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I felt exploited, as did many of my peers, and yet all of us felt we couldn’t speak out because getting a reputation as being “difficult” or “demanding” could kill your fledgling career. I became a model in 2013, when I was in my third year of studying English and French literature at Oxford University.I had moved to Paris as part of my studies, and my teenage interest in fashion was reborn.I was exhausted after 14 hours of castings, and so I did what I was told and removed my undershirt to reveal my rather pallid chest.After a quick glance, the casting director returned to his seat in the adjacent room and muttered to his stylist, “He’s beautiful, but he’s fat.” Sound travels easily in a hard-floored warehouse; I had moved to the changing room, but I heard his words clearly. I had walked the catwalk twice at Paris Fashion Week, worked with a range of talented photographers and stylists, and was part of a world filled with staggeringly beautiful people.I had always been excited by the pace of the industry and found the processes behind designing and creating these garments fascinating. Three days after arriving in Paris in September 2013, I headed out to a gay club, exhausted (from the move) and a little drunk (from the vodka).A guy across the room with stubble and chiseled cheekbones caught my attention; when I ventured out into the street for a cigarette, he followed.
The following weekend, we shot a series of portraits. And a few months later, he sent me to one of Paris’s most prestigious modeling agencies. That I was “unsuitable.”A chance encounter with another casting director in early 2014 led to an invitation to visit a modeling agency.Sara Ziff, founder of the Model Alliance, a New York City nonprofit labor organization advocating for greater protection of models, says male models face a uniquely difficult situation.“I definitely think that men have just as many labor-related concerns as women, if not more,” says Ziff, a longtime model. It’s an industry that has escaped any real regulation for decades.”The models and insiders I spoke with for this story were often hesitant to talk for fear of reprisals, and many requested anonymity.When most people think of exploitation in modeling, they think of young women and girls walking the catwalk with alarmingly protruding hips and angular shoulders, or they remember the lurid tales of celebrity photographers manipulating or coercing young women into sex acts.Muscle-bound male models with perfect cheekbones and fat paychecks? But as I found during my short career as a male model, men and boys are increasingly at risk in the odd, unregulated workplace that is the fashion world.