The Dark Side Of Modelling

  • by Vivienne Austin

The fashion industry has faced ongoing issues of diversity and abuse. Recently, the Sunday Times conducted an investigation into the potential exploitation of models by agencies and talent scouts who lure young individuals from economically challenged African nations with promises of a better future. 

This investigation revealed that modelling agencies are actively recruiting young people who have escaped war-torn African nations and are struggling with poverty. Although they participate in fashion castings in Europe, a significant number of individuals return within days or weeks, often burdened with considerable debts.



The Sunday Times’ investigation focused on aspiring models from the Kakuma refugee camp in northwestern Turkana County, Kenya in particular. Established by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in 1992, the camp primarily serves displaced individuals from countries like Sudan and Ethiopia. The agency responsible for recruiting models issues government-approved work permits to those who pass the initial recruitment phase, allowing them to leave the refugee camp and proceed to Nairobi. There, they receive passports and visas and are equipped with accommodations and a weekly allowance ranging from €70 to €100.

The journey to success is far from guaranteed though, and many models who fail to secure sufficient paid work or are deemed unfit for the industry return to Kenya with substantial debts owed to the agencies that lured them with promises of prosperity. Moreover, many models are considered too malnourished or inexperienced for the demanding world of modelling.


The investigation uncovered several stories of disappointment and debt, like the one of the 23-year-old model Alcol Malaul Jau from South Sudan, who shared her own experiences of modelling. The young woman made her debut on the catwalk last February but after six months, however, she found herself back in her shared hut with her family, holding a balance sheet that revealed a debt of approximately €3,000. The agency who recruited Jau, Select Model Management, claimed that the feedback from clients on her had been less favourable. The agency’s CEO, Matteo Puglisi, expressed his regrets, stating that although the agency had lost a lot of money on her, they were also refraining from pursuing legal action of what it was due to them. A statement that has everything but kindness and understanding, in our opinion. Just like Jau, there are many other disappointing modelling stories out there like the one of Nyabalang Gatwech Pur Yien, who even attempted her own life after being sent back to her refugee camp with almost €3,000 of debt and no paid work.



However, there are also success stories. Some individuals, such as Rejoice Chuol and Mari Malek, are making their mark in the fashion industry. Chuol recently appeared in a magazine ad for H&M and graced the runway for Dolce & Gabbana at Milan Fashion Week. Malek is establishing Runways to Freedom, a group that supports refugees in the industry. She emphasised the importance of African, dark-skinned, and black models, particularly those from South Sudan, renowned for their striking beauty and powerful presence.


Select Model Management,  which has the likes of David Gandy and Devon Aoki, has announced they will conduct an investigation and revamp their approach to working with models, since the Sunday Times investigation has taken place. But unfortunately, this one agency is not the only one exploiting these young girls, and we can only hope this and future investigations will stop this cycle of unfairness.


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