When Becca Wanjiku received an invitation for a modelling audition at a night club in the Nairobi CBD three years ago, she imagined she was well on her way to gracing billboards and television screens. She was 23 years old at the time.
“I was well toned and in pretty good shape. I was very positive about getting the job.”
The first part of the audition went well. She was chosen to join the hosting modelling agency alongside 70 other young women. She was supposed to come back the next day with Sh8,000 for the final part of the audition, which was going to be a photoshoot.
“I couldn’t raise the cash. I was so crushed. I thought I had missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime – until my friends who paid the cash came out with nothing. These people had no connections with the modelling industry; they were just looking to make some money from the photoshoots.”
Becca’s unpleasant introduction into the modelling industry is a sad reality for a lot of young Kenyan women looking to go into the industry.
Three or four short decades ago, international runways were the preserve of stick thin, white and blonde women.
When ethnic women started to carve their niche, Kenya was right at the forefront, with a number of supermodels such as Ajuma Nasenyana and Nicole Atieno opening the doors for more women to make it big internationally, and raising local modelling standards.
But while the cameras are still flashing, there’s still a lot going on in the darkness behind the scenes.
Despite the less than stellar start, Becca, now 26, went on to do a bit of runway and advertisement modelling. The environment, however, was toxic. “There was a lot of sexual favours given to agents by the female models, so the same people kept getting all the jobs. I stopped seeing modelling as something I wanted to spend my life doing. I am now in business. I model occasionally if someone comes directly to me with a job but I no longer go to auditions,” she says.
THE ALLURE OF THE FAME
The idea of strutting down an international runway or having your face plastered on a billboard can be very alluring. For someone on the outside looking in, models seem happy, glamorous and rich.
Scammers are usually intelligent people. The allure of this glamorous world, which to a third party seems like the preserve of a chosen few, is what makes it even easier for them to con their victims.
“When a good looking, sweet-talking photographer got into my inbox on Facebook a year ago talking about how I was just what he was seeking for a local magazine, I was thinking about the glamorous clothes, the make-up transformations, the celebrity status and of course the money that would come thereafter,” says Terry Murugi, who was a victim of a scammer.
Terry, a good-looking, lithe, 28-year-old marketer in a local firm admits that she had always admired models.
She had even considered answering casting calls that she saw advertised but had never had the courage. Then this man came promising that he could make it all happen.
He spoke about putting her on television. She was even flirting with thoughts of quitting her tedious marketing job, of course after the money and the fame came.
The photographer, who owns a photo studio in Nairobi’s central business district, easily made her believe that he held the key to her success.
So when he asked her for Sh20,000 for the photoshoot to make her the perfect portfolio, she obliged.
The photoshoot happened and when he asked for an additional Sh10,000 to grease some palms at the magazine, she gave in. Then began weeks and then months of chasing him trying to follow up.
“I was greedy. He preyed on my greed,” she says in retrospect.
“When nothing had happened after many weeks, I became suspicious and posted my ordeal on social media only to find out that I wasn’t the only one he had conned,” she says.
THE UGLY SIDE
Most scammers in the modeling industry are after the money that’s in your pocket.
There are a few, however who have more frightening motives, like one Cynthia, 31, encountered a couple of years ago. She talks fast, narrating her ordeal. She wants to get it off her chest quickly. She is still ashamed when she remembers, she tells me.
“I was going about my business when I saw an advert looking for models for a commercial. What caught my eye was that they wanted a curvy woman. I think I am good looking. I had thought about modelling while in my early 20s but everywhere I looked, they wanted thinner girls.
Then this man comes and after looking at my pictures says that I am it,” she recalls.
The man said that he was a model himself and going by his pictures, she believed him. He suggested dinner to discuss the business deal.
“That should have rung the alarm bells but I was in between jobs at the time and this man seemed like the answer to my prayers. He kept saying how beautiful I was. I thought I had the upper hand,” she says.
Dinner went well but not much business was discussed. So when he suggested they have a few drinks after, she again obliged. The discomfort, she decided, was worth the big job he was promising.
“The last thing I remember was sitting in the outdoor sitting space of a club. I remember flashes after that of a man lying on top of me on a mattress or a bed; he was either Asian or white. I remember a bright light, like it was being recorded.”
She woke up in a hotel room on the fourth floor of a building in Nairobi’s city centre. Nobody around seemed to remember who she had come there with.
“I have spent the last three years trying to move on from that day. I don’t even talk about it, I didn’t even try to find this man again. I want to forget.”
How to avoid getting scammed by fake agencies
Cecilia Mwangi is a former Miss Kenya
The beginning was not so tough for Cecilia Mwangi because she was already represented by a legitimate agency when she joined the modelling fraternity. She however has come into contact with many other modelling agencies.
“Most of the time, you can tell apart a legit agency and a fake one. If an agency calls you abruptly to go for a random shoot in a dingy place, they are most probably fake. If there are no contracts, if they are insisting on you paying money for photoshoots, pay attention. Chances are that when you pay that fee, you will never hear from them again.”
A better solution, according to her, would be having a body that will regulate the industry and protect the rights of models. “As it is, anyone can set up a company and call themselves an agent. Nobody is looking out for the interests of the models.”
Mercy Chematia, 23, is a commercial model
The one lesson 23-year-old Chematia has learnt in her three years as a commercial model is that is vital that a contract is signed before doing a job. “I insist on this. A few days ago, my friend was a model at a product launch. The agreement was that the pay would come after but it was just verbal. She wasn’t paid after the event. Her attempts to follow up on this have been unsuccessful. The bigger problem is that there is no body manning the industry that someone can complain to,” she says.
Mercy agrees that sometimes, fake agents and agencies are as convincing as the real deal. She, however, believes that there are still things that a model can do to protect herself or her money.
“Sometimes even an online search is sufficient. Go online and look for reviews. Ask if there is someone else who has worked with this agency. If you slip and you are scammed, talk about it. Put this information out there.”
Kareena Iradukunda is a commercial model
“Do your research,” is what Kareena Iradukunda terms as the most important thing for someone looking to go into modelling. “I have seen all sorts of agencies. Some of them are fake, with no clients whatsoever whilst others are not solid. These ones will sign you up only to collapse a few months down the line. Others are legit but then the officials running them demand for sexual favours from models to give jobs.”
She notes that a lot of people seeking to join the modelling industry look at public perception of agencies and she says that this isn’t always right. What you see on the ground is not always what you get.
Deliah Ipupa is an international model
“When you are starting out in modeling you will need an agent to connect you to clients. Clients will not come directly to you,” Deliah Ipupa reckons. The most important thing for a model, she advises, it to sit down and decide what he or she wants to do, and the kind of modelling they are interested in. This way, they become very deliberate.
“Once you find agencies you would like to work with, talk to models who have worked with them to know their work ethic.”