Marga Esquivel got her big break at 19 when she walked in Gucci’s resort 2016 show, a major win for any model. A year later, however, she decided to leave the modeling business behind.
Four seasons of the show circuit were enough to show her that high-fashion modeling is less than idyllic. “My 15-year-old dreams about what the job would be like were much more difficult in reality,” she said.
Having started her career in 2011 with commercial clients like NastyGal and Guess, Esquivel had dreamed of doing the four-city show circuit and starring in major editorials.
But going after those goals wasn’t so dreamy. “The constant rejection was really starting to tear me and my self-esteem down,” she said. Poor nourishment, thanks to the industry’s much-reported pressure to be thin, and long work hours didn’t help: “I felt sick most of the time.”
So she gave it up, despite having the Gucci endorsement, walking for Miu Miu and Marc Jacobs, and working with notable beauty clients like Mac and L’Oréal. Now living in Germany, where she’s taking language classes, she plans to attend school there once she’s fluent. “I was tired of having to constantly think of my looks, and I wanted my value in society to come from something outside of that,” she said.
Although her New York and mother agencies — 360/Women and Photogenics LA, respectively — were both supportive of her choice, even going so far as to write letters of recommendation when she applied for schools, it wasn’t an easy decision to make.
“It’s hard to leave an industry that has been a part of your life for so many years and that you’ve been sacrificing a lot of yourself for,” said Esquivel. “That’s where it gets tricky.”
That battle is one that many current and former models face today.
Blake Myers, who was scouted at 17 in Chicago and modeled for about six years, felt similarly ambivalent when she stopped modeling in 2015. After years of both commercial and runway work for brands like BCBG and Helmut Lang, her agency, Next, requested that she cut her long hair short, resulting in a steady decline of work, she said. That left her feeling anxious about what she was (or, as she saw it, was not) doing with her life. “I just decided I couldn’t do it anymore,” she said. “I wanted to do something where I could actually pay my rent.”
Myers was met with a cooler reception than Esquivel when she broached the news with her mother agency, Mother Model Management in St. Louis. That group of people, who once treated her like family, she said, were quick to fall off the map. “I never hear from them,” she said, despite making regular attempts to meet up when the team is in New York. They’re always “busy,” though not too busy to hang out with working models, as broadcasted via social media, she noted.
The same goes for the friendships she developed while modeling. “95 percent of my friends from modeling are no longer my friends; I just don’t exist to them anymore,” she said. “I feel like a dog that got sent back to the pound.”
Now 25, Myers is a night server at the same restaurant she began working at when she left modeling behind two years ago. “It’s not perfect, but it’s stable: I get a paycheck every Friday, and I know I can pay my rent,” she said. She also started school last fall, which she had put off after being scouted. She’s studying food and film studies.
When asked whether or not she has any regrets about her path, she said, “I think I appreciate school more now, [because] I have all this life experience that can help me.”
Nevertheless, she feels that most young models — herself included — are sold on a pipe dream. “It’s important for those girls to realize that modeling isn’t for everyone and that it’s a really tough business,” she said. Both she and Esquivel agreed that it was made to seem far more cushy and glamorous at the beginning. There’s a sense that if you don’t make it, or stick it out forever, you’ve failed, said Myers.
Kristiina Wilson, a former fashion photographer for the likes of Glamour and L’Officiel, thinks that notion runs rampant across the spectrum of fashion career paths. “The industry feeds you this idea that there’s nothing you can do that’s as cool, worthwhile or valuable as working in fashion,” she said.
When she quit a year ago, frustrated with the flaky relationships and inconsistent, poorly paid work opportunities, she stayed in bed for about six months, depressed and nearly suicidal, she said. “Models deal with the same thing. Once they’re no longer the hot thing, no one gives a shit about them anymore.”
Of course, many models devote their young life to the industry without ever becoming the “hot thing.”
Caitlin Ward, who was scouted at 18 while a freshman in college, was convinced by her agency — also Mother Model Management in St. Louis — to drop out of school to pursue modeling. She spent four years “in development,” a term used by agencies to describe models who are being trained and not working. But after fighting a constant battle with her hip measurements — Next refused to work with her because she didn’t the requirement — she quit before getting any paid work.
“My mother agency put a lot of wind under my wings to convince me that I could do what the big models were doing, but that’s harder to attain than they make it out to be,” she said.
Spending all her time focused on working out and eating less drained her, she said. “I blamed myself more than [the people I worked with], and it wasn’t good for me.”
Now, at 26, Ward has decamped for Colorado, where she designs jewelry for her brand Lonewolf Collective. It’s more fulfilling, she said, echoing a common theme from all the women we spoke to about what they’re doing, or working toward, now.
“It’s a really nice feeling to be judged for my abilities, rather than what’s on the outside,” said Esquivel of her studies. “With modeling, it was difficult to accept that, no matter how hard I tried, if I wasn’t the look the client was going for, I just wouldn’t get booked.”
Wilson, for her part, believes that fashion’s obsession with newness may make the constant churn and controversial treatment of models impossible to fix. “We need to look past that to make the industry itself sustainable,” she said. “This should be a fun industry, not one that beats you down and eats you up.”