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Catwalk abuses for African models, who make their living risking online scams to sex trafficking

All eyes will be on the catwalk, but the emotions of the model behind Ethiopia’s first reality TV modelling competition are controversial, mixed with excitement and fear. She hopes the show will be great, but also that it will finally shine a spotlight on exploitation in the industry across Africa.

While the #MeToo scandal highlighted widespread sex abuse in the fashion industry, models and non-profits admit that women and girls pursuing a catwalk career face even greater dangers in developing countries.

Representative Image. Image Credit:

Delina Cleo, a model in her late twenties who created the ‘Hidden Beauty of Ethiopia’ show, wants to educate aspiring African models about risks from online scams to sex trafficking.

“This industry can be very dangerous”, she warned, referring to an Ethiopian girl whose family sold their house after a fake agency demanded payment to cast her in a production that did not exist. The girl ended up being sexually exploited, Cleo sadly concluded.

“Families do not have (enough) knowledge to understand (when) it’s a scam,” Cleo explained following the recent launch of the show’s second season, which sees about a dozen contestants competing for a contract with a major British modelling agency.

While data is scant, models and anti-trafficking activists explain how much abuses in the sector are common for African hopefuls - due to a lack of oversight and guidance both on the continent and abroad.

Photographer Alexander Ashimole is seen during a photoshoot with fashion model Reta Jerry-Riman as they create campaign images to contribute to the social media challenge called the 'Vogue Africa Challenge' at a studio in Lagos, Nigeria. Credit: Reuters Photo

Yet, the global industry is becoming more diverse and open to Black and ethnic minority models, argued Carole White - co-founder of the London-based agency Premier Model Management - who urged young women and girls to be wary of unscrupulous agents online.

“I believe (false promises and abuses) happen pretty much in all major cities,” claimed White, whose agency has managed global stars including Naomi Campbell. We live in a “quite a scammy world.”

Global non-profit Stop the Traffik this year released a report about aspiring models falling prey to sex traffickers in countries ranging from Colombia to Ethiopia to Russia.

“The #MeToo movement played a part in shining a light on how models are exposed to sexual and verbal harassment,” the report said. “What is not discussed is the link between modelling ... and the world’s fastest-growing crime, human trafficking.”

Sadly, an estimation by the United Nations’ labour agency counted that about 25 million people worldwide, whose fault is only trying to make a living, are trapped in forced labour - including 4.8 million victims of sex trafficking.

A still from 'Hidden Beauty of Ethiopia', a televised modelling contest in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Image credit Thomson Reuters Foundation/Handout by Arts TV/Hidden Beauty of Ethiopia

In South Africa, Phuti Khomo - winner of the country’s teen beauty contest in 2002 – opened up about her concerns about predators persuading young girls to send or pose for naked or lewd photos, then sexually abusing them or posting the snaps on porn sites.

“(Traffickers) try to target the poorest countries with ... fewer resources and less education about human trafficking and about the industry itself” explained Khomo, who in 2018 launched an event to connect aspiring local models with Western agencies.

“So much is happening under the radar ... and it’s happening throughout Africa.”

Ekaterina Ozhiganova, who heads Model Law, a French association that supports models’ rights, said that most aspiring young models had little understanding of the lucrative yet thinly regulated sector, and lacked contacts or support.

“Often, underage people receive no training whatsoever,” the Russian model explained, urging hopefuls to do their homework and ensure agencies offering work were legitimate. “Usually, you’re thrown into the industry and you’re supposed to find your way.”

The issue of human trafficking has a new sense of urgency amid efforts to spur growth. Image credit DOUG MAGILL/Sacramento Business Journal

The chairman of the British Fashion Model Association, John Horner, joined the debate saying that the industry in Britain was raising awareness of predators posing as legitimate agents but that it was “too easy” for them to globally target and exploit girls and women online.

“Girls who have been promised a better life, who are brought into Britain by a slave master or slave gangs, probably never even interface with the modelling industry,” said Horner, who is also managing director of Models 1, an agency based in London.

But the miserable truth is that trying to combat this “On an international scale, it’s virtually impossible”.

Yet, Cleo, who faced tons of accusations of being a scam artist when launching her contest in 2015, hopes she can finally make a difference.

“This (show) is more than a modelling competition,” she said. “We want to teach the audience. (Girls) just need to do (a lot of) research before they put themselves into any danger.”


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