The Hidden Dangers of Male Modeling

The Hidden Dangers of Male Modeling

The casting director, a Dutch man in his 50s with a large paunch, looked at me, his eyes darting around my body. “Take off your top and show me your torso,” he said. I was exhausted after 14 hours of castings, and so I did what I was told and removed my undershirt to reveal my rather pallid chest. After a quick glance, the casting director returned to his seat in the adjacent room and muttered to his stylist, “He’s beautiful, but he’s fat.” Sound travels easily in a hard-floored warehouse; I had moved to the changing room, but I heard his words clearly. I felt humiliated.

I had walked the catwalk twice at Paris Fashion Week, worked with a range of talented photographers and stylists, and was part of a world filled with staggeringly beautiful people. But this wasn’t the first time I had been called overweight, despite my jutting rib cage and hips. At a fitting for a Japanese menswear show in Paris in the summer of 2014, a group of elderly women from the designer’s team gathered behind me to laugh and lightly slap my buttocks as the material stretched to cover my rear. On another shoot, a stylist who had started drinking vodka at 9 a.m. told me I was “handsome” but needed to “stop being lazy and do some fucking crunches.” I didn’t like any of it—and I certainly didn’t like being called “beautiful” but “fat.” I decided then, that summer, to quit modeling.

When most people think of exploitation in modeling, they think of young women and girls walking the catwalk with alarmingly protruding hips and angular shoulders, or they remember the lurid tales of celebrity photographers manipulating or coercing young women into sex acts. Muscle-bound male models with perfect cheekbones and fat paychecks? They do not seem like obvious victims. But as I found during my short career as a male model, men and boys are increasingly at risk in the odd, unregulated workplace that is the fashion world. Being a man does not make you safe: Male models are often subject to sexual harassment but rarely report it. And, like their female counterparts, they are under intense pressure to have just the right kind of body. Recent menswear trends have polarized male catwalk modeling, encouraging either extreme muscularity or waifish androgyny. Want to look like that? It will likely make you sick.

And there’s another factor that makes male models more vulnerable today: Emerging East Asian economies have created a demand for designer clothes and consequently for models. Growing numbers of young models, both men and women, are heading to Asia, far from their families and support networks, and working in poorly regulated conditions that leave them at risk of being overworked and underpaid. It turns out that being really, really, really good-looking—as Ben Stiller’s male model character Derek Zoolander describes himself—will not guarantee you wealth, health or security.

Sam Thomas, founder of the U.K.-based charity Men Get Eating Disorders Too, is highly critical of recent shifts in the fashion industry. “There has certainly been a trend in which some male models are getting younger and definitely skinnier,” says Thomas. The industry seems “particularly polarized right now,” he says, with hypermuscular looks becoming increasingly popular at the same time as demand has surged for waifish male models.

Sara Ziff, founder of the Model Alliance, a New York City nonprofit labor organization advocating for greater protection of models, says male models face a uniquely difficult situation. “I definitely think that men have just as many labor-related concerns as women, if not more,” says Ziff, a longtime model. “The industry urgently needs reform. It’s an industry that has escaped any real regulation for decades.”

The models and insiders I spoke with for this story were often hesitant to talk for fear of reprisals, and many requested anonymity. Their insights reveal an industry struggling to safeguard some of its youngest employees—many of whom have very little employment protection, are ill-informed of their rights and suffer from a culture of silence that protects the abusers within the industry who are considered too powerful to confront.

At the age of 20, I fell for that world. It seemed to me like easy money and a shortcut to joining a glamorous elite. But after a year of dabbling in the industry, I realized it was making me miserable. Sure, I had become part of a rarefied world cordoned off from the public—and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t enjoyed that—but to remain part of that elite I was expected to work unpaid to gain a degree of celebrity that never came. I had to cope with relentless pressure to keep my weight down, and my agency bookers expected me to attend castings for up to 17 hours a day in the run-up to fashion week. And there was this: The money turned out to be lousy. While a male model might earn a few thousand dollars for a major show and maybe in the tens of thousands for an international campaign, many magazine shoots are unpaid, and small shows often pay only a few hundred. I felt exploited, as did many of my peers, and yet all of us felt we couldn’t speak out because getting a reputation as being “difficult” or “demanding” could kill your fledgling career. So we kept posing and we kept quiet.


Boys on Film

I became a model in 2013, when I was in my third year of studying English and French literature at Oxford University. I had moved to Paris as part of my studies, and my teenage interest in fashion was reborn. I had always been excited by the pace of the industry and found the processes behind designing and creating these garments fascinating. But I had never considered working as a model.

Three days after arriving in Paris in September 2013, I headed out to a gay club, exhausted (from the move) and a little drunk (from the vodka). A guy across the room with stubble and chiseled cheekbones caught my attention; when I ventured out into the street for a cigarette, he followed. He asked for a light and then asked if I was a model. I told him it was a terrible pickup line. He told me he was a casting director and invited me to his studio a few days later, took some photos and added me to his database.

The following weekend, we shot a series of portraits. A few weeks later, he cast me in a music video. And a few months later, he sent me to one of Paris’s most prestigious modeling agencies. Its verdict? That I was “unsuitable.”

A chance encounter with another casting director in early 2014 led to an invitation to visit a modeling agency. I posed for a few Polaroids, wrote down my measurements and awaited the decision. The booker—a kind, freckled man in his 30s—looked me up and down as I stood by the window of his fifth-floor studio, whispering to his assistant. “You could do with some exercise,” he said finally, as though I was an out-of-season racehorse, “but we’d love you to come on board.”

In spite of my reservations, I felt a flood of nervous euphoria. I couldn’t help but be seduced by the idea that I would be paid mountains of cash to lounge around and have my face splashed across billboards. And then I began working, and reality hit: To be a model is to accept that you are a product as well as a person. You are also a target for sexual predators.

At first, I was relatively oblivious to the extent of the sexual harassment and abuse in the industry. Serious propositions and sexual advances are often framed as jokes, allowing the powerful figures who make them—photographers, editors and casting directors—to dismiss them as such should they be declined. In September 2013, while I was shooting a music video, a fashion consultant in his 60s spent the day making inappropriate comments and asking if what was “down there” was as “intoxicating” as my “handsome face.” I ignored him and moved away when he repeatedly brushed against me. As he slid past me, he stroked his hand across my lower back and slapped my backside.

A few weeks later, an editor offered to shoot me for the cover of his magazine, with the caveat that I pose naked and join him for a “romantic” dinner that evening. I said I wasn’t interested, but he messaged me regularly throughout the year. His messages became increasingly graphic, including sending me links to porn videos and images of another model whose career he claimed to have launched. In June 2014, a photographer tried to make me commit to orgies while on a shoot, with the promise of getting me “exposure.” He also convinced me and the other male model I was shooting with to strip down to our underwear in the middle of the Bois de Vincennes, a wooded area southeast of Paris.

At times, these powerful men behave with a remarkable sense of impunity: While I was conducting research for this article, one powerful fashion designer, high on cocaine, repeatedly sent me unsolicited naked videos when I attempted to arrange an interview.

In some ways, I got off lightly. Matthew, a British model, signed up with his first agency while he settled into life in Paris (a few months later, he joined Elite, the world’s leading agency). He soon found himself in the studio of a photographer who overstepped the mark.

“It was horrible,” says Matthew, which is his real first name. He has now quit modeling and is a student living in London. “He made me take all my clothes off, including my underwear. His rationale was that he needed to get me over the phase of being awkward and make me more comfortable in my own body.”

Exposing the photographer was impossible, Matthew says. “I couldn’t complain because he was part of my agency.” The man was one of the bookers working at the agency; he freelanced as a photographer on the side.

“In fashion, it is always older people controlling younger,” says René Habermacher, a Swiss-born photographer who works regularly for Japanese Vogue and other leading titles. Ziff, of the Model Alliance, says she has heard about countless situations that mirrored Matthew’s story. “I don’t think I’ve ever spoken with a male model about the Model Alliance without them talking about sexual harassment,” she says.

Their age makes many models particularly vulnerable. “When starting out, models tend to be very young,” says Ziff, whose modeling career started at 14. “Their careers are short-lived and tenuous for the most part. If you know that you have a shelf life of maybe five years, you’re much less likely to stick your neck out or complain, especially since it is so competitive.”

‘Underage and Underfed’

I have found it hard to stick to my decision to quit modeling. I still take jobs now and then. I miss the excitement. Also, as a recent graduate, I could do with the cash. On certain jobs, I have been shocked by how young many of the models are. At my last show, the Andrea Crews collection shown in Paris in January 2016, I shared a cigarette with a boy backstage whose tousled hair, slender body, boyish features and full lips combined to make him look delicate and androgynous. “How old are you?” I asked him. “Fifteen,” he said, looking nervous. “I don’t really know what I’m doing here.”

Critics and commentators have long criticized the use of very young male models in the fashion industry, but the current trend for models with boyish or androgynous looks has intensified that criticism. The androgynous look pushes male models to lose muscle mass and women to lose their natural curves. One model, Jack—that’s a pseudonym—says that has increased competition between men and women for the same shows. (At Gucci’s menswear show in January 2015, for example, boyish female models walked alongside waifish men.)

In stark contrast to the androgynous male models on the catwalks in Asia are the muscle-bound male models typified by the perfectly sculpted British model David Gandy. But beneath those hypermuscular builds are often serious health problems. “The big, muscular guys are no better off,” says a British photographer, whose work is regularly featured in American Vogue and GQ France and who requested anonymity. “Men who are that big, who go to the gym that often and have 2 percent body fat—they are starving themselves too.” Researchers and mental health experts have coined the term bigorexia to describe muscle dysmorphia, a distorted perception of the body as too weak and lacking muscle that fuels obsessive workouts even among the most toned men and bodybuilders.

The pressure to lose weight is common among male models. In December 2013, Jack, who had trained as a dancer and had muscular legs, was told by his agents to lose 3 kilograms (about 6.5 pounds) from his legs for a Saint Laurent fitting. “It was a huge pressure.” He prioritized reaching his target weight over his health. “It pushed me towards an eating disorder. All the guilt, constantly—it was like pre-bulimia.”

Almost every one of the 15 insiders who agreed to speak to Newsweek said Saint Laurent’s recently departed creative director, Hedi Slimane, spearheaded the rise of the ultra-skinny male model. Karl Lagerfeld, creative director of Chanel and one of fashion’s most powerful designers, wrote in The Telegraph in 2004 that “Slimane’s fashions, modelled by very, very slim boys, required me to lose at least six of my 16 stone.”

Slimane defended his preference for super skinny young men in an interview with Yahoo Style last year, explaining that he was bullied as a teenager for not having a traditionally masculine build: “I was precisely just like any of these guys I photograph or that walk my shows. Jackets were always a little too big for me. Many in high school, or in my family, were attempting to make me feel I was half a man because I was lean.” Slimane says later in the interview that there was a derogatory and homophobic undertone to the idea that skinny was “queer.”

For many fashion insiders, the reasons for his casting choices are hardly relevant; what matters is the impact Slimane had on models—and even men outside the fashion world. The British photographer who worked for American Vogue is highly critical of the male body type promoted by the designer. “Hedi idolizes emaciated boys,” he says. Slimane created an aesthetic that he sums up as “underage and underfed.” Saint Laurent and Slimane declined repeated requests for comment when approached by Newsweek.

Thin in Japan

Nowhere has super skinny become more prevalent than in East Asia. Japan has long been a major player in the fashion world, but the rise of China and South Korea has cemented the importance of East Asia. But Asia doesn’t just present new opportunities; it also brings new threats. The market is known in the fashion world for its preference for ultra-skinny male models. “In Japan, you have a strong desire for younger, sweet-looking male models, and to the extent that you must represent the market, they’re simply smaller sized,” says Valerie Steele, an American fashion historian, curator and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City. Combined with culture shock, long work hours and isolation from their families and friends, young male models often enter these new markets unaware of their labor rights and the dangers they might face.

In the summer of 2014, Habermacher joked that I should head to East Asia if I wanted my career to really take off. “They’d love you over there,” the photographer told me, “and the pay is crazy: You can make up to 10,000, maybe 20,000, [euros] a month if you’re busy, but you can be shooting back-to-back for up to 16 or 18 hours a day.” But Habermacher was not actually recommending I make the move because he knew what I would have to do to succeed in Asia. “They like small boys over there, I mean really small,” he said. “You’d have to lose about 10 kilos to really make it.”

The idea of starting a new, thrilling life in Tokyo, Seoul or Shanghai was tempting. Losing 15 percent of my body weight was not. Shedding 10 kilograms (about 22 pounds) would have sent my body mass index (BMI), a scale using height and weight measurements to judge whether somebody is overweight or underweight, down to 16.9, a level the World Health Organization defines as “severely malnourished.”

But I was tempted, in spite of my concerns over my health. Asia offers male models financial opportunities that seem ever scarcer in saturated Western markets and in an industry where men earn far less than their female counterparts. According to a Forbes report, from June 2012 to June 2013, the top 10 highest-earning female models made a combined $83.3 million; from September 2012 to September 2013, the top 10 men made $8 million. The best-paid female model, Gisele Bundchen, made $42 million between June 2012 and June 2013; Sean O’Pry, the highest-earning man, made $1.5 million in the year ending in September 2013.

There’s a gender gap lower down in the market too, with salary data company PayScale reporting that female models can expect an average yearly income of $41,300, compared with the Forbes estimate of male earnings around $28,000 in recent years, approximately $2,000 short of the New York living wage as calculated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

One model from Models 1, Europe’s largest agency, took up his booker’s offer of a summer in the Far East. He agreed to speak to Newsweek on the condition of anonymity. “I came because I wanted to make some money before starting university,” says the model, a 19-year-old British student. Yet in retrospect, he says, specifics were missing from his conversation with his booker. “Money was not discussed,” he says.

He signed a contract to head to Tokyo in the winter of 2015 with little knowledge of the small print. He felt honored to be offered the opportunity and assumed the terms and conditions would be reasonable and lucrative. But when he showed his mother the contract, she was appalled at the conditions he had agreed to. “She basically said that I’m going to come back with nothing and that, at best, I’ll break even.”

His travel and accommodations were to be covered by the agency, but under the terms of the contract the money had to be paid back. He would start receiving payment for jobs only after this debt was cleared. Until then, he would have to live on an allowance of about $87 a week, an amount he could not survive on, so he needed his mother to supplement.

Certain clauses felt particularly exploitative, he says. If he did not book enough jobs, he would have been sent home at his own expense, owing his agency a four-figure sum. If he breached any other terms, including cutting his hair without permission, getting a suntan or putting on any weight, he could have faced the same forfeit.

But the model decided to go regardless, thinking that the experience of living abroad would be worthwhile and that there was always a chance of getting his big break. “I just feel so lucky,” he says, talking via FaceTime from his small Tokyo apartment.

Trust Us

France, Spain, Italy and Israel have all passed legislation within the past decade requiring all models working in those countries to possess a medical certificate that declares them fit to work. The French law stipulates that models’ health must be “assessed in particular in terms of body mass index” but with a nod to more holistic methods of assessment, including body shape and well-being. An agency booker who fails to adhere to the law risks a fine of 75,000 euros (about $83,623) and up to six months in prison. The law also requires agencies to signal when modeling photos have been retouched to alter body shape. Fines of up to 10,000 euros (about $11,150) and one year in prison can await individuals “provoking people to excessive thinness by encouraging prolonged dietary restrictions that could expose them to a danger of death or directly impair their health.”

In the fashion world, these laws have few fans—even among the models. The three male models interviewed for this story all expressed support for the idea of limiting the weight pressures they faced but questioned the accuracy of the BMI scale as a measure. Industry insiders also attacked the inaccuracy of the BMI when applied to those under 25 and the idea that it might penalize models afflicted by eating disorders. And then there’s this: The majority of the countries in the world where models work have no legislation protecting these young people.

The fashion industry is so sprawling and decentralized that many industry insiders believe that the only way it can protect its young is if it decides to take on that responsibility itself. Many powerful figures in the industry say they are already acting responsibly. Storm Models, a leading agency, says it abides by minimum BMI rules. “Ultimately, we’re just a supply chain,” says Cat Trathen, head of the men’s division at Storm. “We only provide what our clients are asking for.” She says that any potential problems lie with the editors and brands booking the models she represents. And she was adamant that she and her team already do their utmost to safeguard the models signed to their agency: “We do not have and we have never had one model—male or female—on this board who is underweight.” Trathen says it’s not in the economic interests of an agency to promote models who are too thin: “A model who’s underweight is going to be ill. Ultimately, they’re a commodity, and you have to look after them. If someone is ill or too thin, they’re not going to work because they’re not going to look their best or have the energy to model.”

One prominent casting director, Noah Shelley of AM Casting, says he bears some responsibility for the pressure to be skinny. “If we were to sit down and round table and say there’s blame to be had, then I would definitely deserve some,” says Shelley. “Nonetheless, I don’t feel on a daily basis that I’m responsible for unhealthy body ideals, but I’m not naïve enough to suggest that couldn’t be happening without my intention, and I have to take responsibility for that.”

Yet Sebastien Meunier, creative director of the Paris-based cult fashion house Ann Demeulemeester, denies that designers are doing anything wrong. “We are not doing anything shocking: We’re making clothes that are perfectly decent and acceptable,” he tells Newsweek. “At the end of the day, [models] are adults. There’s no problem here.”

Steele, of the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, believes the industry is unlikely to self-regulate in a meaningful way. “Everyone says they’re not the ones at fault, that they’re just following orders,” she says. “I suspect there’s a lot of blame to be shared. The casting directors and designers and members of the audience want to see thin, white, young models. They’re all at fault.”

Derek Williams