Lisa Davies, Monica Watkins, Aine Campbell, Sara Ziff, Paula Viola, Tara Stiles and Lauren Gordon. Photo by Angela Cappetta. www.angelacappetta.com
On Thursday, March 5 in snowy Manhattan, New York, schools were closed, events were cancelled and workplaces dismissed early, and the streets were dotted with only a few wary walkers. Despite the city’s slowdown, dozens upon dozens of models turned out for an event catered not to address their beauty but to their aspirations. The Model Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for social justice and security for models, held “Careers Beyond the Runway,” a panel discussion featuring models, entrepreneurs and career coaches, and drew a crowd of tons of successful models, all eager for something more.
In the modeling industry, you’re lured in your early teens by the promise of a glamorous lifestyle. Then, through tangible measurements like bookings and flights around the world, as well as intangible ones like media coverage and attention, you’re convinced that your situation is ultimately enviable. The creeping notion that it someday has to end is a mere annoyance on one end of the spectrum and on the other, a life-altering confrontation with mental, physical and financial realities.
“A lot of modeling agencies are kind of just like ‘your ambitions aren’t as big as ours, and ours matter more than yours,’” says Meredith Hattam, a former model and now a web designer for the Model Alliance.
“And so I was always told modeling is a career and you should focus on your career, but it’s the most unstable career a model, no—a PERSON can ask for.”
28-year-old Hattam, like many others, received feedback that she was too old to model by the time she was 25. She says that when models are spit out of the business they’ve been devoted to for a decade, many are left vulnerable. Without an education, without formal career training and without the help of the agency they had been involved with for the bulk of their adult life, tons of models are left feeling lost and hopeless, used and old.
“The job is quite unstable, so sometimes you’re really elated and sometimes you feel really rubbish,” says Aine Campbell, a model and a main organizer of the event. “You could be on the cover of a magazine, but not be able to pay your rent. You could be told a hundred times a week that you’re beautiful and not really feel it.”
Campbell says that she and the Model Alliance came up with the idea for the event after seeing and hearing from so many models that they struggle to figure out what they want to do after modeling, and how to do it. Campbell herself began modeling “later” in modeling life—at age 21, while studying at a university in Europe. She moved to the United States on a modeling contract at age 23, and she says that while she was lucky to have gone to college, she sees many models who are stuck without an education and without resources to help themselves. More than just a lack of formal education, though, she sees a lack of confidence in their experience and ability.
“You might not even know how to write your resume,” she says.
Speaking to that, when the subject turned to resumes during the panel discussion, one young model turned around and whispered to the others ‘Would they take a look book? Because that’s all I have!’
Campbell says that is common.
“You may not have been to school, you may have dropped out of school at 16, you may not know how to create an event successfully. Imagine if you were modeling for eight years, you become a professional in your profession, and then suddenly you have to start from the bottom again. They don’t know how to do it.”
Jessica Perez, a lingerie model whose clients ranged from Sports Illustrated to Victoria’s Secret, says that feeling of vulnerability about her future is what ultimately inspired her to start her own tech company, and to help others in that same situation. Perez started Tycoon, an app that is slated to launch in two months. Tycoon helps freelancers, with an aim toward models, organize and understand their finances more clearly.
“I really struggled finding an accountant that understood my lifestyle,” Perez says. She says accountants she had worked with asked her to make projections or commitments to certain amounts of money, which she says is very difficult when you don’t know how much money you’re going to make, or even where the next job will be.
“I think that a lot of successful models end up at the end of their careers with nothing to show for it,” she says. “They need these educational services to help them get there.”
Campbell says that notion of uncertainty is just what she set out to change.
“Finding who you are outside of modeling, and things you can do separate from the way you look is quite an empowering idea,” she says.
Paula Viola, a former model and now lawyer at WME-IMG in New York, got tons of nods from the audience when she said that she had wondered, while making her career transition, if her beauty was something she had to overcome in order to be taken seriously. Sara Ziff, model, Founder of the Model Alliance, MAKERS representative and seemingly the wise, big sister in the room, added to that.
“I felt like when I went back to school, I wanted to run away from the industry. At first I was embarrassed,” she says, “but then I realized that it was a valuable experience that I could use going forward.”
The confidence issue was a palpable one: how do models, who have been their own business representative, their own event planner, their own marketer, their own project manager for years explain that in a resume under the job title “model”—and would an employer take it seriously?
Lisa Davies, former model and now a nurse at Lenox Hill Hospital, says that the stereotype that people can either be smart or they can be beautiful will always live on, and that it’s the (former) model’s job to prove them wrong.
“Someone successful in one career will be successful in the next career, and you do it by being really good at what you’re doing,“ Davies says.
Ziff says that in her transition, she found support in a place where she didn’t expect it—back in the modeling industry.
“We already have a network, and maybe we don’t appreciate it,” Ziff says. “I felt very isolated often, but in forming the Model Alliance, I have really collaborated with and relied on other models. We DO have this amazing network.”
Campbell says that New York City is “the perfect place to try new things. As a model you absolutely should just jump straight in, because here’s where the best of the best are. Here’s where you can just meet someone on the street and have a great connection, and go and work with them doing something else. You absolutely can chase your dreams here,” she says.