Male models tend to be young and tall, with high, Slavic cheekbones and short back and sides that Sir Edmund Hillary himself would have been proud of. Jet-setters, they’re in New York one day, Paris the next; paid handsomely for their ability to sell clothes, an ideal of luxury and, by implication, a model lifestyle – an impossible dream of effortless beauty and sublime happiness. But here’s the reality: months on the road away from friends and family, apartments crammed six guys to a bedroom, pay rates that pale in comparison to that of their female counterparts. And then there are the creeps – predatory men who offer money and fame in exchange for sexual favours, and who have the power to kill careers if scorned. The drugs and drinks flow freely up the noses and down the throats of vulnerable boys barely old enough to drive. It’s a self-perpetuating cycle. If one says no, there’s always another waiting to take his place.
Bruce Raubenheimer is one of the smart ones. Born and raised in South Africa, he moved to New Zealand at 16 and was immediately scouted by several of the country’s top model agencies. He said no. The requests kept coming, he kept refusing, but five years later – after he’d graduated from university – an agent from August Models convinced him to give it a go.
His first job was an unpaid editorial with alternative fashion magazine Black, quickly followed by a racy boy/girl spread in the now defunct FQMen. Photos from these shoots were sent around the world, and a short while later one of Milan’s top agencies signed him up. He flew out within days, arriving in Italy’s fashion capital with no idea of what to expect. It didn’t take long for the ball to start rolling. “It was a good first season,” says Raubenheimer. “Off the bat I booked Etro and Cavalli, and then the Gucci and Armani trunk shows, and I also worked for clients like Diesel.”
Raubenheimer’s immediate success can be attributed to a number of things. At first glance, he resembles a tall, blond, all-American outdoorsy type. Look a little closer and you’ll notice the flawless skin, the flashing teeth and the full, slightly upturned lips. But more than that, he commands attention. It’s a combination of charisma and extreme alpha-male testosterone. He’s loud, arrogant and a little overbearing, but it all adds to his appeal. He knows how to play the game.
“It’s not just your looks, it’s also that little bit of X factor that the person brings into the room – charisma and s***,” says Raubenheimer. “When I’m chilling with my mates, I’m a totally different person than when I’m coming in for a casting. You’ve gotta weigh up the situation, see who the stylist is, see if it’s a woman, a man, a gay, a dyke… and play up to that. Sometimes you walk into a room and throw your book on the table and give the client that whole ‘F*** you’ attitude, like, ‘I don’t need this,’ and other times you’ve gotta be like, ‘Hi, how are you, it’s so great to be here, I’ve always wanted to work for you guys,’ and then you get booked.
“The industry’s too fickle not to be fickle,” he explains. “It’s definitely a game. And the people who play the game do better than the people who don’t.”
The problem with the game, though, is that it’s seldom played on the models’ terms. By and large the guys are young, impressionable, hungry for fame and money, and in the care (or under the jurisdiction) of adults whose intentions aren’t always as pure as one might hope. And at times, no matter how well they’re cared for, models may still wind up in uncomfortable situations. “I found myself standing outside a gay nightclub at four in the morning once, doing a shoot in a pair of underwear and workman boots, with a whole bunch of seedy guys around me trying to get their game on,” recalls Raubenheimer.
Michael Whittaker walked into an Auckland agency at 15 and was signed on the spot. Tall and slim with ghostly pale skin, he’s either extremely good looking or reminiscent of a vampire, and he draws stares wherever he walks.
He left home for the European runways after high school and lasted almost three years overseas before returning to Auckland to study law. Despite working for some of the biggest names in the business – among them Christian Dior, Balenciaga and Raf Simons – Whittaker found money didn’t come easily and, though outwardly successful, he spent a near-impoverished year in New York.
He didn’t mind, though.
“At first I had that ‘don’t give a f***’ attitude and really enjoyed the thrill of living with no sense of comfort. It’s a teen rebellion thing – shrugging off materialism. It’s also quite hilarious to look at the money-obsessed businessmen or celebs paying millions a year to keep up the party lifestyle that’s given to you [for free], when you’re drinking thousands of dollars of alcohol a night and being envied by people with jets, and then going to Burger King and home to your mattress on the floor.”
Twenty-three-year-old John Doe [not his real name] modelled throughout Europe in the mid-2000s before moving back to New Zealand for a behind-the-scenes career in fashion. He says the money’s nowhere near what people would imagine. “In Europe, unless you’re booked for a big name exclusively you’ll generally just cover your expenses, and no models who aren’t already established seem to make money in New York these days.”
In his first Milan show season, Raubenheimer saw exactly how little male models make compared to female models doing the same job. ”I got €400 for the Roberto Cavalli show, and one of the girls got €20,000, and it’s just like, ‘F*** you.’ But at the end of the day, that girl is in tabloids. She’s massive; good on her. People pay to see her because they like looking at her; people don’t really give a s*** about looking at me.”
There’s another, far less palatable option available to young men who don’t make it, says Doe. ”I’ve known a couple of models who in Europe resorted to finding a secondary ‘red-light’ income to help pay the rent.” Raubenheimer’s seen it too. “A lot of the Brazilian boys get paid €400 per night to go have dinner with these older ladies and sleep with them. They can make €1600 a week, cash in hand.”
It’s not just out-of-work models who are exploited. Zack, a New Zealander modelling full-time in Sydney, says many photographers have ulterior motives when it comes to shooting young guys. “They always try to shoot you naked; they say it’ll be good for your career.”
Raubenheimer has also had photographers acting inappropriately towards him. “There was one in Milan who started shooting me, and then he touched my arse. I said, ‘Listen, that’s not my game. That’s fine, dude, [as a] one-off, you got your jollies…’ Then he did it again and I punched him in the face. I got thrown off the job but, basically, I’m not going to put up with that. I’ve got so many gay mates and gay friends in the industry who aren’t like that, that I’m not going to put myself in a position where I feel uncomfortable for a couple of grand. It’s not worth your sanity.”
“Young models do things they’ll regret,” says Whittaker, “because they fear they’re replaceable and so are vulnerable to coercion. As you get more experienced and sure of yourself, you accept you’re replaceable and [realise] there’s no point doing things that harm your reputation in other fields or down the line.”
Sometimes a photograph is all it takes. These days, everybody has a website – the photographer, the stylist, even the assistants – and with Google’s clever filing system, once photos are online there’s no going back. That crazy shoot that seemed like such a lark at the time might one day come back to haunt you.
A couple of months back I received a Facebook friend request from a middle-aged Dutch man – we had several mutual friends, so I accepted. Within a day of our newly minted online friendship, he started sending me messages asking if I’d like to see photos of a fairly prominent male model we both knew. Naked photos. Naked wrestling photos, to be exact. I contacted the model, and apparently the Dutch guy had been shopping them around to anybody he thought might be interested. My friend asked me to play along so that he’d have the evidence he needed to do something about it.
I did so.
A couple of days later, the creep contacted me again. This time he sent me the images. True to his word, the shots depicted two pretty young blond boys, both about 18, frolicking naked in the woods. On closer inspection, neither of the models appeared to be my friend. When I confronted the man, he denied all knowledge of the photos, how they were sent to me and his having any involvement in the sordid affair. Nevertheless, my friend now had the evidence he needed. He forwarded the email and the photos to the police, and the guy was treated to a house visit by a couple of Dutch cops. Needless to say, he hasn’t contacted any of the model’s friends again.
This type of scenario isn’t as uncommon as you might imagine. Type any male model’s name into a search engine and the first photos that pop up are generally the most homoerotic.
It’s not something you think about when you’re starting out, says Whittaker. “Everyone tells you that all publicity is good publicity. But publicity gets old and you have no control over which photos go up [online] and the fact that they’ll be there forever. Once photos have been taken you have no power. Your agent could theoretically wield some power if you retrospectively wanted some shots to not be used, but once you realise that a photograph will never go away you’re much more hesitant to do anything homoerotic.”
Raubenheimer has witnessed firsthand what the pressure of the industry can do to a young guy. He’s lived with two male models who are now dead – 24-year-old Ambrose Olsen, who committed suicide earlier this year, and 21-year-old Luiz Freiberger, who died of an accidental drug overdose last month. ”I’ve seen a lot of my mates [lose the plot],” he says. “Like one of the top boys Ambrose Olsen. I lived with him in London. He was tormented by that [homoerotic] s*** all the time because he was young but he was also quite easily influenced. He’d shot such amazing things but at the same time you let yourself get too involved in it and the consequences can be pretty devastating.
“Same with my mate Luiz Freiberger. Luiz didn’t kill himself, he OD’d; he just took the wrong drug at the wrong time. When I met Luiz he was a good Christian boy; he would just smoke a little dope here and there, but he was never on that other thing. He was more a body boy, and he was getting picked up and everybody was blowing smoke up his arse and saying he’s so beautiful and all that s***, and he was going to all the good parties and stuff that you can go to. But he started getting sucked into the other thing and the consequences for him and his family are pretty…” He trails off. “That’s the worst consequence, I guess.”
Whittaker doesn’t regret his experience. “Some work I’m incredibly proud of – beautiful clothes and photography that makes me look like a character and captures my youth and emotion, and which are a celebration and a collaboration.” But he warns any young guys starting out to keep it all in perspective.
“Modelling gives you a lot, but it can also take a lot from you. If you’re a strong person, then do it. Be realistic, know you’re replaceable and that ultimately you need to do something that you were meant to do with your life. A lot of people want and dream of it, idolise modelling even, when in reality they don’t mentally have what it takes to get a positive experience and become a better person from it. Like I said, you’re replaceable as a model, but your memory’s not.”