As London Fashion Week tears through the city for another whirlwind of shows, parties and desperate attempts at being papped for street style blogs, we talk to a woman working on a topic oft-forgotten: labour rights for models. Though the ‘supers’ in the 1980s made the industry appear to be all huge paychecks, glamorous events and free champagne, the realities of modelling now can be pretty bleak.
Victoria Keon-Cohen, the model who at twenty-one approached performer/creatives trade union Equity to represent model's rights opens up about her past experiences, the union’s ethos and just how they’ll monitor backstage activity at this year’s shows.
main image: Dunja Knezevic shot for Equity
Victoria, photographed by Rankin for Hasan Hejazi
How did you get involved with Equity, Victoria?
Dunja Knezevic (fellow model and co-chair) and I approached Equity in late 2007 and asked them to take on models in union membership. At that point no one was talking about the realities of the industry, and when we found that Equity handle dancers and actors we felt there was enough cross-over. They felt like a natural home.
So how does Equity work?
They have a higher council of full-time staff, and all their committees representing the different membership groups. I'm Chair of the models committee, Dunja is Vice Chair and we have nine models on the committee. We officially meet four times a year, and fight the usual battles: underage girls, body image problems, issues with transparency, pay (some clients don't pay for six to eight months), sexual harassment and the lack of regulation for shoots.
Daks, AW12. Photo: AP
With Fashion Week we have the British Fashion Council and the Association of Model Agents to talk to about negotiating models' rights, so we figured it was a good place to start. Otherwise, the industry is generally decentralised and unregulated.
Why do you think it took this long for models to have any sort of union representation?
Because the majority of models start when they're under eighteen, and they really may not know what's going on. No one educates you on the industry, and then you become dependent on it for work. Years ago if you spoke out you'd be labelled a 'trouble model' and it'd be easy for the agency to stop pushing you for work.
Tell us more about your own experience with working rights as a young model. What about the industry inspired you to empower models now?
I started when I was fifteen and initially it was a pretty lonely experience. Back then we’d have these cattle call castings where we’d have to wait outside because there were about a hundred of us, sometimes hanging around in the rain for hours. I did have a client coerce me into doing a nude shoot when I was too young for it too and in general there wasn’t a lot of support for models then. There are endless stories but it comes down to models being disposable and having no real support system.
Behind-the-scenes on the Rankin shoot
On a practical level, how can you monitor that the designers and organisers at London Fashion Week adhere to the union’s guidelines this week?
It’s hard because there are so many shows, everyone is self-employed and there are so many models, but we've had a phone-up system for our members to report back on their grievances; myself and other committee members have attended castings to speak to models too.
Everyone on the committee is a working model in London, so we see it from the inside on a day-to-day basis and work on it from there.
Do you find it hard to be taken seriously as not only a woman, but a beautiful woman?
It’s not so much about being a female, but some resistance comes because I'm a "model' [she laughs]. As soon as people hear it I get pigeon-holed into the stereotype, but having knowledge about my industry and trusting myself and those supporting me are what make the difference.
Finally, what are your thoughts on how the work you do can combat the experiences of models in the international market? I spoke to Girl Model’s director this week too, and would like to know your thoughts after you met her and introduced the film at its London premiere last month.
The film’s a great example of how the Cinderella dream is manipulated and sold to these young girls. Our efforts have been, through awareness, to abolish that stereotype and get the industry and the wider public to see that modelling is a hard profession.
We’re furthering the work on having a minimum working age of sixteen and to ensure that the models work under safe conditions. Education is key for the young girls starting out, on everything from how to conduct yourself at castings to international tax law for payments. Really what we do is about empowerment and protection.
Click here for more on Equity’s work with models, and for membership details if you’re in the industry and keen on joining up.