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Putting Teeth Behind “Mother” in the Mother Agency

The Issue

            The modeling industry in the United States alone is approximated to be worth 1.6 billion dollars as of 2022. With a little over 7,000 modeling agencies here in the states, a reasonable person would think there is uniform regulation throughout such a money-making industry. This is not the case. The modeling industry has been built, like other aspirational careers, by pushing the limits of what society deems as “beautiful.” Despite a recent trend in more body positivity and diversity, this has typically meant ultra-thin, tall, and gaunt models gracing fashion week to fashion week. There have been extreme circumstances where models have died trying to maintain that body ideal, Ana Carolina Reston, Isabelle Caro, Bethany Wallace to name just a few. Others often silently struggle with their relationship to food to fit into the molds set by the industry. Although there is a multitude of issues in the modeling world, this paper will narrow the scope to explore ways of addressing who should be responsible for the model’s health, safety, and wellbeing. Although it would be ideal to change the industry, it is neither feasible nor wise to push out drastic changes to the current structure of the industry. Rather, gradual changes in the current mechanisms will help shift the modeling industry towards one where models gain the same protection and safety as other employees. To focus even more narrowly, my solutions will focus on an often-overlooked sector of the modeling world: re-shaping the mother agency role to expand modeling protections.

First Defining a Modeling Agency

 Although the colloquial meaning of the term modeling agency has become popularized, most modeling “agencies” are actually “management” companies. This is because management companies can take a higher percentage from the individuals they manage. For simplicity, agency will be used throughout this paper in reference to model management. There are two types of modeling agencies in the industry: the often-discussed booking agent and the mother agent. Both types of modeling agencies represent a model and develop them to be submitted to jobs in the industry. Mother agents will typically take 10% of the model’s earnings for the remainder of their contract. Booking agencies can range drastically depending on the market and where the model has citizenship, taking anywhere from 10% to 60% of the model’s earnings (10% usually in the market where the model is based, France will take 60% of the earnings from models who work abroad). These predatory commission rates have been a topic of much debate in the modeling world, however there may be some looming legislation in New York that will look to cap such high rates. 

The Current Structure

As a model, you are often restricted geographically to having just one booking agency. To illustrate, a model cannot have two booking agencies in New York. Geographical restraints are usually bound to major fashion cities (Milan, Paris, New York, Seoul), secondary fashion cities (Los Angeles, Barcelona, Madrid, Tokyo, Berlin, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Hong Kong), and tertiary markets (Miami, Chicago, Mexico City, Frankfurt, Cape Town, etc). If you are a model signed to an agency abroad, there are typically other less obvious ways a booking agency can take advantage of their models. They may have the model live in model-housing, often owned by the agency themselves in less than desirable circumstances. It is not uncommon to be crammed with up to 10 other models in a 2-bedroom flat, paying close to $2,000 a month for such accommodations.

There is one major exception to this general rule: the mother agency. A model could have a mother agent in the same geographic city as their booking agency (a model can have a mother agent and a booking agent in New York). Often, the mother agency is in the city where the model is based and helps guide the model’s career to markets and booking agencies that make the most sense for that model’s career. Therefore, the mother agency’s role is mainly that of development: helping the model become the most marketable for future agencies to sign. Development typically includes organizing and scheduling all the materials needed for the model to sign to an agency: a good book (a collection of high-quality digitals to show the range of the model’s look), showcards (the model “business card,” typically showcasing the model’s strongest digitals with their stats. Mother agents use their contacts to organize the shoots the model needs for their book; knowing the right photographers, stylists, makeup artists and creative directors is key for the model’s success of having a strong book. Developing a strong book is often time-consuming and expensive, so having a mother agent who knows the best creatives to make the strongest book can prove to be invaluable. The mother agency role varies in context throughout the modeling world; some are much more involved in the career of their model while others focus most of their efforts on getting their model signed to a booking agency take a more hands off approach once signed. Mother agents typically take 10% of their model’s earnings – often the same amount as the booking agency.

The United States does not have formal black-letter laws like France does regarding model’s safety, however New York does have some exciting new protections for models in terms of the payment timelines. This can be found in a new called The Fashion Worker’s Act, a bill that will impact the New York market if passed. The Fashion Worker’s Act is proposed to make sweeping changes to the modeling world here in New York: capping management commissions to 20%, models compensation would have a strict deadline of 45 days after their job, and more transparency for the royalty payments if applied. Kaja Sokolov, a former child model from Poland, was 14 when she was thrown into the modeling industry. Sokolov now recalls that, “Being a 14-year-old girl, walking in a push-up bra and tiny underwear, in crowds of 40-plus men and women, and clapping and looking at us as if it is all normal, [it] seems like a horror movie right now,” she said. “It was ‘normal’ back then and it still is right now, I think, unfortunately.” Recounting the financial, emotional, and physical abuses that have come from the modeling world pushed Sokolov o advocate for this new bill. Also sponsored by State Senator Brad Holyman, aims to, “want to make certain that New York continues to be the heartbeat of fashion for the American apparel industry, but that it does so in a way that protects its employees.” Although this act focuses more on the payment of models, it is still a step in the right direction for the industry. The logic behind focusing on the payment to address the issues of the modeling world is that if models will be paid, there will be less likely a chance to exploit them. However, this bill alone will not be enough to really address the health aspect of the model and will not pick up on instances where a model is in fact well-paid but perhaps is struggling with mental health, physical health issues, or a combination of the two.

 As Sokolov points out, the need to forge real change in the fashion world is to have more protections for the models because they are so young and vulnerable. Therefore, a mother agency could be the ideal way to help regulate the effectiveness of this proposed bill. Mother agents will have a more intimate connection with the models themselves and can report instances where their models were treated less than industry standard. Changes like this proposed bill could have such a strong impact to the safety and wellbeing of models from a payment perspective, so adding another layer of protection when it comes to the health and overall wellbeing of the model could position the mother agent as pivotal to the success of this bill. An expansion on the legal side and the mother agency role will be an exciting combination for modeling rights.

Reconfiguring the Structure: Higher Standards for the Mother Agent

My recommendation to address model’s health and safety is reformatting and expanding the duties of the mother agency role. The term “mother” colloquially and intimately imbues a higher sense of safety and closeness affiliated with such a term. A mother is family, a person who symbolizes protection, guidance, and safety who wants the best in their offspring. This role should therefore mirror that connotation. Mother agencies often take the same percentage of the booking agencies, so there should be an equal amount of time and effort the mother agent should be giving to their model. Often, a mother agent will spend a lot of time developing their model until they are ready for the “rounds:” that is having a quality book to show to booking agencies. Once the MA has pitched their model to the booking agency, they will take a more hand’s off approach and likely just collect their 10% until that contract is over. There is hardly any incentive for them to continue “working” to make sure their model’s career is going the way they envisioned and are often too busy with their next in line for development to really give the proper attention to the “booked” model. This role is far too varied throughout the industry – some MA’s take advantage of the grey area that is the mother agency and unfairly profit from their model’s work. Others really invest in their models, helping them negotiate with work offers, calling them regularly to check on their wellbeing, and continue to pitch them to markets that the model may not have thought they would do well in.

Pushing the model’s health and safety onto the mother agent will also be more effective than France’s government approach to the model’s health.  In the fashion capital of the world, France requires working models to pass a medical examination to prove they are healthy to work. Provided in Articles R. 7123-4 and R. 7123-7 of the Labor Code, “The occupational health services check that the general state of health of the person aged over 16, assessed in particular with regard to his body mass index, allows him to exercise the activity of a model. It remains valid for a period which takes into account the model's state of health and which may not exceed two years. The medical certificate mentioned is issued by a doctor for persons over 16 years of age. Except for cases specified and identified in the medical file of the model aged over 16, the body mass index is taken into account, in particular when its value approaches moderate to severe thinness after age 18 years old and that it is below the 3rd percentile of the French references for age and sex before this age …” Although the French inclusion of some sort of health regulation for models was initially lauded by the fashion world, determining the model’s health on BMI from a doctor is concerning. For one aspect, the BMI is a controversial measuring system to measure one’s “healthiness” because it does not distinguish between excess fat, muscle, or bone mass nor the distribution of fat among individuals. For some, they can be perfectly healthy being under or overweight according to the BMI scale. Moreover, a doctor’s note certifying the model can work does not pick up on disorders that occur after the note. For some models, they can easily get to the targeted weight required by the French labor code and immediately participate in unhealthy eating disorders to go back to the unhealthy weight. Therefore, a one-time doctor’s note that gives the clear for models for two years is not nearly as effective as a mother agent can be.

How to Implement the Change

The difference in the quality of mother agents throughout the industry must be addressed. This can be solved in the form of editing the contract to make it industry standard that the mother agent’s role does not stop once they are signed to a booking agency. Shifting the role of the mother agent from a development and career-shaping role to a “motherlier” role by adding express language in the contracts will help models feel more comfortable bringing up instances where they feel unsafe, or their wellbeing is in need of fixing if their contracts mandate such reporting. Regular check ins (at least once a week) must be required. These regular check-ins can be as simple as a phone call, text, email, or in-person meeting if available to the model and mother agent. A log can be kept helping point to instances where the mother agent (or the model) is not holding up their end of the bargain. Consequences for failing to check in regularly can vary from putting the mother agent by a small fine (less than $500 would be ideal to police this). Enforcement would be done by the model.

  Moreover, to be a mother agent, there must be some form of training that educates the mother agent on how to recognize signs of unhealthy behavior like eating disorders, depression, anxiety, etc. Although the role of the mother agent should not be to solve such issues, they should know their models well enough to advocate for them and help the model overcome these often-isolating feelings. The CFDA and the Model Alliance has published thorough guidelines in the health and safety section of their websites. In fact, the CFDA, “has been spearheading a campaign of awareness to create an atmosphere that supports the well-being of these young women. Working in partnership with the fashion industry, medical experts, nutritionists, and fitness trainers, we formed a committee to propose a series of positive steps designed to promote wellness and a healthier working environment. The CFDA firmly believes that everyone in our industry deserves the right to feel safe and respected. We have zero tolerance for unsafe environments and strongly encourage everyone in the fashion industry to report abuse in the workplace.” Adding these into the role of the mother agent will create an added level of protection for the model and will be much more effective than just a “guideline” since the mother agent has a more intimate relationship with their model than the fashion industry.

Changing the role via contracts also has the benefit of enacting a relatively fast-paced change. Most contracts typically range between 1-3 years for both booking and mother agents. Once the current mother agency contracts run past their due date, updating the changes above can have a sweeping impact in the modeling world in just a few years. The only issue is incentivizing current mother agents to adopt such changes. Perhaps social pressure, educating models on this possibility, or fashion industry leaders and organizations could help promote such a change. This may be difficult to do, however well worth the investment for the modeling industry.

The Downsides of an Expanded Mother Agent

There are clear downsides to giving more power to the mother agent that must be explored and addressed. One issue is that some mother agents are just not equipped to handle so much responsibility; upping the requirements for a mother agent may limit the number of models they can represent. This, however, is easily argued against. In one regard, models are human beings, not commodities, and should not be treated by looking at them as a money-making means to an end. Modeling is one of the few industries where there is such little protection for the human element since models are rarely employees and therefore do not have the basic employment protections under Title 7 coverage for health, sexual assault and harassment, and discrimination. This is by design since often a modeling career is time-sensitive and often cannot be maintained at the same right when the model is younger. In an industry where the person’s look will determine whether an agency will represent them, offering discrimination protection is an impossible solution to the industry. Moreover, perhaps limiting the number of models for a mother is a good thing; making sure you have healthy and safe models can make their careers last longer without the fear of burn-out. If a mother agent is spread too thin and cannot account for his or her models, they are failing not only their business, but their models. From a business and ethical standpoint, it may be good to have a lower number of models a mother agent can have to help propel the industry to a safer and healthier climate.

Another issue with upping the responsibilities of a mother agent is the issue of getting locked in a contractual relationship where the model is uncomfortable with that agent. Because the mother agent oversees the direction of that model’s career, placing more responsibility and therefore power to the mother agent can be dangerous to the model’s career if they are not in agreeance with the direction of their career or the relationship itself is toxic. A mother agent must dedicate a significant amount of time and energy to make the model as marketable for booking agent. One way to avoid such toxic relationships would be contractual language for the model to get out of the relationship if it degenerates. This, however, this has a whole host of problems as well. We do not want to make it too easy for the model to get out the relationship if the mother agent has put in his or her best efforts in development and the model is simply just impatient with the timeline of their development. We also do not want to lock in the model to a relationship that is not good for them either. Although we advocate for expanding model’s rights, it is likely better to add a “reasonable effort” clause to the agent’s work in developing their model if the model wants out of the contract. Although this may seem like a low bar for the mother agent to take, it is necessary to protect the mother agents from their investment in their models. It should be expressly stated in the contract that development may take a significant amount of time and effort, however the agent will be using their best efforts to make sure that the model is getting a quality product and service at the end of the day.

Lastly, expanding the mother agency role may have negative effects for the model’s marketability to booking agencies if certain agencies do not want to work with a model who has a higher level of protection. When it comes to booking agencies, each operates in its own unique way; some may want more access to the model and may shy away from people who are represented by a mother agent – especially if the mother agent will be checking in with the model so frequently. To avoid headache, booking agencies could just filter away applicants by refusing to work with some mother agencies. This would be hard to regulate and extrapolate any data from because the booking agency can come up any excuse not to work with a model without mentioning the mother agency bit at all (after all, it is a very look-based industry). It could be the case that it will end up being more difficult for a model to sign with a good booking agency if the mother agency role is expanding in a way that encroaches the booking agency’s comfortability with working with a model. Although this may be a clear downside for the model, it may end up resulting in changing social attitudes towards agencies who clearly do not want to work with models represented by mother agents. Data can be extracted from their current boards and fashion watchdogs can take to social media to call out agencies who avoid mother agencies. Like any industry where change is on the horizon, there will be some level of discomfort for the parties involved. It may take some time for the model to be more comfortable with their mother agent’s increased role. It may take some time for the mother agent to settle into an increased set of responsibilities. It may take time for the industry to accept that such change was both necessary and helpful for modeling rights. This, however, is well worth the initially feeling of apprehension for change. 

Conclusion

            An expansion and reformatting of the mother agency role is an effective and easy way to implement positive change in the modeling world. Through contractual changes that require the mother agent to take care of their model’s physical and mental wellbeing, the modeling and fashion industry can shift in a healthier, respect-driven path. The modeling world has a long history of abuse, manipulation, and taking advantage of young children and adults guised under promises of a career and stardom. With little protection in terms of employment protection and the safety that gives to the employee, the current institutions and structure of the modeling world needs to step up and change. As a model and law student, I have seen the effects this industry has on friends and loved ones – it is well worth fighting for change and giving a voice to those who have been afraid or blacklisted for using it.

 

Works Cited

Body Mass Index: Considerations for Practitioners. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/downloads/BMIforPactitioners.pdf.

“France Bans Extremely Thin Models.” BBC News, BBC, 6 May 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-39821036.

Holmes, Helen. “A New Bill Aims to Protect New York Models from Exploitation.” Observer, 25 Mar. 2022, https://observer.com/2022/03/a-new-bill-aims-to-protect-new-york-models-from-exploitation/.

Special thanks to Professor Scafidi and Professor Trexler for helping inspire this paper through the inspiring lessons in each class.

 

 

 

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