Beauty is pain, and for an ambitious male model, it’s also a struggle. With travel for photo shoots, appearances at international fashion shows, and receiving free designer clothes, it might seem like male models are living the dream. But in the documentary UnGlamorous, Fusion’s Pedro Andrade uncovers the ugly truth: Being a male model comes with a cost.
Men from all over the U.S.—and the world—are flown to New York City to begin their careers in the deceptively glitzy business of fashion shoots and runway shows. With many, many men all competing for the same jobs, getting noticed takes a unique blend of looks, management, and luck.
A living stipend is provided by agencies to accommodate rent, food, clothing, and other expenses. Models are expected to pay off these costs—with interest—once they land work, but there’s a catch: A lot of the industry’s most desired jobs don’t pay at all.
Due to the stringent age requirements of modeling, the turnover rate of models is often high since their career is essentially futile past a certain age. Modeling agencies know this and know how hard it is for a model to land a job lucrative enough to pay off their debt. Unfortunately, these models are new and young enough to be taken advantage of. If a model doesn’t find work within the first few months of his arrival in New York, his debt could add up to $8,000-$20,000.
The documentary’s main subject, Cameron Keesling, was working in the industry for about a year before landing the cover of Italian Vogue. Despite appearing in a renowned publication, photographed by fashion’s most iconic photographer, Keesling and his model companions were paid nothing for the shoot.
And Vogue was not the only job that left him empty-handed. Keesling walked during Paris Fashion Week and left behind a stellar impression. His Parisian look achieved notoriety and even received an Instagram shout out from Snoop Dogg. Despite the accolades, Keesling didn’t even get paid enough to cover the cost of traveling to and from Paris.
“The biggest challenge is making a living.”
“I was under the impression you still get a percentage of earnings from your jobs,” Keesling tells Fusion. “Turns out you don’t see any money until your debt is cleared.”
The ways models are reimbursed vary, but they are barely sustainable to afford the luxurious life we often assume the industry provides. The most common way models get paid—aside from nothing at all—is in “trade,” which means receiving free clothes, but no money. Andrade, a former model, claims he made a lot more money in his side job of bartending than he did in modeling.
Keesling adds he is in debt all around the world. He and fellow male models often spend days doing over 20 castings and ultimately getting rejected from most. He has also had days where he sustained on no more than one power bar and a bottle of water.
After over a year of modeling and living in New York City, Keesling has not made a single penny.
Big ambitions and a low bank balance are just the beginning: Many models’ living situations involve 12 men sharing one apartment with two bathrooms. In Unglamorous, one model’s Midtown apartment boasts a rent of $2000 and a collective size no bigger than a parking space.
“[Modeling] is a lot of fun, the traveling I enjoy, but if you can’t pay your bills what’s the point?”- Male supermodel Alex Lundqvist
Hard work may not always pay off. Modeling doesn’t follow a typical off-the-road, artistic career trajectory that takes one or two decades to establish a name for oneself. The shelf life of a male model has a definite expiration date and often peaks when the model is in his 20s. From there, very, very few go on to make modeling a long-term career. The longest running star—the Gisele of the male modeling world—is Alex Lundqvist, who makes a whopping half a million per year. The income gap in modeling is so extreme; most new, promising faces earn around $30,000-40,000 per year.
And the grueling undertaking doesn’t stop there. A male model’s success is often narrowed down not just to his looks, but how “relatable” his looks are. Agencies have zeroed in their ideal requirement to “boyfriend handsome,” a model that both men and women can relate to. That kind of model can enjoy a fruitful career for about 10 to 15 years. A “look on trend” is too specific and not sustainable.
Trends in the modeling industry fluctuate, often dependent upon pop culture and fashion. Often, agencies are looking for a very specific look, thereby compartmentalizing beauty.
Taylor Hendrick, a modeling agent at Wilhelmina Talent Agency, explains how models are categorized as either editorial—for high fashion shoots—or commercial—for other forms of modeling, such as television, advertisements, travel, and so on.
“Editorial talent starts out around 18 years old,” Hendrick explains. “They have 3 to 4 really great seasons and then maybe it will fall off.”
Commercial work, on the other hand, can start in a model’s 20s and continue until their 40s or beyond. Aesthetic requirements for editorial models are much more stringent, but they are the ones who build their names and are recognized by the public.
Every face on the runway or in ads on billboards has traveled an arduous journey just to get there. Many of these models started off working odd jobs and continue to do so on the side just to make ends meet. One model in Unglamorous was building houses before he started posing; another was a janitor at Whole Foods. Despite the soaring costs, high debt, and little collective benefit, male models continue to strive, with stars in their eyes, to be the next face of Calvin, grace the cover of Italian Vogue, or walk the runway at an international fashion week. The competition is fierce and the stakes are high, but as one model mentions, “we’re all in the same struggle.”