A new film opening at Toronto’s Hot Docs this weekend peels back the often-brutal layers of the modeling industry

With designers like Marc Jacobs hiring 14-year-olds to walk in his shows, and young model Hailey Clauson’s racy photoshoots, the issue of underage models has never been more relevant. Enter Girl Model, the documentary by Ashley Sabin and David Redmon. After premiering at TIFF last year, the film has certainly gotten people talking .

Girl Model explores the dark depths of the underage modeling industry through the eyes of Siberian 13-year-old Nadya Vall who is taken to Tokyo on false pretenses and left to her own devices. And then there’s the disturbingly ambivalent model scout who found her, Ashley Arbaugh, who openly struggles with her feelings on the industry as she scours rural Russia for young girls.

In advance of the film opening at Hot Docs today (through Wednesday), we sat down with Sabin and sage/model Rachel Blais (she provides the most grounded voice in the film) to get their take on the underage modeling industry.

Read our interview »

I’ve read that you’d met Ashley beforehand where she pitched the topic to you. Why did you decide to make the film?

Ashley Sabin: Well she pitched a very different film to us. Her idea was to make a film about modeling and prostitution and the foggy lines between. Ashley gave us this stack of DVDs and on the DVDs were casting videos. Girl after girl, hundreds of girls were on these DVDs. And after seeing those DVDs I wondered, who are these girls? Who are their families? What are their hopes and dreams? It was a point of curiosity.

One of the most striking scenes in the film is when Ashley applauds a model for looking like a prepubescent girl. Why do you think the fashion industry “fetishizes” youth to such a degree?

Rachel Blais: Because when you are so young, you don’t have education, you don’t know about basic human rights or labour laws. There’s no regulation in the adult fashion world. I think its dangerous then to put kids in these environments. When you are 16 or 17, you don’t realize the importance of having regulations. You’re just too young to get it—they can easily sell you the dream that you’ll be making a lot of money.

Agencies like the CFDA have already implemented minimum age recommendations for models, which we’re seeing big name designers ignore.

RB: It has to happen in a legal way such that there are financial and criminal repercussions. It can’t just be financial because big companies have so much money. Money is something they are not scared of. How come we have these pictures of these underage girls in a magazine yet if you have a picture at home with the same pose you can be sued in a criminal way for child pornography? If you’re not in the fashion industry, it’s criminal. If you are in the fashion industry, that’s legal? That really weirds me out.

So how do you think things can be changed? There is a scene in the film where you, Rachel, are sitting in the van and say it’s difficult to put the onus on anyone.

RB: I think the first thing that needs to happen in order for things to move forward and for things to change for the better would be to put a minimum age to represent adults in magazines and media to be 18 years old.

Do you think there’s a place for organizations like the Model Alliance or Equity UK?

AS: Well, I know they are trying to work with each other. If you have various organizations around the world in the major fashion capitals that are working with each other in order to regulate and protect models’ rights, I think that’s a fantastic step in the right direction, yes.

For more information about Girl Model, visit girlmodelthemovie.com.

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