Most of the time people think of free modeling agencies as agencies that don't charge any upfront fees or make models take required modeling courses or pay for photo shoots before they can be represented by the agency.
Having to pay for mandatory courses or photo shoots are things to watch out for. Models should never be required to take a course or shoot with a particular photographer in order to be represented. Having said that, there is nothing wrong with agencies recommending preferred photographers that they would like you to shoot with. Use your best judgement in this case. Is the agency insisting that you use their "in-house" photographer or is the photographer someone who regularly shoots models for a variety of agencies? "In-house" photographers can signal a problem, but referrals to preferred photographers generally does not.
Does An Upfront Fee Make The Agency A Scam?
No, not necessarily. Just because an agency expects you to cover your initial start-up costs or they have a reasonable fee to join does not automatically make it a scam. The key word here is "reasonable". A couple of hundred dollars or less is one thing - a few thousand is another. No new model should ever pay thousands of dollars to start a modeling career.
The other key here is "market". What market are you in? As a rule, agencies in large markets such as New York, London, Paris, Milan and Tokyo do not charge registration, administration or joining fees. They don't have to. There is plenty of work available for their models so the agency will earn its income from the commissions they charge the models and the clients. Generally, agencies earn 20% from the models' gross earnings and another 20% from the client. So, the agency actually earns 40% on a particular job.
Agencies in smaller markets may not have this luxury. Most of the jobs in smaller markets are catalog, local television, fashion shows, trade shows, etc. The clients are usually small businesses but can, from time to time, be larger clients with bigger budgets. It can be tough for agencies in smaller markets to make ends meet by only earning commissions from bookings. That's why smaller agencies usually have a training program or offer workshops to help generate additional income. There is nothing wrong with this! Don't automatically think that the agency is set up just to rip you off. The vast majority of agents in smaller markets are hard-working, honest people who really love the business and want you to succeed.
Working in smaller markets can be the ticket for a new model to get the experience and exposure to the industry they need in order to make it in a larger market with a prestigious agency. The catalog and local magazine tearsheets you get can help you get the work Visa's required in order to work in some international countries. Remember, as a professional model you are self-employed - you are not an employee of the agency. Reasonable expenses are to be expected - just use your best judgement.
If An Agency Likes Me They Will Pay For Everything - WRONG!
If I had a nickel for every time I heard that phrase I'd have a nice condo in Hawaii. Again, this all comes back to what market you are in. Smaller markets (outside of New York, London, Paris, Milan, and Tokyo) should not be expected to finance your career.
If modeling agencies in larger markets such as Elite Models, IMG Models, New York Models, Wilhelmina or Ford Models are interested in signing you they will generally cover the expense of your first test shots, composite cards, website fees, rent at their model's apartment and other expenses to get you started. You will be expected to pay these expenses back from the income you earn from bookings you get through the agency. As soon as you are paid from a job the agency will deduct any amount owing to them from your check. So, as you can see, even these top agencies are not "free". Depending upon the agency you will still be responsible for your debt to them even if you decide to leave the agency or stop modeling. This is something you should discuss with the agency before you take on too much debt. A responsible agency will never let your debt become too high before taking steps to correct it. Having said that, agencies in Asian markets such as Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong and Taipei will cover all your expenses such as airfare, hotel, composite cards, website fees, etc. and if you are unable to earn enough to pay them back you will usually be sent home before you accumulate too much debt and you will not be expected to pay them back should your expenses exceed your earnings.
The Bottom Line
The bottom line here is that there is really no such thing as a "free modeling agency". There are major modeling agencies that may cover some of your start-up costs that you will be expected to pay back once you start earning an income. However, the majority of agencies in the smaller markets will expect you to cover all of your initial start-up costs such as test shoots, comp cards, website fees, etc. Whether you are a supermodel like Coco Rocha, Shalom Harlow or other established models there will be expenses incurred to start your modeling career and ultimately maintain it.
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Simply sign up to create your account and then upload your photos. Snapshots are just fine. It's that easy!
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