fashion

"It's like Stockholm Syndrome": The ugly truth behind Australia's modelling industry.

Jenna Owen insists she was a “shit” model.

The now 24-year-old comedian and TV presenter signed to one of Australia’s biggest modelling agencies at 17, but quit after just two years.

“I wasn’t successful. I didn’t make any money,” she told Mamamia. “The opposite of that.”

But that’s why she felt compelled make The Model is Broken, her debut documentary for SBS’s The Feed. After all, in pulling back the curtain on the ways in which the fashion industry exploits young girls — financially, sexually, emotionally — she’s not risking her career, or professional relationships.

Instead, she’s able to amplify the voices of several working and former models, each of whom has endured treatment that’s, at best, ethically reprehensible and, at worst, downright illegal.

Though she’d been on the inside, Jenna says she was still struck by the level of fear many of them felt about coming forward.

“This industry is incredibly hostile to complainers and whistleblowers, and many girls that I spoke to even off the record were still afraid,” she said.

“It’s like Stockholm Syndrome.”

And for good reason.

The viewer is introduced to 21-year-old Lauren, who was working in Indonesia when a photographer sexually harassed her. Her agent responded to her complaint by having her visa revoked; her passport was then confiscated and she was forced to hire a lawyer to break her contract.

Then there’s Mercy, a now-successful plus-size model who was hired for a lingerie shoot at just 14 years old: “You can see I’m quite uncomfortable in the photos,” she says in the documentary, “even though I’m trying to be confident and sexy.”

And then there’s Jenna herself.

When she was 17, her agency booked her for a shoot without telling her that it would involve being topless. At the time she saw it as an opportunity to start making money for her agency. But when she looks back on the resulting images now, she’s unsettled.

“It’s about the lifespan of that image, and it’s about the fact that we can’t control where those images go,” she said. “I don’t know who’s editing that image. I don’t know where that image has been sent, where they’ve decided to submit it. I don’t know if I ever find all the corners of the internet or the computers or the hard drives that that image is on in the world.

“And I think that’s a quite sinister thing when you’re speaking about someone that is under age. And I 100 per cent gave my consent in that moment [on set], but how much consent can you really have as 17-year-old girl who is so disempowered by their relationship with their agency, so disposable as a person?”

Jenna and her mother reflect on her topless photo shoot. Image: SBS.
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In the documentary, Jenna sits down with her mother to reflect on that photo shoot. Her mother is defensive at first — "You didn't know you were doing it until you went there. So it's not that I knew either. I wasn't comfortable being one of those hovering mothers". But according to Jenna, she's since been guilt-ridden.

"That was really difficult for her, obviously, because she felt so responsible," she said. "But she was the opposite of a negligent mother. She was a really incredible supportive mother. But the guilt she feels now, I think, is representative of the way that this industry is very good at making sure parents are iced out."

"I am yet to see one good reason why children are modelling."

The sting on top of it all, the majority of these girls and young women aren't even making profit. Their wages are sapped through commissions and a murky tally of expenses charged by the agent (from printing fees to accommodation and travel).

By the time Jenna left the industry she not only hadn't made money, she had a debt of $163 which her agency seemed to think they were generous to dissolve.

That's something Jenna wants parents to be particularly aware of. For the documentary, she had modelling contracts examined by a top employment lawyer who concluded that "the power is all with the agency... these contracts allow for models to be financially exploited".

She also discovered that the major agencies were not meeting their legal obligation to register with the NSW Office of the Children's Guardian, as an authorised employer of children under 16.

These are just the reasons why Jenna would like to see the minimum age requirement for models to work in Australia raised to 18.

"I am yet to get one good reason why children are modelling," she said.

"This is not a good financial career path for the majority of young women — maybe the top three per cent [are financially successful]. So if it's not a good financial career path, and they're not protected by child safety laws, then what are the advantages?

"And also what good is it doing by having children's bodies marketed to women and telling them that that's what their bodies should look like? Or having men look at those bodies in magazines, and thinking that they're allowed to desire those bodies?

"There's so much harm being done."

‘Breaking The Model’ will air at 8.30pm Thursday on SBS VICELAND’s The Feed, and will be available to stream on SBS On Demand.

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