The unglamorous side of modeling

Rachel has been modeling for the last three years. She has modeled for designs like Mille Collines and Rwanda Clothing among others. Her pictures have graced the pages of glamorous magazines like Inzozi and Black Fashion (France).

If Rwanda is home to some of the prettiest women in Africa, why is the modeling industry undeveloped? Asks Collins Mwai.

Rachel has been modeling for the last three years. She has modeled for designs like Mille Collines and Rwanda Clothing among others. Her pictures have graced the pages of glamorous magazines like Inzozi and Black Fashion (France).

She loves modeling and lives for it. She is almost six feet tall and weighs only 55 kilogrammes. She is slim and walks in almost calculated steps. Her skin is the colour of dark chocolate and she tries to keep it scarless. Her hair is styled into a thick afro. She has small bright eyes, no tattoos and minimal piercings. She is pretty, too. 

In short, Rachel is all that a model should be. She watches her diet ruthlessly and exercises regularly.  But despite living a model’s lifestyle, she has little to show for it – financially. Despite her inputs, she is yet to reap from the industry. In her three years as a model, she has worked with various agencies and says the same about all of them: “They are all the same – exploitative.” 

Outsiders, mostly teenagers, often view the modeling industry as enchanting, associating it with fame, glitzy parties and fun. But the reality is very different for those are already in the industry.

Modeling has to be one of the most misunderstood professions ever. The conservative society considers it to be for lowlifes, prostitutes or people who are out simply to expose their bodies. Because most Rwandans are Christians, they frown upon such kind of showbiz and associate it with negative Western influence. 

“The idea of modeling is still very new in Rwanda; very few people see it as a profession. Very few parents want their children to pursue a career in modeling,” says Rachel Uwineza, a model and third-year student at Mount Kenya University. 

When models are not receiving disapproving looks from the church and society, they are being exploited by agencies or receiving sexual advances from some agents. Modeling agencies use them to make money and dump them thereafter. Behind the smiles, bright eyes and beautiful poses are sad individuals. Behind the flashing lights, fashion show runways and magazines, is an exploitative trade meant to earn a few cunning individuals money from the efforts of devoted boys and girls. The devotion of these boys and girls – at times blinded by passion for the art – causes them to put in time, effort and money and at the end of it have nothing to show for it. 

Those who are passionate and brave enough to pursue it see it as a part-time engagement that will not last long into the future.  As a model, you have to maintain a certain figure; once it is gone, so is your career. Gain weight, loose career; an ugly career, lose your job; someone better-looking appears, lose your job; grow older, your time is up! 

The problem with modeling is that you are in the spotlight only momentarily. 

Rachel is not alone, hundreds of winnable models queue up for auditions every once in a while. At the end of it there is very little difference between those picked and those left out – they all go unpaid.

“Sexual advances from some agents are not uncommon,” a model revealed, “agents make advances, most of us turn them down and are dismissed from the agency or mistreated henceforth.”

Lack of a governing or supervisory body has made it easy for these agencies to do as they please. The industry, which should fall under the Ministry of Sports and Culture, does not receive any support from the ministry. After auditions and selection of models, there are no contracts signed to seal deals; agreements are verbal and rarely honoured. And because most of these models are usually teenagers and sometimes underage, they have little resources to stand up for themselves or lodge complaints. 

“They know we have no one to defend us, which makes it easy for them to do as they please,” one model told me. 

Unable to pursue their passions, most of them have had to quit or try to seek work as freelance models for designers, which is difficult because few designers want to deal with freelance models. 

“I quit modeling because of lack of professionalism in the industry and after too many disappointments,” says Natasha, a former model. 

The few remaining ones are making attempts to put up an association of models to try and bring some sanity to the industry. “With an association we can look out for one another and end exploitation. Modeling should be an industry that promotes healthy, happy young women and to do this, models – like all other employees – should have rights and remuneration,” says Uwineza, one of the activists.

But the subject of exploitation of models has been around for as long as  the career itself.


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