A group of British models, believed to include some household names, aims to become the first in the fashion industry to join a trade union in an attempt to win greater working rights for catwalk professionals.
The models, who are hoping to challenge intensive working conditions and the growing "size zero" trend, have been in talks with the Equity trade union.
Equity traditionally represents actors and performers, and although television-based models who do advertising work have been accepted by trade unions, models in the fashion industry have little representation beyond their agencies.
"Models have no voice; no one is listening to them and no one is asking them what they want," said Martin Brown, an Equity spokesman who has been involved in the negotiations with the models since the spring. He said: "We were approached earlier this year by a group of models who said they needed a union. They complained they had no one to represent them and that if something went wrong and they went to their agencies they were warned not to complain because they would not work again." Union membership would be the first attempt by those employed inside the fashion world to force the industry into adopting clearer and fairer working rights for thousands of models.
Many of those who spoke to Equity complained about the kind of conditions they often had to work under.
One told how she suffered an extreme allergic reaction when her body was covered with car paint for a photo-shoot, while a male model said his scalp started to bleed after too much peroxide was put on his hair.
Models also complained that agencies made them sign unfair contracts, that they were often required to work long hours without any breaks, regularly had little chance to eat between shoots and felt unable to opt out of nude photo shoots over fears they might lose work.
It is understood that some of the models trying to set up the trade union committee are major players within the industry.
A fashion source said: "Some of those who want to set up the union are really quite big household names. But at the same time they are understandably a little uncomfortable about coming out in public just yet because of the prevailing view in the industry that models should keep quiet if they want to continue working."
The fashion industry has been under considerable pressure this year to increase the health of its models after the death of two models shone a spotlight on the pressures catwalk models faced to stay thin. Last summer a Uruguayan model, Luisel Ramos, 22, died of heart failure after not eating for several days in an attempt to stay thin.
Another model, the 21-year-old Brazilian Ana Carolina Reston, died last year from anorexia-related kidney failure on the eve of a photographic shoot. She had been living on a diet of apples and tomatoes.
In a move to acknowledge concerns over the "size zero" trend, the British Fashion Council set up an inquiry into the health of models to see what improvements could be made. It made key recommendations when it published its findings in September.
Equity said it was hoping to set up a committee of models to introduce basic minimum working standards.
"We want to work in partnership with the industry, not in confrontation," said Mr Brown.
"We won't be able to insist on people signing up to these basic standards but we should make a pretty powerful lobby."
'I often have to work in harsh conditions' Amy. Model, 19
Amy went into modelling at 16, but left three years later to go to university.
"My experience was a lot less glamorous than I was expecting. On a shoot, models almost never get a break, unlike photographers, stylists and make-up artists. If you want lunch or a cigarette it's very difficult. Shoots would often last 15 hours and I wouldn't see the light of day. Men get paid a lot less than women. It must be one of the few industries where that is the case.
"Then there is the pressure to lose weight, the drugs, and some of the things we are expected to do. I was on a shoot where they wanted to make the models look like they were from another world, and they bleached this model's eyebrows. The bleach was running into her eyes, and the poor girl was just sitting there crying.
"People often only told me that I'd have to go topless once I'd arrived at the shoot, and I don't think that's fair. Models risk being labelled as pathetic for complaining. There's a belief that we get paid so much simply for looking pretty that we should put up and shut up."
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