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High Fashion, Low Life

High Fashion, Low Life

By: April Kosky

Three years ago I decided to stop modelling. And let me tell you why: I hated it.

I was first scouted as a gangly teenager excitedly browsing Top Shop in Oxford Circus. A lady approached me in black shades. On this chance encounter, I transitioned from a fourteen-year-old preening in front of a mirror to dreaming about myself as a woman adored by the camera. My parents were sceptical, but I was too enthused to back down. I didn’t know what it meant to be a model. I only knew that my friends found it cool.

From then until I turned 18, I travelled up to London with mum or dad to take part in test shoots. A test shoot is a practice shoot, where your agency pays a photographer, stylist and make-up artist to photograph you for your portfolio. Despite my parents’ presence, and even though I was just a teenager, my agency put me through some uncomfortable experiences. Once when I was 16, practising to be a real model, I was asked to pull my “orgasm face”. I don’t think I knew what that meant.

Still, a month after my 18th birthday, I moved to London, ready for life as a full-time clothes-horse. Almost immediately, I realised that I wasn’t prepared. The standards felt out-of-kilter. Every couple of weeks I’d be measured – chest, waist, bum, self-esteem. And every time I was told to “lose another half inch”. I had always eaten whatever I wanted, never been into exercise. What’s the opposite of empowerment? Being told you’re never good enough as you are. 

When I wasn’t being humiliated by my agency, my days were spent traipsing around London, travelling from Stratford to Notting Hill and back again for further demoralisation. Casting after casting, rejection after rejection. I considered myself fortunate if I was booked for more than one out of every ten opportunities. But I was lucky in other ways. I had financial support from my family when others in my field were in huge amounts of debt – from agency fees to flights, model cards, accommodation and huge tax bills (the US is a particular nightmare). Unless you’re the right face in the right place in the right season, modelling is not as lucrative as advertised.

Worse still were the castings themselves, which went something like: wait for hours, get shouted at in French, objectified, dismissed. It was, I thought, part of the job. So I went with it. But recently models have started to call out casting directors when they’re mistreated. Take the Balenciaga scandal that was made public last February after models were locked in a stairwell for hours. Or model Edie Campbell’s open letter published by Women’s Wear Daily in 2017, in which she wrote: “We operate within a culture that is too accepting of abuse, in all of its manifestations. This can be the ritual humiliation of models, belittling of assistants, power plays and screaming fits.”

Understandably, part of Edie’s righteous rage stems from the industry’s perception of body image. Among the vulnerable young that make up the vast majority of high-fashion mannequins, eating disorders are rife. As Dr Ciarán Newell, an Irish consultant nurse, explains, “the word healthy has been hijacked to mean low-fat.” Which also means models are thumbed and measured and told to lose another half inch in the name of meeting a minimum BMI (Body Mass Index). But wait: “BMI is not that accurate,” continues Dr Ciarán. “Take hormonal functioning, having energy, eating a balanced diet – all of those other things secretly come into it.”

 

 

Slowly, slowly the industry is waking up. Early last year, the French government introduced legislation designed to limit the promotion of inaccessible ideals of beauty. Models in France now need to provide medical certifications of health or their agency will face a fine. In the UK, the British Fashion Council has developed the Model Programme, supporting individuals at times of high stress levels, such as during Fashion Weeks, and even appointed Adwoah Aboah as an ambassador for model health and diversity.

But is it enough? A list of individuals who have committed suicide while standing in clothes for a living reads: Ambrose Olsen, Daul Kim, Hayley Kohle, Ruslana Korshunova. As well as a culture that values image over health, the lifestyle tends to hit you hard upstairs too. Not only is it fiercely competitive, not only are you mistreated, abused, objectified and devalued, but, if you’re not prepared for it, the practical side of the role can entail a very lonely transience, as you’re shipped from city to city at a tender age on someone else’s agenda, until you’re breaking down a thousand miles from home with nothing but the empty void of a cold, heartless agency-owned apartment to comfort you. If the profession had a mood board, it would be greyer than an English winter.

Despite this bleak picture, I know that – so long as you’re confident in yourself and aware of the risks and challenges – modelling can be a positive experience, providing opportunity and freedom. My little sister, Florence Kosky, loves modelling, which ends up benefiting me with little treats, such as holidays and Chanel shoes. But her ambition is to be an actress. And after my experience she entered the profession with more honest expectations. Still, I will close on a warning: until the industry respects its models as much as its designers, the sparkle of being a model could come at the cost of your health. 

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