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.
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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.
Follow Ashley on Twitter @thefrugalmodel