High school students finding success and stress in modeling industry

Ann Vettikkal | Staff Writer

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But the beholder is influenced by an ever-evolving industry that shapes the standards for appearance — and the models that set it.  

The modeling world is highly concentrated in big cities; those involved tend to flock toward the streets of New York City or the high fashion nooks of Paris. But the models themselves come from all over. A select few students in Mason are learning what it means to put yourself out there in a world about public perception and presentation. Senior Annie Zhang explained that she found her start through dance and acting; modeling was a natural byproduct. 

“Basically there was a convention where you perform different elements — talent wise,” Zhang said. “I did dance and acting. It was like a showcase almost. And then there’s a ton of casting directors and talent agencies who see you and reach out to you. A talent scout named Kim Myers saw me — she saw talent.”

This type of start in the industry is extremely common — ideal candidates are recruited to join agencies that give them jobs and exposure in exchange for a cut of what they make. But Kara Stone, whose passion for modeling led her to work with various brands and photographers, noted that the road from getting scouted to walking down a runway is not isolated — there are specific skills that must be learned and refined. 

“It’s not always about appearance,” Stone said. “When you are getting paid for a shoot, you are expected to be good at what you do. If you’re modeling a product, you should know what poses you should do for that specific product. For some people it just doesn’t work for them — their body doesn’t move in certain ways.”

Similarly, senior Judi Hu, who was scouted through the same process as Zhang, added that while fitting the look a brand or photographer seeks is important, it isn’t the end all be all in the fashion sphere. You must be able to build a strategic web of networks and have a robust emotional intelligence.

“A lot of it is submitted electronically so they don’t get to understand your personality,” Hu said. “But if you can’t work with people, you probably won’t go very far. It’s about making connections. And you need to go into it with a lot of confidence because a lot of people in the entertainment industry are very harsh. So you have to have thick skin. Or else they will tear you apart.”

The inflexible nature of the industry caused Stone to critique the strict expectations she witnessed from her experience and how it can seep into current ideas of conventional beauty. 

“I dislike that there’s so many high standards and pressure of being perfect,” Stone said. “All the plastic surgery that models get and the pressures of being skinny. Like you have to have certain measurements. But I don’t think that you should have to be a certain weight or something. ”

Another expectation from the industry is that to work with bigger brands, models must be willing to settle for less for more experience. This results in a quasi-name-dropping system which can be a disadvantage for small-timers like Hu. She talked about a common practice in modeling where models will pose for photographers who, in turn, give them the pictures from the session rather than money. 

“One of the things I dislike in the industry in general is that a lot of things are trade for print,

 Hu said. “You [give] your time, you do the job, and then they give you print [your photographs] instead of money. A lot of things are based on incentives of exposure. Your exposure will get you more jobs. But they don’t pay you really well.”

The less glamorous aspects of the industry have affected more than just Hu. Stone said that this career path, especially at a young age, can be hard to navigate and at times, dangerous. She talked about how to stay protected in a line of work that may not always have their models’ best interest in mind.

“I’ve had a lot of photographers in my DMs reach out and ask me about a shoot,” Stone said. “They’ve asked me to do naked shoots and even after I said no, they’ll continue to ask. And I’m 16 — that’s illegal. I’m not doing that. If I don’t have a lot of information about the photographer, I might back down. My best advice would be to always bring someone with you when you’re going to a shoot. You should never be alone.”

Even the aftermath of the actual photoshoot can be daunting, according to Stone. The inevitable tie between fashion and how others perceive it is not always welcomed, especially when there is the constant fear that your audience will mistake your intentions. 

“During a shoot I feel super confident, then afterwards, I get nervous to post pictures from the shoot because [I think] that people are going to judge me,” Stone said. “I don’t want people to think that I’m vain, because I’m not. Sometimes modeling can make my anxiety worse.”

But amidst all the risks and downsides, all three girls made the case that modeling is a passion and something that they truly enjoy. Zhang talked about how putting herself out there has dramatically changed the way she views herself. 

“I’ve always been an extremely self-conscious person,” Zhang said. “I don’t like   

talking about anything that I really do. I feel like there’s a sense of entitlement. And I don’t want other people to think that I think a certain way about myself. I had an instructor, Asha Ama Daniels, who taught me so much about modeling — how to walk the runway and feel better about myself. Right now, my confidence is so much better than what it was maybe freshman year.”

This sense of confidence is a common factor — Judi Hu found that her place in modeling proved to her that the industry is adapting to new societal norms. It has a power that extends beneath what is skin deep. 

“I like it because my body type isn’t typically what a model is,” Hu said. “I’m not super skinny. I’m not really tall. I guess I like that I can model but it’s representing a different community. It helps with my confidence because no matter how I look, they still want me to do the job for them — that’s pretty rewarding.”

Graphics by Riley Johansen.