"Invisible Beauty"

Addressing dismal working conditions in a glamorous industry

Ellen Rolfes Feb 13, 2024
Fashion is glamorous, but it’s also work, and workers often have few protections. Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images
"Invisible Beauty"

Addressing dismal working conditions in a glamorous industry

Ellen Rolfes Feb 13, 2024
Fashion is glamorous, but it’s also work, and workers often have few protections. Kena Betancur/AFP via Getty Images

In February, “Econ Extra Credit” is watching “Invisible Beauty,” a documentary portrait of activist Bethann Hardison focused on her fight to improve working conditions for Black fashion models. This week, we explore how proposed legislation in New York state would increase labor protections for models, content creators and other behind-the-scenes fashion pros.  

New York Fashion Week kicked off Friday with 49 runway shows featuring hundreds of models sporting designs by fashion’s newest talent as well as industry stalwarts. But beneath the glitz and glamour is a lot of underappreciated, challenging work, often performed under exploitative conditions.  

Models rallied last week to draw attention to new legislation that could end some of those predatory and problematic practices.  

The Fashion Workers Act, a New York state bill, would regulate model management agencies that have operated largely without scrutiny for decades by exploiting legal loopholes. In addition to checking the power of the middlemen who book models for photoshoots and fashion shows, the bill would establish requirements for overtime pay and create a formal process for filing worker complaints. 

State legislators amended the bill last month to require fashion companies to obtain written consent to use a model’s digital replica, as more designers and brands use artificial intelligence to supplement traditional photography. 

“When I’ve asked for what I deserve, I’m told, ‘So and so will do it for so much less. So, you’re going to take it or what?’” said Mamé Adjei, who lives in Los Angeles and has worked as a professional model for about 10 years.  

Adjei, who is Black, said many issues faced by older generations of Black models haven’t improved for her generation, especially when it comes to being paid on time — some clients have taken six to 12 months to pay her — and negotiating fair contracts. Also, she’s often hired for jobs in which the hairstylists and makeup artists lack the tools or knowledge to work with darker skin tones and textured hair. 

Her modeling gigs are much more precarious than her work as an actor because her union, the Screen Actors Guild, provides support.  

If a production goes “a minute over the time that it was supposed to, you’re getting overtime pay. SAG does not play with their union members,” Adjei said. “So why is it that I feel so alone and vulnerable when I go to work as a model?” 

Despite the similarities between the kinds of gigs that models and actors book, the working conditions are strikingly different. They became even more so after the SAG-AFTRA strike last year helped actors secure a contract with better pay and stronger protections.  

(Note: A separate branch of SAG-AFTRA represents some of Marketplace’s editorial workers.)  

“The horror stories that you hear in terms of the acting profession pale compared to what you hear from models who work in New York, the epicenter of this $2.3 trillion fashion industry,” Tatiana Siegel, an executive editor at Variety, said in a “Marketplace Morning Report” interview.  

“They are exposed to all manner of financial exploitation, which begets sexual exploitation. Most actors and actresses wouldn’t even recognize this level of abuse,” she said.

Models are considered independent contractors under the Fair Labor Standards Act, so their jobs don’t qualify for certain federal workplace protections and minimum wages, and lawyers and labor experts debate whether models could form their own union. Model management agencies should, in theory, protect the workers they represent from unsafe conditions and ensure they are fairly paid. In reality, many agencies don’t act in their models’ best interests. Adjei said agencies often don’t want to “ruffle feathers” when clients violate contracts or models feel uncomfortable on set. And speaking up can be risky because some agents will retaliate and refuse to book models who are considered “difficult to work with,” while keeping them in exclusive, auto-renewing contracts that are hard to get out of. 

“The level of power and control that modeling agencies exert over their models goes far beyond the relationship between, like, a company and a gig worker,” said Sara Ziff, executive director of the Model Alliance, a worker-led nonprofit that supports passage of the Fashion Workers Act.  

“It’s not unusual for models to end up working in debt to their agencies, the very people who are supposed to be representing them,” Ziff said.  

Talent agencies must operate under certain restrictions, like charging no more than 10% on commissions, but Ziff said that to get around these kinds of caps, modeling agencies falsely claim that booking gigs for models is a secondary priority to providing them with advice. She has seen modeling agencies charge models they represent 20% commission fees while also charging 20% commission to the companies that book the models. Agencies often don’t share contracts with models, so they don’t know how much they’ll be paid after commissions and additional fees.  

The kinds of issues Ziff and Adjei describe exist throughout the U.S., not just in New York. But Ziff said should the Fashion Workers Act become law — it was reintroduced in the state Senate last month and has bipartisan support — she and other fashion workers can push for similar rules and regulations in other markets.  

“It’s about establishing baseline protections for people who have very few,” Ziff said. “I see this as a first step towards having basic rights that are so long overdue.” 

In the meantime, Adjei hopes that more models read their contracts, hire lawyers to help them collect late payments, and speak up. 

“[Clients] will just do whatever you’re willing to go along with,” she said. “Do not be afraid to advocate for yourself because if you don’t, literally who will?” 

“Invisible Beauty” is available to stream on Hulu with a subscription. You can also buy or rent the film on Prime Video, Apple TV+ and YouTube. 

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