CAS prof studied modeling by becoming one
Academic research often requires great personal sacrifice, like stepping into stilettoes. That was the case for Ashley Mears, who spent three years lugging her portfolio to casting calls and strutting runways in addition to interviewing agents, magazine editors, and models for her new book Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model. The College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of sociology’s book examines the world of fashion modeling from inside that world.
What was originally a graduate class research project became her doctoral dissertation before becoming a book. Pricing Beauty (University of California Press, 2011) tells a largely cautionary tale of a world where most inhabitants scrape by while the Kate Mosses and Gisele Bündchens earn millions. Modeling, Mears’ research shows, is a very bad job, with low pay, long hours, and an increasingly glutted labor force. Still, young women with dreams of supermodeldom flock to New York from all over the globe. Mears found that even a cool-headed scholar could get caught up in the hair spray, magazine photo shoots, and catwalks.
BU Today spoke with Mears about her research.
BU Today: Are you the first person to study the fashion field by actually becoming a model?
Mears: There are a few people who have studied modeling or the fashion industry, but they’ve done it through interviews. I entered it from the models’ side. For obvious reasons, that’s harder access because you have to have the right physical attributes. For that matter, there are fewer sociological studies of elites, whether in banking or in fashion, than of the poor because the elites are harder to access and tend to be more skeptical of participating in research that tries to understand how their worlds work.
Had you modeled before you decided to research this field for your doctorate?
In high school I modeled in Atlanta, my hometown, which is a second-tier catalog market. When I went to the University of Georgia in Athens, I would drive down to Atlanta for jobs. After college I modeled in Hong Kong for about six months. When I got to grad school, I thought, I’m retired. Now it’s time for serious stuff.
Then my second semester of grad school I took a sociology class on work and occupation, where you had to do fieldwork. I wasn’t sure what to do for that, and then I got scouted by this guy in a coffee shop in New York. He said, “You have a great look.” I thought, how does this person in a coffee shop know who’s got a look and who doesn’t? That set me on this path.
Why study modeling as a sociologist?
It’s a study in work. By studying models we can figure out how people navigate the uncertainties of where the next paycheck is coming from. Also, they are freelancing, with no health insurance or security. This is a form of work that is increasing in this economy, and we need to better understand it.
Despite the glamour of the job, most models earn mediocre and unpredictable incomes. At the agencies I studied, the median earnings were estimated by agents to be under $60,000 a year, but that’s a very uncertain sum which fluctuates over short periods of time, and agents expect models’ high-fashion careers to last less than five years. A sizable share–20 percent, of the models at one agency I studied–were actually in debt to their agency for the costs of starting their career, such as pictures for their portfolios or even a plane ticket to New York.
What surprised you about the modeling world?
The amount of uncertainty models deal with. I’d go to a casting call not knowing what the agents were looking for and then whether I got it right. Interviewing the agents and the clients, the tastemakers, I found they actually don’t know what they are looking for. They say they know it when they see it. For a model, all the uncertainty has the collateral effect of never knowing how you are doing or how to do better. That makes it really difficult for models to have control over their career.
Did you get caught up in modeling?
At the very start, when New York Fashion Week was in full gear, I’d have my agent on the phone telling me I was the breakout model of the season. For a minute I was thinking maybe this grad school business won’t work out. I can pursue my luck here. I’m glad that I didn’t.
What would you advise someone who wants to become a model?
Make sure you understand what your chances are. The probability of making it to the top is quite slim. But like all these “winner take all markets,” there’re other reasons for joining up than becoming a winner. Modeling has prestige. I can’t lie; I got a lot of cultural status for doing it. But getting a PhD and being a professor gives me that for different reasons—better reasons.
Interesting comment: “For that matter, there are fewer sociological studies of elites, whether in banking or in fashion, than of the poor because the elites are harder to access and tend to be more skeptical of participating in research that tries to understand how their worlds work.” In recent years there has been a lot of fascinating scholarly accounts about fields many of us have little access to, such as Barbara Ehrenreich’s account of how anyone can live on minimum wage, or Melissa Farley’s study of men who purchase commercial sex, http://www.feminisms.org/tag/melissa-farley/
Mear’s point is very well-taken. Little is known about elites. Can we have an insider account of insider trading? Or CEOs who make 25 million a year? How do they regard inequality? What do they think about making as much money in an hour as their employee makes in a year? It’s hard to understand this as an outsider.