News & Runway

Co-Creator of the Model’s Bill of Rights, Simone Aptekman, Shares Her Thoughts on the Modeling Industry

Image: Courtesy of Rayan Ayash

All that glitters is not gold and that certainly holds true when it comes to the modeling industry. From not getting paid to sexual harassment to threats of deportation, model Simone Aptekman has experienced, seen and heard it all. Outraged by the lack of respect models are given, she worked with Federico Pignatelli, owner of The Industry Model MGMT and Pier59 Studios, to create the Model’s Bill of Rights, which sets specific standards and guidelines to mitigate financial duress and protect models’ fundamental rights.

We spoke with Aptekman to find out more about her background, experiences in the industry and how she became an activist.

theFashionSpot: How did you get into modeling?

Simone Aptekman: While I was studying at Babson College, I was simultaneously modeling for a small but lovely agency in Boston called Maggie Inc. I remember speeding down the highway with exam study guides sprawled all over my lap trying to make it in time for a bikini cover shoot for the Boston Herald. I went on to be the youngest female in Boston to attain her master’s degree in business. I was deeply entrenched in the rigor of a full-time master’s program so I was constantly forgoing modeling opportunities. I decided to make a pact with myself: upon graduation, I would move to New York, enter into a larger market and allocate my full time to modeling.

When I moved to New York, I found myself at an art opening where I was scouted to shoot a month-long fashion editorial/art collection in Vietnam, China, Cambodia and Laos. The shoot was an incredibly poignant moment in my life of self-discovery as a model. The set was unconventional — every day the terrain would change. My tolerance to any possible set situation grew beyond proportion. Most models cannot say that their first shoot took place in a Third World country for a month so I was experiencing something that others would possibly experience well into their careers. I was learning as I went and began to truly develop as a model in Vietnam. Today, these art pieces are displayed in different galleries around the world.

Back in New York, after being represented and working for an agency that I didn’t feel aligned with, I was scouted at a restaurant by the owners of The Industry Model MGMT and began to really identify with modeling. I am currently represented by The Industry Model MGMT New York, Los Angeles, Miami as well as MP Management Atlanta.

tFS: What would people be surprised about when it comes to the modeling industry?

SA: How entrepreneurial models have to be to set themselves apart and develop their own unique brand. My business acumen is interwoven in my approach to my modeling career and that is what makes me unique. That is what fuels my tenacity every day to work hard and be accountable. That is what fuels my professionalism. That is what keeps me grounded and rational and what enables me to realize that modeling is a job — there are ups and downs and the rejections should in no way tarnish your self-esteem.

Image: Courtesy of Jorge Aguilera

tFS: What are some specific scenarios that led you to work on the Model’s Bill of Rights?

SA: I myself had been undergoing grievances (mainly in the form of withheld payments) in my previous representation. While in a SLT Pilates class, I overheard a few models talking about similar experiences and I became privy to the fact that I wasn’t alone. I decided to host a symposium in my apartment and invited 12 models from different agencies. They shared their stories; I documented them all. A lot of these models were on 0-1 visas sponsored by their agencies and therefore were scared to speak up so I became the voice for them.

One scenario I documented was truly appalling. A model did many hours of work, mind you overtime work, for a large automotive brand. The job was lucrative. Months went by…no payment from her agency. Upon reaching out to her agency, they reported that the client had not paid. The model contacted the automotive company and they had sent her a photo of a check that was sent four months prior and it had been redacted immediately by the agency. Last time I checked, this is blatant fraud. The model was then paid a smaller portion of what was due to her because the agency fabricated expenses.

Worst thing about this scenario was that the agency threatened to deport the model if she took action. She filed a claim in small claims court to receive her money and had to spend thousands of dollars on a lawyer, which etched away at her payment for the job which was rightfully hers! As someone who concentrated in contract law in college, I was beside myself that models are falling prey to predatory contracts, myself included. This is when I began to draft the Model’s Bill of Rights.

tFS: Can you tell us a little bit about the Model’s Bill of Rights?

SA: I collaborated with Federico Pignatelli, owner of The Industry Model MGMT and Pier59 Studios, to create the Model’s Bill of Rights Movement, which sets specific standards and guidelines to mitigate financial duress and protect models’ fundamental rights, ensures safe working conditions and promotes education for models to understand the legalese in contracts. I was the voice for the models, having documented an entire manuscript of grievances, and Federico had the wheelhouse to expose this reality as he is a major industry leader.

Standardization is crucial. My goal is to have every agency provide a copy of the Model’s Bill of Rights with a copy of the contract to the model so they can be informed and in a position of strength upon signing their contract. I recently went live on a podcast for iHeartRadio where I discussed the purpose and goals of the Model’s Bill of Rights Movement. My hope is to see heightened transparency regarding contracts, working visas, payment and taxes so that models have more control over their careers in order to protect their present and future.

tFS: How has the Model’s Bill of Rights been received by the industry?

SA: I am happy to see that the Model’s Bill of Rights is gaining significant traction. I believe it is a very timely and relevant movement. Many models have come forward, sharing their grievances related to sexual harassment. Financial duress is another form of abuse. We have held numerous press conferences at Pier59 Studios where models and many key industry figures attended as well as the Associated Press and other media outlets that have circulated the movement.

I can say that not all agencies pledged to implement the Model’s Bill of Rights as a practice. These agencies thrive off of predatory contracts, but hosting these symposiums, press conferences and starting this conversation has enabled models to have resources and education. I hope any aspiring model reading this takes a copy of their contract home when they are offered representation and reads the contract before signing, amending it in any way they see fit. These are the kinds of conversations and suggestions we offer to models when we host press conferences and gatherings.

tFS: What would you say to a model who is being mistreated but is afraid about speaking out for fear of not getting booked in the future?

SA: If the model is experiencing financial duress, I would advise them to send detailed statements to their booker and cc the accounting department that show date/client/hours/rate to exemplify that they are keeping track of all of their jobs. If payment is withheld past the contractually promised pay period, this is material breach of contract and enables the model to be released from the contract if they so choose. I would advise the model to then refrain from accepting work until they are paid what is rightfully owed to them because there is no evidence that they will be paid for future work and will be continually taken advantage of.

If the model is mistreated on set, they should immediately notify their booker/team and communicate their concerns. They should not have to tolerate anything that makes them feel uncomfortable or in danger; feeling safe trumps losing one client — there are plenty of other clients out there that in due time will book them and they will have more positive experiences.

tFS: As much as we have brands embracing different sizes, models are still far and away very skinny. How many models would you say are as healthy and active as they portray themselves on social media?

SA: Unfortunately, I think many models implement diets and workout regimens that are not sustainable. The word “diet” is totally tainted. People have misconstrued diet to mean suppression of food when in reality diet is nutritious consumption. Relating to nutrition, my motto is just as quickly as you lose, is just as quickly as you’ll gain. If you are starving and working out intensely to look good for those swim digital pics coming up, you may very well shed weight and look the way you want for those snaps, BUT you will quickly bloat and gain back even more…your body will punish you! TRUST ME, I’ve been there. Instead, you want to change the composition of your body over time by implementing realistic and healthy measures that work for YOU. It’s not one size fits all and it really is all about being consistent.

In terms of the optics on social media, I actually believe that models are accurately documenting their hard work to stay fit by posting their workout routines and healthy food creations. So I would say most working models nowadays are as healthy as they portray on social media, it’s those models that are trying to break into the industry that may be misconstruing the meaning of “diet” and taking it too far, as I myself did in the early stages.

tFS: Do brands and/or agencies put pressure on models to portray themselves as fit/healthy?

SA: Absolutely. Nowadays optics are critical and social media is a platform that is as much vetted as a model’s portfolio when a client/brand is booking a model. Therefore, agencies encourage models to portray relevant content on social media showcasing their active lifestyle. The point is to be relatable, but also aspirational for your audience. This pressure is not necessarily bad, it is just quintessential of our times — if one chooses to partake in the model/entertainment industry, he/she has to be willing to share their lifestyle and to be a mentor to others on fitness and nutrition.

tFS: What would you say to people who feel bad about themselves because they can’t live up to the ideal presented by models? 

SA: I would say this: your journey is personal to you! Keep your goals realistic to your own personal body composition and be the best version of YOU. Find exercise that makes you happy and patterns of eating that are doable and healthy. For me, it’s Pilates, barre, smoothies in the morning, yummy chicken and kale salads and a fatty fish or sushi for dinner.

I do believe that the beauty ideal has totally gotten unrealistic and morphed, specifically how it is presented on social media. I would tell them to not confuse that with real life and not to become dysmorphic about their image as compared to an altered/Photoshopped image on Instagram. Beauty really does shine from within. If anybody is curious about great workout studios, skin care or nutrition, please DM me and I would be happy to chat! I am happy to say I have implemented a healthy lifestyle that works for me and would love others to achieve the same.

 tFS: If you could start over, would you still get into modeling?

SA: Yes, I would. I had the book smarts; my experiences with modeling gave me my street smarts. The risks I took associated with modeling and breaking into the industry have made me quite fearless and I don’t think I would be this adventurous, active and artistic if I didn’t go into modeling. Modeling has been a wonderful springboard for me into other crafts — specifically writing poetry and acting — and activism. As a result of modeling, I started a movement I am passionate about because I was able to entwine my business/law acumen into the modeling world and seek justice and fairness for models in the industry at large. I started off as a model and today I am a budding role model.

I can honestly say that modeling has heightened my awareness of body image. As a result of modeling and the pressure, I have become critical of myself, but luckily today I channel this awareness into healthy solutions. I do wish that I had more resources and guidance prior to entering into a bigger market like New York. I worked so hard to break into the industry and was so elated to get my start that I did not carefully read my contract and instead placed a lot of trust in others. I urge models to exercise due diligence and take their time reading and signing anything. That is why I co-founded the Model’s Bill of Rights. I want other models to break into the industry informed and empowered.