Fashion model Victoria Keon-Cohen opens up about dealing with constant rejection. Photo: supplied.
One of the most common problems faced by models is coping with rejection. The essence of pursuing a career as a model is that he or she lives off his/her looks. And a tightly-structured business regime lies behind this reality with many different players involved, all seeking a slice of “the body.”
Obtaining a booking means attending castings (essentially job interviews) every day until somewhere, somehow, you secure a job. Dealing with repeated rejection as part of this daily working process can start to feel very personal, be internalized and, in some cases, lead to self-harm. Preserving a degree of mental health to maintain a career for 10+ years requires substantial physical and emotional strength. How models work through this – or find themselves unable to do so – can have long-term psychological and physical consequences for these individuals, which can directly affect their lives and career. What I found helpful is realizing that the industry is also a global business, as understanding the causes of rejection in this context strengthened my career by applying practical knowledge to the problem.
Statistics from The Model Alliance show the average age a model enters the industry is 13. All models quickly learn that the industry puts a dollar value on their physical appearance. Young novices, including myself at age 15, are immediately subjected to castings and fittings where imposing professionals such as stylists, agents, designers, casting directors and photographers all offer opinions on one’s looks and attitude. Obtaining a job above other candidates provides obvious validation. However, the impact of a rejection can be worsened by being flippantly explained: for example, something as simple as the client preferring long hair to short. Feedback on physical appearance may be voiced directly or indirectly to others, when models are spoken about in the third person. Just as often, no feedback is provided – neither positive nor negative – leaving them with no explanation at all for rejection.
Repeated rejection is demoralizing for anyone, and often results in an unhealthy focus on the perceived negative aspects of our own bodies. I have asked many models who have worked in the industry for more than five years how they feel about their bodies. The reaction is inevitably the same: “I’m completely screwed up.” Ultimately, this helps nobody in the industry while for individuals such engrained negativity can, at worst, lead to tragic results.
Over time, models learn a variety of coping mechanisms. In this haphazard and uncertain working environment, models’ bodies are the only thing they directly control, so when rejection occurs combined with excessive physical expectations, with little or no explanation, the model often resorts to emotionalizing food into a representation of anxiety and stress resulting in an eating disorder. Reaction can cause a model to become isolated, to subconsciously punish him/herself, or even engage in self-harm. Over time, models can develop a completely warped perception of their own bodies, constantly comparing themselves to others.
Leading psychologist Dr. Linda Papadopoulos says that when discussing body image “one of the biggest fallacies is that good looking people have good body image and unattractive people have bad body image.”
However, in her professional opinion, body image it isn’t about how we see ourselves, but the way “we think other people accept us or interpret us.”
When a model is exposed constantly to comments from higher ranking strangers or someone she trusts, she must create coping mechanisms to detach from these seemingly unattainable conditions of worth. What measurement is acceptable is determined not by the model, but the industry. This is the brutal, daily reality.
Dr. Papadopoulos’ advice is, “In order to cope with any issue to do with body image its vital to recognize how your thoughts affect the way you think about your appearance” and create a focus on the positive aspects instead of the negative.
An obvious coping mechanism is substance abuse. It is well known that in the modeling industry, access to alcohol and other substances, including to those underage and new to the profession, is abundant – and often provided free by club promoters. Thus, all too often, quick and cheap relief is achieved through binge drinking and emotional detachment via alcohol and/or drugs. According to the Model Alliance survey, 76.5 percent of models have been exposed to these substances on the job.
Supportive working relationships are essential to any model’s psychological health. A trusted relationship with his/her agent is imperative, as the agent is their main lifeline to work and guidance.The agent has a responsibility how they communicate with models, especially the younger ones. Their influence is so impacting that any negative feedback directed harshly and without a positive outlook can cause irreversible damage. I once left an agency because the director relentlessly pointed out a catalogue of things she believed were wrong with me, throwing me into a cycle of depression and over-exercising for months. It took me a while to realise she was the problem, not me. It was thanks to advice from older, more experienced models that I woke up to it.
Learning to accept rejection can also be about developing a more coherent understanding of the bigger business picture. Fortunately, no two people are identical. If you look at model agencies’ boards, they deliberately include girls and boys from all walks of life – beach-blonde Aussies, prim English roses, upbeat girl-next-door types, edgy New Yorkers and mysterious creatures who could be a mix of anything under the sun. Just as the industry constantly moves from fashion to fashion, so too models’ characteristics deemed desirable also change. In the early 90s, it was heroin chic (Kate Moss) then we moved to the baby-doll look (Gemma Ward), which unfortunately demanded a pre-pubescent figure. Now, we seem to be gearing back towards women who possess strength in their femininity. At different times in their careers, models find themselves able to work more in sympathy with their true, natural self because their ‘look’ is in season.
Ursula Hufnagl founded internationally respected agency CHIC Model Management in 1992 and has nurtured the careers of top Australian models such as Alyssa Sutherland, Miranda Kerr and Catherine McNeil. “Models have to adapt to changing trends, and yes, it does affect their career,” she says. “However a good manager will always have the interest of the talent as a priority and if a change is seen, it will be discussed and appropriate suggestions made. However, we can only suggest, often the talent will choose to ignore the advice until it is too late, resulting in a decline of a career.”
The modelling industry is not always about getting the major fashion campaigns. Another approach to dealing with inevitable downtime between jobs is what I might label “applied distraction.” Hufnagl explains, “One of my biggest money earners was a commercial girl who never did a major campaign like a Gucci or Prada, but she worked 5 days a week for 18 years, not bad. So it is not always being an international success, that creates a great career, it is all about being well rounded, which comes with a healthy mind, how that is achieved is up to the talent, be it having other interests, or just focusing on modeling.”
Trekking around town to castings every day, often spending hours alone with too much time to think, can quickly drive any rational person towards total insanity! Once the industry’s initial novelty wears off, this daily routine becomes incredibly tedious and repetitive. However, some smart models take advantage of this down-time and apply themselves to various educative or creative pursuits. Hufnagl’s agency has branched out to support their talent in different ways. “Most serious models, male or female, are always evolving, be it hair, styling, creating other interests that can lead to a parallel industry opportunities, such as acting, presenting/hosting, blogging, or licensing.”
Creative mental distraction and community work draws the unemployed model’s focus away from belittling him or herself, from obsessing over centimeters and height measurements. After collapsing in tears at a train station in Milan from the stress, I survived by turning to reading in all my spare moments (although I did walk into a few street poles while engrossed in good books!). Upon moving to London, I got myself into Central Saint Martin’s University and found that racing in and out of lectures to jobs and castings was a healthier approach than stewing on my apparent inadequacies. “The mental health of all our talent is a priority; girls who see this business as a means to an end often do better as they are not restricted by opinion or what the industry calls success,” says Hufnagl.
And today, models are no longer the voiceless faces of the fashion industry. Following in recent years the suicides of models Daul Kim and Tom Nikon from depression and others from anorexia, support networks now exist. Membership of the Models’ Union at Equity in the UK provides access to nutritionists and counseling services. This union, which I founded in 2007, has also been campaigning to change the standards expected of models’ bodies to a healthier form. From a legal perspective, France’s recent introduction of legally enforceable minimum BMI for models means that this standard, enforceable at law, is creating a new, healthier, and more satisfactory environment. The previously unhealthy expectation for women to achieve an unhealthy body weight is being pushed out, at least amongst responsible industry players. Thus the extremes formerly pursued by models to compete for a job are (hopefully) becoming less severe.
Dealing with rejection is very personal. In my experience, the best solution is to have confidence in yourself as an individual, educate yourself about the business, and maintain an outward-looking approach by pursuing interests outside of a at-times claustrophobic industry.
Victoria Keon-Cohen is a fashion model, activist and the founder of the Models’ Union at Equity. She is currently represented by CHIC Model Management.