A note from the underbelly of the modelling industry


Isis / 28th October 2020


Illustration by Philippa Mwayi

Last month, Emily Ratajkowski published an essay in New York Magazine, ‘Buying Myself Back’, relating to her traumatic experiences in the modelling industry.

She details, with power, her struggle to carve out control over her body against the greedy eyes of the media. In addition to highlighting the lack of principles in an often overlooked profession. It caused a cultural moment, and turned the spotlight back on an industry who usually control it. Many young women have come forward with their own experiences, a chorus of proof reinforcing it’s bad practise.

This made me think of my own past which, whilst it does not detail an episode of sexual assault, is noteless still worthy of the healing words that lead to my reinstated claim over my own narrative, and my body.

I got scouted at an age where I’d lost the puppy fat of my awkward adolescence and one summer carried an energy unbeknown to me. The first time was on Facebook. I thought I was being catfished but accepted and went into the studio with my mum to have an interview. This was an agency on the TV and I felt lucky to be breathing their air. I made a conscious effort to become a smoker that day, aged 15. Distinctly choosing this as an appetite suppressant, one I knew skinny people enjoyed, they were always posing with them after all.

The meeting was awkward. The sexy, cheesy grinned professionals there told me ‘I had something’ but I needed to ‘go to the gym more’; ‘go to the doctors about my skin’ and ‘eat less hamburgers’. I remember they said with a wry smile and a belly tap to hone that point home. At the time surrounded by a toxic culture of problematic eating at school, I made a decision not to take it further. I valued my independence, food and knew this would be a road that would end badly. The smoking stayed though, that’s the failure of consciously trying to get addicted to something.


Photo by pawel szvmanski on Unsplash

The next time was the following summer.

I was outside a charity shop with friends in Camden. Again a stranger told me ‘I had something’, an older woman with peroxide blonde hair named Maude assured me that “We’re not like the other agencies”. That was all I needed to be seduced. All the conditioning in my life had brought me up to this moment, to be an adolescent girl trying to find your worth in the world and told you could be a model. I was in.

I went to their swanky offices. My ‘manager’ texted me with ‘xx’s’ and ‘hun’s’, she felt like the fairy godmother who was going to make me pretty enough to be valued by another gaze. I did my first ‘shoot’, with a trainer photographer on an estate in Mudchute, the ‘location’ was on the grass outside, and so I changed there too. I now had an online profile and ‘signed a contract’. Soon I’d be getting paid work, Maude assured me. I had a new profile picture that showed the world that people wanted to take my photograph for a reason, I lapped it up.

One day Maude called, I got offered a music video. It was £300 for a day’s work, a figure my 15 year old mind couldn’t comprehend. I loaned the money from my mum and bought a festival ticket right away, assuring her I’d pay her back like a true professional. But to be 15 and valued by my body and my looks was the highest payment of all.

I got to a flat in Kentish Town and it seemed welcoming and cool. The band wasn’t there but the director was. He handed me a cropped yellow jumper and a pair of green underwear. That was the whole outfit. I was shocked but didn’t have the words, so I swallowed them and put on my uniform.

I was 15. Pre-meaningful sexual encounter, pre-sex, still wearing uniform at school. Yet, I was standing in my underwear in a strangers kitchen, being asked to pour milk over my naked stomach, whilst it was filmed in slow motion. Again from my mouth, oozing down my adolescent cheeks, eyes painted dark with makeup. I was pre-GCSE’s and asked to roll around with another girl in her underwear, pull her hair and lash about on the sofa, a balaclava covering her face. The style was all very Lynchian, apparently.

After the white-liquid-on-my-naked-belly-cum-shot, they poured fruit loops onto the floor.

They asked me to lie down on this mess, I did, because I was telling myself it was cool. This is as cool as it gets. This was £300. Looking up at 6 adult professionals heads around me, camera and lights, in a jumper and pants, they smiled and asked, as if I to state something so mundane “can you just roll around a little?”, “a little more”, “yeah perfect” I did, my arms jostling above my head, with a deep discomfort I cannot dispel, not with an eraser or the passage of time.

Then, the team of artistically minded craftsmen asked my 15 year old self to passionately kiss a mirror, whilst lunging on a sink, milk in my hair and skin bare. My hands were shaking as I had a cigarette outside. It took all my strength to decline and instead I just kissed it. This one was slow motion too. The next shot location was the bath.

I left feeling confused, carrying that kind of pith at the bottom of your stomach that you get when you’re young and navigating the world. You know something is not right, you know it's strange, but you insist on the world you want to perceive in order to escape the reality of your own powerlessness, your own innocence. It is buried and never processed. I left that day forcing myself to feel elevated, envied as I should be, right?


Photo by KAL VISUALS on Unsplash

Then I waited months for it to come out.

Everyday I googled the name, on and on. In the lurch, and terrified of how these images of my naked skin were going to be transposed. I remember waiting for my first GCSE result, more stressed about this video than my grades.

When it came out, I showed it only to a few close friends. It was just as I imagined, pseudo-hipster imagery of half-naked women to pedestrian rock and roll. Online publications compared the band to The Smiths. I felt shame but tried to seem confident in my own choices, looking forward to the pay off. £300 for a day's work is worth it all, was a mantra repeated inside my head.

Then the agency stopped answering my texts. They stopped and never answered again. I got no money, ghosted by my ‘manager’. My mum tried to get involved, but I was so ashamed, I didn't want her to watch it so, I told her it didn't come out.

I’m 23 now. That video is still online. One website refers to “this rather sexy clip”. The clip of my teenage stomach and the kissing and the milk. I didn’t pursue modelling after that. I put it in a drawer and went to continue my life.

A friend told me they showed it to their mum, and she cried. You don’t feel so young when you’re 15, but now I look at that video and see a child, sexualised by adults and frauded into free work, only to be ignored and dropped. That power over that girl haunts me. She looks scared as she twists and turns amongst the fruit loops.

This story isn’t special, nor is it remarkable. But hearing other people discussing their shock at the norms in the modelling industry felt me compelled to process and own my own past, even just about a brief stint. There must be so many more, lured by the glow of being told by a society that values attractiveness for women over all else that they should just be happy to be there.

My conclusion to this is, there must be a future when modelling gets treated like other jobs. With safe spaces, contracts, unions and support for minors inbuilt into its structures. No grooming, no unaccompanied 15 year olds going places they don’t know, wearing things they are uncomfortable with. Young girls in underwear aren’t objects with which to create art, they are impressionable and deserving of respect. Modelling doesn’t get to be outside of normal moral codes because we live in a society obsessed with personal brand. It doesn’t deserve to swallow up the confidence of young people, manipulated and underpaid because it’s deemed to be glamorous.

My experience certainly wasn’t.

Art by

Philippa mwayi
Words by

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