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I Went Undercover As a Teen Model, Here's What I Learned

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All photos by Meredith Wright.

Starbucks is our happy place. Iced lattes cool us down from the oppressive Shanghai heat, and the cheerful, air-conditioned interior serves as welcome relief from an afternoon of monotonous castings. But one of our crew wasn't happy: She was a model from Russia, 15 years old, sitting alone and looking down at the floor. Her English wasn't great, and she mainly talked to the other Russian girls, but through a friend, she told her story. She had just returned from a photoshoot where the photographer was touching her inappropriately. She started to cry on the set, and when the photographer complained to our agents, the agency hastily discounted the model's fee.

I would like to tell you that this day was unusual. But events like these are common -- I'm tempted to say normal -- for young models working overseas. When I was 17, a modeling scout approached me at a mall. Modeling helped me pay for courses at McGill University and allowed me to travel the world. I climbed Mount Fuji, ate gelato by the Coliseum in Rome, and sailed high above the rooftops aboard the London Eye.

Me (second from left) and friends at an Osaka fireworks display.

My Facebook page boasted photos of exotic destinations and new friends. But I struggled working in an industry that exploited so many young women so easily. After seven years in the business, I was ready to quit. But to move forward, I had to go back. So I returned overseas on a modeling contract -- only this time I packed a camera along with my portfolio and heels.

The result is Agency, a documentary film I made working undercover as a model in Japan. It tells the story of models like Holly Angus, the 13-year-old Canadian who told me about being so homesick that she felt physically ill and would cry herself to sleep every night. Our agency, like many others, discouraged parents from accompanying their daughters abroad and assured them we would be chaperoned. But Holly's apartment was unsupervised, her weekends were unsupervised, and her photoshoots were unsupervised. "I'm 13 and I'm doing this on my own? Well I guess this is what I signed up for," she said.

I met Jacqueline, a chain-smoking 17-year-old from South Africa who talked at length about her recent trip to the hospital. She had been working back-to-back jobs, partying in the evenings, and not eating -- something "models do all the time," she explained. Concerned because she had not left her room in hours, a male model broke her door down. He found her shivering and feverish and rushed her to a hospital where she "had convulsions and almost went into a coma," Jacqueline says.

I interviewed an Estonian model named Dagmar who was crestfallen when she was sent home after two weeks for gaining two centimeters around her waist. Like the other models, her contract guaranteed her pay and housing for two months in Osaka, which she had banked on to launch her modeling career. She never got a chance. Laura, a 14-year-old American who looks like a real-life Anna from Frozen, told me how she loves modeling wedding dresses because it makes her feel like a princess. She beamed when she described working 18 hours over the weekend and getting to kiss a 23-year-old male model on the shoot. When I asked her how she felt being away from home, she said "It gets lonely sometimes. It's a lot to take on at 14."

Katia Prokopyeva, age 15, at a wedding shoot casting.

Models in the U.S. lack the legal protections that many other workers enjoy. In Europe and Asia, conditions are even worse. Because they are told they are independent contractors by their agencies (an issue a newly-proposed California bill, put forth by the Model Alliance and Assembly member Marc Levine, aims to clarify), they are not protected from workplace sexual harassment, they have no mandated breaks in the workday (or night), and no minimum wage. They are weighed and measured -- often on a weekly basis. I've witnessed contracts being voided because a model dared question her payment, and pocket money being withheld to discourage models who've gained weight from buying food. Though many are legally too young to drink, they are regularly exposed to drugs and alcohol by nightlife promoters, who value their fresh young presence at their clubs.

In most other industries, this would never stand, not when the majority of the workforce is still young enough to be in high school. However, because we're talking about the fashion industry -- the glamorous fashion industry -- lawmakers have traditionally turned a blind eye.


But things are finally changing. Federal lawmakers are currently considering passage of the Child Performers Protection Act of 2015, which would classify models under the age of 18 as "child performers." The law would limit working hours, guarantee financial protection in the form of proper payment (and not just discarded runway garb), and put in place a system to hold employers and contractors liable for any sexual harassment that occurs on their sets. If this bill passes, it might finally protect these girls from needless mental and physical abuse.

Following the CFDA's implementation of model health guidelines, fashion industry trendsetters like Vogue have vowed not to work with underage models. But until the government takes on regulation of the industry, the abuse will almost certainly continue. That is why we need to support the Child Performers Protection Act here at home. Then, at least we can stand up as a model for the fashion industry abroad -- a beautiful, healthy, safe, and prosperous model.

By Meredith Wright