Fashion models are presented to the world as the perfect images of beauty and glamor, the very standard to which every woman should aspire. What is far lesser known is the dark world that underlies that portrait of seeming perfection. Behind the scenes, the modeling world is crawling with sexual, financial and emotional abuse, the type that can permanently alter a person’s life for the worst. One model has decided to break her silence and speak out about her experiences in an exclusive interview with Women in the World.
Anyelika Perez’s life dream was to become a model and when she was 15 years old, she was able to pursue her dream. The daughter of a Venezuelan fashion designer, Perez was able to find an agent who promised her glory and money. “You will travel the world and you can make a living out there — good money to help your mom and your family,” she remembers him having told her. When the offer came to go to France and work with a modeling agency there, she took it in a heartbeat.
Perez was just 15 when she journeyed to Paris to embark on her new life. It was a dream come true. Upon her arrival, though, she learned that she would be forced to sleep on a floor mattress with two other girls from Russia. One was a drug addict and the other was bulimic; in addition to her eating disorder, the budding model would hug her teddy bear and cry every night. It did not take much for Perez to realize that her dream of a glamorous life was not as glamorous as the fashion magazines made it seem to be.
She started her modeling career by incurring a debt to the modeling agency that many aspiring models commonly take on.
In her case, it was 3,000 Euros for her travel costs, room and board and 75 Euros a week for her food and transportation. The modeling agency charged her up front and when she landed her first job, the agency began deducting their fees from her paycheck. Her agent also took a slice for his commission. That is part of the business plan for many modeling agencies — they often keep the young models in an everlasting debt cycle as they place them in one job to the other.
To deal with the pressure of losing weight, as instructed by the modeling agency once it was discovered that she was a size four, Perez began heavily smoking and drinking coffee. She limited her food intake to one can of tuna each day.
“The only day I ended up eating seriously was at the model’s night on Fridays or Saturdays of every week,” she explains. Those were the nights when all the models are often invited to sit at the table of a businessman or the restaurant owner who wants to be seen with beautiful models in public. He pays for dinner and all the drinks they want in exchange for showing up with him as arranged by the agency — and those soirées are their main chance to eat good food. “In my country, I couldn’t drink or go in a club because I was under 18. But in Paris it was not an issue. We were offered wine and went to clubs without being asked for ID. Sometimes when the parties are in the apartments of the host, they offered us cocaine, weed and all the alcohol in the world,” Perez says.
Often at these parties, men would touch, grab, and try all manner of come-ons in attempts to have sex with the models — most of whom were mere teenagers, like Perez. At one of the parties, Perez recalls, a friend of the agency’s owner was aggressively hitting on Perez. “He started touching my butt. Trying to be cute. He asked me to kiss another girl. He pushed and pushed. I had not been intimate with anybody by then. I had only kissed a boy in Venezuela once in my life,” Perez explains. “I was very uncomfortable from the pressure I was getting from the men that I ended going to the bathroom and locking myself there. He followed me knocking on the door and cursing at me in French to open. I stayed in the bathroom for an hour until everyone left the party and [then] I came out of the bathroom.”
Perez continues, opening up about the hardships of trying to adjust to life as a model as well as living in a foreign country at such a tender age. “It was hard for me. I missed my sister and my mom. I cried a lot. I hated to sleep on a floor mattress and I kept on telling my manager in Venezuela that it is a dark, dark world,” Perez says. “I stayed, though, with his encouragement. He would tell me, ‘If you can see beyond that, you can make it and make a lot of money.’”
Perez acknowledges she was one of the lucky ones compared to the girls from Russia or Brazil who came from very poor backgrounds and endured abuse in silence as they desperately needed the money success in the business promised. Though her background was humble, Perez grew up with traditional Venezuelan values and a family she knew she could always go back to anytime she wanted. The same couldn’t be said for many of the other girls trying to become successful models.
By the time she was to celebrate her 16 birthday, Perez had been featured on the cover of many magazines, from Mademoiselle to Ocean Drive, in a host of countries, from Paris to Thailand. Throughout her travels, no agency was ever able to protect her when she complained about sexual harassment and aggressive propositions from photographers or others she encountered by way of the agency. “One agency told me to go out with the guy who I was complaining about because there is nothing they can do to protect me,” Perez recalls.
Perez had to face the reality of plastic surgery as she was selected to participate in the Miss Venezuela beauty pageant in 2007 — one of the most well-known beauty pageants in the world up until few years ago. By then, she was heavily anemic to keep her weight down. But she also had to endure an assessment of all the plastic surgery she and other participants in the pageant were told they must undergo, as ordered by the owner. The owner would check each woman out and instruct his team on which procedures he deemed each should have, all of which would be performed by the exact same surgeon.
In Perez’ case, the owner wanted her to undergo a nose job, an ear job, and a breast enlargement. Perez says other girls were told they must submit to a range of augmentations, including chin surgery and liposuction — all which were performed by the same plastic surgeon, as instructed by the owner. Perez was also instructed to take a cycle of steroids to help control water weight so her body looked more defined. “The steroid effects your mood, your voice, your menstruation,” Perez explains. She was only 19 years old at that point, and was able to get away with only receiving breast enlargements.
By the time Perez managed to make her way to the U.S., at the age of 20, she had noticed some marked changes in her personality and outlook on life. “As a model you become very suspicious of everything. You don’t believe anybody or anything. You become a very cold person. You want to be alone all the time. So many things you see and the things you put yourself to to do the job. Clients talk to you like you are a piece of steak. Like an object. One designer told me, ‘You are only a hanger as far as I can see.’”
Perez continues, adding, “I have seen guys put things in models’ drink and I see the girls going from super fine to drowsy to the guy taking her with him.” Sometimes she stood up for other models and tried to protect them if she felt they are drugged and vulnerable and sometimes, “I have seen girls that have to do what you have to do. They would sleep with people for a promise of a photo shoot, some even for money. For all those reasons [that] you see all these years, you become very bitter.”
Life was not easier in America. Modeling agencies work on the same business model of debt for fronting costs for each model. Models who are in the U.S. without a legal visa are that much more vulnerable to enduring harassment and abuse for fear of losing their jobs and being deported if they complain. Some modeling agencies do sponsor the models for a legal visa at cost of $4,000 dollars, piling on to the mountain of debt she will accumulate on her journey to becoming a model. The tipping point for Perez was when she was offered a summer job (usually a low season for models) to hang out on the boat of a wealthy man for $15,000 a month. Though sex is not included, the agency cannot protect her from any sexual advances as the boat trips often go to international waters and European countries. “If the guy asks for sex, it is then up to you,” Perez explains.
“You can do whatever you want,” the broker at the agency advised her. Perez refused the offer and eventually she decided to get out of the world of modeling altogether.
“I started saying no to a lot of things. If I didn’t get paid well. If the business was shady. One time I walked out of the set when the artist wanted to throw rum on top of the girls and touch us.” During that time, Perez started doing yoga, going back to school to study art direction, fell in love and started spending more time with the man she married and her young family. “There is a lot of dark stuff in this modeling business but there is 20 percent of the people in it who are good and just professionals who want to do a good job without wanting to sleep with you,” Perez explains.
After 14 years of modeling, Perez is speaking out about what girls go through as they project images of beauty to the world. “I want to tell the models you are not alone. You should not do things that will harm your soul and your persona to get somewhere. There are other ways. It may take you longer. But you can say no. Even if you came from a hard home environment, you can change that.”
At 29, Perez is trying to document her experience through filmmaking to send a message to all the girls who aspire to be models. “As a woman you are stronger than the world makes you think. The world makes you think that you are at the mercy of someone else. It took me a long time to realize that I am not the toy of the agency. They have to treat me right if they want me to do the job correctly. The agency needs to protect us in being treated well, not take advantage of us because we are young and we need the visa.”
If we are to take advantage of this historical moment in which women are speaking out about the sexual harassment many have been suffering in Hollywood, politics and media, it is time to look at the fashion and modeling world that constantly feeds the world with projected images of beauty, and covers up the abuse of young women who are often too afraid to speak out. May Perez be the first to break the silence in the fashion and modeling world for their abusive practices.
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.
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