Dior row: Scouted at 14, dropped by 15. Modelling as a young teen is no fairy tale

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Fashion house Dior has unveiled a 14-year-old unknown model as its latest ‘face’ – to outcry from body confidence campaigners. Model Rebecca Pearson explains the other unexpected pitfalls of being a young teen model

Gliding down the runway in a sheer, diaphanous white gown, model Sofia Mechetner’s catwalk debut has made quite the impact.

But it’s not just her ethereal looks that are causing a stir – it’s her age. Sofia, the latest model for fashion house Dior, is just 14 years old.

Hers is a rags to riches story, being touted as a real life fairy tale. She was born in Tel Aviv to a mother who works three jobs to support Sofia and her siblings. She began modelling to help her family, and headed to Paris for the catwalk shows – only to find that she couldn’t get signed due to her age. Not only can ‘underage’ models attract negative publicity but they demand extra work in terms of support, advice and chaperones.

A chance encounter reversed Sofia’s fate. Walking around the Dior flagship store in Paris, who should she see but creative director of the brand, Raf Simons? Upon hearing her story, Simons immediately signed Sofia up and gave her a $265,000 (£170,600) two-year exclusive contract.

This is a fantasy moment for any model. What’s more, rather than dreaming of handbags and fluffy micro-dogs, Sofia looks forward to buying cornflakes for her family more than once a month. That’s true Cinderella style.

But no one can be completely sure that this is Sofias ‘Happily Ever After’. After all, modelling is a famously short-lived career, and I have seen girls washed-up before finishing their GCSEs.

I’ll never forget a previous agency describing how one model, who had graced Italian Vogue and Marc Jacobs campaigns aged 14 had ‘lost it.’ She was dropped the next year, at 15.

I’ve seen confident people halved in body and spirit: the dream can turn to nightmare very quickly as they spiral into debts with agencies across the globe if they fail to book work regularly. Many models end up with years of missed education and less money than they started with, something former model Jenna Sauers has written about eye-wateringly.

This begs the question: why is a 14-year-old deemed the perfect clotheshorse for garments that few teenagers could ever dream of buying?

Caroline Nokes, Tory MP and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Body Image, has described it as a chronic ‘step backwards’ saying:

“It’s sending a message that the designers’ ideal of beauty doesn’t represent what an adult female’s form looks like.

“I’ve always said we should steer away from legislation and I think the fashion industry over the past few years has done a good job of regulating itself, certainly when you look at the ban on under-16s at London and New York Fashion Weeks.

“But I would like to see an industry that didn’t just revert to a stereotype in order to sell clothes”.

She’s also blasted Dior for dressing Sofia in a ‘provocative’ white dress. I agree: you can clearly see her nipples, plus a 14-year-old’s body being used to sell clothes to people who can actually afford Dior – adult women – seems wrong to me.

(Dior itself is yet to comment on the furore surrounding Sofia’s appointment).

When an 14-year-old actress Hailee Stenfield appeared in a Miu Miu campaign, in 2011, people rightly spoke out against the use of a child to sell women clothes. One ad was even banned by the Advertising Standards Agency for showing ‘a child in a hazardous or dangerous situation’.

More recently genetically-blessed teen Lily Rose Depp – daughter of Johnny – modelled for Chanel.

Yes, these girls are also young (Depp is, at least, 16) but child performers are usually guarded by more stringently upheld regulations. They are being featured for their status not purely their looks so, in many ways, I think the damage to their self-image is lessened.

Most underage models simply do not enjoy this level of protection or security. Even Kate Moss has spoken out over how modelling aged 14 took its toll on her in Vanity Fair magazine, explaining that she’d had a breakdown due to the pressure to adopt sexualised poses at such a young age.

The modelling industry can be brutal. And that’s why I never approach people who have modelling potential if they look under the age of 15.

I might be able to see the potential in their Bambi-like features, but I’d hate for them to lose potential in their developing adolescent and academic lives for such an unpredictable job. What if they were harbouring ambitions of becoming a doctor or an astronaut? A few words from me could alter their life course and their self-perception forever – perhaps not for the better.

I was 16 when I was scouted, but plenty of my fellow ‘new faces’ were 14 or 15. Many of these girls were quietly nurtured by responsible agencies, sent on small shoots until they were ready to commit more time to modelling upon leaving school.

There are laws and licenses that are supposed to be applied.

Eight years ago, the British Fashion Council issued guidance recommending designers only use models 16 and over on the catwalk (models at London Fashion Week must now bring their passports with them to prove their age). Three years ago, all 21 international Vogue magazines agreed not to use models under 16. And in Paris – where Sofia was signed – models cannot have a BMI below 18 (considered ‘underweight’).

But these regulations aren’t cohesive: we need the laws to be worldwide, comprehensive and consistently enforced. I want to see rules over working hours, education, nudity, and a source of support for underage models as they deal with harsh rejections over their weight and appearance.

Sophie’s face radiates freshness, mixed with a strong bone structure that makes for the perfect catwalk scowl. But this naivety must be protected by law. Underage models need globally upheld regulations protecting them. They may look like glamorous women gliding down the runway, but the industry must not forget: these models are children.

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