some of the organizing strategies that might help to improve conditions in the industry?
SANJAY: One avenue may be for models find to new ways of asserting their employee status, using that, in turn, as a platform for organizing collectively. Other efforts might seek to make the freelancer status that most models are in less precarious, providing them with greater support in navigating their careers and enhanced control over their working conditions. From what Claudia has said, UBOOKER aims to do just this, disrupting business as usual in the industry.
MADISYN: Sanjay has the right idea. I think community support, collective negotiation, shared knowledge, and group sponsored legislation is going to be the most effective way forward. Recently I attended a meeting with other models. Some I knew from their work, some I knew personally, and others I had never met. But, as each person shared his or her story, I felt like I was hearing my younger self speak. The experience was healing and empowering.
“If many of the agencies out there do not adequately serve the interests of models, how might more models create their own agencies?” – Sanjay Pinto
SARA: Could you share some insights into worker-owned and controlled enterprises? Are there examples relevant to the modeling industry?
SANJAY: Claudia spoke earlier about the need for a more democratic approach in modeling, and I think it’s worth thinking about what greater democracy in the industry might look like at a large scale. If many of the agencies out there do not adequately serve the interests of models, how might more models create their own agencies? These could be structured, potentially, as worker cooperatives in which members have an equal share and an equal vote.
Models who preferred to preserve their independence could form producer cooperatives of the sort that are quite numerous among farmers, developing a shared marketing and support structures that was controlled by its members even as they continued to work as free agents. Enterprise development is itself a risky proposition, of course, but exploring structures like these with the required caution could help to democratize an industry in which most of the “faces of fashion” currently have little voice.
SARA: If you could introduce a program or initiative to improve the industry, what would it be and why?
CLAUDIA: The main thing I would suggest is that agencies hand out a Bill of Rights to the models, as often models know very little about their rights and how to enforce them. And secondly, I would propose to have a resolution signed by all agencies, or model management companies, by which they commit to not overcharge the models excessively for the apartments they sublet to them.
“The main thing I would suggest is that agencies hand out a Bill of Rights to the models, as often models know very little about their rights and how to enforce them.” – Claudia Wagner
SANJAY: I don’t have first-hand experience in the industry, so I don’t have anything specific to offer! But, from hearing this conversation and learning about the great work of the Alliance, there are three key areas that come to mind:
First, as I said earlier, it’s important to think about new and creative ways in which models can organize collectively, and cooperatives may be one set of options worth exploring.
Second, legal and policy reforms could address the many ways in which models are carved out of basic worker protections. Here in New York, the NYC Freelancer’s Bill and the state law expanding child labor protections to models are good examples of steps in the right direction, and more such actions at the city, state, and federal levels are clearly needed.
Third, knowing what we do about the winner-take-all dynamics in modeling and the short duration of an average model’s career, resources to support models in charting what their lives will look like after exiting the industry could help. This could include support in furthering their education and transitioning to other careers.
MADISYN: Claudia’s suggestions for a Bill of Rights would be such an easy way to make improvements. During a hiatus from modeling I worked in an office. On my very first day I received a document on sexual harassment and my rights as an employee. Now I know that this is a completely standard document for most jobs, but at the time I was profoundly affected. It is baffling to me that there is no such written promise for models the minute they sign with an agency.
Obviously, documents like that don’t stop sexual harassment or other abuses from happening, but I don’t think we should under estimate the power of seeing your rights in black and white and the knowledge that you can expect to be supported if those rights are violated.
“I don’t think we should underestimate the power of seeing your rights in black and white and the knowledge that you can expect to be supported if those rights are violated.” – Madisyn Ritland
I would also want to introduce a program that supports original content creation. Statistics are important, but nothing can recreate the pathos of personal stories.
SARA: Where do you think the business will be in the next 5-10 years?
CLAUDIA: This is a million dollar question: With the speed and pace of today, the business can take many different directions and I cannot predict much. What I can predict is that it will be better for the models overall if an association like the Models Alliance keeps on doing a good job and pushing for better standards and policies. I also believe that laws and regulations can only go so far and take very long, while often changes happen with cultural shifts and commitment of all the parties involved.
SANJAY: I totally agree here with Claudia that changing law and policy only takes us so far. We need to see culture change aimed at challenging the devaluation and mistreatment of young women and expanding norms around beauty and womanhood. At a time when rank misogyny and racism are being legitimized daily at the highest levels of our society, how can this industry model the opposite – fairness, inclusion, and respect?
MADISYN: Like Sanjay, I expect that in 5-10 years we will likely be dealing with many of the same cultural issues we are dealing with now. However, my recent experiences make me optimistic. I think organizations like the Model Alliance and technologies, like social media apps and UBOOKER, will continue to move toward the center of things, and we will see more models with self-determined careers and greater cultural influence.
Claudia Wagner is a model and the co-founder of UBOOKER, a global bookings platform designed by models for models.
Madisyn Ritland has worked as a model for a decade, starting at age fifteen. During that time she was fortunate to gain the myriad of experiences (both positive and negative) that comes with being a young woman employed as an international fashion model while simultaneously working towards her B.A. at Pace University in New York City. The challenges of balancing school, mental/physical health and a full-time career as a young adult was the impetus for her to focus her efforts on helping other young women who face the same challenges. In 2012 Madisyn co-founded The Lions Management NY with the vision to provide a structure for models that could enable them to access necessary tools for success and an overall wellness support system that is currently lacking in the fashion industry. Madisyn is currently working in film and TV development in Los Angles, California.
Sanjay Pinto is a Brooklyn-based sociologist focusing on labor, social policy, and socioeconomic inequality. His current projects include research on gender and the political economy of care; the development of worker owned and controlled enterprises; and the impact of race on views about government in the American context. He holds a Ph.D. in sociology and social policy from Harvard, an M.Sc. in Development Studies from the London School of Economics, and is a fellow at the Worker Institute at Cornell and the Rutgers School of Management and Labor Relations.
* Any reference herein to any company, product or service does not constitute or imply the endorsement, recommendation, or approval of the Model Alliance.