The Secret Life of Models

Lou Lesko

It’s 9 a.m. at Charles de Gaulle airport. A man in his early thirties has just extinguished the butt of his sixth cigarette. He’s a driver for Success Model Management, sent to pick up a model flying in from America. Her flight arrived at 8 a.m., but she’s nowhere to be found. It’s Sunday; there’s no one at the agency he can contact. He resigns himself to wait another hour.

Rebecca Steigner is on the edge of a meltdown. After flying from San Francisco to Chicago, she was bumped from the only daily flight to Paris. It’s Sunday in France, and she has no way to communicate with her agency or the man sent to pick her up. She’s stuck overnight, her suitcase somewhere in the bowels of O’Hare. At the airport convenience store, she buys a toothbrush and soap to wash the clothes she’s wearing in the hotel sink.

“Always carry a bathing suit, a change of underwear, a toothbrush, and your book [portfolio] on your person — never let your book out of your sight. You never know what’s going to happen when you travel.” After eleven years of modeling, this is the line Rebecca spouts over and over to the 14-year-olds who are just starting out. Today she neglected to take her own advice and is now scrambling to get across the Atlantic.

On day two, she’s bumped again. Sprinting across the airport, she narrowly makes a flight to London, where she picks up a commuter flight to Paris. By the time she meets the driver, who has been visiting the airport daily, she has been traveling for three days. Her luggage is nowhere to be found. The driver whisks her away to an audition. Two hours later, back at the agency, she’s informed that she will fly out at 4 a.m. for a job in Switzerland. With her luggage still missing, she gets on the plane in the same sink-washed clothes she left San Francisco in four days ago. Three days of photography later, she makes it back to the agency apartment in Paris to find her luggage waiting. “I took one of the best showers of my life that day,” she recalls.

Rebecca at 14 years old (left), photographed in California, and 25 years old (right), photographed in Paris.

Rebecca was discovered in Northern California when she was 14. At that age, girls who are models often get ostracized from their high school peer group. From the first moment Rebecca appeared in a full-page Macy’s ad in the local Sunday magazine, she could feel the jealousy from some and curiosity from others when she walked down the halls of her school.

By the time she was 16, she’d shot a pile of catalogs and local editorial spreads. Fashion industry colleagues who took the place of high school friends regularly told her that she was breathtaking… “But don’t go crazy with the ice cream, darling; you’ll be working in a bikini tomorrow.” Soon she was scouted by foreign agencies, who asked her to come to their markets (countries) to work.

When Rebecca travels to another market, it’s understood that she will show up looking the same as she did when she was scouted, and that she will always act in a professional manner. That is to say, she has to go to auditions set up by the agency and show up to shoots on time and well rested. In return, the agency pays for her flights, sends drivers to meet her at the airport, and puts her up in models’ apartments. Easy, right? Except that models’ apartments are small and crowded. There are usually four girls to an apartment: two sleeping on twin beds in the bedroom, one on a foam mattress pad in the living room, and one on a futon that converts to a couch for daytime use.

The quality of apartments differs greatly from city to city. Most of the time, the furniture is akin to what you would find discarded on the street. In Rebecca’s experience, “Paris has the biggest shit-holes of all,” with cockroaches, generally dirty rooms, and almost no privacy. In Germany the apartments are cleaned by a service every week, and the agencies take some care to board models with compatible personalities. In Australia the agency typically rents a room in the apartment of a local, and also considers personalities. In Milan the models’ apartments are a notch above those in Paris and offer high security; the entry code is known only to the agency, the models, and several dozen club promoters who double as drivers for the models during the day.

In Paris there is a strong expectation that models will hang socially with the people at the agency. But if you’re still out with those peers past a certain hour, the agents start looking at you funny. Except in Australia, the land of no worries, where, Rebecca says, everything is very casual and easy.

In Italy the club promoters descend upon the models’ apartments almost every night. They gain access to the buildings with their security codes, and then go door to door to cajole the girls into going to whatever clubs they happen to be representing. The clubs offer incentives in the form of free lunches and dinners. If a model shows up to a club with a Zed card (model composite), she’s set. It’s all about getting the pretty girls into the venue. As a model, you can practically live for free if you play your Zed cards right.

There is a unique occupational hazard to being a model: the weirdos, wackos, and the obsessed. In Rebecca’s career she’s seen approximately fifteen slightly disturbed men start masturbating right in front of her. In Paris she discovered a guy lurking beneath her apartment window. When she went out, he followed her around all day, which was no small task. “I’d be chasing metro trains and hustling to make it to auditions,” she says. He pursued her for a week. “You need to be very savvy, self-aware, and careful. People start learning where you live, and suddenly you have your very own pet stalker.” She’s been fondled and talked dirty to in ten different languages. As a model, you quickly learn how to survive the hazards of the city. But even the street-smart can have a bad day — Rebecca was mugged on her last trip to Milan.

On set, things are more civilized. A photographer might blatantly invite the model to have a drink, but this seems very innocent… until the model turns him down. Then the conversation shifts to, “Don’t you want to work for me again?” Rebecca always responds pointedly with something like, “I have to have a drink with you to work with you again? What happens if I sleep with you — I’ll get the damn cover?” With the photographer’s lecherous intent out in the open, it becomes a bit of a chess match. He gets nervous that Rebecca will tell her agency. She gets nervous that he’ll spread rumors that could hamper her ability to work. After a few tense moments, everyone walks away. She’ll never work with that photographer again, but her reputation is intact, and she stood up for herself.

After being fondled, stalked, propositioned, and housed in a crowded apartment with crappy furniture, at least Rebecca is making the big bucks, right? Only if she’s smart. While a foreign agency pays for the model’s flight, car service, and apartment to get the foreign adventure started, this is basically a loan. Models have to repay the agency for the plane ticket, the crappy apartment, and the cash advanced to them for living expenses. Basically, a model arrives in a foreign market already indebted to the agency.

In the models’ apartments there are usually two camps: the girls who are there to work, and the girls who are there to party. The party girls have a short but fabulous run. The girls who are still working after four years have a clear understanding of the industry. Making money requires a good deal of focus and business acumen. It usually takes three months for the agency to get paid by the client and another three months before the agency pays the model. By the time the plane fare, rent, and per diems are deducted — and commissions paid to both the foreign agency and the home agency — a model like Rebecca may see only 35 percent of her money. Granted, it’s 35 percent of a nice chunk of money, but this still requires management and hustle.

In a city like Paris, twelve to fifteen auditions a day is the norm. The auditions go from one end of the city to the other. That’s why, Rebecca says, “For how pretty models are supposed to be, take a look at any working model’s feet. They’re disgusting. They’re blistered and calloused and the toes are warped. There isn’t much that’s glamorous about our jobs.”

Rebecca has been in the business long enough to know the markets where it’s easiest to sell her look. In Paris and Milan she’ll go to auditions and compete with dozens of other girls. In Germany there are usually far fewer girls at the auditions, and the German clients like to travel well, so many jobs end up shooting in exotic locations like the Dominican Republic or Majorca.

So why do it? What keeps a working-class model like Rebecca going? When you land a great job that pays big bucks, it’s a fantastic day. And when you survive a crazy situation, it’s a great story. No matter what happens, it’s always different, and you never really know what’s around the corner.

One day when Rebecca was in California, she called me to say she felt like going to Australia for a few weeks. She stayed for seven months. She flew back to the United States just hours before her first day of school at the University of Washington. The money she had made as a teenage model helped pay for her education. As soon as she graduated from college she was back on a plane to France, where she and I met for drinks at the George V hotel and decided to do this story. In her words, she loves the business for “all the weird little situations you get into that you would never experience in a normal life, that for some reason just work out while you’re going through them.” As Rebecca turned to get the attention of our waiter, I peeked in her day bag on the floor next to her chair. There was a bathing suit, a change of underwear, a toothbrush, and her book.