Model at 14, international catwalk star at 16, Laragh McCann describes her career as a toxic relationship of incredible highs and validation with a flip side of unspoken danger, shame and disregard. She argues the fashion industry will continue to be dominated by men, misogyny and money, until those within it add their voices to the calls for change
FOLLOWING the highly publicised Harvey Weinstein scandal, social media has tumbled forth hundreds of similar stories in copious other industries.
The one that hit home for me was the campaign spearheaded by supermodel Cameron Russell. Not only is Cameron a model, she gave one of the most popular TED talks of all time on the power of image. She’s produced viral video content and written about topics ranging from climate change and race to power equality.
My admiration for her skyrocketed when she started her Instagram campaign sharing anonymous stories from people within the fashion industry who were subjected to sexual harassment. Within days, dozens of stories were shared.
From my own experiences, I have huge respect for fashion in its purest forms — the intangible parts; cultivating a sense of identity and expressing ones place in the world.
I have a scepticism for everything else. I learned more during my time as a model through the chaotic experiences of trial and error, early responsibility and independence, travel and through the friends I made then I did in any other educational or professional capacity.
The most difficult and steep learning curve was having my sense of identity demolished throughout my experience being a model. This has made me the person I am today with a freedom from any fear of missing out or belief in industry mystique.
I started modelling in Ireland in 2004 when I was 14, and gained international success at the age of 16.
When I read the stories appearing on Cameron’s Instagram page by the hour, I did not feel shocked — I felt numb. None of it made me bat an eyelid. I messaged her my story — a random scenario that resurfaced in my memories from many.
Within minutes she replied with a: “thanks for sharing”, an apology for what I had experienced, and a love heart.
I was surprised at the whirl of emotion that welled up within me, a relief I wasn’t aware I needed and a sense of companionship through hardship that I’ve rarely felt on this level.
I also felt confused, it’s a strange feeling to be on the crest of a cultural change, one that redefines how I perceive a decade of my life.
Modelling being sold to the world as exclusive and sought after clouds one’s judgement on what is actually happening.
It certainly clouds an onlooker’s opinion of what a model should feel — this fabricated acclaim left an inability to question things or create any fundamental changes there were needed.
Before I started out, I had an outside view. I saw a mysterious world that was incredibly glamorous, the girls were goddesses, it seemed so far and above me and my small life.
I felt honoured to be part of this entirely new world, with new encounters, new experiences and new challenges and I worked very hard. Before I started modelling, I lived and went to school in Dublin. I started working in Paris the summer following my Junior Cert. Who was I to question at that stage in my life, in this world that I was lucky to be a part of, what behaviour was acceptable and what wasn’t?
The negative feelings I had then were abstract, undeveloped and seemingly not shared by anyone in the spinning landscape around me. Calling out these feelings would have created a dynamic against people whose opinion I lived off, unravelled the dream I was part of, and discarded me out of it. I wanted to be liked and have no confrontation.
My modelling career gained further momentum and my horizons were broadened as I began to work all over Europe, New York and Los Angeles. This garnered attention from media in Ireland and abroad.
As the stakes mounted, I became more obsessed with what I was able to control to stay in the game, which was my looks. What slowly started to happen is that my prior identity containing my family, school friends, love of sport, love of art and animals, became diluted down to my measurements staying at 32in bust, 24in waist, 34in hips and 175cm height.
When you’re getting the highest social validation through maintaining childlike proportions only natural to few, achieved through subtle, manipulative, character defaming techniques by people with power over you, and disregarding every other part of your identity — something is very wrong.
What looks like power was actually the exact opposite — a rigid form of control and an illusionary trend on beauty that spread lack of self-acceptance, mental health problems, and fed capitalism within the beauty industry.
It’s that harmful juxtaposition that demands a deep need to decontextualise what this false idea of beauty and power actually is. True radiance is multi-faceted and born from self-love.
The more I became successful, diminished and sexualised on a massively weakened identity, the more I disassociated from the world around me. I developed anxiety, consistent bouts of depression, an eating disorder and drank a lot.
Away from family, friends and familiar terrain for months and years at a time, my need for connection was higher than ever. When I received overt attention from a man or a woman objectifying me on a job, I felt confused feelings of longing for intimacy and a feeling of profound alienation, lack of safety and no self-worth.
My work continued to carry me to other parts of the world such as South East Asia, Tokyo, Singapore and Sydney — common ports of call for any international model.
The cultural differences and rules of engagement became even more blurry in these terrains. In Tokyo at 17, I worked an average of 16 hours a day for five weeks, the system of castings, jobs and contracts is rock solid and efficient there.
My measurements were on my contract so I hardly ate. Japanese clients loved youth and fragility. I loved working there, but I left exactly like they wanted — fragile.
In Sydney, one seemingly nice girl I lived with attempted many times to pimp me out to ‘silver foxes’ who liked to sleep with models. I experienced close to a meltdown after staying there — although I didn’t communicate this to home, because I wanted to continue working and my clarity of what was going on was still warped by the acclaim I was receiving.
A COUPLE of weeks after Sydney, the most dismantling of all my trips after months away from home, where I was stripped of most of my strength, was in South East Asia.
On my first day there, I travelled jetlagged on a bus in the dark to a casting. Upon request, I got into my underwear in front of a grim room of strangers. I was measured, was physically handled by the photographer in an effort to arch my back, photographed and then I left.
A standard process I did many times, although this was carried out in such a way that it stands out as a memory. I worked with that photographer many times during my trip.
I was measured by my agents every time I went in (common worldwide practice), they told me to not eat, to not swim in case it bulked up my arms, as a good example of an ambitious model.
They told me a 16-year-old Russian girl I lived with had fainted on a photoshoot the day prior, it meant she was trying to lose weight.
I internalised these comments in the guise of professional advice as I was secluded from everything else and I developed a deep need for the validation the industry provided.
Another aspect of what was dismantling here was the accommodation. I lived in a high rise flat with conveyor belts of girls moving in and out from all over the world, mainly from Brazil and Russia.
The average age of the inhabitants was 15. We slept on nine bunk-beds and payed astronomical rent. At one stage, we had no wifi, electricity or hot water for a week.
Models were scouted into this
system from all socio-economic backgrounds, without child labour laws to protect them.
The ones without means, or fashion significance, were systemically unattended to. Many models went into debt.
Promoters and predators loomed on the fringes, appearing at every turn to envelope these people into their toxic cycle.
Some girls, who were as young as 16, developed real feelings for the promoters and had casual sexual relationships with them.
Some girls gained an emotional and financial dependency. Men would pick the models up from the high rise flat they lived in and bring them to the best restaurants and clubs in the world.
Alongside the models’ looks, this was another outward appearance that threw a spanner in people’s perception of their position. I was lucky — this was a temporary experience for me, I achieved success and came from a good home that I could return to.
What is barbaric is how flippantly the lives of these girls was handled. They were mostly sweet and very young — essentially school kids, scouted into the system without actually choosing this profession.
Everybody thought, “it’s not my job to deal with that”. As well as calling out individual perpetrators, and isolating individual moments of harassment, I think it’s important to shine a light on the living situations, vulnerable casting dynamics, and unhealthy skinny aesthetics of your average model working abroad.
If sexual harassment ensues on top of this foundation, the victims — both male and female — are really grappling at straws to be able to see it, let alone do anything about it.
But who is responsible for this? The answer, any adult who took part in or turned a blind eye to sexual harassment to preserve their self-interests, who is perpetuating a one-dimensional idea of a woman, who is sticking to unattainable skinny aesthetics within their pages or on their runways — is responsible.
This kind of carry on seems far away to us sitting in Ireland, but it is on the covers of fashion bibles we see everyday.
For me, it was part of the whole experience of being a model, a toxic relationship of incredible highs and validation with a flip side of unspoken danger, shame and disregard.
Whether successful or not, in a job that entails transient and transactional intimacy, far from being the anomaly that boundaries are crossed, harassment lives in the status quo to be objectified and for models to be considered disposable.
Back to familiar terrain such as New York, Paris, and London, where I would flit back and forth, the status quo of castings, measurements, model apartments, runway, were more palatable given the higher quality dream which was attached and the way they are carried out is in a culture thats more charming and more creative.
FASHION’S purpose is to reflect the world it’s in — the different cultures, political evolutions, disarray, celebration or whatever is happening — to mirror the feeling of the moment and put it on clothes to be worn.
It has created a seamless numeric system to reflect this on the runway — X amount of models per show, Y amount of looks per show, sample sizes and models measurements to be exact, models start at X age, contracts at every stage.
Instead of pondering what cultural phenomenon to reflect on this system, I question where the actual system fits in with the multifaceted woman striving to be taken seriously today.
What stands out stronger as a statement — a model walking down the runway to be admired, or the T-Shirt she is wearing stating she is a feminist? The former.
As long as she’s on the runway with no other form of expression to own but her looks, the T-Shirt’s statement will never truly be real.
Despite seeing some wonderful humans master the modelling game and leave unscathed, despite all the amazing things I saw being a model, and the incredible friends I made, the intrinsic defamation to mine and woman’s overall self-worth cannot be allowed to continue.
The core of the industry needs to be reframed. The systems in place claiming to upkeep excellence and exclusivity I now see as a process that is numeric and cold, with terrible values entrenched seamlessly in it. It is neither creative nor interesting.
It’s boring and over-done. I believe if we relinquish these core control systems of polaroids, measurements, and runways, that have defined the industry for so long, and that no longer fits in with the full spectrum of what a woman is, we will gain access to all our latent attributes that have been suppressed when we strived to fit into the fashion mould.
Money will always win over beauty — and as it is now, women will always be at a disadvantage to men.
With people like Donald Trump in power, the urgency for reform is palpable. We need to leave the casino. The house always wins. The outside is waiting and it’s a lot more interesting.
What Cameron has so bravely done is reveal the harassment invisible in its ubiquity, systemic in every thread of the industry; sexual and physiological.
It’s amazing and I feel lighter, happier and so grateful to her and all the others who shared their stories.
Alongside the solidarity created by all the girls, and the blacklisting of notable photographers, actual law enforcement is taking place in New York.
State assembly woman Nily Rozic, a Democrat from Queens, announced on October 17 that she would introduce an amendment to the state’s current anti-discrimination laws.
Despite the significant control that modelling agencies and clients exert over models’ working lives, they generally insist that models are independent contractors, not employees.
As contractors, models do not benefit from the laws intended to curb sexual harassment on the job and protect models. The amendment would attempt, in effect, to create a human resources department in an industry that has had none, despite the average age of models starting into the industry being between 13 and 16 years old.
Female trailblazers are channelling and shifting the power of the industry, adding new dimensions to the now outdated term “supermodel” such as Karlie Kloss, Cara Delevinge and Adwoa Aboah leading the charge in female empowerment.
They are much more than supermodels. They’re using their platform to unravel stigma around mental health through film, inclusive websites, business, discussion, coding and art. They are harnessing the power of the internet, spreading
self-acceptance and bursting through identity fallacy allowing everyone to express their selves as they see fit.
Ashley Graham is spreading positive body awareness on the catwalk and on her Ted talk.
Intersex advocate Hanne Gaby and transgender Teddy Quinlivan are swiftly discarding gender stereotypes and fashion is now becoming ethnically diverse.
Designer Miuccia Prada has introduced Woman’s Tales — a filmmaking initiative of only female directors as a new way to showcase her clothes. This is a brand that speaks clearly, with clear methods, to a woman’s nuanced curiosity, creativity and intelligence via fashion which is phenomenal.
Brands with a good ethos towards every member of its workforce and sustainable practises are what lift spirits.
Glamour will always exist in passionate people, there will always be the need for expression and to celebrate what it is to be human.
The changes lately are a wonderful burst of creative destruction paving the way for new avenues in which woman can explore expressing the multi-facets of their being.
This perception effects anyone who is subliminally affected by fashion, which is everyone. The changes are uniting and revealing us woman to be much more than our looks. Which when we were fed the illusion that that’s all we were, made us so easy to abuse.
I hope that by adding my support to the wonderful work of Cameron Russell, Sara Ziff, and all the other brave woman speaking up, that I can further fuel the conversation happening across all industries.
I hope it encourages people to trust their gut and not what’s popular when considering what they desire for the future.
I also encourage anyone deciding to pursue a career as a model to not forget all the other things that shape them — kindness, passions, friends. They are what will give you strength and fulfilment.
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