Everything You Need to Know About Becoming a Model, an Interview with Former Model Ashley Mears

Sociologist and Assistant Professor at Boston University, Ashley Mears on the runway at a Diane von Furstenberg RTW 2007.

Studies show that 61% of girls aged 15-18 want to become either models or actresses when they grow up. We get emails from hopeful young women (and occasionally their moms) several times a month, looking to be scouted, or else just looking for advice on how to become a model. Modeling is by far the most misunderstood and enigmatic career choice for how highly coveted it is, so we thought we’d reach out to expert and former top-model Ashley Mears to help set the record straight. Here is everything you should know about the modeling industry before you attempt to become a model.

We met Ashley Mears, who is now an assistant professor at Boston University, not long after she published her first book “Pricing Beauty,” an in-depth study of the difficult realities of the modeling industry. The book’s launch had stirred quite a bit of anger and backlash within the modeling realm, especially from industry insiders who worked alongside Mears and who didn’t realize they were being studied. Mears is the first person to ever treat the modeling industry as a subject worthy of academic research, and certainly the first to do it as a working model herself. Here we share some of her most shocking revelations about what it’s really like to be a model.

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Infiltrating the Modeling Industry

At the ripe old age of 23 Ashley Mears naturally assumed her modeling career was over. “I got into grad school,” she says as we sit in a crowded Boston cafe, “I basically thought, this time in my life is over.” Although for most editorial models, careers span between ages thirteen and twenty-five, in fashion the prevalent sentiment is that if you haven’t landed the cover of Vogue by age twenty-three, you are probably not going to. In this sense modeling was a harsh reality check for the young Mears. “I thought I was going to be a super star,” Mears says, shaking her head. But when the dream failed to materialize she, very sensibly, decided to move on.

Backstage at Reed Krakow Spring 2014

But then, while attending graduate school at NYU, Mears was scouted by one of New York’s many face hunters. This wasn’t particularly surprising, Mears’ tall delicate frame and angular facial features were bound to catch the eye of modeling recruits. But what was extraordinary about this particular event was the sudden spark of inspiration it ignited. As Ashley Mears considered the modeling scout’s proposal, she was struck with a brilliant idea. She would re-enter the modeling field as an under-cover researcher, to study the industry from the inside out and publish any exploitation she observed in a thoughtful tell-all. Her analytical and impeccably researched approach within the former-model-reflects-back-on-the-industry genre makes Pricing Beauty a valuable resource for anyone interested in learning about the machinery behind the modeling industry, and what it’s really like to be a model. Her findings outline the secret “rules in the game of fashion” which all models, especially those new to the industry would be wise to know. In Mears’ own words, “A belief in the rules of any game is a precondition to playing it.” Here are just a few of the most important rules of the game!

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A Model’s “Status” is More Important Than a Paycheck

One of the tough lessons every new model learns sooner or later is that in the modeling industry “work” is not an intuitive concept. There is an ambiguity in what constitutes a “good job” and, as a consequence, many models have trouble telling the difference between a big opportunity and a big waste of time. The reason for this, Mears points out, is that the more prestigious the job, the less the money it will ultimately pay (!!!!). And it’s no surprise that new models are likely to make the mistake of thinking exactly the opposite, that is after all how literally all other jobs work. But by failing to see the inverted nature of prestigious but unpaid modeling work, a model may immobilize her career before it ever get’s off the ground. The truth is that a majority of the biggest magazines as well as a few big-name brands in the industry pay absolutely nothing at all, but that does not mean that there is no payment. Far from it. Payment comes in the form of the prestige and industry buzz it affords a model, which could mean a golden ticket to fame and fortune. This is how every supermodel, from Lara Stone to Daria Werbowy, ultimately became successful in the business.

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There’s a big difference between being edgy and being beautiful

In what has to be the most bizarre forms of mainstream objectification, the fashion industry trades models like works of art. And just like the in the art world, an “edgy” editorial model is much more likely to be considered a “masterpiece” than a traditionally beautiful “commercial” model who’s career is comparatively mainstream.

“It is a lesson you could take from the art world,” explains Mears, “the greater the social spread for a piece of art, the less rare it is, and the less rare the less valuable that piece of art becomes. Anyone could buy it at a trade show or find in a hotel in Miami.” And so, like a mass produced work of art, commercial models with their more traditionally conventional beauty have mass appeal, and are therefore less “symbolically valuable” in the fashion industry. According to Mears, and “edgy” model is considered more valuable because there’s something about her that is only going to be appealing to certain elite groups of people – the taste-makers, creative directors and industry experts. In this sense, a person’s appreciation of an edgy look becomes a way of saying, “I’ve got great taste.” It’s about exclusivity and about being in the hollowed inner circle of the few that “get it.” The whole raison d’être for edgy editorial models is to embody a certain brand image that pushes the creative envelope. For this reason they are more difficult to sell than the safer commercial models whose physical looks are always in style, but are rarely ever actually stylish.

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You’re rarely ever older than 18, even when you are

“When I was 19 I was instructed by my agency to lie about my age and say I was 18,” says Mears, “That’s when I realized this wasn’t going to last very long.” Ageism in the modeling industry is common knowledge, but few really understand the deeper reasons for its existence. Of course there are the obvious rationalizations like the fact that younger models tend to be naturally very thin and have perfect skin, but then why make such fuss about one little year? Surely there isn’t such a gaping difference between a 19 and an 18 year old’s skin? As it turns out, one year could make all the difference in a model’s career.

It’s all about the illusion of being an up-and-coming model that’s on the brink of being fashion’s next big star. “If a model is 23 and going to castings at the editorial end of the market,” Mears points out, “it basically means that she’s had many years of rejection and that she’s not poised on an upward trajectory.” In other words, by the age of 23 models are expected to have achieved a certain level of success that does not require that they physically go to castings. They should be better than that. This stigma runs so deep in the fashion industry that even models who are 19 or 20 will be instructed to lie about their age, if only by a year.

By that same token, agencies will rarely take on models that are into their twenties because it means that she has a shorter amount of time to “make it” in the business. “While there are no hard-and-fast age limits for modeling, there is a premium on ‘freshness’ that necessarily puts all modeling careers in the precarious position of becoming too ripe.” For this reason lying about your age is common practice in the modeling world where what’s new is synonymous with what’s trending. So it is not surprising then that by the time they are 23 most models will feel like they’re inching ever closer to an editorial expiration date. Or in Mears’ own words, “A model can extend her ‘shelf life’ by lying about her age, but she cannot escape the sense that growing up means falling out of fashion.

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Where you start off matters

How you become a model may make all the difference in where you end up. An edgy model with editorial potential could really miss out if she ends up doing too much commercial work at the start of her career. Thus, your agency’s reputation may be the pivotal difference between making it or not. Part of the reason for this is that smaller boutique agencies tend to build their reputation on commercial work, and in an industry where your image is everything, a commercial reputation could slow an editorial model down.

“If a model like Lily Donaldson started off doing highly commercial work, she may have never escalated to become the big name she is now. It’s all in how people see you.” In fashion reputations tend to stick and models will frequently undergo dramatic physical transformations in an attempt to start over. “There is a group of highly edgy models that will never appear in commercial catalogs and they are valued precisely for that reason,” writes Mears in her book. It goes back to the notion of mass appeal vs. exclusivity. Any schmo can appreciate a beautiful face, but it takes a certain degree of refinement to appreciate the beauty of an edgy model.

Because launching a model’s career can be a costly investment and results are never guaranteed, a modeling agency’s sphere of influence becomes an integral element in grooming the next Kate Moss. The best agencies in the industry party with the clients, they will woo, wine and dine them, anything that will help to establish a stronger relationship and secure the next big job for one of their models. Smaller boutique agencies have a smaller network and thus, also a smaller sphere of influence. But printing, portfolio development and travel costs are always the same no matter what your agency happens to be. In other words, the cost of becoming a model will be the same regardless of your agency’s reputation. This is important because all new models will incur a certain amount of debt since all expenses are charged to her account. How far your money will take you ultimately rests on an agency’s network, and a delicate combination of having the right “look,” a little bit of luck and a strong work ethic. In this way, models signed with agencies that have a strong editorial reputation have a competitive edge that may make all the difference in the long run.

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Although Ashley Mears paints a rather grim picture of the modeling industry as a whole, she did offer a silver lining, she pointed to the trade off every creative person makes in order to pursue their passion. “I was surprised to find more than a few stylists, photographers, and designers in straits as dire as the editorial models,” she explains, “Photographers and stylists frequently lose money on magazine shoots, paying for studio and equipment rentals and lunch and transportation costs out of pocket.” This is because a big beautiful production that will impress prospective clients costs money. It’s a risky investment, but one many models and photographers would agree is worth taking.” I believe people do it is because they truly love it,” says Mears, “It’s their art.” I guess you could say that one gets hooked on chasing a dream.

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*Originally published in Lone Wolf Magaizne, Issue #2, 2012*

Natalia Borecka

Natalia is the editor in chief and publisher of Lone Wolf Magazine. She founded the publication in 2012.

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