OPINION: "Yes, defending models is a lonely business."


In approximately three seconds, you’re going to roll your eyes at me. I know this. But I’m going to say what I’m going to say anyway:

We need to be nicer to models.

There you go. I can literally hear your eyes rolling into the back of your head. But please check your prejudices at the door and listen to me for a second.

Last weekend, in the most respected weekly supplement of the most respected national newspaper in the country, The Good Weekend ran a cover story ran about Australian supermodel Abbey Lee Kershaw.

The story in question began like this:

“I’ve recently spent some time looking at Abbey Lee Kershaw’s breasts. They are certainly nothing special; modestly proportioned, unremarkable. What is unusual about them is only that they are on display so much: she recently whipped them out for her friend, the catastrophically cool French photographer and fashion designer Hedi Slimane, who shot her naked in a bamboo grove in California last year …A former model and aspiring actor, Kershaw once told W magazine: “I like my hands. They do most of the talking.” But if recent form is any guide, it’s actually her tits that do the talking, and what they say is: “I am not Miranda Kerr.”

The owner of the “unremarkable” breasts in question was unimpressed.

So were a lot of other people, too.

Can you imagine a story like this running about any other kind of woman? A story where the opening paragraph physically dissects the poor subject, before ultimately rejecting her?

People would be furious if you wrote about a fictional character the way this story describes Abbey Lee. But because she’s a model, the paper decided that publishing an assessment of her tits was an acceptable thing to do.

It’s pretty clear from the tone of the story that the writer really didn’t want to interview a model. And you can see that in his scepticism not just of her breasts, but of what Abbey Lee said in the story.

“Modelling is hard work,” he says, qualifying it with a “Kershaw insists.” He goes on: “While it’s unlikely Amnesty International will be intervening any time soon, modelling does invite regular claims of exploitation.”

His sneering tone undermines the fact that what he’s saying is objectively true. Models are treated badly.

Abbey Lee. Image via @abbeylee on Instagram.

 After years working with and around models, I’ve witnessed working conditions that would be completely unacceptable in other first world industries being foisted onto girls that are barely out of puberty. Aside from the women who physically have to make the clothes, the models have the hardest, most dangerous jobs in the rag trade.

I’ve seen girls get hospitalised with blood poisoning from infected blisters, I’ve seen them get burned backstage with hair straighteners and forced to work so many hours they literally keel over. It’s a fact of the industry – one that isn’t explored often enough.

Abbey Lee is the rare model who will speak openly about this. She says something similar in the story. Decrying the lack of a proper union for models she said: “There is no limit to what a client can ask of you. If they are shooting till 3am and you have a 6am call time, then tough luck. You can be doing fittings at 2am, call times at 4am, the show at 11am, you are being f…ing screamed at by everyone…”


Abbey Lee. Image via @abbeylee on Instagram.

Modelling is hard manual labour and it’s not union-protected. If you work in a factory in Australia and got hurt on the job, you’re covered by workers compensation. If you, as Abbey Lee has, seriously damage your knee because you’ve been forced to wear ridiculous heels that are several sizes too big or small for you on a catwalk? Forget it.

Now, I can here you say “Poor sheltered rich girl, she gets a lot of money to make up for those little boo-boos”, and in Abbey Lee’s case, that is true. But Abbey Lee isn’t just speaking for herself, she’s speaking for all models. And most models don’t make Abbey Lee money. In fact, most models don’t make much money at all. Sometimes they don’t make any, because sometime they’re paid in clothes and expected to be grateful for the fact.  If your boss gave you a handbag instead of your fortnightly check, you’d be pissed right?

Most people find it very difficult to take beautiful women, breasts and all, seriously. Especially when those beautiful women are beautiful for a living.

If women in any other industry were treated the way models are, we’d step in and get angry. But models have few friends and allies, and when they stand up for themselves, as Sara Ziff does so brilliantly, they get inundated with comments saying that when they signed up for a job that involved being decorative and little else, they essentially waived their right to be heard. It’s victim blaming par excellence and plenty of feminists are guilty of it too.

So why won’t we stand up for models?

Perhaps it’s because, as this Good Weekend piece implies, we resent how shallow they must be, to look good for a living. Never mind the fact that actors and TV anchors and airline hostesses are employed for similar reasons.  What’s more, models in their shallowness reveal how shallow we all are for caring about people just for being good looking.  Because let’s be real here – most of us do care.

For some, I’m sure it’s because they see models as complicit in an industry that thrives on making women feel terrible about themselves. But it’s not like the models, the women who achieve the supposed ideal, are immune from that gaze. In fact, their looks –  from the gaps between their teeth to the size of their breasts – face the most extreme and dehumanising scrutiny of all.

And besides, if you at 16, or 14, or 12 years old were told that you could potentially make a lot of money doing something that from the outside appears to be very easy, would you have said no?


And then what happens when at 16, or 18 or 20 you discover that this something is not, in fact easy, and you have not made a lot of money doing it? And maybe you were even sexually harassed or exploited on the job, what then?

Well first of all, you’d find that people, who think that from the outside what you do looks very easy, refuse to believe you when you tell them that it’s not.

Forget drinking champagne in five star hotels. The life of most models is spent crammed into a tiny apartment with five other women, in a foreign city, sitting around broke and waiting. Waiting for the opportunity to have people poke you and prod you and fiddle with your face for five hours while you physically contort yourself into a series of uncomfortable poses.

When you tell people this, they laugh it off. Because even though it’s true, it doesn’t seem ‘truthy’. It’s not commensurate with the glamorous image the industry projects. That is why the unreasonable conditions imposed on models persist unabated.

Model/Author Tara Moss tweeted about the article. 

Abbey Lee is not a major cultural force. She doesn’t earn that much money (compared to say, Miranda Kerr), doesn’t claim to be a role model. Yes, she has a carefully crafted image, as do most in the public eye. But it would be bizarre to attack another celebrity at Abbey Lee’s level the way they went after Abbey Lee. Clive Palmer? Sure. A well-established actress who is earning tens of millions?

Abbey Lee. Image via @abbeylee on Instagram.

When models force their humanity upon as, we get sick with ourselves for seeing them as objects, or ‘parts of the problem’. We get jolted out of our world view. And we hate it.

Instead of turning that disgust inward, instead of questioning the mechanisms which make a pretty face such a compelling subject to begin with, we get confused and start to hate the pretty face instead.

But behind every pretty face is a heart, and a mind, and a right to basic human dignity. Sometimes, the fashion industry forgets that. But it should be up to us to remind them. Not join in on the denigration.