Underage models alone abroad and on the runways: when is “young” too young?

The headlines have been buzzing for years about the controversies surrounding the hiring of underage models for the fashion weeks around the world, and for magazine editorials and advertisements.  I began modeling in Paris at the age of twenty, which was old considering today’s age standards.  I lived in model apartments in both Paris and Milan, and in both cases I was rooming with girls fifteen and sixteen during what should have been their school year.   No attempt was being made to continue their education at all.  Simply caring for their own basic, everyday needs was beyond them.  They were vulnerable to the worldly sorts that filled the clubs, followed the models on their castings, and gave them invitations to parties, and I watched some of them fall prey before they even had a chance to get work as a model.

Not every teenage girl goes into the modeling world so unprepared, and many today are continuing their education online, skyping regularly with their family back home, and taking breaks to put teenage life back into perspective for graduation, prom, and other special milestones.  Their parents and agents are actively involved with them on a daily basis, sometimes accompanying them, and doing what it takes to keep her safe and secure, and watching out for her best interests.  Some modeling markets are considerably safer than others, and the youngest and least-experienced models can have a positive experience if they aren’t sent straight off to a major market right away to compete with seasoned models.

But what about those girls who come from impoverished backgrounds where the family has put all their expectations on the one tall, lovely daughter, to work and support the family back home?  The modeling world is not regulated with unions and worker’s rights and these girls are often treated as disposable – there will be a new crop of them each season.

Parents need to remember that it is not just dressing up, or playing at being a “supermodel.”  They are not just indulging their daughter’s fantasy of stardom.  Very few models in the grand scheme of things ever reach a level of financial security.  The hours are long and hard, and the rejection fierce.  It can be isolating and confusing.  There are few, if any, protections for models throughout the industry.  It is a business, first and foremost, and it requires a strong mind, maturity, focus, and support. For every one girl that has a brief period of success (sometimes only one season), there are thousands who are struggling to simply stay in the business at all.  Being mentally and emotionally prepared is just as important as being physically ready for the modeling world.

Coca Rocha and Sara Ziff are just two models pushing forward initiatives to protect teenage models and we will be exploring those in upcoming posts.

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