Leanne Maskell: Writing The Model Manifesto

The Notebook | 20th August 2019

The author of anti-exploitation guide The Model Manifesto on redefining beauty tropes, the dangers of social media, and the maintenance of mental health

Leanne Maskell is the increasingly celebrated author of The Model Manifesto, a book that seeks to expose the rampant exploitation that has for too long been part-and-parcel of the fashion industry. Garnering favourable reviews in the likes of The Times and The Independent, it’s a sizable tome, coming in at 264 pages, and it seeks to empower and educate models to take control of their lives, while educating the public on the sometimes-dark realities of an industry that can exert immense pressure upon the young. Maskell began, like so many, modeling as a child, at just 13 years old, and she had notable success, working internationally–being shot for titles such as Vogue and i-D, and brands such as Asos and Urban Outfitters. However, despite ‘living the dream’ in the eyes of her peers, she quit the industry at the age of 26 in the grips of profound depression and a panoply of eating disorders, which led her to a life-changing rock-bottom. It’s testament to her verve that while pursuing a lucrative, if often unhappy, modeling career, she simultaneously graduated in law–a profession she is now fully committed to, and her legal background was certainly invaluable in creating a book that is aimed at ending the exploitation of vulnerable young people in thrall to the fashion industry. In advance of the exclusive LFW salon she is hosting in The Living Room & Den on September 10, with guests Lottie Moss, Jess Woodley and Rebecca Pearson, she talks to Maslow’s Notebook about the dangers of accepted beauty tropes, and tells us why the ubiquity of social media is all too readily a conduit for mental illness.

What made you want to write The Model Manifesto?
I started modelling age 13 and carried on until the age of 26, despite never really wanting to do it. I didn’t understand how I was continually being exploited and finding myself in abusive situations, yet was unable to stand up for myself. I travelled to Australia and had a very dark period in terms of my mental health, moving to Byron Bay to save my own sanity (instead of New York, where I was instructed to go!). I studied law at University alongside modelling and upon graduating, interned for some of the brands that I was also modelling for. I saw my own contracts and began to see in black-and-white the ridiculous level to which I was being exploited. I then began to piece together the exploitative experiences I had encountered as a young model. For example, in my first year of University I was modelling for an agency because the woman who had scouted me off the street told me she would be fired if I didn’t join–which involved losing three inches off my hips. I would starve myself and be measured each week. When I finally became thin enough to meet clients, I found out that the type of work that agency specialised in was ‘high fashion’, which meant that the jobs paid hardly anything! I hated how I looked, I was really depressed, had an eating disorder and wouldn’t even be paid for it–I couldn’t work out why I was doing the job, and finally left! During these months, I was being sent to shoots for free, in men’s homes, having my photograph taken in situations that were very dangerous and uncomfortable. I started writing about these experiences on my blog to help models avoid the same experiences that I had by helping them understand normal agency practices. I didn’t even realise that I was being exploited until I started to learn about exploitation and what it involves.

What, in the broadest sense, do you think the modelling and fashion industry says about the human species?
I think that the modelling and fashion industry preys on the insecurity of human beings. It preys on our search for validation and acceptance, by portraying unrealistic images in the hope of us spending more money on things we don’t need in the hope of being liked by others. We are programmed to idealise beauty because it is the one thing we cannot manufacture–humans are inherently beautiful and youthful by our very nature of being alive for this short period. Capitalism recognises that we are essentially dying every day, and preys on this by essentially offering us a way to rewind the past and live more–at a very subconscious level! I feel very sad that people want to become models or influencers instead of aiming for careers that they can actually work hard in and develop. Modelling is all down to luck and isn’t something that you can become better at–success is literally like winning the lottery. The industry is changing for the better with social media to some extent, as there is more diversity and people are seeing (slightly!) more realistic representations of themselves due to the ability to use their voice. I hope that we are seeing a new trend towards authentic-ism as people begin to realise that their Instagram feed is essentially a curated advertising board.

How do you think the social media age is impacting upon self-image for young men and women?
Instagram does seem to be a conduit for mental illness–I know that I can while away hours on it when I am feeling anxious and want to numb out the world. It is the perfect self-harming mechanism for us to be able to plunge ourselves into a world of our chosen insecurity–whether that is being thinner, having a more ‘glamorous’ life or being lonely, for example–and fall down a hole of comparisons and self-hate. I definitely see the narcissistic side of it from ‘influencers’ I know, but, ultimately, I think it is really sad, because these people have just as terrible mental health as their audience, if not worse. Instagram is a glass ceiling and one can never have enough followers or likes. I think that social media is terrible for our mental health and self-image, particularly so for younger men and women, as they are growing up in a world where they can easily airbrush themselves to look like a completely different person. It also seems to be growing in an interesting direction. It is my belief that social media is growing much faster than our government’s ability to legislate it. It knows much more about us than our politicians do–and in 2019, data is power. Our world is in the grip of a nationalist, environmental and identity crisis, and cynically I believe social media ‘governments’–Black Mirror-style–will lead the future unless something changes.

What is your definition of beauty? Do you think we are at a place now where we are redefining beauty?
My definition of beauty is kindness. I think you can see when someone is beautiful–they just have an aura that radiates happiness. I often think people on the street that I pass are much more beautiful than the hundreds of models I used to work with (who all mainly looked pretty hungry and sad). I hope that we are redefining beauty as a society in 2019. We can see a lot more diversity in the modelling industry (though, frustratingly, this is partially down to Kim Kardashian and a whole different kind of beauty that is related to plastic surgery), which is great. I know now that brands are more and more searching for ‘real people’ rather than models for their campaigns, which is good on the one-hand, but these people need to make sure they are actually being paid properly! Beauty is still largely defined by the male gaze in our society. Look around at any media outlet–all we see is images of sexualised women. We don’t comment on the way a man looks or his body, which is something I found very interesting whilst writing The Model Manifesto. Men are under a whole different kind of pressure, as they don’t really have an ideal perpetuated by society to live up to.

What can people expect from the salon you are holding at Mortimer House on September 10?
The modelling industry is changing dramatically in 2019, and we are lucky to have speakers from all different 'eras' of the industry. Rebecca Pearson has been modelling for over 15 years, initially finding her way to castings with A-Z maps and shooting in the days of film photography. I was modelling for 13 years, before striking out to do my own thing with the book. As the half-sister of Kate Moss, Lottie represents the old and the new supermodel era, with incredible looks but a personality that surpasses being 'just a model'. Jessica Woodley embodies the fashion modelling industry of 2019, being booked as a model for being purely herself as opposed to a 'blank canvas'.  We will be speaking about the experiences of exploitation that models undergo, exploring topics such as rejection and confidence, and asking philosophical questions related to beauty and the world we are in today. I hope that people will take away from the experience a new perspective on the modelling and fashion industries, feel empowered to stand up for what they believe in, inspired by our wonderful speakers and overall, connected. Our panel discussions previously have always been very empowering experiences, bringing together different parts of the fashion industry, and shining a light internally on the modelling industry, but also externally, on the public perception of models and how this affects their own individual lives.

Interview by John-Paul Pryor