What the List of Highest Paid Models Says About Racism in Fashion

Forbes released its list of the highest paid models in fashion and nearly all of them were white, cis, thin women. We talked to Fashionista's Tyler McCall to understand why.
December 14, 2018, 7:45pm
Kendall Jenner in gold dress
Photo by Samir Hussein/Samir Hussein/WireImage

On Thursday, Forbes released its list of the top 10 highest-paid models in the industry. Leading the troupe is Kendall Jenner, a 23-year-old former reality star who brought in an estimated $22.5 million over the course of the 12 months prior to June 2018. Signed to The Society Management, a division of Elite World, Jenner reportedly ranked a career-best from contracts with Estee Lauder, Adidas, and Calvin Klein, among others. Following Jenner is Karlie Kloss at $13 million, Chrissy Teigen and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley at $11.5 million, Gisele Bundchen and Cara Delevingne at $10 million, Gigi Hadid at $9.5 million, Bella Hadid and Joan Smalls at $8.5 million, and Doutzen Kroes at $8 million. Out of the 10 models on the list, none are considered plus-size by industry standards, none are differently-abled, none are transgender or non-binary, and only two, Smalls and Teigen, identify as women of color.


"Your social media page is your magazine of your life, so how you represent yourself matters," Ivan Bart, president at IMG Models, whose agency represents the majority of models on the list, told Forbes about social media playing a role in their success. "If you're going to cross over, you have to have a vision for it."

In a time when the lack of diversity in fashion is being critically analyzed and brands like Victoria's Secret—which all of the top 10 models have worked for in their careers—are under scrutiny for exclusionary casting practices, the importance of inclusion is top of mind for many. As reported by The Fashion Spot, 27.9 percent of the models who walked the fall 2017 runways were women of color, the highest proportion recorded since the publication began tracking the data two and a half years ago. There have also been strides in plus-size, transgender, and non-binary inclusion on runways as well.

But a factor for all the women on the list making top dollar is their ability to garner contracts outside of runway work and maintain a social media presence to raise their profiles—which may point to the disconnect between the diversity on runways and the top earners in the industry.

"It's easier to make runways more diverse because you're casting anywhere from 25-50+ models for a show, versus maybe a handful at most that would get cast for campaigns," Tyler McCall, the deputy editor at Fashionista, told Broadly.

"Runways very often do not pay at all, or pay in something called 'trade,' which just means the brand gifts the models clothes for labor," McCall adds. "So while it's easier to have progress on the runway, that's not going to result in any big paychecks. Those ad jobs and contracts from big paying companies still by and large go to cis, thin white women."

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The issue of inclusion opens up an eco-system of grievances some in the modeling world have been vocal about over the years. Colorism, casting agents' bias, lack of hair and makeup products on shoots, and socio-economic barriers of living in major cities with infrequent work are some of the reasons why the industry lends itself to diversity issues. While change is slowly happening, pushed forward by multifarious representations of beauty on social media, fashion's diversity problem reigns apparent from the top earners' list.

McCall believes in order to diversify the top earners' list, there needs to be change on the part of advertisers, who are the driving forces on what consumers see, expect, and idealize. "To make the top earners list more diverse, advertisers would have to start looking outside the typical pool of models (usually ones who are already pretty famous or Instagram famous) for projects and long-term partnerships. "