Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Sunday Telegraph: The disturbing trend of model deaths

daul kim, backstage @ alexander mcqueen SS08

On November 20th I - along with many others - blogged about the very sad news of the death of South Korean model Daul Kim. The news was all the more alarming by virtue of the fact that Kim's was not an isolated death in the modelling industry - or indeed suicide. As regular readers of this blog would be aware, I have been tracking some of these stories over the past twelve months. Sydney's Sunday Telegraph newspaper asked me to develop the post into a small feature (which they titled "Dying for success"). Many thanks to's Wayne Sterling, Sophie Ward and Vikki Graham for availing themselves for interviews at short notice. Here's the story (which ran last weekend):

THE fashion industry has been rocked by the death of top South Korean model Daul Kim, the latest in what has emerged as a disturbing trend of model suicides over the past 18 months.

The 20 year old was found hanged in her Paris apartment on November 19th, the third model suicide since June 28 2008, when Kazakh model Ruslana Korshunova, also 20, died after falling nine floors from her apartment building in New York.

On October 11 2008, 26 year-old Canadian Hayley Kohle fell seven floors to her death from an apartment building in Milan.

Although Kohle was one of many virtual unknowns struggling to make names for themselves in a fiercely competitive business, both Korshunova and notably, Kim, had achieved far greater success, securing magazine covers and lucrative advertising contracts.

And yet both Korshunova and Kim also left a trail of social networking site posts behind them talking about heartbreak, loneliness and depression, with Kim already once having to defend her mental state on her two year-old blog I Like To Fork Myself.

On October 11, just one month before she died, Kim even used the terms “cut ur wrists”, “jump out a window” and “cry for help” in a blog post called “Say hi to decided”.

“The industry is definitely in shock over the news of Daul Kim's suicide” said Wayne Sterling, a prominent New York casting director and the editorial director of the website, whose closely-followed world rankings of models are considered the industry’s unofficial benchmark. “People are asking...How could we have missed the signals? There have been a lot of tears and some guilt about all of our superficial assumptions”.

But the suicides are part of a wider pattern of recent model deaths that have many asking about the hidden risks and dangers of an industry that remains largely self-regulated.

Not counting the eating disorder-related deaths of three South American models in 2006, which reignited the Size 0 debate and prompted a raft of industry initiatives, on July 7 last year Canadian Diana O’Brien was murdered while on assignment in China.

Then on October 11, coincidentally the same night that Hayley Kohle died, 20 year-old male American modeling star Randy Johnston died from a heroin overdose in Connecticut.

“We all have to accept that yes there is a serious problem” said Sterling.

“Common decency now would demand that designers, editors, photographers and agents should address signs of depression and fatigue and stress in young models as clear problems that could amplify with tragic implications” he added. “We're dealing with human beings here, not inanimate mannequins”.

Speculation is currently focused on the mental health of Australian modeling star Catherine McNeil, who was photographed last week in Sydney with a series of mysterious cuts on her arms.

McNeil’s mother contradicted the official statement from Australian agency Chic Management, that the cuts were the result of a skateboard fall, by stating her daughter fell down stairs and has also been “depressed”, with McNeil’s grandmother adding that Catherine is “burned out” by the industry.

Chic Management declined comment for this story on either McNeil or Daul Kim. Chic’s New York affiliate Next Models was Kim’s American agency.

"This was the tipping point - enough is enough now" said Australian model and author Sophie Ward of Kim's death.

Ward has experienced the modeling rollercoaster both first-hand and through the eyes of her sister Gemma Ward who, by early 2007, had risen to the world number 1 position, before disappearing from the business altogether following a segue into acting and the January 2008 death of close friend Heath Ledger.

“Without a strong sense of identity, I think it's very easy to lose oneself in the demands of a million people, and forget who you even were to start with” said Ward. “Yes I went through dark stages of existential doubt but I wouldn't call it depression, it didn't last as long”.

“Of course my family were vital, but you can't survive in a hotel room with just a telephone, or a blog. You need many voices, many hands, all around you, to get your mind off those pressures, and enjoy life".

Sydney’s Scene Models director Vikki Graham conceded that although she believes agents are not therapists, the size and pressures of the business and the speed of communications have helped depersonalize the industry.

“Models don’t come into the agency like they used to before, now every model’s got a BlackBerry - but a BlackBerry doesn’t tell you whether they’re feeling down in the dumps” said Graham, who also believes agents should be both aware if there are personal issues affecting a model’s work and prepared to cancel jobs.

“They’re not machines” she added. “There are times when they can’t do a job. The model has to take priority over the booking”.


Death Wears Diamond Jewellery said...

fantastic piece Patty! Suicide and depression are very serious and should be taken as such. I hope agents and managers are educated on warning signs and symptoms and take action when need be.

melissa said...

well written. very interesting, i hope this stirs awareness x

Smokeandmirrors said...

Patty, have you read this? Its written by Madison Stephens, a former model and the older sister of Ali Stephens. Its extremely well written and gives some frightening insight into the workings of this industry.

Suzie said...

I too have read that post from Madison Stephens, it is so well written and very insightful. I wonder how much of this is what she knows through Ali? Did Madison model much?

It is interesting to hear a model agent's take on all this, with many agencies it seems 'no comment' has been the only response.

I'm keen, Patty, to hear your opinion of all these models switching representation of late? Sure, girls have always changed, but lately it's like I can't keep track who is with you. It seems most agents are losing girls to one big player in particular...

I wonder if this whole depersonalisation of the agent/model has meant girls are more easily lulled away. I have a friend who models, and says that she has seen her agent all of 3 times in a year! I know that if another agency approached her, she wouldn't have any reason to remain loyal.

Suzz said...

who is with 'who' rather, not you. apologies.

J'aime said...

I heard about Ruslana Korshunova sometime ago. I don't really understand these deaths, and its seems that models drive themselves to anything under pressure, it really concerns me because children look up to models and they're beauty.

A really good effective post. Thanks for sharing.

Patty Huntington said...

smokeandmirrors -

i had not seen this post, thanks for drawing it to my attention. i'm sure i'm not the only one to do a double take at the reference to the "cool australian girl", her booker's "legendary bribes" and her alleged relationship to the campaign photographer. fictionalised account of the industry or blind gossip item?

suzie -

it's a competitive business and, like in any business, some companies are more competitive, more aggressive, better-connected and indeed, far more successful, than others. you can't blame models for switching agencies if they feel their interests are going to be better looked after by another player. but i guess it depends how you measure "success". have agencies upped their staff levels to give their new recruits more hands-on attention? just because an agency can (by whatever means) swing bigger and better jobs, is it monitoring both actual work conditions and the mental health of its workers? the more you hear about this industry, the more you realise what a production line it has turned into.

*sorry to digress a little but* said...

If you really believe Wayne Sterling to be some kind of good samaritan within this industry, please ask him why his "Top 50" list always includes around 70 faces (currently there are 73!!)
I can see why the MDC rankings are considered "the industry's unofficial benchmark" - its because fashion reporters like quoting them because they're hyped!! (which is obviously great for a story). As a result of squeezing 70 places into 50, the quoted MDC ranking ends up being much higher than the actual position on the MDC list (e.g. Catherine McNeil's quoted "ranking" is 11 but she is actually 17th on their list!).
The increased publicity generated must make the places on this list quite valuable.
and 70 places is more valuable than 50.., no?
I think there might be a few model agencies who would be very upset and angry if the list were suddenly culled to 50... *OUCH!!*

Suzie said...

Absolutely. It's my opinion that such depersonalisation has resulted in a lack of loyalty, further fueling the loneliness of the industry as a whole. It's certainly not the models who are to be blamed, but the production line nature that you refer to.

WendyB said...

I always wonder about the parents of these girls who start this kind of work in their teens. Are they there or not? My youngest stepchild is 18 and there's no way his parents or I would allow him to travel the world without one of his with him at all times.

Bostonista said...

This is a fantastic article. And something really needs to be done to protect these kids. I really love this and I'm going to post the link back!!!

Blog Archive