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"The video will be used to gather information on how you are beyond modeling," an email announcing the meeting read. "We will be using the footage for promotional material and a way to engage clients and build your business. We are aiming to show clients you're more than just a portfolio. This will enable us to better market you in this changing industry." The models were instructed to wear denim bottoms and a solid color tank top or t-shirt, "preferable with a Vneck or scoop — but not too deep." The idea was to humanize the young woman, to show potential clients how a model’s personality could align with a brand’s vision. One woman talked about her studies in acupuncture and aromatherapy. Another did yoga. A third brought her dog.
The growing importance of social media in the modeling industry is not a new story. Some of the most recognizable faces in the world, young women like Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, and Cara Delevingne, rocketed to fame, fortune, and magazine covers because they married their stunning looks with social media savvy. Their millions of followers elevate their profiles and, at least in theory, move the product they wear in shoots.
The pressure to establish a social media presence filters down to lower levels of modeling as well. It manifests itself in agencies calling in their girls for training or even in who they sign. Last year, Sierra Quitiquit was shopping for a new agency. She took a few meetings and was told the 40,000 Instagram followers she had at the time weren't enough; she needed more like 150,000. "That ended the conversion about whether or not they were going to sign me," she said during a phone interview. "It was purely on my social following."
Julia Samersova Garfinkel, a New York-based casting agent, sees this from the other side. "When you, as a casting director, are talking to a modeling agent about a model, the first thing they'll tell you is their social media number," she says.
Social media changes who gets booked. "These days, I will work with girls who are social media stars — who have 300,000 or 400,000 followers — and they are 5'4"," Quitiquit said. "It's so strange. I used to never work with a girl who is shorter than 5'7". It's clear that the reason this girl is on this campaign is because she's a media outlet in and of herself."
Another model, who asked to remain anonymous because she didn't want to get backlash for speaking out, says that while she hasn't felt as much pressure from her agency, clients will ask her how many followers she has. She says she routinely loses jobs to newer girls who have less experience because her numbers aren't as high. "I feel like I'm at a disadvantage because I don't have as many followers," she said.
Dounia Tazi is an unconventional model who’s booked campaigns with clients including Forever 21 and Target because of an Instagram following that’s more than 100,000 strong. The self-described "5'8" chunky little round girl" started applying to agencies about a year ago but was repeatedly rejected because she only had 30,000 followers at the time. She kept posting on Instagram, kept amassing followers, and things changed quickly. "I started to get more attention when I started getting more followers," she said. "It shows you how much of the industry is motivated by that kind of thing. As time passes, I see that more clearly. It's advantageous to me, but it's also a little funny. It's like, 'well, I wasn't good enough for you a couple months ago but now that I have more followers I am.'"
Instagram, which allows simple browsing and focuses on images, is currently the favored social network of the modeling world. A major jeans brans recruited AM Casting’s Angus Munro to cast a recent campaign. His team submitted 500 people they found on the site. "And there's no trouble getting people we submitted to do the job because, guess what, they spend all their time promoting themselves so when you say, 'would you like to be in a big jeans campaign?' they say, 'yes please,'" he said.
There’s a difference between taking a good Instagram selfie and performing in front of a professional photographer during a more traditional photoshoot. As more people get cast based on their social following, the calculus of shoots change. According to Munro, clients tailor the needs of the shoot to the fact that they are using a bunch of models off of Instagram: "Anything the models can do apart from being quite static is a bonus."
It also changes the model’s job because they need to be aware of images beyond what the photographer is shooting. "The clients during photoshoots are on their phones taking snapshots and wondering if it's Instagram-worthy, rather than worrying if the shot is worthy of their brand," one model said. "For me, it's a completely different mindset from what it used to be."
Some models with large followings know they are there for reasons beyond their traditional looks. Tazi was flown to Los Angeles for a photo shoot. The other model was "a 5'11" super skinny tall blonde girl," she said. "It didn't feel uncomfortable to me. But the environment is comical. It was like, ‘we both know what's going on. I'm supplying the personality…’"
Instagram remains the preferred medium for discovery but Snapchat is gaining traction with clients and, subsequently, agencies. The platform with 150 million daily users offers a fuller portrait of a person than an Instagram feed. "You're getting a glimpse into a person's life that no other social media platform allows," Samersova Garfinkel said. (Munro, however, has a different take on the importance of getting this inside look at a model’s daily routine: "I wish it was something that we cared about. To be brutally honest, we don't really care what their life is like.")
Regardless, it’s true that an advertiser can use a model’s Snapchat account tell a story in a way they can’t on other social media platforms. "Watching a video is an all-encompassing experience. That's exciting for brands. They are always looking for people to spend more time learning about their brands," Amanda Del Duca, director at social and mobile modeling agency Kitten, said. "It's a really, really targeted market. You're reaching Generation Z and a a lot of millennials very directly just through this app."
As a result, agencies are actively encouraging their models to get on the platform and admonishing them when they aren't posting enough, or are posting too much. Some contracts stipulate that a model post a certain number of images, snaps, or tweets, and increase their compensation accordingly. From an agency's perspective, the more followers and the larger social media presence a model has, the better. That's understandable, but it also sets up a troubling tension. The internet, after all, can be a pretty terrible place.
Twitter has a massive abuse issue and seemingly little will to fix the problem. Recently, Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones left from the platform due to harassment. Instagram is only now beginning to consider steps to help moderate comments. It's easy to see how the intimacy of Snapchat, which agencies and brands like, can backfire on a services that is rife with harassment as well.
Every model interviewed for this story said she had experienced constant harassment on social media. Most brushed it off as part of the job and talked about growing thick skin, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. There's some pushback from the modeling community that an agency would practically force their models to sign up for various platforms. "I think it's fucked up if the agency asks you to do anything," Nellie Anderson, a model with Next Management, said. "They are working for you. The agencies harass us [to get onto social media] for sure." (None of the agencies I reached out to agreed to make an employee available to be interviewed.)
Samersova Garfinkel, on the other hand, doesn’t think it's the responsibility of the agency. "I think that if you're a 20-year-old woman and you're being harassed on social media, you have to deal with it just like the rest of us. I get nasty comments. I have to deal with it." She continues, "Social media is like being out in the real world. It's just so concentrated. If you're a 20-year-old, maybe that's your first foray into protecting yourself. It's life."
That's fine for women who want to be social media stars and who hope to attract brands with their large followings, but if you don't, you have to try anyway. That's the new world of modeling. While a few people — the Helena Christensens, the Freja Beha Erichsens — can get away with staying off of social media and Kate Moss created a career out of being unavailable, it's a much more difficult path, especially if you're just starting out. The newer you are, the more you need to market yourself and brand yourself.
"I feel bad for the younger girls because they have their hopes' up so high," Anderson said. "It's all just such an ego trip." In some ways, that can be freeing because having hundreds of thousands of followers opens up opportunities that wouldn't have been there in the past. In a social world, the ability to create compelling content can matter as much as measurements and head shots. A huge following comes at a cost. People feel like they know you and don't hesitate to comment, for better or worse.