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Solving the Modeling Industry’s Sexual Harassment Problem with Agent Inc.

March 13, 2018

Screenshots taken from the Agent Inc. mobile app

 

Linda Higgins, a model, went to a test photoshoot to build her portfolio one day. When she arrived, the photographer threw a little silk scarf at her and said, “this is your outfit.”

At that moment, Higgins was forced into an uncomfortable situation. Walk away or do the shoot.

She told the photographer that she wasn’t comfortable with the situation since he hadn’t told her that that was what she’d be expected to wear during the shoot.

The photographer than said, “Okay, whatever” and went on his phone to book another model for that same day.

“He was just like, ‘whatever.’ [He] didn’t even look at me,” Higgins said. “It was almost like he was annoyed.”

Higgins didn’t tell her agent about the scarf situation, since it was just a test shoot, to which Higgins said, “It’s common for models and photographers to reach out to each other to set up test shoots. It’s just weird when you don’t have that third party to make sure everyone’s transparent and not being shady.”

In addition to being a model, Higgins is also the marketing strategist for an app and web based platform that’s changing the modeling industry, called Agent Inc.

Available as a web application at www.joinagent.com or as a mobile app in the App Store, Agent Inc. sets out to revolutionize the modeling industry with over 10,000 registered models already on the platform. With allegations of sexual harassment in the modeling and fashion industry against famous photographers coming out of the woodwork at warp speed as of late and closely following the accusations against Hollywood’s Harvey Weinstein, Agent Inc. is developing a way to solve the industry’s sexual harassment problem from the get go.

Mark Willingham is the CEO and co-founder of Agent Inc., which was formed in 2015 with the company’s President and Head of Technology, Dustin Diaz, and the Creative Director and Head of User Experience, Ashley St. Clair. Diaz and St. Clair are also co-founders.

Agent Inc. got its start after Diaz was trying to book models for the cover of his photography book when he came across the website, Model Mayhem, according to Willingham. Diaz tried to book 20 models for a photoshoot and only half of them showed up. Another problem that he ran into was regarding money, where some models only wanted payment in cash and some didn’t accept payment through credit card.

This led Diaz to question if that was happening to him, was it also the norm throughout the modeling industry, Willingham added.

When Diaz started looking into it, he was horrified, Willingham said. So Diaz set out to see what he could do to fix the industry’s abuse problems, and Agent Inc. was born.

Agent Inc. focuses prominently on booking models, where agents and photographers can search for models or post a job. But, there’s one catch: Each person that applies to be on the platform goes through a criminal background check, a sex offender background check, a verification of identity, and a verification of need.

“All of those four things come into play and if they don’t pass all of those criteria checks, then they are not accepted into the platform,” Willingham said.

Typically, models were the only ones who were vetted in the traditional industry, Willingham added, but not for Agent Inc. For example, Willingham said that the day prior to his interview with Urbanite Runway, they had a client apply for the platform who was not accepted because they had a felony conviction for armed home invasion robbery as well as sex offender violations.

“That’s an extreme, but that shows you what could happen when things go left unchecked,” Willingham said.

Another factor that Agent Inc. addresses as an industry known problem is payment.

With Agent Inc., models get paid on time, even on the same day. In the traditional modeling industry through agencies, according to Willingham, they usually get paid in 30-90 days. With Agent Inc., models get to set their own rates and can be booked one of two ways, with a job listing that models can apply for or a search bar where individual models can be found and requested for work.

Agent Inc. also focuses on diversity, where clients or photographers can hire models with a wide range of options to search for from curvy models to models with heavy tattoos. The job types that can be selected even range from runway to fitness modeling.

Agent’s three main areas of focus, Willingham said, are empowerment, tools, and education.

Itself a starting tool against the industry’s sexual harassment problems, Willingham said the Agent Inc. team is currently working on implementing a safety feature that would allow models to push a button on their phone and be able to contact 911 without giving away that they’re doing so to those around them, allowing their location to be found through GPS so that help can arrive safely. Agent Inc. also currently has a 24/7 customer service support system, Willingham added.

Education is also a large area of focus for Agent Inc. so that models can feel empowered to take action when they’re in an uncomfortable situation. Agent Inc. is actually working toward establishing itself as an authority for providing models education on how to act in such a situation, wether they are featured on the app or not, with Higgins at the helm of that project. 

“We alone through checks and balances with the clients and vetting can’t take care of everything, so education needs to be there. The model needs to understand what the environment could be like and what they can do and should do if things take a turn for the worse or into an area where it was unexpected,” Willingham said.  “And it doesn’t mean it went bad, it doesn’t mean someone is trying to do something explicitly to them, it could be that someone asked them to do something that made them uncomfortable.”

One person who’s providing that education to models is Scottsdale based More Than Modeling, owned and operated by experienced international model, Erika, who answered interview questions via email.

More Than Modeling is a life skills and modeling camp for five-16 year olds, according to Erika, that also teaches private modeling lessons and industry education lessons for models and their parents.

Erika left her position as a high school science teacher in the United Kingdom in the mid 2000’s and has been a professional full time model for over a decade. As a model, Erika has worked predominantly in print, both lifestyle and commercial.

Though she has had good and bad experiences in the modeling industry, Erika has had to deal with various situations, “from inappropriate comments to promises/lures of stardom and job bookings to inappropriate touching and emotional manipulation and more.”

As time went on and she got older, Erika said that she became more comfortable with asserting herself in tough situations,  even with saying something directly to the perpetrator.

When asked if she had ever received education herself about how to act properly in a modeling scenario that she was uncomfortable with, Erika said, “No. I wish there had been. I think this should be taught and talked about in general. At schools, in Girl Scout groups, within families, etc. And it should not be kept just to the modeling industry, as this type of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior can happen anywhere, to anyone, by anyone, and at any time.”

Erika said that she believes,”None of these inappropriate behaviors should happen in the industry, but they do,” which she said is common and fuels her passion for her work.

Erika also role plays with her students, depending on their age. In those classes, Erika said she teaches voice projection, confidence boosting activities, and lessons on proactive measures for models.

“One of the most important things from all my classes and camps is that I connect with the participants and I make myself available to them 24/7 so they know they can come to me at any time, with anything they want to share,” Erika added.

“This type of app and technology is a great idea and certainly a step in the right direction for preventing known perpetrators access to situations,” Erika said of Agent Inc. “Though an app like this is a great idea, it is not completely foolproof and that must be remembered.”

Though the industry is great in many ways, according to Willingham, it has a dark underside too.

Harvey Weinstein was respected and simultaneously feared by many, Willingham added. He notes the fact that many of the actresses who came forward with their stories on the allegations against Weinstein’s abuse were even more powerful to take a chance and make their voices heard, leaving room for others to do the same. 

“The onus is on society and on people and on companies like us to improve things and shame on us if we can’t do it,” Willingham said. “And if we can’t provide a better way when the technology is there that allows us to do it, then we’re guilty.”

In 2015 when Agent Inc. was created, Willingham added, the Harvey Weinstein bombshell and industry issues coming to the forefront in rapid succession hadn’t even happened yet, but Agent Inc. was hot on the trail.

“We knew what was going on and we knew that we could be ones to be [like], ‘hey, there [are] issues, but we have a solution,” he said. 

For Higgins and Erika, even more is at risk, making a solution essential to their safety. Harassment against models doesn’t just occur at photoshoots, but can even parlay into stalking situations outside of them.

Higgins specifically was in a situation where she noticed a car following her to her castings.

Higgins said she remembered thinking how odd it was that he must have the same route as her, but realized he was definitely following her by the time she got to the freeway where she would be heading home. Higgins called 911 and the police pulled the man over.

Later that day, the police called her back to tell her that the man was a registered sex offender from New York, to which Higgins said, “He had a bad rap sheet.”

“The court date kept getting postponed and when it got to the point where the courts couldn’t postpone it anymore, Higgins said, “My agent wanted me to go to a casting for an important audition instead of going to court. I couldn’t believe that he wanted me to do that when we know this is serious.”

Higgins said that she didn’t get castings for a while after that, but the man did go to jail.

From the perpetrators to the industry’s systemic problems, where do we place the blame? According to Willingham, it’s a mix of many things: the industry’s structure, power in the hands of agencies and agents, money fueling important connections, and agents who don’t say ‘no’ when they need to. 

“There’s all these places to point fingers where they should be pointed,” Willingham said, “but at the end of the day, all that matters is that this is happening.”

 

***Erika’s first name is only provided to protect the source’s personal privacy. She uses this name in all professional situations associated with More Than Modeling.

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