Sexual Harassment of Working Models

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Posted by Legal Team On August 15, 2022

Few jobs present the veneer of sophistication and glamour more than that of a professional fashion model. From the covers of magazines such as Cosmopolitan, Vogue, Elle and many others, to the images on television and in the movies, a professional model is viewed as the very epitome of glamour. What women or girl (many begin working in the early teens) wouldn’t want this kind of a life?

The reality is only very few models achieve the level of fame and fortune of a Gisel Bundchen or Heidi Klum. Most women in the industry function in much more mundane jobs and few make the covers of top fashion magazines.

But what may be overlooked, lost in the glare caused by the incredible success of a few members of their profession, are the employment law violations many working models suffer in their career.

Sexual Harassment and Assault in the Modeling Industry

A new organization, the Model Alliance, has been formed to promote and educate models as to their legal rights and offer some format to air grievances and foster a supportive environment demonstrating that they do not have to accept sexual harassment. They have even created a “Bill of Rights” for those employed as models.

The alliance sent out a survey to get a feel for working conditions within the industry, and although a small sample, it produced some surprising findings. Perhaps most unsettling was that 30 percent of models report some form of sexual harassment while working.

Various forms of harassment occur in many employment settings and can be even more prevalent in the modeling industry. The female employee can be inexperienced in dealing with employers, and their jobs often entail non-traditional workplace situations, runway shoots, small studios, beaches and out-of-the-way buildings.

They are often working with few people present; a photographer, an assistant, a makeup artist and may find themselves in places with no witnesses. Another finding of the survey noted that many have psychological issues, making them more vulnerable to manipulation, exploitation and assault during the course of employment.

Independent Contractor Rights Against Harassment

One of the problems with the industry is that many jobs are as independent contractors. This means there is often little or no traditional employment relationship. The “employer” is not really their employer in the sense that they receive weekly income, health care or other benefits.

Many models work for agencies, who promote the models for a portion of their payment for each job. If a model does receive a contract, it is typically drafted by and all terms are controlled by the agency.

Models, except those at the highest levels, are typically not represented by agents or employment attorneys, and have little power to negotiate the terms of the agreement. In addition to sexual harassment, many models relate difficulties in obtaining payment after some jobs.

However, there are laws in place to protect independent contractors from sexual harassment during the course of employment. In California, the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) establishes a comprehensive scheme for addressing employment discrimination. The FEHA was designed to protect all workers from discrimination.

In many circumstances, an independent contractor is deemed not to work for an employer, and would not be subject to the protection of some anti-discrimination statutes, which apply only to an “employer.”

Employer Definition Broadened Under the FEHA

Under a section of the FEHA, employer is more broadly defined, including employers “receiving the services of one or more persons providing services pursuant to a contract.”

This broader definition should include an independent contractor, like a model working for a photographer or studio in most circumstances. Unfortunately, the interaction of independent contractors and anti-discrimination statutes is fraught with uncertainty, and if you have suffered unwelcome sexual advances, touching, being pressured to provide sexual favors, or other forms of sexual assault in exchange for your work as a model, you should speak with an employment law attorney. It should be noted that independent contractors can bring claims for sexual harassment under FEHA.

This area of law is very complex and the nature of some model work, such as glamour, swimsuit and lingerie, can make sorting out a he-said-she-said situation difficult. If you have been sexually harassed, and you continue to have to work with the harasser, you need to carefully document every instance, including time, place, circumstance and any witnesses that may have been present.

If harassment is found, you may be entitled to compensation, which generally includes all noncontractual damages, including potential punitive damages. Damages are variable and based on the terms and conditions of the employment and the seriousness of the harassment or assault. An employment attorney experienced with sexual harassment matters can review the facts of your situation, explain your legal rights and help you determine the next steps you should take to protect yourself.