At the beginning of the year, Argentinian model Tobias Dionisi traveled to Europe for his first runway seasons in Milan and Paris, where he walked for brands like Valentino and Neil Barrett. After the season, he traveled to London to continue working there. But as the UK reported more and more cases of COVID-19 throughout March, photoshoots and castings were postponed, or cancelled altogether. Dionisi’s plans became increasingly unstable. “One week ago, my plans were changing literally every hour,” he told me in late March. He’d learned of the new quarantine restrictions being put in place across the UK, and was staying put. “I’m doing my quarantine in London right now. Everything stopped, so the plans are basically Netflix and chill, 24/7.”
Instagram stories and Tik Toks featuring smiling models doing yoga or baking bread—or Netflix-and-chilling, 24/7—might lead you to believe that they remain unaffected by the pandemic. But even in non-pandemic times, reality is obscured by the public-facing image: despite the apparent glamor of the job, models contend with the many pitfalls of a volatile industry. “The modeling industry definitely isn’t as glam as one might think. Oftentimes establishing yourself as a model requires more sacrifice than reward,” said Henry McBride, who dropped out of college and moved across the US to pursue a career in modeling. To supplement his work as a model, McBride had two part time jobs in nightlife and hospitality, both of which were also affected by the pandemic.
The world of modeling is full of conventions, rules, and practices that aren’t easy to fully understand until you’ve spent some time in it, which means that models are most vulnerable at the beginning of their careers. One thing you learn early on is that you can easily accrue debt to your agency through expenses charged for travel, housing, and other, sometimes hidden, fees. More than that, the job rarely serves as a replacement for traditional 9-to-5 work. Nico Millado, a model based in Chicago, told me that, “As models, our work is sporadic. In a time of crisis, we don’t have healthcare benefits, paid time off, or a regular salary to rely on, and our normal pay structure can often make it difficult to put money into savings.”
Even experienced professionals have spoken about not being paid on time, or at all, or being asked to perform unpaid labor. In New York and many other markets, models often appear in magazine editorials for free to build their profile, and raise their chances of booking paying commercial work. But now that brands and clients are shelving projects, models face even greater precarity.
To compensate for the lack of jobs, some agencies have been arranging at-home shoots for their models. In most cases, this takes the form of a brand sending their products to models, who then style and photograph the goods themselves. The shift towards social media based content, self-produced by individual models instead of by a whole team, began before the pandemic, though quarantine has hastened its dominance. Aamito Lagum, winner of the first season of Africa’s Next Top Model and one of that franchise’s most successful contestants outside of the show, views this transformation with optimism. “The drastic shift from the catwalk and fashion events to the timelines and live chats will do something beautiful for the industry,” she said. “It enables us to get feedback and interact with the people that make up the market for our work.” Amelia Rami, who works as a model full-time, also sees the situation as a chance to shift dynamics within the industry. “Hopefully this shows the industry the force that creatives and models are, and allows us to be more involved in the creation of content that is true to us and to who we are,” she said. “Also, maybe we’ll realize how vulnerable all of our jobs are, and it will allow us to approach things in a different way, taking care of ourselves and the people we work with.”