The documentary Girl Model (airing Sunday, March 24, 2013 at 10 PM) follows model scouts who travel to remote Siberian villages looking for young teens suitable for modeling jobs in Japan. Rachel Blais, an experienced model who appears in the film, tells POV about her experiences, the glamorous myths of modeling and the effects of the industry on body image.
The documentary Girl Model premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September 2011, and for the first time I began speaking out publicly about the business of modeling. I had met the directors A. Sabin and David Redmon a couple of years prior, while living in Japan and working for the same agency as Nadya, the young model they were filming. My contract with this agency had been arranged through my Canadian agent, who was working with the same scout, Ashley, who recruited Nadya in Russia.
Even though Girl Model shows scenes from Japan and Russia, we should not think similar situations aren’t happening in North America. Modeling is an international business, and models travel not only to Japan, but also to the United States. Many models from the United States and other Western countries also start traveling abroad while still children, and before having finished high school.
As a model, I was featured in many international editions of Vogue, Elle, Harper’s, and I worked for renowned designers and brands. I was often discarded for shows because, for most of my career, I was a size 4 or 6. I was mainly hired for print work, but I was usually airbrushed into smaller sizes. Like all models told to lose weight, for a while I was being weighed and measured by my agents on a weekly basis. Agencies also pressured me to undergo liposuction when I was 18, and they could not understand why I would refuse when they were offering to pay for the operation. For months they tried to convince me (and my mother!) until they finally understood I would not endanger my health for gambling to “make millions” as a top model. That’s what agencies promised me while pressuring me to have needless cosmetic surgery, and it’s a promise agencies make to girls starting their career, often as a way to encourage them to drop out of school.
A common myth is that a model’s career is financially stable, but the uncomfortable truth is this: Most models struggle to make a decent income. Nadya’s precarious situation is by no means uncommon, and models everywhere experience this. Many models are in debt to their agencies, and only some are able to make a comfortable living. Even fewer models make the kind of money the seemingly glamorous lifestyle suggests.
Many of these difficulties, and more, are seen in Girl Model, but for some models this film only represents the tip of the iceberg. We seldom hear about these other issues in the media simply because it is very difficult to speak up for oneself as a model, or to speak out about the industry as an insider. In the first case, the model risks losing work, and in the second, she or he will most likely not work again.
Since the film’s international premiere I’ve attended many screenings in Europe and North America, some with the directors and others on my own. I was still working very successfully as a model until I began my public involvement with the film. Soon after, my agencies cancelled my representation contracts and work visas. Some agents told me I would start working again, but only if I stopped talking about child model protection and the fact that children are representing adults in fashion images. It is too bad my advocacy has cost me my livelihood, but each screening and event I’ve spoken at in the past year has brought much consolation. I’ve been reminded how important it is for young girls and women to learn about the realities of modeling and to make the labor conditions known. Many people come up to me at the end of these events with more questions, or they just want to share their stories, insights and worries about modeling and body image.
Young girls continue to dream about becoming a model. After having modeled for more than 10 years, I can only wonder why we would ever encourage them to focus only on their appearances — which are random genetic outcomes! — instead of who they are, and who they will become. For anyone who aspires to be a model, I heard something recently that puts modeling into perspective: “If the whole world were blind, how many people would like you?”
Rachel Blais has been an international model for over a decade. Rachel’s work, along with her desire to help protecting children models, brought her to develop collaborations with organizations working on these issues. She has served on the model committee for the trade union Equity in the UK and is presently on the advisory board of The Model Alliance in NYC, and she also blogs for the RQASF, a women’s health organization supported by the Canadian government. Blais previously shared her experience from a screening of Girl Model at Estonia’s Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.
Tune in to Girl Model this Sunday, March 24 at 10 PM on your local PBS station. (Check local listings).