Emily Ratajkowski Exposes the Disturbing Truth About Modeling Agencies
They should do more to protect the young women who pay them.
Emily Ratajkowski’s new book is a searing indictment of a number of lecherous men, but also the people too often responsible for orchestrating her interactions with them: modeling agents. Her stories repeatedly highlight agents’ failure to protect the young women for whom they work.
Reviews of this personal essay collection, My Body, ask if we’re supposed to feel sorry for Ratajkowski. “It would be dishonest to claim that there isn’t something a little galling about a beautiful woman—a beautiful, thin, straight white woman—complaining about how difficult it is to be perfect-looking,” Carrie Battan wrote in the New Yorker. “The tribulations of the brainy and beautiful. Tiny violins, please!” trills the subtitle of Judith Newman’s review for AirMail. These articles are well written pieces of criticism, but having read Ratajkowski’s book, I see its point differently.
Rather than hoping to elicit empathy or pity, I think Ratajkowski is trying to emphasize that she has, by virtue of being a beautiful young model and living in cities like New York and Los Angeles, existed in various echelons of douchebaggery, but that she actually knows that and never enjoyed it.
As a 13-year-old middle schooler, Ratajkowski signed, to her parents’ pride, with a modeling agent. “I don’t ever recall liking modeling, really,” she writes. But she pursued it through high school and beyond, and just kept doing it, the way a lot of us just keep doing the careers that we have at one point chosen.
Opportunities came her way: to go to nightclubs and Coachella for free with promoters and other models; to take a trip to London to audition for a major celebrity and spend time with him; to audition for Victoria’s Secret; to be in Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” video; to become an Instagram super influencer. What binds these experiences? Each scenario involves some degree of jerkiness (and I mean that in the sense of being oblivious to or fine with gross situations). Sometimes, as when Ratajkowski is in the Maldives asking her partner to take a sexy photo of her to post to Instagram to sell swimsuits, she seems to feel like the jerk. After all, many of us can admit to at least a twinge of self disgust when posting anything about ourselves to social media. But she’s a model and this is what the job is now.
Ostensibly, the job of a model is to get paid to sell something — clothing, bottled water, nail polish. Models often feel like they cannot assert themselves or complain about things happening on jobs because then they risk the client telling their agent they were difficult. If they earn a certain reputation, the agent can drop them or put them at the back of the line, behind the other girls who haven’t spoken up for themselves and are not perceived as having attitude.
This helps explain how the profession came to be escort-like, with young compliant models acting as accessories in certain environments for the benefit of horny men, who are often wealthy but not always. Who is accepting these “opportunities” for models like Ratajkowski? Many times, their agents. (This is not to say blame should be placed solely on agents; photographers and celebrities shouldn’t abuse models or behave inappropriately with them ever, in any setting.)
Here are just some of Ratajkowski’s most unsettling experiences with modeling:
In high school, she made a routine visit to her agency, always wearing a bathing suit under her clothes so her agents could take unretouched “honest” photos to send to clients. After she got the photos taken, an agent looked at her book and said, “Now this is the look. This is how we know this girl gets fucked!”
She felt “scared and uneasy at the apartments of middle-aged male photographers, who had me change in their tiny bathrooms, where I was surrounded by their deodorants and shaving kits and condoms and who, as I emerged into their ‘studios,’ asked me whether I had a boyfriend or made comments about my body…”
She had to change in front of people whenever she was told to because “finding a private place wasted time, and time is money… The stylist, their assistant, the client or editor, the other models, and sometimes the photographer will stand right in front of you and wait as you strip.” When she went to a casting at Victoria’s Secret in New York, a woman took her to “a small room filled with drawers of bras and underwear and directed me to take off my clothes in the corner.”
When on set shooting the “Blurred Lines” video with Robin Thicke, he said, “Let’s get these ladies a drink,” and someone brought her a red plastic cup filled with ice and vodka.
She was allegedly groped by Thicke, who seemed drunk, on the “Blurred Lines” set.
She was paid $25,000 to attend the Super Bowl with a wealthy man. Her modeling agent borrowed a winter coat from Moncler for her to wear to it. In a unique show of protection, the agent said, “Don’t get anything on it or they’ll make you pay for it.”
She went to an after party for that Super Bowl and witnessed a Victoria’s Secret model, presumably also paid to be there, grinding on their drunk host.
She posed nude for treats! magazine for a photographer, who at nearly 50, was old enough to be her father. When she came out of the bathroom topless in underwear, he said, “Jesus fucking Christ,” and, “Where were you hiding all of that?” And then, despite not wanting to be, she was kissed by him on her way out of a launch party for that issue.
A famous man flew her to London for a job opportunity, and ended up showing her a video of him having an orgy with three other people. When she asked her agent to get her out of the situation — because he had previously said, “I’m happy to be the bad guy” — he told her, “You’re a big girl, Emily. Figure it out.” Ratajkowski escaped after some unwanted neck kissing.
A common thing in modeling is when young girls do shoots with photographers without getting paid under the guise of building their portfolios. In this scenario, both model and photographer should benefit. However, the model is at a disadvantage. Unless their agents — the grown-ups working on these young, often teenage, girls’ behalf — make different arrangements, the owner of the photos and the rights to the photos is the photographer.
This is something Ratajkowski describes struggling with again and again, not just with the treats! shoot. There was also the photographer Jonathan Leder, the subject of her widely read essay in The Cut which appears again in My Body, who took nude photos of a drunk Ratajkowski at his house in the Catskills before allegedly sexually assaulting her. How did Ratajkowski end up there? "In 2012, my agent told me I should buy a bus ticket from Penn Station to the Catskills,” she writes, to shoot “for some arty magazine I’d never heard of called Darius.” Later, without any prior notice or payment, Leder turned those nude photos — his intellectual property — into a book.
An agent could have ensured the job didn’t involve an overnight stay (why was that necessary? it’s not). An agent could insert a clause into a release stating that nothing can happen with those photos without the model getting paid. An agent could ensure that Ratajkowski doesn’t shoot with Leder until both she and Ratajkowski have that release in hand. But Ratajkowski writes that Leder produced a release signed by her agent when asked for it by the New York Times, calling an agent signing such a paper on a model’s behalf “fairly typical (a pretty unacceptable norm).” Her lawyer believed the release was forged.
What people seem to forget is that agents work for models. Agents get paid when their models get paid. Agents are the buffer between the model and the client — there to spare them the anguish of negotiating a fair fee — but time and again, not there to ensure basic standards of professionalism. (Ratajkowski also describes going to a dinner with an agent where she drinks despite being underage.)
Even if models aren’t working in offices, they still deserve a private place to change, to not be left alone wearing underwear or less in a middle-aged man’s apartment, to not be at the receiving end of lewd or disparaging comments. Can you imagine if these things happened to a young female employee in a typical white collar office context?
The Model Alliance, founded by Sara Ziff, has been working to improve conditions for models for nearly a decade now. This week, the organization received the first CFDA Award for "Positive Social Influence.” In a piece for the CFDA’s website, Ziff writes:
Most people assume modeling agencies represent their models’ best interests. Instead, agencies ask models to sign oppressive contracts, maintaining power of attorney while lacking financial transparency. Because licensing and accountability requirements don’t exist, agencies are the ideal vehicle for trafficking children and young adults under the guise of modeling work. Consider Bill Cosby, who allegedly asked agencies to send him “broke, out-of-town” models, and Elite, which sent teenage models to private dinners with former President Trump.
If you thought the #MeToo movement had solved most of these problems, Ziff adds that she still hears daily from models seeking “advice on how to deal with sexual, emotional, and financial abuse.” (Not all agents and agencies are terrible, but those daily calls suggest these practices are still widespread.)
If agents didn’t send models to jobs without a guarantee of professional working conditions, these problems could improve. Cleaning things up could also present a revenue opportunity for agencies. If they insisted that models get rights to their image, so women like Ratajkowski wouldn’t be powerless to both control and profit off of art and books featuring their photos, they would make more money.
That agencies are relied upon to send young women to rich and famous men — or any man with a camera and “photographer” on his résumé — to serve as some sort of disposable sexual accessory should disgust everyone in fashion and beyond. Imagine if these agents were as eager to protect these women as that borrowed Moncler jacket.
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