Model Diary: The Business of ‘The Model Agency’

BBC 4 has launched a new show called The Model Agency, a seven-episode, fly-on-the-wall documentary about the goings-on at the offices of Premier agency in London. So far, nobody seems to like it. The show, only two episodes in, has received almost only bad reviews, though some are based on the characters, rather than the show itself. I heard about it from my London agency, which is better than rival Premier. While taking new Polaroids, my booker turned to me and asked: “Have you heard about this reality show that BBC 4 is doing with Premier? It’s baa-a-a-d. Everyone here was shocked.”

Intrigued, and hoping to find something hateful about Premier (they rejected me two years ago), I went back to my flat to watch it. But, unlike my booker, I didn’t find it that shocking.

Yes, the Premier bookers seem more dramatic and less mature than most I’ve worked with, talking shit about their own models as well as each other. But the show itself didn’t convey anything shocking about their fraught job. In fact, Premier isn’t doing anything differently from any of the agencies I’ve encountered. Generally, the show does shed light on a bunch of prevailing but typically misconstrued ideas about the industry. For example, how some models make lots of money, while others work for no pay. Or how fucked up the weight issue can be; one client asks a booker to cast only girls with 31” hips — my jaw dropped at this — and weight, since either being too big or too small is constantly an issue. Or how nearly impossible it is to become a supermodel, even if you have a team of people behind you trying to make it happen. But all this is more or less common knowledge. The only thing that people might find shocking is the fickle, sometimes fraught relationship between model and booker. The relationship between models and their agencies is a business situation. This is made clear by the contract that both parties sign before working together. A model is looked after by, more or less, one agent at the agency, and that agent is responsible for her career. The agent sends the model off to castings or go-sees, negotiates rates with clients, and manages the model’s schedule. In return, the agency collects a commission from the model’s earnings. What makes this business relationship different from, let’s say, that between actors/writers/sports players and their agents is that most models do not choose the job for themselves. They have not felt passionate about it their entire lives and did not train/work their asses off trying to become models. Rather, the job, or the agency, chooses them, thrusting them into the industry before they even consider what it entails. That, and most of them are still teenagers.

What might not be so universally acknowledged as that old story is how the agency (sometimes) goes about choosing their models. In the first episode of The Model Agency, Annie (head of New Faces) and Carol (owner) explain how they do it at Premier: they scout girls when they’re 12 to 14 years old, cultivate them for a few years (a few of the more scathing reviews of the show went so far as to use the word “grooming,” in every child-molesting sense of the term), and then, when they’re 16, they send them to New York to do show castings for Fashion Week. Cue India, one of the spanking-new 16-year-olds who, during her debut at the NYFW castings, is called “too fat,” has a breakdown and wants to go home. Here, the agency tries to manipulate their naïve and all-too-young client: for the rest of the episode, the bookers are in cahoots, devising a way to convince India that she, in fact, really does want to stay in New York and do the castings, for her own good. India insists that she has made the decision to go back to school and be a normal teenager, but, like stubborn parents, the bookers respond by insinuating that if that’s what she wants, then she doesn’t know what she wants.

The bookers are allowed to be upset with India’s decision to quit modeling. They’ve invested a lot of time and work in building up her image and have chosen her as one of the few to represent the agency’s new goods at NYFW. But rather than be honest about the fact that they see India in terms of her financial value, the agents instead pretend to have India’s best interests at heart. It isn’t surprising that they don’t approve of India’s decision; the surprise is that they try to cover it up when talking to her.

While these things are obvious to the audience, in real life, the intricacies of the model/agency relationship are much more subtle, and the manipulation is harder to point out. When I first started modeling, I was scared of my bookers and stupidly did absolutely everything they told me to (which led to one particularly miserable summer in Paris). Over the years, I’ve heard several horror stories from young models who, not knowing anything about the business, have been mistreated by their agency, usually by being overcharged with insane costs of which they weren’t even aware.

I appreciate that now I am outspoken enough to say no when I need to, and to be assertive and inquisitive in the relationship. My bookers and I are open about the fact that we are engaged in a business deal, which makes our relationship that much more professional. They work hard to get me opportunities, I work hard to book the jobs, and (as far as I know) they don’t talk any real shit behind my back (at worst, they say it to my face, which is at least respectful). They’ll still try to persuade me in certain ways, but only about small things, like trying to get me to extend my stay or to do test shoots when I don’t need to, and I’ll listen to their advice — but not necessarily comply.

And, just to be safe, and since I am a businesswoman: I check my account statements regularly, read every contract I sign, insist that they can’t spend money on my behalf without consulting me first, insist on knowing every price, talk to my bookers if I’m upset about something, and make sure that I never feel dissatisfied with my career. And my agencies respect me all the more for it. After all (and never forget this, girls), in the business relationship, the models are the commodities, and the agency works for them.

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