Ashley Mears grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta and got her first copy of Vogue, she recalls, at age 13. Two years later, after entering a model-search contest held at her local mall, she landed representation with an Atlanta booking agency and began picking up odd modeling jobs after school – catalog shoots and mall fashion shows. It was mostly for fun. Her more dependable after-school earnings came from her job at a movie theater, where she was paid minimum wage and got free popcorn.
And yet she kept modeling – something of a hustle already in those early days – for years, motivated by the promise of an eventual big payoff. Later, she spent hours of her limited free time as a sociology student at the University of Georgia driving to Atlanta for fittings and department store gigs, prepping for shoots, and waiting on call for jobs that could happen at a moment’s notice, all for annual earnings of around $5,000, less than she might have earned at a conventional campus job. It didn’t bother her at the time. “I thought I was going to be a huge success and I’d travel the world and it would be very glamorous,” she says. And for a while it was: During summer breaks, Mears traveled to Osaka, Japan, and Milan, Italy. And she spent about six months after graduation working in Asia, pulling in approximately $50,000 in 2002 – slightly more than the typical recent college grad at the time earned in a full year and far more than her peers working in New York (models, she says, often go to Asia to “cash out”). By the time she was 23, though, – over the hill for a model still trying to make the big time – she had packed up her portfolio and gone to graduate school to pursue a PhD in sociology.
But her early career wasn’t an experience that would go to waste. Just months later, a model scout noticed Mears while she was waiting in line at a Manhattan Starbucks and was eager to sign her up. The encounter led her to focus her sociology studies on the modeling industry and, in the grand ethnographic tradition of embedding within a field to study it more closely, to go back to the profession herself. It was a move that would eventually lead to a position as an assistant professor at Boston University and the publication of her new academic book, Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model.
To write the book, Mears spent more than three years doing research and interviewing models, agents, and clients. Pricing Beauty describes the industry as glamorous, yes, though marked by a particular kind of struggle. The pay can be low, the working conditions harsh, and the workers’ expectations often unrealistic. At the same time, it is sustained by a glut of laborers – many of them imported from abroad – who are willing, or resigned, to work for little more than the promise of glamour and fortune. It’s a winner-take-all setup, with few participants reaping the rewards. For every Kate Moss, Mears writes, there are literally thousands of other girls and women who have sacrificed years of their youth and come away with very little. Many are in debt to their agencies for essentials like housing and visas before they even begin to work, and the physical requirements are intense. Mears describes models who, though not the norm, feel enough pressure to stay thin that they turn to extreme exercising, high-protein low-fat shakes, unhealthy diets, or pharmaceuticals such as Adderall, which suppresses appetite. And the older a model gets, writes Mears, the more she “exudes failure.” There’s no shortage of models washed up by their mid-20s.
As she pursued her doctoral coursework at New York University, Mears worked fashion shows, did some print jobs. Though coached to lie about her age by as much as five years, she was by far more successful the second time around. She scored a few fairly prestigious gigs; she began to generate “buzz.” At one point, evidence of the industry’s power of seduction, Mears now says, she was tempted to abandon her studies and pursue modeling full time, though she was not then making enough money to support herself. “My agents were saying really appealing things,” she says, “like that I was the breakout girl of the season.” Her calendar was filling up.
Breakout girl or not, as Mears found, the most lucrative jobs – typically catalog and other mainstream work – are not desirable, and the models who take them are regarded as lowbrow. High fashion – runway modeling, ad campaigns, and editorial work – is by far the most prestigious sector of the industry. But prestige is often traded for compensation: A daylong shoot for Vogue might have paid a model $150 at the time Mears was working in the industry. If the model made it onto the cover, she got a few hundred dollars more.
While she came at her research from a feminist perspective, Mears didn’t set out to indict the modeling or fashion industries, as social critics have done before, for creating unrealistic expectations of women and therefore inspiring unhealthy habits among society as a whole. In fact, most bookers and clients she interviewed seemed to share her feminist sensibility. “They don’t agree that a 14-year-old who looks emaciated should be the standard; they don’t want that for their children, but they can’t get out of it, either,” she says. “You have a collective-action problem: Bookers anticipate what a client wants, while a client selects from the pool of models supplied.” Instead, Mears looked at modeling more from a labor and marketing standpoint: How does one succeed as a model when the “it” look is always changing – androgynous or ultra-feminine, approachable or fierce – and the labor pool so very vast? What determines which model’s look will be in one season and out another? How do people work together in conditions of uncertainty, when they’re not sure what it is they’re supposed to be producing? “Unlike most other professions, in modeling, there’s no objective measures of worth to strive for,” she says. “And that’s the problem that weighs down on the models, and also their agents and the clients. Everyone is facing the same perpetual dilemma: What’s going to be the coveted ‘look’?”
Of course, not just anyone can up and decide to become a model – for sociological research purposes or otherwise – and the good looks that led Mears to modeling and, eventually, to her field of study also made her an object of suspicion among her academic peers. “I would hear occasional things from other faculty like ‘Maybe people don’t take your work seriously,’ ” says Mears, who taught parts of Pricing Beauty in a nevertheless popular BU seminar she led last semester called Culture, Markets, and Inequality. In academia, there’s a sense that fashion – or even caring about one’s looks – is frivolous. “Someone who’s incredibly smart, how can they be bothered with how they look?” the 30-year-old says, makeup-free and dressed in shades of gray: professorial slacks, a subtle top, and a cardigan. (“I don’t dress like this on weekends,” she points out.)
Mears believes that the same bias persists in other fields as well and affects women in the workplace especially. “This is not something inherent just to academia. The ideal worker is still assumed to be a man. If a woman is professional, she’s not feminine enough. If she’s feminine, she’s not professional enough,” she says. “I think these things are changing – they have to. But having a research project when the researcher herself is defined as an object of beauty – that can be problematic.” Though Mears hasn’t yet had any aspiring models in her classes, she says quite a few students seek her out because they’re either interested in fashion or have read favorable online reviews of her teaching, including these from RateMyProfessors.com: “Great professor, very attractive.” And: “She makes you interested in the subject, too, with her intelligence and her model-like beauty. Did I say model-‘like’? Sorry, she’s actually a model. Yeah, guys, take this class.”
Mears doesn’t look back on her modeling years with regret, or even resentment. Sometimes she still wonders what would have happened if she had delayed high school or college to, say, go back to Japan to model. She still holds onto that first issue of Vogue. But as Pricing Beauty argues, modeling is an industry based on the what ifs, the could have beens, but where anything can change in a heartbeat. Consider Mears’s own eventual dismissal from her agency at age 26: “Hey Doll!!!” read the subject line of the seemingly innocuous e-mail. The message inside explained essentially that her modeling career was, for the second time, over.Alyssa Giacobbe is a writer in Newburyport and a former editor for Elle and Teen Vogue. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.