Taryn Harvey moved to New York City in January, hoping to break into the city’s competitive modeling market after working in Toronto (her hometown) and Cape Town. It took her three years to secure a work visa for the move, she said.
By February, she was walking in New York Fashion Week. By March, the world had changed.
“I felt like I just got here, and then coronavirus happened,” said Ms. Harvey, 34.
Ms. Harvey was one of 212 working models who participated in a survey organized and released Wednesday by Model Alliance, a labor rights nonprofit. The results of that survey, analyzed by the Worker Institute at Cornell University, detail how the coronavirus has affected the modeling industry.
Models have long faced unpredictable working conditions. Typically classified as independent contractors, they miss out on the benefits and legal protections of full-fledged employees. But like millions of people — and the rest of the fashion industry — models are feeling even more financially vulnerable these days.
Jobs have dried up as advertising budgets have been slashed, runway shows have been canceled, and traditional photo shoots have become impossible under social-distancing and stay-at-home orders.
About half of the models surveyed said they were currently owed money by their clients or agencies. (Or both, for about a third of models.) Two-thirds said they were concerned about being able to pay for housing; one-fifth said they did not have health insurance.
The pandemic has also exacerbated the industry’s racial disparities, according to the survey.
Among white models — the majority of survey participants — 86 percent said they could afford basic necessities, compared with 60 percent of black models.
When asked how confident they felt in pushing for coronavirus-related precautions while working, 43 percent of white models said they felt very confident or extremely confident in asking, compared with 22 percent of black models.
“It is really hard to talk about race as a woman of color in this industry because you’re always met with some pushback,” Ms. Harvey said. “You feel like you’ll be seen as the ‘angry black woman.’”
Ms. Harvey attended her last in-person casting in mid-March, for a beauty ad. Models were asked not to come if they had traveled in the last two weeks, she said. The only other precaution Ms. Harvey noticed was extra hand sanitizing.
“I did feel that sense of: Should I wear a mask? Should I wear gloves?” she said. “Do I feel safe? Do I not feel safe?”
Ms. Harvey plans to return to Toronto soon. She’ll come back to the United States when there’s work again, she said, but it won’t be easy.
“Especially in New York, it can take six months to build yourself up and get clients,” she said. “Going home and coming back, I’ll be starting all over again.”
Her second job won’t supplement her income, either. When not modeling, she’s a freelance makeup artist, a profession susceptible to similar problems.
“What we’ve captured in this report probably applies to a lot of other creatives as well,” said Sara Ziff, the founding director of Model Alliance. “Concerns about getting paid moneys owned are going to escalate — that’s just my own hunch.”
Along with the survey, Model Alliance has published an open letter to modeling agencies concerning a “lack of information, resources and support” being provided to models.
In recent weeks, the organization has been assisting people in filing unemployment insurance claims, an issue it began researching after hearing questions from models about their eligibility. (Model Alliance is encouraging New Yorkers to file their claims as employees of their agencies, rather than as independent contractors, citing the inclusion of “professional model” within the state’s legal definition of employment.)
One model said she applied more than a month ago but hasn’t yet heard back from the labor department.