How many professions require employees to wear non seasonal winter layers in the peak of summer or boast of an industry dominated by women? Modelling is definitely a unique, unusual profession which seems like a glamorous one from the peripheries. ‘What do they do besides look pretty and take pictures?’ is a line we’ve heard all too often but those on the sidelines don’t understand the blood, sweat and tears behind the glam and glitter. It’s true that models are not the people you picture when you think of tough working conditions but wipe off that sheen and another reality emerges. Instep researches the reality of modelling in Pakistan and what the ground reality is for the industry’s workers.
For years, the global modelling industry has been criticized for how it’s unregulated and how little value it has for the rights of its workers. High-profile models like Cara Delevingne and Kate Moss have openly spoken out about the emotional pressures faced by girls in the business and model health is the subject of heated public debate. Many horror stories have emerged from the west – the model who was drawn on with a permanent marker to show which parts of her body were ‘fat’; she was kept in a room for ten hours with no food or water. We also have our fair share of local stories, shared with Instep on the basis of anonymity, like the one about the model who had her hair hacked off without her consent but these tend to be rare or so one would hope.
The notion that fashion is frivolous is what mostly encourages a dismissive attitude toward the industry’s workers and their working conditions. Mehreen Syed, veteran model who mentors new models at the International Fashion Academy of Pakistan (IFAP) feels there is a lot of lobbying so it’s unfair to directly compare modelling to another industry. It may be this attribute that has allowed poorly regulated conditions to persist for so long. “The industry urgently needs reform because it’s one that has escaped any real regulation for decades,” said another model who wished to stay anonymous.
Internationally, models sign up with agencies who look out for their interests but in Pakistan most models make their own deals on an ad hoc basis. They tend to start out their careers with an agency but a few years in, prefer to hire their own managers. This is probably because agencies take a large cut but their newbie managers are often barely qualified. Models should sign up with agencies that are responsible for protecting their models and bear the consequences if they do not because a company can fight a company, an individual cannot. Brands oft feel they can push models around because they are considered to be independent and the rule of law in terms of workplace standards does not exist.
On the flipside, Frieha Altaf who started her own modeling agency, Catwalk in 1993 claims things are not getting better because models don’t stick to their contracts either. “When we started there were models like Aaminah Haq, Vinny and Aliya Zaidi and there was a real need for regulation. We wanted it to become more professional because it was so bad that ad agencies would play ads for five years and there was no way to curtail them. Soon after, Ather Shahzad, Khawar Riaz, Nabila started their agencies but as things went along they all slowly took a backseat with model management. It’s a nightmare – nobody listens and nobody follows contracts because they know how long court proceedings take so that’s where the unprofessionalism starts coming in. It’s not worth the time and effort because one puts up with way too much only to get a 10-15% cut,” she says.
Longtime fashion photographer Tapu Javeri revealed to Instep that although there have been a lot of rumors of ill-treatment he has never witnessed anything first hand in the forty years he’s been in the industry. Unlike Frieha he feels things have generally improved, “In the 90’s modelling was just freelance but things have gotten much more organized since then. With Catwalk, Ather Shahzad, Khawar Riaz and Citrus who have been managing models besides models and actors have their PR handling everything for them so they act as an agency also.”
Mehreen agrees with Javeri in that things have phenomenally improved over the past few years but feels that models coming into the industry now have it served on a plate compared to her generation. “They get an overnight boom through social media and think that they are supermodels all too soon. There are too many personal grudges and new models don’t want to struggle because getting their fifteen minutes of fame is a piece of cake.” She feels fashion weeks have improved. “Food has become a lot better, we wouldn’t even get food before. The systems have improved; designers have raised the bar. I’ve done ten shows consecutively without thirty second breaks but now there’s a Pool A and Pool B. I think the industry has grown but the amount of effort being put in has decreased.”
She feels that models at the very top get all the work and brands work with the same few faces, not giving new talent a chance. “I think that we should have a forum where designers come and choose from a roster of new models even if they pay them minimally but they give them a chance. If things continue the way they are, new girls will stop coming in altogether.”
Frieha Altaf agrees that it’s difficult for new models to get work. “We’ve moved on to gori models for our fashion weeks. We don’t have new faces coming in so how will we progress?” Altaf also helped establish the Veet Miss Supermodel show which was the only mainstream platform that groomed and guided prospective models into the fashion industry. “We put them through a training and that was how new girls came into the industry. Now that the show is no more, models don’t have a platform,” she commented.
Working as a model in this part of the world comes with another unique set of problems. While girls from educated backgrounds are coming into the industry more often than before it is still looked down upon in some circles. Laila Ali Khan who’s been working as a model in Pakistan for a number of years comments, “I think it’s this tunnel view of a girl being a model and inadvertently putting her body on display that is what needs to be addressed in our culture. A woman is strong and resilient and her power to stand against the camera and make that very image into what could easily be defined as art should be respected and seen as just that.” As someone who has been modelling for a while she admits that models are objectified. “The general objectification that is done because you’re a model is something that needs to be over and done with. Not everything flies, we are equal parts sympathetic, empathetic, emotional as the rest of the world is.”
A model who wished to stay anonymous commented that correcting this attitude starts with seeing models through a different lens, not as dehumanized images but as human beings who deserve the same rights and protections as all workers. Another problem in Pakistan and across the sub-continent is that there’s an obsession with fair skin and light features and ideals of beauty are very fixed. Internationally, there is diversity in the mainstream with models with rare skin conditions, plus-sized models, petite models and transgender models but locally a dark-skinned model is the ‘edgiest’ one gets to see.
Male models don’t have it easy in the industry either. When most people think of exploitation in modeling they think of young women but it wouldn’t be wrong to say that male models are at risk too. They are actually at equal risk in the unregulated workplace that is the fashion world and it being an industry dominated by women, there is little room for growth unless they venture into acting. A route most models take to lengthen the short-lived career that is modelling – but that’s a story for another day.
The models and insiders spoken to for this story were often hesitant to talk for fear of reprisals and many requested to stay anonymous. Their insights reveal an industry that is unlikely to self-regulate in a meaningful way unless the platforms that give it structure are respected by all of the industry’s workers. Models must also be respected for the hard work they put in. After all, if they have you convinced all they’re doing is looking pretty and taking pictures, it must be a job well done.