Agent: the Model Booking App Could Help Combat Abuse in Fashion Industry
A model booking app that values transparency, safety and inclusivity?
The aim to change perception of the beauty and fashion world has led to finding fresh and unique faces, as well as an increased awareness of the safety issues that women face in the workplace. These are aspects that are now flourishing in the beauty and fashion industries. As models are the most visible workers in this system, public discussion of the hiring and treatment conditions have both received their share of criticism and been the catalyst for change taking place.
Agent, launched in 2016, is a platform connecting models and employers, and acting as a safer and direct alternative to big talent agencies. Designed as a catch-all app, models, photographers and designers create profiles, and connect their Instagram account. The founding team is responding to their own experiences of the industry, specifically difficulties related to safety, reliability, communication between clients and talent, and payment. Due to these, Agent includes in-app day rate negotiation, messaging, and direct pay options. To cover more of the industry, Agent plans to expand the platform to support makeup artists and other creatives.
The Evolution of the Modeling Agency System
In the beginning, there were modeling agencies. And by “beginning,” we’re talking 1946 with Ford Models. Then came the “alternative” modeling agencies that curate collections of tattooed and pierced people of increasingly diverse body types, genders and abilities. After that, there was the alternative to both - online communities for models, photographers and related roles such as Model Mayhem, launched in 2006 as a social and professional network. These steps have increased access for different types of people for modeling gigs, and also helped to find and employ talents. While this access has led to safety concerns, models have been in positions of vulnerability since the career existed.
Safety Concerns and Exploitation
As a job that employs so many women, and especially young girls, and females away from their home countries, the power dynamic has been heavily skewed towards the agency or employer. Models are frequently sexually harassed, pressured to take extreme measures to lose weight, but also manipulated by the control of their income. Agencies have been known to take 30-40 percent of earnings, and charge for costs like messengers, model apartments, and incidental fees. It has gone as far as agencies holding payments, and being dishonest about models' payout. This makes income highly unpredictable, and exclusivity contracts bind models to agencies, sometimes for years.
As more hopefuls take to Instagram as a way of being discovered, agencies have adopted this form of scouting with their own hashtags. The downside of this has been the easiness for any IG user to search for those tags, harrass, or prey upon young and attractive people. One the other hand, via social media, brands and photographers can easily find talents that have the right look for a shoot, but they are often without experience. As they are not signed by agencies, thus unvetted, often models are unprofessional: don’t show up to the shoots and leaving a professional crew stranded. This of course can work both ways, where models can book themselves through a social network, and have any number of negative experiences.
Intimidation also comes in many forms: racism is prevalent in the booking process, to say nothing of exclusion of trans, plus size, older and disabled models. Though diversity was at an all-time high at New York Fashion Week in Fall of 2017, people of color made up just over 30 percent of ad campaigns. Over the years, many former models have shared their experiences of coercion and abuse, which led activists within the industry to start the Model Alliance.
The Model Alliance aims to educate the public about the treatment and abuses within the industry through social media campaigns, speaking events and research. They offer advice and support within the model community, at times referring them to legal counsel. Some of their actions have been to advocate for legislations such as the Child Model Act and the Child Performer Protection Act.
Payment and User Verification
As we mentioned, exploitation of talent often is related to money - it can take the form of paycheck withholding and unpredictable payment. Just as shared economy sites like Lyft and AirBnB have succeeded in creating a highly-visible fee structure, and in-app payments, Agent also requires members to connect a credit card to be used for identity and fee purposes. Models have day rates clearly visible on their profiles, and they can be securely compensated without having to worry about on-site awkwardness regarding negotiations or cash.
According to Agent’s Marketing Manager (and former model) Alison Pelletier, the app also conducts criminal background, and sex offender checks on its users, as she explained in a recent Marie Claire interview. She personally experienced coercion on shoots, and sexual abuse before she joined the team. Pelletier estimates that 90 percent of female models have experienced some form of abuse or assault at the workplace.
Agent is an app that takes the strengths of a social network - direct communication, portfolio access - to help lessen the dangers for models and the risk for those who want to employ them. Adding in the professional aspects of verification and payments will hopefully make a career that carries such myths of glamour and privilege into a more positive experience for many young women.