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Long before I started acting, I spent almost 10 years working as a fashion model. I walked the runways of brands such as Victoria’s Secret and the fashion houses of Louis Vuitton, Givenchy, Chanel and many others. But despite my success, I still experienced the detriments of working in a largely unregulated industry, like not getting paid on time, if at all. Everything changed when I became an actor, but it’s still the same grind in fashion — and worse.
On the surface, acting and modeling have a nearly identical business structure: Agencies book gigs on your behalf as talent. Why, then, do these two industries have totally different responsibilities to their creative workforces?
Well, for one thing, fashion is an industry largely made up of young women and girls. To many, the labor of models is not seen as “work” but rather the benefits of winning a genetic lottery. So, models are perceived as being privileged, with no talent or skill, and therefore unworthy of basic protections or even empathy. That’s contrasted with actors, who are seen as talented — and even get an entire, widely televised awards season celebrating those talents — on top of the protections they enjoy from being part of a heavily unionized workforce.
But the real issue here is that many modeling agencies have created and benefited from a system in which they take zero responsibility for advancing a model’s career or financial interests, but yet they dictate terms for those models. That’s vastly different to the relationship I’ve experienced with my agency as an actor.
Unlike talent agencies, which are considered employment agencies, modeling agencies are instead classified as “management companies.” Many contracts hand over “power of attorney” to modeling agencies, allowing them to accept payments and negotiate pay rate on behalf of the model without her knowledge; deposit checks and deduct unexplained expenses on top of a hearty commission; force models and creatives to sign multiyear, exclusive contracts that auto-renew, without any obligation to book them jobs; and even give third parties permission to use a model’s image or collect royalties without having to pay the model for that usage.
And yet, modeling agencies have no fiduciary responsibility to the talent they represent. So, it’s common for agencies to negotiate low rates or even payment “in-trade,” i.e., in the form of clothing, while collecting overcharged rents from stuffing 10 girls into a two-bedroom apartment.
While I was lucky to be represented by some amazing agents when I modeled, I still experienced what in any other industry would be considered massive violations of my rights as a worker. While working in Milan, I amassed earnings of 240,000 euros, but I never saw a dime of it. That’s because the financial backers behind the agency had allegedly siphoned off their models’ money to private bank accounts, and the agency declared bankruptcy. Recovering those earnings would have required calling every single client I had worked for — including Miuccia Prada, Domenico Dolce, Stefano Gabbana, Angela Missoni and so on — and asking them to testify that they had hired me for my time. That clearly was not a winning strategy if I wanted to continue working. I was not the only model to lose money from this agency, nor did I even incur the largest loss. To my knowledge, no funds were ever retrieved.
After that, I knew I’d had enough. I did something models are told never to do: I told my agency that I refused to continue working for another brand who never paid on time until I received all the money I was owed. It took a year to get my earnings.
Shortly after that experience, I pursued my dream of acting. And suddenly, for the first time in my working life, I knew when my paycheck was coming and how much would be in it. There was finally a structure to when my day would start and end. And there were contracts, which I would have access to and my own lawyer could discuss with me. These were the dramatically simple changes I experienced when my career was in the hands of talent agencies who are obligated to act on behalf of their client’s interests.
Every worker deserves that level of financial transparency. Now, a new bill in New York could disrupt that power imbalance that’s ruled the $2.5 trillion fashion industry for decades.
The Fashion Workers Act, which the Model Alliance launched earlier this year, would close the legal loophole through which management companies escape regulation and engage in predatory behavior. It would create basic protections for fashion’s creative workforce by forcing companies and clients to do outlandish things such as pay talent within 45 days of completing a job, provide talent with copies of their contracts and agreements, and conduct a reasonable inquiry into health and safety on the set they’re sending talent, to name a few.
Models are taught to take these injustices in stride: Be cool and don’t rock the boat. That doesn’t breed an environment for organizing. And it’s why New York lawmakers must act and pass the Fashion Workers Act and change the rules of the industry for good.
Caitríona Balfe is an actress, producer and former fashion model. Since 2014, she has starred as Claire Fraser on Starz’s historical drama Outlander, for which she has received five Golden Globe nominations. Most recently, she starred in Kenneth Branagh’s film Belfast, for which she received SAG Award and BAFTA Award nominations. Balfe has also starred in such films as Ford v Ferrari, Money Monster, Now You See Me, Escape Plan and Super 8.
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