Teen models are in vogue, but how young is too young?

Iman Fandi Ahmad, 15, a familiar face at fashion events, with her mother, model Wendy Jacobs.
PHOTO: Lau Fook Kong

Like its obsession with skinniness, fashion's love affair with youth is not new, but there is a recent drive towards younger models aged 16 and below. Barely pubescent girls are having what insiders call a "moment".

Some luxury fashion houses, which often set the mood for the industry, have made several high- profile appointments of super young 'uns to front their campaigns.

Lily-Rose Depp, 16, daughter of American actor Johnny Depp and French singer and fashion muse Vanessa Paradis, is seen with mussed blonde hair and a pair of round pearl-lined sunglasses in a Chanel eyewear collection, due to be out next month.

Fourteen-year-old Israeli model Sofia Mechetner, spotted by Dior's creative director Raf Simons, has been chosen as the newest face of the French house. She opened its couture show in Paris last month in a flowing white gown.

And further riding the wave is Kaia Gerber, 13, daughter of supermodel Cindy Crawford, who has landed a photo spread in next month's issue of CR Fashion Book magazine, a taste-making bi-annual publication by former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld.

The trend has also extended to Singapore. For example, model Fiona Fussi, who is born to an Austrian father and Hong Kong-Chinese mother, had her first break at age 15, winning the Elite Model Look Singapore competition in 2011.

More recently, Diya Prabhakar won last year's The New Paper New Face competition at age 15 and is currently signed to local agency Looque. The competition used to have a minimum age of 14, but the age limit was scrapped last year.

With the fashion pendulum swinging back to young teen models, experts warn of the risks faced by these models in a possibly exploitative industry.

At a vulnerable age where there is considerable peer pressure to be "cool and stylish", models face greater stress about their appearances, says Dr Carol Balhetchet, a clinical psychologist and senior director for youth services at the Singapore Children's Society.

She says: "They must stay slim to carry the clothes off well. As a result, some models can feel more insecure about their looks than ordinary teens."

Another concern is the risk of sexual predators. A former teen model, who declined to be named, says rumours of such predators are rife in the industry.

She says: "You're usually safe if you go through model agencies. But I've heard of models who contact photographers directly over the Internet and end up in a hotel room with a 'photographer' snapping away."

Teen models can also be targets of unwanted sexual advances at nightclubs and fashion events, where models often make appearances, says Dr Balhetchet. "Many of the girls are tall and look mature. Men don't know their real age."

Of the modelling agencies which Life spoke to, only a few represent fashion models under 17.

And they generally have guidelines for the girls - no lingerie, swimwear or revealing clothing, and nothing related to smoking or alcohol.

Ms Bonita Ma, head booker of Basic Models Management, says: "We usually filter their assignments to make sure they wear clothes which are not too sexy or sexualised.

"We also have a chaperone from the agency present at all photo shoots to make sure the girls are safe and not pressured into doing anything they are not comfortable with."

At least two agencies here do not recommend that girls start modelling until they turn 18.

Mr Watson Tan, 45, director of Upfront Models, says: "I feel some girls under 18 might not be mature or responsible enough to be a professional model.

"Some might just be doing it as a hobby, but I want models who are focused on turning modelling into a career."

Dr Brian Yeo, 54, who specialises in child and adolescent psychiatry at Brian Yeo Clinic Psychiatric Consultancy, advises parents to set some boundaries before letting their children model.

He says: "There should be some agreement between parent and child about what sort of assignments the child should take on, what sort of clothes to wear and how involved in modelling the child should be.

"In any case, parents must ensure their children are not exploited with regard to the children's earnings, working hours and where photos of the children appear. The girls should also be able to get enough sleep and be able to finish their schoolwork on time, despite their modelling commitments."

Underage models are not new to fashion. Supermodels Brooke Shields and Kate Moss reportedly started their careers before they were 15.

But former teen model Serena Adsit, who began modelling when she was 15, says starting early is not for everyone.

Now 36 and the director of local modelling agency Mint Management, she recalls that some of her earlier photo shoots were particularly difficult.

She says: "I wasn't very confident back then. At times, the photographer got angry because I couldn't deliver what was required and I felt very stressed.

"Thankfully, I pushed through. But I've heard of girls who couldn't deal with the pressure and broke down crying."

15-year-old student wins New Face 2014

This article was first published on Aug 21, 2015. Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.