The Financial Realities of Being a Model

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The word “model” evokes a life of glamour: lounging by pools, eating celery sticks and shopping for size zero dresses.

In reality, most models spend their days schlepping to casting after casting, usually being rejected from each one. They live in model apartments with three other girls, and celery is for dinner only because they can’t afford much else.

How do I know? I’m a model myself.

My life falls somewhere between the glamour and the hardship. I’ve supported myself in New York City for eight years. I’ve been fortunate to be able to turn my modeling into a career, and even become financially stable along the way.

How I Got My Start

I grew up in Toronto, Canada, where I started trying to get an agency to represent me at age 15. When you’re tall and thin, people constantly suggest that you should be a model; my dad raised me, and because he had been a male model before starting his career in sales, he was supportive. It wasn’t until I entered college that an agency finally expressed interest.

Ford Models signed me when I was just starting school, at age 18. My dad couldn’t afford to pay for my education, so I took out student loans (college is cheaper in Canada, so I paid them off before I graduated). In the meantime, I booked some local catalog work in Toronto and finished an undergraduate marketing degree while bartending and holding a retail job to make ends meet.

In the beginning, my fledging career was actually costing me money. Sometimes the gas to drive to castings and the parking while I was in the city ate up the little money I brought home from jobs. Modeling in Toronto just isn’t the same as modeling in New York … so after graduation, I moved to New York.

The Reality of Modeling in New York City

As soon as I got to the city, I booked the cover of Women’s Health Magazine (left), and I was beyond thrilled. In addition to the great exposure, you would think that a cover pays a ton of money, right? Well, I was paid a whopping $250. I figured big money jobs would come rolling in, but they are few and far between, and the day rate (your entire pay) for magazine work is usually about $100-$400.

Runway shows are even worse. Sometimes girls are paid with “trade,” which means they get some free clothes, but no money. It’s not unheard of for girls with smaller agencies to not get paid for jobs at all. Models in need of cash can borrow money against their future earnings from their agency–and pay a high fee for the privilege. There is no such thing as a model union: Models are generally young and easy to take advantage of, and trust their agencies to get them work and pay them. Unfortunately, not all agencies are trustworthy.

Out of the blue, I was measured by my agency to see if I could be a “fit” model—a type of modeling that can be far more lucrative. Fit models have body measurements that match an industry standard for producing clothes, and if you’re hired by a label to fit their line, you can work consistently with them for years. You act as a sort of live mannequin, trying on prototypes and getting paid upward of $250 an hour. Of course you pay your agency a commission, as well as taxes, but after gaining several clients, I was working every day for several hours a day and doing very well. With a 34″ bust, 27″ waist and 37″ hip, I am considered a very good industry size four.

So I was making steady money as a model, and working short days gave me the time to get another job. I still wanted to grow my income to gain a little more financial security in the very expensive city that never sleeps … so I began cocktail waitressing at a popular nightclub and made upwards of $1,000 a night doing bottle service.

I was making more money working three nights a week than at any kind of entry-level job my degree could afford me. I happily settled into my role of the stereotypical New York model/waitress, making a combined income of a healthy six figures.

The Ins and Outs of My Finances

I’ve been able to build a comfortable savings account, begin maxing out my IRA and live a great life in New York (kind of like this woman). I can write off my gym membership and some of my beauty treatments like haircuts, facials and pedicures as work costs, because maintaining my body is crucial to my job. (I can’t do it all the time, but still, what a perk!)

I’ve since quit waitressing because the hours (and people) were tough despite the good money. It’s scary relying solely on a job where you have to stay the exact same measurements all the time, but it’s pretty much my only job requirement. I’m a huge foodie living in a city with the best food in the world, so I’ve had to become a bit of a gym rat. I don’t count calories, but I do try to make healthy eating choices and I work out five to six days a week. A good mix of spin, yoga and weight training keep me in check–and if a certain part of me (like my hip measurement) starts to get too big or small, I adjust my workouts accordingly. Getting pregnant or gaining weight could end my career. The industry is fickle and disloyal–I’ve lost clients I’ve worked with for years because a new designer said I was too big.

But I’ve been lucky that I’ve been able to achieve financial stability. At this point, I make more money than my dad and I love that I’m able to help him out financially.

I have so many friends in the industry who have no money because when you make money this easily, you don’t value it as much–it’s easy come, easy go. I know a lot of girls who have no savings and lots of debt: They get excited by the money, so they start buying expensive things, but then they lose their clients and freak out.

They’re waitresses making $1,000 a night and they’re all in debt! But the thing is, this $1,000 a night is temporary.

A Career With an Expiration Date

I know many women would dream of having my job–being able to live comfortably working a few hours a day trying on clothes, but the reality is that it is a pretty unfulfilling job with a definite expiration date, in which you gain very few transferrable skills. As I get older (I’m nearing 30), it gets harder to see myself in another career. What will I do when this slows down? I don’t really have relevant experience for anything, and while I could switch to the design and production side of fashion, I’m not passionate about that.

Many girls can’t transition into corporate culture after years of essentially working for themselves, so they go into jobs where they can be their own bosses, like teaching yoga or heading to beauty school. Most of the models I know don’t have a college degree.

I graduated so long ago that I fear my degree is now outdated, and I haven’t gained very much experience in the field since my college days. That, paired with the fact that I’ve never worked an office job in my life, would make it difficult for me to work a typical 9-5 schedule. When the fit job begins to wind down, I can see myself starting my own business, or applying myself in a field that I am a little more passionate about. I’m proud to be educated, but if I could go back, I definitely would have studied something that I enjoyed instead of pursuing a degree that I thought would lead to the biggest paycheck. Maybe then I wouldn’t have gone into fashion to begin with!

Sometimes I wish I had graduated and taken an entry-level job at a company where I could have climbed the ladder and maybe even been a CEO by now. I would have a lot more job security and an impressive resume, but I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy my 20’s and live it up in NYC the way I have–and that’s an experience I wouldn’t trade for the world.

After talking about money with friends at a fitting, Ashley Stetts was inspired to start The Frugal Model, where she shares tips on saving (and more).

Follow Ashley on Twitter @thefrugalmodel

  • KGS

    Hi Ashley! Have you considered sales? You could start networking and self-educating now, and then be ready to switch when you’re modeling career winds down. The hours would be longer, but you would keep the being your own boss part. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=545605593 Lara Clinton

    Wow, this was so interesting! Thanks for giving us a peek into a model’s life!

  • Tgibson209

    I love your ambition and drive!!

  • Kim

    Ashley: Your experience is obviously very unique, but I am surprised to hear that you can say “enjoying my 20′s” and “living it up in NYC” is an experience you wouldn’t trade for the world.  I think this conclusion sells your story short.  You have an undergraduate degree, which is still very valuable in this day and age, and enough unique experiences from modeling and waitressing that you could be your own boss or become an entrepreneur.  You said so yourself that your modeling gig was unfulfilling, so maybe the “happy ending” to your story should be about finding something that is fulfilling – be it professional or personal pursuits.

  • http://twitter.com/Robyn_says Robyn Showers

    If you’re still working short days, you could try out some different careers in marketing/sales by procuring an internship at a company that interests you. Plus, then when you start to phase out of modeling you’ll have compensated for some of your resume’s bigger problems (lack of office experience and transferable skills). I would definitely start now while you still have a reliable source of income.

    That being said, I agree with the other commenters that your unique background and experiences can surely parlay into a marketing or sales career. Also, I think it’s incredible that you’ve remained grounded and frugal with such an usual career–kudos to you, and good luck on whatever endeavor you choose next!

  • http://twitter.com/laurenislost Lauren Lever

    I am sorry to sound bitter, but this story is so unrelatable to most people. Sorry, we can’t all be hot bottle service girls and get a grand a night. 

  • AP

    It is completely unrealistic to think that you could have “climbed the ladder and maybe even been a CEO by now” in any company.  You’re not even 30 yet.  As someone who has actually spent her career climbing the ladder from the bottom rung, your expectations are totally off base.  It’s great that you are able to earn so much now and max out your IRA.  However, those of us who actually work 2-3 jobs because we need to cover our cost of living and still don’t have enough to have any real savings would appreciate if you don’t pretend you have savings tips to share.  You are lucky, and an exception.  I have nothing to learn from you.  I honestly hope that LearnVest chooses someone with more realistic advice for their next column.  This one was a joke.

    • Amber

      I agree with AP about the climbing to the top of the ladder and maybe being a CEO comment. You’d be lucky if you were in a management position after that length of time, let alone a CEO. I think you’re romanticizing office jobs. If you’re not sure what you want to do, then why don’t you go back to school for something you would enjoy? There are so many flexible school options for working people. If you start now, you would probably be able to finish by the time your modeling career winds down. I do appreciate you sharing your story, and I think it gives readers a little insight into what it’s like being a model – not as glamorous as it seems.

    • Ashley-Marie

      Sure I agree that the author’s line about being a “CEO by now” was ill-informed (but really it demonstrates something that she’s already told us: she’s not experienced the the ‘traditional’ office job, so yeah she may not understand the pitfalls and challenges that comes with climbing the ladder in a company). Still, I’m turned off more by comments like this where all of a sudden it’s a negative remark about how useless this story is to your personal life. 

      Of course not every woman’s story on LearnVest is going to make a strong reference to how one person may live day-to-day. But the point here is to offer a different perspective, to paint a picture of how other (but not ALL other) women live. More than half the time, the comments sections of stories like this become a rag-fest raining down on the writer who is doing nothing more than sharing her own story. LearnVest is a place to learn about your own finances to gain control over them, not a place to turn negative on other women just because you personally can’t relate. It’s not about showing who is better off or worse off. 

      For the record, I’m one of “those of us” with 2 jobs to make ends meet, whose own personal goal is to pay off credit card debt from a time when I didn’t know any better, so that I can even start saving at all. I can’t personally relate to Ashley Stett’s story from a financial perspective, but truly I applaud her for seeing savings and retirement as a priority and for her level-headed ability to see the challenges of working in an industry with an expiration date. Ashley, I agree with other commenters who mentioned either going back to school part-time in something you’re interested in pursuing further or starting an internship if you do have time available outside of your fit model gigs. Thanks so much for giving us a peek into your life.

    • a different AP

      Ditto.

  • Wheelski

    Years ago I supported myself as an model/actress in New York. I did very well but was smart enough to see that it was a short lived career unless I ended up like a super model which very few models aspire to. I went back to school, earned my masters degree and at the appropriate time, went into the corporate world however, I was still booking gigs on the side. I now have an awesome job in the corporate world yet still have great memories from my time in front of the camera! My suggestion to you would be, keep doing what you are doing but start planning ahead.

  • http://budgetandthebeach.wordpress.com/ Budget & the Beach

    I’m not surprised at all to hear what you’re saying. Thank you for your honesty! And it sounds like you avoided a lot of the pitfalls that can come with that line of work. You sound very driven. As far as transitioning, I think somewhere along the line taking classes that interest you and fitting in internships/entry level jobs when you can find the time. The best time/way to transition is when you are making a decent living in your first career. And also save up as much as you can so you have money to fall back on. Good luck, and you look great on the cover…damn I need to go for a run now. lol! 

    • Epicurious

      Thank you for your honesty an openness in sharing your career and views of life and money with all of us. The expiration date is a good point, but everything has expiration dates, what you have experienced and the lessons you learned is what counts. Let your creative spirit drive you on to the next stage. Good Luck   :)  

  • Kate

    FYI, there is a Model’s union now – but it’s for more than just the models.

    http://modelalliance.org/ 

  • Epicurious

    Thank you for your honesty an openness in sharing your career and views of life and money with all of us. The expiration date is a good point, but everything has expiration dates, what you have experienced and the lessons you learned is what counts. Let your creative spirit drive you on to the next stage. Good Luck   :)  

  • A Hunter

    I am a model, have been since I was a teenager and this article is DEAD accurate. Thank you for writing something that I have been feeling for a few years…it’s somewhat soothing in a strange way to know I’m not alone in how I feel. 

  • Calvinzmom

    http://www.lynda.com You can learn so much there at your own pace and incorporate artistic or technical skills into your own business. You mentioned your dad was in sales. You might ask him what field would he have chosen if he could start over.

  • a different AP

    You were hired at a trendy NYC club for bottle service and made $1000+ a night BECAUSE YOU ARE A MODEL. Sorry, not a story I can relate to OR appreciate.

    • Colleen Oczkowski

      I don’t think it eludes her that she landed that lucrative waitress job because she is beautiful.  She would be stupid not to take it and max out here IRAs and save money.  She knows that she can’t do it forever so why not?  Good for her.  She seems to have a good head shoulders.

  • MAL

    I work in fashion and fit clothing on these models. What do I see these women do when they can’t fit a contemporary size 4 anymore? They become a missy size 6 or 8 and fit catalog clothing. I’ve seen women that have had families and came back to fit for us after they lost their baby weight too. Not saying fashion is an easy industry for models, but I see women that make a life long career from it.

  • Stacy

    I greatly appreciate your article.  I am a parent of two teens who desire to be models and in the entertainment industry.  They are aware of the importance of holding the piece of paper, the degree and or certification.  I have discussed the importance of having multiple strands of income as well as developing the discipline of savings (emergency, rainy day, future, investments).  I have always thought it was important for one to have a skill, so I honed in on each of my daughters talents and helped them to developed them that they will always have something they love to do and can provide an income.  Although it may not be millions, it still is a source of income.  They can read from you’re your perspective about the challenges and realities in your industry.  They can see that every job has its, challenges, pros and cons, highs and lows and at any given time limits in job/financial security.  Whether it is money before passion, passion with lower income in hopes of reaping a larger increase over time, lucrative profit for a job with a limited career lifespan, steady hours vs. on call random hours, and long distance travel vs. local convenience; there is a compromise or sacrifice to much of the decisions we have to make. 
    I particularly like when you explained how you took initiative to move forward and work to support your dream, as opposed to depending on your father.  You also went to school which is a positive thing.  Although you did not major in something you are not passionate about, you still went to college which I think is great.  It was an additional support, especially if the modeling career did not happen for you.  It provided you with options.  Many earn degrees and do not end up with a job in their field of study.  However, nonetheless, the degree gives you options and can increase your entry level salary.
    Thank you for submitting your article.  I’m excited to hear my daughters’ feedback.

  • Nozy1

    This is really good stuff! You’re a good writer with great style. Keep it up.

  • Northquote

     I’m really glad someone so young & having the time of her life is equally down to earth.  While not many may make it to be a model or earn 1K a night, the basic values are the same.  If you know Asians, you’ll understand the extent we go regarding looks; living in another country, I’ve friends who earn 3x – yet nothing’s left by month-end.  Things may be dirt-cheap but logic questions the rationale for having 50pairs of shoes or 500 pcs of clothes.  So at the end of the day, its really not HOW much we earn, but HOW we live our lives/spend our money.  Little things do add up; living frugally has allowed me to take holidays & tour places for the 3rd time all within 3 months.

  • Levent Islek

    Hi, my book “THE WOLF WITH A BELL” coming soon to all markets. You can ask from, (www.shaker-media.nl)
    Levent Islek

  • Golddigger

    Really, this story is hogwash….feel sorry for me bimbo making 1k….waitressing ohhhh and ur not hot ashley. That jack ass boyffriend dave grutman of urs shows ur gold digging ways. Frugal model haha yeah right. More like fugly model

  • http://thebrokeandbeautifullife.com/ Stefanie @ brokeandbeau

    Great post Ashley! As an NYC musical theater actress I relate with so much of your experience. Making it work is tough and definitely not for everyone. Learning the value of a dollar and how to make it last is a lesson to learn right away.

  • momof321

    I think it is incredible that you were able to take advantage of the opportunities presented to you at that time in your life. 30 is still very young and it would not be out of the question for you to start somewhere entry level and work your way up to CEO. It sounds like you have a solid financial ground, and if something in the business world interests you I highly suggest you go for it. You sound very positive, humble and smart, just want most businesses need!