Business News

Big Read: The untold struggles of models in Nigeria’s fashion industry

“He told me if I complied with his requests, he’d feature me on the runway at Lagos Fashion Week.”

Contrary to what you may think, this is not a fairytale story, instead, it is a narrative of James, a male model whose dreams of stardom were shattered by the unsavoury demands of predatory casting directors.

Let’s take a rewind to the beginning of how it all started.

James had what many women will call, “the body of a god”. During his National Youth Service year in Lagos, Nigeria’s fashion epicentre, he realized he could use this to his advantage in the modelling world. His journey started smoothly when he joined an agency.

In November 2020, amid the lingering pandemic, James saw a glimmer of hope—a chance to participate in Lagos Fashion Week. Yet, what began as a dream soon transformed into a living nightmare.

This was just the beginning of his encounters with exploitative directors and manipulative crew members. Frustrated by the never-ending cycle, he decided to go solo as an independent model. But his newfound autonomy didn’t bring the relief he’d hoped for.

In early 2021, an energy drink brand sought athletic models for an ad campaign. James received VIP treatment upon arrival at the shoot venue.

But as the saying goes, nothing comes for free. The director’s ulterior motives soon became evident, thrusting James’s back into a déjà vu situation.

James’s story, however, is not peculiar to him. Ozioma, another model, shares a similarly fraught journey. Unlike James, who started in an agency before going solo, Ozioma began as an independent model and later joined an agency in search of stability and better opportunities.

Sandra, another model who chose to remain anonymous, agreed that harassment is pervasive,

These stories all share a common theme: models, regardless of gender, are vulnerable to various forms of harassment. What’s even more disheartening is that this dark aspect of the industry rarely sees the light of day in public discourse.

As Nigeria’s modelling industry gains international recognition, its deep-seated issues become increasingly apparent. Unlike its more established global counterparts, the Nigerian modelling sector lacks a robust regulatory framework for professionalism and protection against exploitation.

For aspiring models, success demands rigorous physical upkeep, personal style development, and constant skill improvement. Late-night casting calls, gruelling workouts, and the emotional toll of rejection become the norm.

Olajide Toluwalope, the founder of DXC Model Management, sheds light on the financial instability confronting models in Nigeria.

This reliance on sporadic bookings highlights the financial instability that plagues the industry, making it even harder for newcomers. Frank Visain, CEO of Lit Models, emphasizes that even a successful audition doesn’t guarantee a steady income. “Disappointments are rampant, and a strong hunger for success is essential, particularly for newcomers,” he says.

The financial landscape of Nigeria’s modelling industry is a bewildering maze.  At its core, the system relies heavily on agency commissions, leaving models with irregular and often modest earnings. For models like Sandra, an independent model, this financial structure is a double-edged sword.

The financial landscape of Nigeria’s modelling industry is a bewildering maze.  At its core, the system relies heavily on agency commissions, leaving models with irregular and often modest earnings. For models like Sandra, an independent model, this financial structure is a double-edged sword.

She points out that agency models do tend to earn more, but paradoxically, higher fees could decrease demand for their services unless they can also secure work independently.

Sarah notes, “A model’s compensation for a shoot can vary wildly, ranging from as little as N20,000 to as much as N250,000 – N300,000, depending on the level of exposure and the client.”

In contrast, the international modelling market offers full-time models the potential to earn between €50,000 – €100,000 per year, factoring in agency expenses, as Frank Visain of Lit Models puts it. Charles Nwosu, a Nigerian model now based in London, attests to this disparity. “Pay in London far exceeds what models typically earn in Nigeria,” he reveals.

Oladozie, a model with accolades from magazine covers, echoes this financial reality. “While international markets present modelling as a viable career, the situation in Nigeria is vastly different. Our annual fashion shows offer meagre earnings that barely sustain individuals given the local economic conditions,” he says.

In stark contrast to traditional career paths where one expects to work up to 30 years before contemplating retirement, the lifecycle of a fashion model is markedly shorter.

By the age of 30, most models are already eyeing alternative career routes either within or outside the entertainment sector.

A number of former models, including Omotola Jalade, Rita Dominic, and Genevieve Nnaji, have successfully pivoted to other lucrative careers post-modeling.

The rapid tempo of the industry places a premium on fresh faces. Clients, artists, designers, photographers, and makeup artists are perpetually in search of younger talent that brings a refreshing dynamic to their campaigns. Frank Visain, CEO of Lit Model Agencies, elaborates on this ephemeral aspect of modelling fame:

While this volatile dynamic benefits newcomers, it underscores the imperative for more established models to strategize for ongoing relevance.

Chuks Peterson, CEO of Rare Model Management, points out that the modelling industry is far from monolithic. It features various specialized categories, each with unique demands. Particularly notable is the category dedicated to plus-sized models and those who don’t fit the conventional standards.

Peterson elaborates on the financial prospects within these niches, given the consistent demand for models of diverse shapes and sizes. “In commercial modelling, anyone can find success regardless of age, size, or shape. These factors are largely irrelevant. In contrast, high fashion modelling imposes stringent criteria to meet the specific needs of international markets,” he explains.

This constant cycle of new faces, the push for diversity, and the need for personal branding collectively sketch a picture of an industry in perpetual flux. As a model’s career trajectory is both promising and precarious, adaptability becomes key to longevity. Survival in this industry requires more than just a pretty face.

Despite its wealth of talent and diversity, the Nigerian modelling industry finds itself adrift in uncharted legal waters, vulnerable to exploitation. Folake Falana, an entertainment lawyer, sheds light on the industry’s lack of tailored regulation.

According to Falana, victims often remain silent, fearing character defamation and reduced employability if they speak out. Should they muster the courage to pursue legal action?

However, in the absence of specialized regulations for modelling, victims in Lagos may turn to the Lagos Domestic and Sexual Violence unit or existing laws addressing rape and physical assault for some legal support. However, as Falana noted, there is no dedicated policy or act designed specifically for the modelling sector.

Okey Ezeokoli, another legal expert, echoed this sentiment, explaining that incidents of sexual harassment in the industry typically fall under general rules and conventions governing workplace harassment.

While laws like the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act and international best practices on workplace harassment can provide some recourse, Nigeria’s Labour Law lacks explicit provisions addressing sexual harassment.

Ezeokoli also pointed out that male models often resort to the Violence Against Persons Act, highlighting the absence of industry-specific protections.

The need for specialized legislation becomes critical especially when considering the modelling industry’s unique challenges: a young workforce, short career spans, and a culture of silence surrounding misconduct.

Without dedicated laws, the industry operates in an environment where exploitation is challenging to contest and even harder to penalize.

This regulatory blind spot compounds the challenges faced by Nigerian models. In addition to grappling with financial instability, professional rivalry from influencers, and the brevity of their careers, they must navigate an industry devoid of legal guardrails designed specifically for them.

The need for specialized legislation becomes especially pertinent when considering the unique challenges of the modelling industry. Without dedicated laws, the challenge of addressing exploitation proves to be formidable, with punitive measures proving even more elusive.