Model Shelbi Byrnes, 20, won’t be rolling up to New York Fashion Week in an Escalade flanked by bodyguards. The 5-foot-9 strutter isn’t guaranteed a spot in shows, even the ones she was cast in and fitted for earlier that same week. She may not even get paid.
“People glamorize Fashion Week a lot, like it’s an amazing magical thing,” Byrnes tells The Post. But in reality? “It’s a grind. It’s a hustle.” She’s been attending up to 10 castings per day in the lead up to Fashion Week, which kicked off Wednesday, and will continue to do so in the days ahead.
Byrnes falls under the category of what Kendall Jenner — the world’s highest-paid model — recently dubbed “those girls.” As in: “I was never one of those girls who would do like 30 shows a season, or whatever the f–k those girls do,” as Jenner told LOVE magazine last month.
Though Jenner later claimed that her words were taken out of context, tweeting, “It was intended to be entirely complimentary,” members of the catwalking community didn’t take it that way.
“ ‘Those girls’ make exponentially less for the same job as you . . . [and they] have to show up ON TIME,” high-fashion model Teddy Quinlivan wrote on Jenner’s Instagram.
Model Peyton Knight, who ate pickles from bodegas in lieu of meals during her first Fashion Week in 2015, tells The Post that she felt “triggered” by Jenner’s quote. “She was discounting girls who aren’t famous and aren’t born into rich families,” she says. “[It’s like] their work is nothing, like it’s not that hard to do.”
While Jenner, who boasts 94.9 million Instagram followers and netted $22 million in 2017, can be found passing Fashion Week in posh hotels and posing backstage with the likes of Alexander Wang, lesser-known models have much bleaker experiences. Runway hopefuls often strut for little to no money, cram into crowded and expensive apartments and face pressure to stay slim at any cost — including starvation, purging and drugs.
While industry insiders say that highly sought-after models such as Jenner can rake in as much as hundreds of thousands for walking in a show, lesser-known models are often paid in merchandise or store credit — if they’re paid at all.
‘[Kendall] was discounting girls who aren’t famous and aren’t born into rich families’
“The word everyone likes to use is ‘exposure.’ They’ll say, ‘Oh, I won’t pay you money, but it’s great exposure,’ ” 18-year-old Rachael Pope, who recently signed with the modeling agency ANTHM and has walked in smaller shows in New York, tells The Post.
In Knight’s experience, NYFW pays “in trade a lot.” That’s part of why she’s put her pickle-eating days behind her. “How many purses does one woman need? I have two shoulders, I don’t need five purses,” says the model, who’s since shot more lucrative print ads for Hermès and Alexander Wang.
What it boils down to, model Byrnes tells The Post, is that “you don’t make a lot of money doing Fashion Week unless you’re famous.” 19-year-old Paris Al-Atraqchi walked in five shows last Fashion Week, and “didn’t get paid a dime.”
Worse, models find themselves spiraling into “debt” with their agencies when “work doesn’t come straight away,” says Knight. Often, models who travel from other states or countries will stay in agency-owned “model’s houses”: two- and three-bedroom apartments that sleep up to six girls in each room. Byrnes, who’s from Las Vegas, stayed in NYC modeling housing in June 2015 when she was 17. Her rent, she says, “was close to $3,000 per month … for a bunk bed.” This time around, she’s staying in an Airbnb with two other models.
Even crazier than the cost of housing is the culture inside them. Though agencies, which tend to own a few apartments in each fashion week city, hire “house moms” to ensure that the space is liveable and to look after models, there’s a lot they can’t, or choose not to, control.
For example, drug use — a major issue in general for young models — can run rampant in houses, where peer pressure abounds. “I was extremely vulnerable to being influenced by other people’s behaviors,” says Knight, reflecting on her first show season in an NYC model apartment. “I was lucky to avoid the party scene.”
Byrnes personally remembers drug use among women she knew from model apartments. “A lot of them do cocaine like it’s nothing, like it’s water,” she says. “It was crazy. I feel like that’s why so many girls are so skinny.”
Another factor beyond house-mom control: dangerous dieting strategies. The pressure to stay thin is already crazy during Fashion Week, and Knight remembers it being even worse in the model apartment. “I felt like I couldn’t eat normally” around the other women, she says. “They would talk about food and diets all the time, and that really sinks in. It got to the point where I lost so much weight I was too skinny for certain designers.”
And the pressure isn’t just coming from peers: Al-Atraqchi recalls that when a friend’s agent found out she was “allergic to a kind of seafood, [the] agent told her to eat it so that she would throw up and lose weight.”
Industry leaders aren’t deaf to complaints from inside the industry, which have grown louder in light of the #MeToo movement. In August, Vogue announced that models under 18 would no longer grace its editorial pages, and the CFDA, the unofficial sponsor of Fashion Week, has voiced support for the minimum age requirement.
Sara Ziff, who runs Model Alliance, a nonprofit that advocates for models’ labor rights, thinks it’s “great” to see movement in the models’ rights campaign — but it’s not enough. Unless standards are more seriously outlined and enforced, “we know those aren’t really standards — they’re more aspirational guidelines,”she tells The Post.
Al-Atraqchi, who waited backstage for 14 hours before walking in an unpaid show last Fashion Week, doesn’t have high hopes for change this year. “I’m going to work all the time, and I’m not going to make even a quarter of what I could make [the rest of the year doing modeling work],” she says. “I almost just want to go to LA and say, ‘Screw it.’ ”
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