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The reality of modelling: It's not so pretty

Girls want to grow up to be models. According to a 2008 survey of 516 British girls 13 to 18 years old, 32 per cent choose modelling as their top career choice. The science and engineering organization that did the survey glumly reported that only 14 per cent want to be scientists. Second choice, at 29 per cent: acting.

The allure is probably not the modelling but the end product: pictures of beautiful women with sticky lips and cool clothes next to pyramids and waves. The subproduct is the adjacent fantasy – parties and free clothes and sports stars. The non-job job requires being pretty and being adored – for money!

But the reality of modelling may be about as glamorous as working at Wendy's, which didn't make the dream-job list. A model named Lisa Davies, who started at 16, recently said, "These young girls are placed into scenarios with predatory types of people and are made to work for very long hours without somebody asking if they need water or food or if they need to take a break. And there's nowhere to go to report any of these injustices – and sometimes actually illegal things – that are happening."

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It sounds like the caption for a Lewis Hine photo, but the quote appears on the website of the Model Alliance, a newly launched New York-based organization that's setting out to reform the working conditions of models. Founded by former Ralph Lauren model Sara Ziff, MA isn't a union, but a not-for-profit organization that will try to work with agencies to improve work conditions in an unregulated industry populated by young women. MA has drafted a Models' Bill of Rights that seeks reforms like transparent accounting practices from agencies and protections for models, such as no nude photos of those under 17.

But wait! Didn't we establish some time ago that standing in front of a camera isn't really work (although anyone who has survived wedding photos may disagree)? Also: Pyramids! Parties! Leonardo DiCaprio! More accurately, a recent book called Pricing Beauty paints a troubling picture of a business mired in dodgy economics, punishing schedules and child exploitation. Its author is Ashley Mears, a former model and assistant professor at Boston University who "embedded" herself in the modelling world, interviewing models and taking notes over several years. She found that, in the industry's strange economy, a Vogue editorial may net a model only $150 while catalogue work can be lucrative but not prestigious. The Cocos and Giseles can pull in millions, but the average American model makes about $27,000 a year.

"Modelling is first a field with a cultural connotation of glamour, fame and riches, because the mainstream press largely reports on successful models, who are at the top of a vast pile of precarious workers who don't make especially lucrative earnings [and]have insecure and short careers," Mears says via e-mail. She met many models that had been flown to New York from far-off countries but couldn't land jobs to pay off their agencies' investments. "The experiences of the successful few elide the real conditions for everyone else," Mears adds.

Most cultural anxiety about modelling, however, is about representation, not labour. Extreme thinness and the absence of women of colour were the buzzing concerns of New York Fashion Weeks in years past. Now, that attention is turning to age. Before the recent shows, the Council of Fashion Designers of America, headed by Diane von Furstenberg, requested that designers ask for ID to ensure they weren't using models under 16. But like the MA's Bill of Rights, these are just suggestions. As photographer David Urbanke Tweeted midweek, "I've stopped counting the number of underage girls I've photographed that have walked shows this season."

Last year, there was a small outcry when young celebrities Dakota Fanning and Hailee Steinfeld were cast in campaigns for prominent designers. In the fall, Steinfeld was dropped from Miu Miu (and replaced by 34-year-old Guinevere van Seenus). Most young models, though, don't generate such public scrutiny; their ages are usually invisible. And so 13-year-old Ondria Hardin can shoot a Prada campaign or walk for Marc Jacobs last week at age 14, CFDA be damned. Last summer, 10-year-old Thylane Loubry Blondeau pouted in a bodysuit in French Vogue. It's no surprise that ensuring the fair treatment of younger models is high on MA's agenda.

Modelling, in the end, is just another form of freelance labour, the kind of unprotected contract work that's the new normal in the North American economy. Maybe this group of crusading models will remind young girls with catwalk dreams that work is work and all workers are deserving of dignity in all jobs, glamorous or not.

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