February 11, 2012 Leave a comment
Photo: Rachel Blais photographed by Meghan Brosnan
Ingrid calls folks like Rachel Blais “Angels of Compassion.” She’s open-minded, responsible, and whole-hearted especially when it is inconvenient but most needed. She’s an underground mentor in the most unlikely places: mini-vans stocked with Girl Models being scuttled from one casting call to the next; on-location working as a model who is talking back to the camera, the photographer, and the make-up artist on the scene; and now, in a documentary that tells the story of one 13-year-old girl model and the scout that recruited her from Siberia. The scout hornswoggled her family–as she does many other families–to sign a crummy-ass contract with the false guarantee that their daughter will bring home some serious bacon. Check out the Girl Model film website here.
Rachel and I met in a Yoga teachers training course in Tokyo in 2009. At that time, she was doing a lot of crying. After hours of intense asana practice, we’d sit together in the park eating fruit and nuts and connecting as Rachel was sorting through what she was witnessing on a daily basis: girls being bought and sold for the sake of fashion. She was beginning the “process” of disentangling herself from the modeling industry, which she describes as “a bit of an addiction, quite honestly…a way of living” and it is quite easy to become completely consumed by its culture and demands. Central to that process was her need to reach out and protect the girls she met on casting calls and at her agency’s office.
That reaching out began in small, nearly invisible gestures: she’d talk with the girls and help them cope with their situation, she’d give them hugs and make sure they had what they needed (meals, comfort, and some form of adult supervision). Most of all, she worked, one-by-one, to reach out to girls and teach them that their situation was not normal and that it was crucial that they do the best they can to care for themselves.
“For models, the best thing is to prioritize, make sure you’re always building skills and to take care of yourself. It’s easy to disassociate from what’s happening….It’s important to stay grounded outside the industry.”
What is happening? Once Rachel started crying, sorting out, and mentoring the younger girls (who at twelve-, fourteen-, and sixteen-years-old had been recruited and taken to Tokyo to live and search for work as models with little to no adult supervision) she realized she needed to do more. She needed to speak out and connect with others to create much-needed changes. Soon after making the choice to speak out she crossed paths with Ashley Sabin and David Redmon, directors who were shooting a documentary about the trafficking of under-aged girls in the name of fashion. Rachel agreed to participate in the documentary and to join forces with other folks in the US and UK determined to make changes in order to protect vulnerable girls and boys—and their families—from predators like Ashley the scout (not the same person as Ashley the director), who roam poverty-stricken regions for “new faces” they can sell to markets abroad.
“I’ve been on jobs and spoken out many times…but I always knew that if given the opportunity to speak out about the industry, I would….It’s a whole process to get out of the industry…because it can be a good life-style. The good can be so good but it can be very dark too.” Rachel told me during our hours-long conversation.
What happens in the dark? It begins with false promises of money and success to impoverished parents and their often pre-pubescent daughters and leads to widespread sexual harassment, sexual abuse, physical and emotional mistreatment, and oftentimes results—especially for the “new faces”–in returning home thousands of US dollars in debt. This is what’s behind the glamorous images so many of us are making ourselves sick and miserable as we endeavor to emulate the look of stolen, starved, and sold.
Rachel Blais is asking us to take a closer look, to unpack the images we encounter, and uncover the fact that we are all connected. “People either aren’t aware, or they close their eyes and pretend they don’t see, or they can’t speak out because they’ll lose their job.” Shift your focus for a minute away from the obscenely over-priced bag and onto the eyes of the human being looking back at the camera. Is she twelve? Is she safe? Did she or her parents have any idea what they were getting into?
Ashley the scout asked herself—when she was an 18-year-old model talking into her video diary—“What is this twister taking you away for? Is it worth it?” Failing to respond to her own heart’s warning, she explains her choice, many years later, to remain in the industry as a scout, “I stick with what I know because I’m scared to try new things.”
Rachel made a different choice: She is taking action, speaking out, and mentoring the young girls she continues to encounter on casting calls. She’s fighting for changes that will regulate the industry so that it will be illegal for scouts and agencies to recruit and ship minors (anyone under 18) abroad. Many people in the industry are pressing to make the minimum age 16–Rachel insists that this is still too young an age for girls to be exposed to the pressures and warped culture of the industry. She is also asking us to break the spell of obsession with image that prevents us from experiencing our connection with others, with industries, with ongoing violence. What can each of us do? Teach, listen, and learn.
Interested in exploring this topic with young people and giving them the skills needed to understand how images are constructed and the larger issues they point to? You might find some of these resources helpful:
Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women (and GIRLS)
Do you know any change-makers shaking up the status quo to rail against injustice and promote teaching, learning, and creative collaboration for a better world?
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