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The pitfalls of modeling. How one former model made more money being a cocktail waitress instead…

Ashley Stetts via facebook.
Ashley Stetts via facebook.

Making it as a model is hard work. Very hard work. I should know I did as a young man in the late 80’s/early 90’s and to be honest it did my head in. From constant go sees, castings that hardly ever eventuated in bookings, to agents who got to keep sometimes half your bookings, from editorials that paid next to nothing (and we are talking about some high flying fashion magazines here too) and that’s not to mention the constant dislocation I felt being on the constant go and the sometimes horrible feeling that maybe just maybe I might not ever make it. But what did making it as a model really mean anyway? What was I suppose to get out of it and how the hell was I ever going to manage in an industry that took forever to pay and where the pay was sometimes too inconsistent and sometimes just frankly not enough…

Ashley Stetts who has spent upwards of a decade working as a model herself also asks these questions in a blog post that she has written for the huffington post. She also addresses these and similar themes in her own ongoing blog: thefrugalmodel.

Originally hailing from Toronto, Canada Ms Stetts might have thought she scored it big when she was nabbed by Ford Models upon moving to NYC but that was hardly to be the case as she would soon find out.

Instead forced to find work as cocktail waitress just to balance out the off jobs she was beginning to book (I relied on savings that I had earned whilst working during off school summers as well as the occasional bartending gig) Ms Stetts found to her amazement that she was earning far more money being a cocktail waitress at an upscale venue clocking in sometimes a thousand dollars a night (I know girls who have easily made double or more on good nights) which far surpassed the paltry $250 or so she’d earn doing the occasional editorial.

It’s a problem often hardly discussed in the modeling industry. How does one survive while they wait to make it? No one really pursues modeling just to starve and be disillusioned but I can tell you from first hand experience that is often what happens. Not because the aspiring model isn’t good enough, but because of a variety of factors, it could be the off season, a stale market, a slow market (technically our world economy is still rather week), the favored look might be out of vogue this year, the client cancelled the job or simply ran out of budget or the client insisted on using the same cover model who you were up against because they are a name brand people supposedly recognize.

Then it could simply be an issue that the pay itself is fairly low (yes prestigious editorials pay sometimes less than $300 for a shoot), fashion catwalks less than $500 at least for a male, and these days designers expect you to do it for trade for one of their garments, sorry but no thanks, and perhaps to be quite brutal maybe one is not cut out to be a model and it’s just best to leave the industry.

Reflects Ms Stetts: The word “model” evokes a life of glamour: lounging by pools, eating celery sticks and shopping for size zero dresses. 

In reality, most models spend their days schlepping to casting after casting, usually being rejected from each one. They live in model apartments with three other girls, and only eat celery for dinner because they can’t afford much else.

In fact when I first started modeling in Milan, Italy I sometimes simply starved all together but at least there was a time on Tuesday nights one could go to club Deco on cinema night and score the free pizza that was being doled out to the models after the movies. To think now that 10pm would be the first meal of my day makes me sick, but then when you’re a scrawny 21 year old you’ll rationalize anything.

Then there’s the big business of loaning money to models which can really work out well for the model agent. Surprised? Don’t be:

Models in need of cash can borrow money against their future earnings from their agency — and pay a high fee for the privilege. There is no such thing as a model union: Models are generally young and easy to take advantage of, and trust their agencies to get them work and pay them. Unfortunately, not all agencies are trustworthy.

A lot of the models I knew were in constant debt and even if they did nab some high paying gigs their agency would be right there waiting to get their money back which they put up front against the model. Unfortunately it’s rare to find an agent that will assume the upfront costs of an aspiring model. Pay for your tests, your accommodation, your new wardrobe, your gym membership, and sometimes your airline ticket to get you back and to from one city to the other.

Whilst I may have languished financially as a model (well the commercials sometimes paid up to $10 000) Ms Stetts found a clever way to get by:

I was making more money working three nights a week than at any kind of entry-level job my degree could afford me. I happily settled into my role of the stereotypical New York model/waitress, making a combined income of a healthy six figures.

Six figures. Not bad, cause I’d like to see how many models out there can legitimately say they make that much. Very few I bet. It’s like the acting world, some actors go on to win the Emmys and Oscars, some get to do bit work, some get to work in indie films and off off broadway theater which pay fairly low and then there’s the rest of you unemployed actors earning zip, nothing, which describes exactly how modeling works. Some models book all the campaigns and get famous, some do a lot of fitting work which not glamorous can pay upwards of $250 an hour and then there’s the rest of you going from casting to casting and barely booking a thing. For years.

And what happens when you finally get a hold of some money?

I have so many friends in the industry who have no money because when you make money this easily, you don’t value it as much — it’s easy come, easy go. I know a lot of girls who have no savings and lots of debt: They get excited by the money, so they start buying expensive things, but then they lose their clients and freak out.

They’re waitresses making $1,000 a night and they’re all in debt! But the thing is, this $1,000 a night is temporary.

Modeling as a whole is a temporary career, it always has been (it’s generally youth based) and it’s rare that one can do it full-time unless save for the fact that they have a big trust fund or a great paying job on the side like Ms Stetts to see them making it through the rainy days.

Offers Ms Stetts once again:

I know many women would dream of having my job — being able to live comfortably working a few hours a day trying on clothes, but the reality is that it is a pretty unfulfilling job with a definite expiration date, in which you gain very few transferrable skills. As I get older (I’m nearing 30), it gets harder to see myself in another career. What will I do when this slows down?

Actually I wouldn’t wish being a model on anyone I cared about, it’s grueling and if one is not careful one can do their head in, be exposed to narcotics (I have never seen it so rampant and open in any other industry), an unhealthy lifestyle and a whole parade of piranhas who will eat you up alive if you are not careful. Then again like Ms Stetts I would never have traded in my time as a former male model, I traveled the world, grew up faster than I ever would and got the impetus to eventually be the full time writer that I am today after having left modeling after 4-5 years to work as a derivatives trader ( I have a math/economics degree and a mind for numbers) for a decade before eventually settling in these last 5 years as an author and paradoxically once again living against the grain.

Sometimes I wish I had graduated and taken an entry-level job at a company where I could have climbed the ladder and maybe even been a CEO by now. I would have a lot more job security and an impressive resume, but I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy my 20’s and live it up in NYC the way I have — and that’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world.

Here’s my word of advice Ms Stetts there is no more job security in the world, there really never ever was. Life is fragile and what you make of it (give or take some luck along the way). But then again I have to applaud your efforts to start this blog, counseling young women such as yourself on how to make money on the side, save money and be alert, it might just all end up being the dream job you were looking for anyway (or it may lead to other bigger opportunities) and it wouldn’t have happened had you not experienced the extreme hardships that await anyone who dares to be a fashion model….

Reflections of a former Male Model

Ashley Stetts scored $250 to be on Women's Health when she was first starting out.