A Threat in the Fashion Industry–and What Can Be Done about It
– By Mitzi Perdue
Last year,The Jeffrey Epstein case brought to light one of the ugliest secrets of the fashion world. In too many cases, a pretty girl is offered a glamorous and lucrative career in modelling and ends up being trafficked.
Traffickers Use Modeling as a Lure
That’s what happened to at least some of the young women who ended up servicing Epstein and his friends. In the view of Elizabeth Peyton-Jones, founder of Responsible Trust for Models (RTM) “Fashion is a global industry with no borders and no controls, and this makes it is easy to use and abuse the system.”
Peyton-Jones has an impressive and effective approach to addressing the issues in the model industry which are hiding in plain sight, like the abuse of power and the ability for predators to use model agencies as scammers or worse, trafficking and money laundering.
As she puts it, “The modeling industry attracts children who wish to work as models. They are self-employed which means they fall through the cracks. It is not up to them to change the abuse; it is up to the adults in the industry to see what is wrong and change it.”
She goes on to say, “We at RTM wish to aid in protecting the vulnerable within the industry by creating a globally recognized standard, one that’s awarded to model agencies, and that will allow ethical agencies to step up and show best practice and alert brands as to which agencies are best to source their models through.”
Abuse Hiding in Plain sight
We’ll get to Peyton-Jones’s ideas on improving the safety of models in a moment. But first, let’s take a look at a typical case of how models can be exploited. It’s the case of Larisa Popova. That’s not her real name, but the events described did happen.
“At age 16,” begins Peyton-Jones, “Popova was a young, beautiful, eager and impressive Russian girl.”
Her fabulous looks attracted a European scout who was in Russia looking for ‘new faces’ for their internationally renowned brand. “They loved her look so much they decided to sign her to an agency in NYC with the intention she would be their next new prodigy,” says Peyton-Jones. This young girl had a ‘Mother Agency’ in Russia who was supposedly taking care of her.
Popova, who arrived in NYC did not speak a word of English, needed some serious guidance, which the agency in NYC gave her. She was given a tutor for English and her career began to take off. She made a significant sum of money, but the ‘mother agency’ refused to open a bank account, which meant Popova had to take wads of cash home to Russia each trip.
The agency became suspicious when, even after several months of asking, no bank account was opened. Popova had also started hanging around people taking drugs and alcohol. The US agency gave the mother agency in Russia an ultimatum, “Get your model away from the bad element, open up a bank account or the police will become involved.”
At that point, Popova disappeared.
When the agency looked into things further, they discovered the truth: The mother agency was a prostitute ring and the model agency had been a front for a criminal gang, which meant that the brands had inadvertently sourced a model who was legitimizing a criminal activity. If this ever got out, the brand’s reputation would be destroyed as it is directly their responsibility and their supply chain.
This obviously does not end well for anyone. The US agency is wondering what they could have done better, and it’s hard for the brand to pursue this because of the negative press it would attract.
Peyton-Jones won’t speculate on what happened to Popova. All she knows for sure is that the fashion house or model agency was never able to locate the girl.
What Can Be Done
Peyton-Jones knows that because of the glamourous nature of the industry and indeed models, this is a difficult story to tell and gain sympathy. However, the fact that any person can approach anyone in the street, mall or online, whether legitimate or not, and there is no method of knowing who the good guys are, means that everyone is vulnerable. If you have a child who is easily led, she is a potential victim. This is so even if she never set her sights on fashion.
The resolution to this is simple and positive and will allow for positive change in an industry which is calling out for better, more modern governance and operational behavior.
It begins with an industry-led and curated kite mark of best practice. A good house-keeping mark, if you like.
- A global standard, respected and recognized by industry professionals championed by model agencies, allowing for best practice, professionalism and labor rights for models.
- A piece of research to show that this abuse exists, mapping countries and profiling for patterns.
- A training and educational program for models which will allow them to understand their career value and teach them about finance, contracting, social media rights and public speaking.
Funding at this point is important for the research piece. For philanthropists who would like to see a measurable outcome and want to shift the dial on modern slavery, this is an opportunity.
About The Author
Mitzi Perdue is a businesswoman, author, and Founder of Win This Fight, Stop Human Trafficking Now. She holds a B.A. degree with honors from Harvard University and a Master's from George Washington University. She's a past president of the 40,000 member American Agri-Women, and she was a U.S. Delegate to the United Nations Conference on Women in Nairobi. She was also a Commissioner for the National Commission on Libraries and Information Science. Her Scripps Howard column, The Environment and You, was for years the most widely syndicated environmental column in the U.S.
She is the founder and president of “Win This Fight! Stop Human Trafficking Now,” an organization that raises funds and awareness for other anti-trafficking initiatives.