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

While fashion brands are infatuated with sweet young things, experts warn of the vulnerability of underage models

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."

•What do you think of under-17s going into modelling?

E-mail stlife@sph.com.sg


In love with fashion and make-up

IMAN FANDI AHMAD, 15

The daughter of model Wendy Jacobs and Singapore football legend Fandi Ahmad, Iman is no stranger to the world of fame and glamour.

The Secondary 3 student at CHIJ St Joseph's Convent was the youngest finalist in The New Paper New Face competition last year and won the Miss Fashionista and Miss Popularity awards.


Iman Fandi Ahmad enjoys being part of the fashion industry. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

Since then, she has appeared on the cover of Elle Singapore magazine with models Fiona Fussi and Vivien Ong in January.

She has posed with her mother for a photography exhibition in April and May by shoe and accessory retailer Aldo.

A familiar face at fashion events, Iman was spotted at the opening of American Eagle Outfitters' flagship boutique in VivoCity in June.

The 1.7m-tall model with long wavy hair and girl-next-door looks says: "I have always loved trying on new make-up looks and outfits, as well as being in front of the camera.

"Besides the long hours, I don't have parts of modelling that I don't like. I just love fashion."

Jacobs, 41, herself started modelling at age 13. She and Fandi also have four sons.

She says: "I'd like Iman to start now to become familiar with the ins and outs of the industry - the hours and the people.

"She is on a slow climb to create a good lookbook and she is trying different styles to find her image.

"With my modelling experience, I can also teach and guide her through her journey."

An adult is present at all of Iman's photo shoots, she assures. All legal papers are also signed by Jacobs or Fandi.

Jacobs says: "So far, we've been very fortunate to be given assignments which are totally appropriate, so I have not had to do too much police work."

But a model should not be overly prudish about clothes, she adds.

Jacobs says: "Once you're in front of the camera, you're acting out a persona for the client. So I am quite okay with any clothes - even underwear or swimwear - as long as they are in line with the overall idea of the shoot and are targeted at an appropriate market for Iman's age."


'Giraffe' puts height to good use

SI YIHAN, 15

This girl has both beauty and brains.

Despite her modelling commitments, the Secondary 4 student at Nanyang Girls' High School scored mostly As for her recent examinations.


Si Yihan, who modelled for Singapore designer Max Tan’s fall/winter collection (above), juggles modelling with her studies and basketball practice. PHOTO: MAX TAN

She is also enrolled in the Integrated Programme, which takes in the top 10 per cent of each PSLE cohort, and is on the school's basketball team.

Nonetheless, through determination and careful time management, she has managed to complete 20 fashion shows within her one year in the modelling business.

Last year, the 1.82m-tall model walked the runway donning outfits by Singapore designer Pauline Ning at Digital Fashion Week.

Earlier this year, she modelled clothes for home-grown designer Max Tan's fall/winter collection.

And she still manages to get seven to eight hours of sleep a night.

Born in China, the only child moved to Singapore with her family when she was four.

At 14, she was signed by local agency Basic Models Management after attending a casting call.

She says: "Growing up, I was always called a giraffe because I was the tallest in class.

"So one day, I decided to try modelling to put my height to good use."

Convincing her mother to support her took some effort.

Madam Zhao Jue, 44, an architect, says: "I was concerned about her studies as modelling does require a certain amount of commitment.

"The main reason I eventually agreed is because being on the Integrated Programme, Yihan can skip her O levels and her studies are less likely to suffer the repercussions of her modelling."

Her father, 47, a businessman, is currently out of town.

Madam Zhao says: "Modelling has allowed her to hone her social skills, think and plan for herself more independently.

"But I can't say that I'm satisfied. I would prefer her to continue her education normally and go to university instead of pursuing modelling as a career."


Lapping up the spotlight

DIYA PRABHAKAR, 16

You might have seen her in magazines such as Her World, Vogue India and ZbBz.

The 1.82m-tall beauty with almond-shaped eyes has walked the catwalks at fashion festivals in Singapore, donning outfits by Oscar de la Renta as well as home-grown designers Ashley Isham, Frederick Lee and Thomas Wee.


Diya Prabhakar with her parents, Annamalai and Asha Prabhakar. Her mother keeps an eye on the outfits she models and drives her to photo shoots. PHOTO: HER WORLD

The first-year student at Jurong Junior College says: "I love being on stage. I love the 30 seconds when the spotlight is on me."

Three years ago, she was talent- spotted by Indian fashion choreographer Prasad Bidapa while on a family holiday to India.

"He gave me my first break. I was soon on stage modelling at a mall."

Upon returning to Singapore, she signed up with home-grown modelling agency Looque with the blessings of her parents, who also have a 19-year-old son.

Her mother, Mrs Asha Prabhakar, 47, a housewife, says: "I usually drop her off at the photo shoot and pick her up when it is over.

"However, in India, I sometimes sit in until I'm comfortable that she is safe."

Diya has turned down requests on two to three occasions to model clothes that show "too much cleavage" or swimwear and lingerie.

For example, in a 2013 photo shoot, she was asked to wear a revealing couture outfit that resembled a G-string from the back.

She says: "I told the director I felt uncomfortable in it and they let a Caucasian model wear the outfit.

"I'm too young to wear these clothes. And I want to respect my parents' wishes."

Her father, Mr Annamalai Prabhakar, 49, a director of a restaurant group, says: "It's on a case-by- case basis. She can wear clothes that are not meant for teenagers - such as office wear - but it's the revealing features that I'm concerned about."

Mrs Prabhakar adds: "She may wear bikinis to the public pool, but I'd feel uncomfortable seeing photos of her in a bikini splashed across the pages of magazines or on billboards."

So what is okay? Office wear, bridal and evening gowns, even fish-net stockings.

Diya says: "At the end of the day, I'm just playing a character, so I try not to be too uptight about it."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 16, 2015, with the headline 'Teen models back in vogue'. Print Edition | Subscribe