Mags: The Girlfriend model debate

The media loves a good model debate!

I'm a little late to the party with this one, and expect to cop a bit of flack for my comments, so I'll just start with a quick ceveat: yes, I worked for Girlfriend magazine ('04-'07) and, yes, I still occasionally write for the magazine. I'm also quite fond of its staff. And its editorial. Enough said.

I am in two minds about the controversy around the inclusion of 12-year-old Karla Reid in the finalists' lineup for this year. 'Underage modelling' is the issue, according to The Australian, an argument which loses weight (no modelling pun intended) when you consider that Girlfriend is a magazine read by 11-17 year-olds.

In the context of the magazine, Karla doesn't look out of place. This is not a 12-year-old posing provocatively in the pages of Vogue or Russh (or Art Monthly, for that matter), or being ogled on the Fashion Week catwalk. Most models cast for Girlfriend's fashion shoots are aged 13-18 (though they're most often older teens, making them 'aspirational'), with young actors from the likes of Home and Away (former H&A girl Indiana Evans is popular) and 'real girls' also modelling clothes.

Karla has secured herself a two-year contract with Chic Model Management (as have the five other finalists), though I'd say Chic would be more inclined to align Karla, given her age and girl-next-door good looks, with its Scoop Management division (which specialises in models for advertising, TV commercials and 'mainstream' fashion – as apposed to high fashion). When I was casting for Girlfriend shoots, I'd often hire girls from Scoop based on their healthy schoolgirl appeal. Of course, the winner of the competition (to be announced on November 19) also wins a contract with Chic's affiliate New York agency Next – if Karla were to win, we may have more cause for concern.

The international world of modelling, which, as Patty Huntington goes into on her blog, can be a harsh, cruel world, where young girls suffer depression, eating disorders and isolation, is no place for a 12-year-old. Though many would contend that today's 12-year-olds are an entirely different proposition to the ones of 10 or 20 years ago, at that age the brain and emotions are still underdeveloped, though the girls' bodies might suggest otherwise. Even at 18, a fragile constitution and personality (perhaps an inclination towards depression) combined with the pressures of modelling can be catastrophic.

Modelling competitions in general also don't sit well with me, though I was obsessed with them (and their winners) as a teen, and would have given my right arm to model in a magazine (because, as I was led to believe by said magazines, modelling was, like, the ultimate aspiration! And models had perfect lives... and boyfriends like Johnny Depp!).

When I sat on the panel of Girlfriend's 2007 Model Search Sydney event, I looked on despondently as many pretty, lovely girls, who desperately wanted to be models (more than anything they wanted to be the next Miranda Kerr!) had their picture taken, only to be sent to the bottom of the pile based on their height (and height potential) and hip size (and hip potential).

It is a superficial, looks-based competition with very specific criteria, just like Australia's Next Top Model (remember the furor over bitchy finalist Demelza?), where personality counts about as much as your grasp of the periodic table. How disheartening to be sent to castings by agencies only to be turned away time and time again, let alone be told that you are fat (as was the experience with young American model Ali Michael). Not fabulous for the self-esteem, as Mia Freedman contends.

That said, winning Dolly's modelling competition in 1997, aged 13, doesn't seem to have done Miranda Kerr any long-term psychological harm (the girl's even writing a holistic health book!). With the right kind of upbringing and family support, as well as an empathetic agent, one could assume that the potential for a girl to get lost in the world of fashion is minimised. Perhaps securing modelling mentors like Kerr would help alleviate any parental or industry angst about sending girls into the modelling world... while more magazine editorial around building a wider sense of self would help the majority of girls left behind (self included) whose looks just don't cut it.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

Yours truly,
Girl With a Satchel

P.S. I also think Girlfriend has to be commended for choosing girls who appear to be in a healthy weight range for their ages.


frangipani princess said...

When I read that she was twelve while flicking through the finalists, my first thought was 'hmm a little bit young?'
I think that there should be a minimum age of thirteen in these model searches. Yes, eleven/twelve year olds read the magazine, but it can give them something to look forward to in later years, when they're more mature.
I'm not saying Karla doesn't deserve to win, but even reading her answers to the questions in her profile showed her young age/immaturity.
When I was twelve, I would have done anything to be a part of the model search, but short stature stopped me from every realising this dream (fully grown at 13 and 161 cm *sigh*). Karla must be extremely tall for a twelve year old, and good on her i suppose for giving it a go.
I'm not sure why her mother didn't tell her to wait a few years, but I did read in an article that if she won, the contracts wouldn't start for a few years.
For Karla's sake, I think they should award it to an older competitor. She will realise in years to come that she wasn't ready, although like you said, Miranda Kerr was 13 when she won the dolly comp.
But that year can contain a lot of maturity and 'growing up' so again, i think the should change the age limit to thirteen.
Btw, does anyone know if Karla's even at high school?

frangipani princess said...

Oh, i just noticed she's a sagittarius, which means she will be turning thirteen in the next month or so.
That's not as bad as someone who has only turned 12 this year...

rachel said...

Hey Erica. I agree with everything you've said, pretty much word for word.

This controversy takes me back to when Miranda, then 13, won the Dolly model comp and ended up on an A Current Affair story on the sexualisation of children. Being M's age at the time, my friends and I were baffled - we were the Dolly readership and we voted for her because she was (a much better looking) one of us; and she was the stand out finalist of that year (incidentally, I recall Abbie Cornish was also a finalist that year).

It's the same with Girlfriend now: it's read by teenaged girls, and it features teenaged girls in its pages.

At the same time, I have a number of friends who worked in the modelling industry as teens, and not one of them (tall and skinny - the core requirements for being a model, above all else - as they are) remember it as a positive experience. Many of them, in fact, have histories of eating disorders. And as I wrote about in Russh last year, many successful international models - Natalia Vodianova, to name one, Ali Michael, to name another - have commented the same.

Perhaps the problem is not the age of the models (in a magazine like Girlfriend or Dolly, at least) but in the culture of the industry.

Anonymous said...

Of course the models are going to be around 12 years old... they are the readers of the magazine! The girls all look pretty and age-appropriate and it is up to parents and managers to ensure they stay that way until they are 16/18.
Look at Catherine O'Neill who won when she was 13. Amazing success and a smart girl at only 19.

Anastasia said...

Times have changed. I remember when Kate Fischer won the Dolly modelling contest at the age of 12 or 13. There was an article and photo of her in her school uniform, and it wasn't a huge deal, didn't create a lot of controversy as it would now.
The only issue I have with under aged modeling is the sometime sexualization of models, however this isn't an issue now as it was then - having fifteen year old models pose wearing garments that were meant for thirty year old women, or in suggestive lingerie shots, which is why I don't get the controversy now. There are many magazines aimed at teenagers, so younger models are more appropriate.
The international world of modeling is much more demanding, cruel and superficial, however a model's fate depends on, like you say Erica, her management and her supportive network of family and friends. I've been watching Make me a Supermodel lately, and I can't say I'm impressed with Chadwicks, then again the program probably exists in order to publicize Chadwicks (which was the 'super' agency in the eighties and nineties, to be eclipsed later on, esp in recent times when Elle McPherson moved on from them) more so than anything else, and I can't say I like the guy's attitude on the show ('sometimes you have to do things that you don't like' - including idiotic nude assignments in front of hundreds of strangers, like one recent program). There are agencies that look after their models well, but there are bad apples out there. I remember the controversy, years ago, involving John Casablancas, and how he'd use his agency as a catalogue, picking one model for his own personal use, at that time it was Stephanie Seymour. I'm not hinting at modeling agencies being regulated, but a model's well being reflects an agency more so than anything else, or says a lot about her agency and its duty of care.Yes, agents work with clients, however that doesn't mean agents should lower their standards because of a transient client campaign.
The other nasty thing that always nags me though (about the modeling industry), is the way models are still weighed, like they're lifelong members of Weight Watchers, even though they don't qualify for Weight Watchers, and this, I feel, isn't the fault of the agency but the fashion house and/or creative directors of fashion houses (and/or designers), that haves screwed up visions of what they think a woman should look like on a page (a two dimensional representation), who will select a model based on their narrow minded vision, which puts pressure on agents who have to make a profit in order to be in business.

jess said...

It's strange to think that some of these girls are probably around the 16-17 year old age mark (I haven't seen the article so I'm not entirely sure), where all they're doing is posing in cute, bright clothes, and that the female contestants of 'Make Me A Supermodel', who are in the 17-19 year old age bracket, are posing in lingerie and being forced to create sexual chemistry with their male counterparts.

If I wanted to be a model, I know which road I'd be taking!

Amy said...

This is crazy!! No one blinks an eye when they see 12 yr old actresses why is modelling any different.

Would you prefer girlfriend readers to aspire to be like 20 somethings instead? I personally think teens need to have some younger role models to look up to so that they dont think its normal to be acting like their 20 somthing role models.

The media makes modeling sound almost evil. They say its superficial and only for girls with a bmi of 15. What the media fail to recognise is that there are so many different areas in modelling its crazy to make such a generalisation. Its a proper job.

Is the media against children modeling in oshkosh ads? Shes a young girl modelling for a young girls mag. If she wins im sure her agency will only book her jobs appropriate for her age.