Model turned advocate Rachel Blais is ruffling feathers in the fashion industry with her candor and often controversial insights into her time as a model. Rachel appeared in the documentary Girl Model as a whistleblower. In an industry shrouded in mystery and often misunderstood by the public, Rachel raised questions about the working conditions of underage models. Since appearing in the documentary her focus has shifted to advocacy. What follows is an interesting perspective that will surely pose more questions than answers.
Ashley Arbaugh approached the filmmakers of Girl Model proposing they make a film that addresses the fine line between modeling and prostitution. Is it your personal experience that there is a fine line between modeling and prostitution and could you elaborate?
I’ve had owners and directors of top international model agencies tell me that there is a fine line between prostitution and modeling, while saying it’s OK for girls under 18-years-old to be fashion models. The Model Alliance in New York City conducted a survey in which 86.6 percent of models said they had been put on the spot at castings or jobs. There were many moments throughout my career that I stood up for myself, on jobs and to agencies, to ensure that the photo shoots I was taking part in would remain about fashion and not become pornographic in any way.
The length of a modeling career seems to depend on the caliber of clients a model works with and determines her ranking in the business. Is it your experience that when working with top clients and agents they are the ones suggesting and financing plastic surgery?
At 18 I had a top agency in New York City pressuring me to get liposuction for months. They even asked my mother agency back home to pressure my mom to pressure me. I was lucky I knew about the risks involved with plastic surgery and decided not to put my health in danger for the gamble of making money. Most agencies advance money for such procedures, but it puts the models who decide to do plastic surgery more in debt to their agency and it puts them in even more precarious situations.
Do you think the statistics and information that come from smaller markets may not be representative and wholly accurate of someone who has experience in the top levels of the industry?
It’s very hard to judge. In every fashion market, like any business, there are good and bad people. Models working at the top aren’t necessarily treated better from a labor standpoint, but they usually make more money. For models starting or simply struggling, I think often it’s not only a labor issue but also a human rights issue. One thing that is worrying about the industry, in small as in big markets, is that models work to represent adults from the moment they are 5 feet 8 inches tall no matter what their age is.
What are your thoughts on the Japanese market where models that are scouted so young are sent to work?
I think there are definitely many issues with having children being sent to Japan to work as models. To have so many Caucasian child models as a representation of the ‘ideal woman’ can only have a negative impact on Japanese women and men. I don’t understand the rush to take children out of school so that they can take a chance at making money modeling, especially knowing how contracts with Japan are often not legally valid.
From your experience as a model do you still hold the same feelings as you did in the film about who is culpable?
I still use the same words I did in the film, “no one is to blame, but the whole thing is still going on and wrong”. It was cut from the film but I add, “when there’s no one to blame, shouldn’t everyone take their part of responsibility”? Everyone can take responsibility or change their actions including agents, consumers, parents, scouts and clients.
What role do you think parents play when their children are under the age of 18?
Parents are responsible for their children, but they also have advertising, social media, popular culture and a multi-billion dollar industry to compete with. Agents and scouts can be very convincing (lie) to parents on how safe modeling is. I can’t put the blame all on the parents. Agents and clients have a responsibility to let children enjoy their childhood.
Is it your experience that top agencies adhere to practices that are unethical or questionable? Can you elaborate on those experiences?
The lack of financial transparency is something all agencies are responsible for. There aren’t any agencies I have known that haven’t lied or had unexplained expenses. Agencies also send models, even underage girls, to photographers that are known to have a history of abuse. Along with many other insidious practices by agencies, there is also pressure to lose weight being imposed on children and young women. I’m sure it is possible to find girls in all agencies saying that they never encounter any problems. Agencies know how to protect their image by treating some models better than others and models know if you complain or speak up their agents will stop getting work for them.
How has the release of Girl Model affected your life and do you have any regrets about your involvement in the film in hindsight?
After the premiere of Girl Model I stopped having castings and would only work with my regular clients. A few months later, as the film was released internationally, I had my work visas withdrawn and agencies started cancelling my representation contracts. I even had agents in New York City telling me that I could still work but I had to stop saying modeling should only start from the age of 18. If I started saying models could start at 16-years-old I could work again, but from their reaction and the research I did, it is obvious more money is made from using children as the major work force as opposed to adult models. It’s really too bad that no agencies want to represent me because of my involvement with Girl Model but I have no regrets since there is so much support coming in to protect children and for fashion to stop producing images that would be considered juvenile pornography under the law.
What would you say to your critics that may suggest you are now criticizing the very industry you profited from?
I had a lot of luck as a model but a platform was given to me to explain issues in the industry. I decided to take the risk of losing my job to bring out the truth; I’ve seen too many unethical and even criminal practices to stay silent. I’d also say that I’m not alone and many others in fashion want to see change. There is a long list of models, clients and artists supporting a ban on using under 18-year-old models. It is mainly only rejected by agents and scouts.
What do you hope to achieve through your work as an advocate for model’s rights?
The focus of my work is to get a law passed, internationally, banning under 18-years-olds from working in fashion and having to travel for work. This would protect children from the potential risks of human trafficking and also make adults the major work force of modeling. Unionizing will become easier and ensure the working conditions for models are better.
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