“Models Are Put On Specific Eating Plans And Fined £30 Per Day If They Exceed A Certain Weight. It’s Wild”

Ex-model – and author of The Model Manifesto – Leanne Maskell explains that her experience in the fashion industry was governed by exploitation, humiliation and hunger

leanne maskell model manifesto

by Hannah Banks-Walker |
Published on

Leanne Maskell may only be 26-years old, but she has been working since she was just 13. Encouraged by her mother to model, Maskell found herself in the pages of Vogue almost immediately, achieving the sort of success of which most jobbing models only dream. And yet her reality was, at certain points in her career, anything but dream-like. It’s why she has written The Model Manifesto, an “A-Z anti-exploitation manual for the fashion industry,” which was published this week. In it, Maskell writes on everything from castings and contracts to Instagram and sexual exploitation – and she hopes that it will help to transform the industry for the better.

“A lawyer I’d worked with in the past emailed me to say that her daughter had been scouted, asked if I could help and what I would say to her,” says Maskell. “I sent a huge email back and then realised I should put all of that into a blog post. Then, I had the idea for the book. I think it’s got some valuable information in it that I would have needed so much when I was younger.” Maskell says that despite her illustrious start in the industry, things changed when she moved to London at 18. “I was scouted by an agency and they made me lose lots of weight for six months. It was intense, constant pressure. They told me I had to lose three inches off my hips or nobody would accept me and I said no. The woman who scouted me then used emotional blackmail, suggesting she might lose her job if I didn’t lose the weight to get jobs. She told me they meant for me to lose three centimetres, not inches, and so I agreed.”

Maskell’s time with the agency revolved entirely around her weight, while any concern for her wellbeing or safety seemed completely absent: “I would get emails from [the agency] every week asking what I’d eaten. I had to go and be measured every week in front of everyone, and during that time I was going to lots of photoshoots where I wasn’t getting paid. You’re told you have to do that to build up your portfolio but I ended up in these male photographers’ houses – some of them would try and force me to take off my clothes, or sometimes make me drink stuff. I just felt so scared and uncomfortable.”

One of the major factors in the ongoing abuse and mistreatment that so many models experience, says Maskell, is negligence on the part of agencies. She describes a system in which contracts are negotiated without the model’s knowledge, tying them in to various agreements that may not be in their best interests. “Every model generally finds a contract with their agency that gives [the agency] power of attorney. And you, as a model, are legally responsible for the decisions they make. If, for example, they signed you into a porn contract and you said no, you would be the one sued for breach of that contract. They can also draw up contracts related to how you look – some models are put on specific eating plans by their agency and they have to pay £30 per day if they go above a certain measurement. It’s wild.”

In her own experience, it seemed that no amount of weight she lost was enough and, as a result, Maskell developed a serious eating disorder. “Once I lost those first three centimetres, they wanted me to lose two more so I could join the main board [of models],” she says. “They don’t give any reasoning really, but now I know it’s because they’re an agency that specialises in high fashion and for that you need really strict measurements. I was fully anorexic by that point and not really eating anything. At the time, I didn’t think anything was wrong. It wasn’t until I joined another, more commercial agency, that I realised I didn’t need to do those things and I could earn more money, too.”

While Maskell describes other modelling experiences more favourably, almost every agency and brand she has worked with has told her to lose weight, despite her extremely slim frame. “I have always struggled with the way I look,” she says. “Eating and – it’s just all so constant. You’ll go to castings and they might tell you you’re too big, they’ll measure you and it’s just constantly in your mind. Pretty much every model I know has really bad body dysmorphia. I did an event last year with like 30 models and I asked them all to close their eyes and out their hands up if they’ve been told to lose weight and all of them did, and they’re all like size 6-8.”

In the wake of #MeToo, which gave voice to huge numbers of women who reported tales of sexual abuse and harassment, fashion has struggled somewhat to enact positive change amid claims of misconduct that felt like a long time coming. The photographer Terry Richardson, for example, has long been surrounded by rumours of sexually abusive behaviour towards models, but it is only since the #MeToo movement gained traction that powerful publishing houses like Condé Nast explicitly acknowledged them, stating that they would no longer work with Richardson. Social media has also amplified the voices of the oppressed, with accounts like @Shitmodelmgmt and the hashtag #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse, established by the model Cameron Russell, working to expose the darker side of fashion. While Maskell acknowledges the benefit of such movements (“I had a video call with Cameron – she’s created this thing called The Model Mafia which is really cool”) she’s also worried that those in power aren’t doing enough – or they’re just embarking on a PR exercise to make themselves look better in the wake of scandal. “The actual people themselves need to know their own rights in order to be able to enforce them. It needs to be everyone rather than one person – for example, I found that when I started saying ‘no’ to things and standing up for myself, that’s when my career sort of… ended.”

To write The Model Manifesto, Maskell was adamant that she needed to speak to people across the fashion industry, in order to incorporate experiences different from her own. “I spoke to over 100 models about their experiences, as well as make-up artists, assistants – so many different people,” she says. “There were models who had 75 per cent of their commission taken away in Paris, because that’s what they do there, and models who faced racism. There were male models, too, who told me they’d been sexually abused. There’s a whole other culture of shame around that sort of thing for men, so it was important for me to include other experiences.”

leanne maskell book

One story Maskell shares is about a young Brazilian model who travelled to China to work. Before she could get to her modelling job, however, she was kidnapped by her own agency and locked in a room. “They said to her she needed to lose weight. She was about 18 or something.. She worked about three jobs a day so made lots of money, but then her agent told her she needed to lose weight. She tried to, but then they weren’t happy. They told her she had a job, took her to a house in a rural Chinese village and they locked her in a room for a week. They told her she could come out when she’d lost weight, and told her she could only drink water. She escaped and had to walk the streets of China without any money or anything – she only got out because an agency in Italy found her on Facebook and bought her a flight to Milan.”

While some agencies have been supportive of the book, Maskell says that she probably wouldn’t work again in the industry, even if she wanted to. “It’s kind of like career suicide. All my clients hate me,” she laughs. She’s recently taken a job in law, which she says will be much better for her mental health. So, what is the main thing she wants people to take away from The Model Manifesto? “I’d say the main advice would be to have a really strong sense of self. Have a good relationship with your body, and try to surround yourself with a support system outside of modelling. Know that you are enough – you don’t need modelling to make you feel better. It’s not your self-worth. Practically, just be safe. Check everything out and always – always – ask to see your contract.”

The Model Manifesto, £12.48, is available now.

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