Every year around Fashion Week, there is the annual wringing of hands about the hard lives of fashion models: They are too thin, they are too young, they work long hours for little pay, and designers are weirdly resistant to improving conditions for their human clothes hangers. But that concerned lather is all too often tinged with suspicion and a bit of eye-rolling—we look at Tyra Banks, Heidi Klum, and the rest and think, gosh, it can't be so bad to be a gorgeous fashion model. A new documentary, Girl Model, which premieres this month in New York and Austin, drives home that for the majority of this mostly under-age, immigrant workforce, it is that bad and then some—and not just when the media is crowding into tents in Bryant Park.
Girl Model directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin follow two protagonists: Nadya Vall, a 13-year old plucked from obscurity at a cattle call casting in rural Siberia and sent by herself to pursue fame and fortune in Tokyo's modeling scene, and Ashley Arbaugh, a deeply ambivalent model scout (and former model) whose job it is to scour Siberia looking for fresh talent to send to the Japanese market. Nadya dreams that her modeling career will lift her family out of poverty, while Ashley is more jaded about the industry's corrosive influences. "You can't be young enough," she says of choosing Nadya, who looks "almost prepubescent. ... Youth is beautiful, there's a luminosity, and that is what my eye is trained to see." Later she admits: "The modeling industry is based on nothing."
The film follows Nadya to Tokyo, where she attempts to navigate a foreign city by herself, pays her agency rent for a tiny apartment (shared with other would-be models), and goes on calls where she must lie and say she's 15 while prospective clients dissect her body and her agent behaves in creepily familiar ways with his young charges. Not surprisingly, there is no simple or happy ending: Ashley must return to Siberia to scout new faces and Nadya is still modeling.
Meanwhile, a recent survey by the newly formed Model Alliance finds that 64 percent of models have been asked to lose weight by their agency, 50 percent have been exposed to cocaine on the job, and 28 percent report being pressured for sex at work. Oh, and almost 30 percent don't have health insurance.
We'd rather not admit that models have a raw deal in part for the same reason we'd rather not admit our iPhones are made by exploited workers: Because it destroys the beautiful fantasy we've purchased in a Marc Jacobs bag. But we also ignore this issue because blaming beautiful women for their own troubles is our default position. It makes us feel better about our own flawed bodies to be snarky and assume they just need to eat a sandwich, or decide that teen models, like child pageant stars, are all some freakish manifestation of bad mothering and too much reality television.
Girl Model is a stark reminder of our own complicity in the global phenomenon of modeling. After all, girls like Nadya wouldn't be for sale if we stopped buying.