There’s no doubt that the modeling industry is a major part of the multi-trillion dollar beast that is the entertainment industry. You would expect such a large and influential industry to have a high level of efficiency and organization when it comes down to the components that make it up. However, Kaitlin Puccio, a former NYC model now turned attorney, argues that this isn’t necessarily the case. I had the opportunity to sit down with her and discuss the ins and outs of the modeling industry, both from her perspective of being in the industry as a model and now from her perspective of an attorney helping models navigate their contracts with agency and management companies. 

Kaitlin got her start in the entertainment industry through acting and modeling. After doing theater at a young age, she started branching out into film and modeling in college, where she attended NYU as a philosophy major. “It started just basically with some friends as it tends to do,” she says. “A friend was working at an Italian boutique fashion house and asked if I would model some of their clothes and I said, ‘Sure, of course. You know, start the portfolio.’ And it kind of just built naturally from there.”

Little did Kaitlin know, this small job would come to change the trajectory of her entire career and life. She continued to do independent modeling, branching out into showroom and shoe modeling, throughout her undergrad, law school at Georgetown, and even post law school. Being in the industry for such a long time while staying independent is uncommon, but given her law background, Kaitlin noticed that some of the contracts she was getting were too oppressive for her comfort. At the time, she was both acting and modeling, so she was receiving personal management contracts from both parties. At times, there would be conflict between the two contracts, but nothing that couldn’t be worked out. Kaitlin recalls that her first red flag with a contract was when her modeling manager was unwilling to change the language in her contract. This also wasn’t a one time occurrence, Kaitlin kept on being faced with these oppressive contracts. 

“That’s when I started to say I’m not going to get anywhere in modeling if I continue on this path because if I don’t sign with representation it’s going to be that much more difficult for me to get jobs,” she says. “So at that point when it was over months, maybe over a year where I just kept saying you don’t know this isn’t going to work, I decided that I was just going to stay independent.”

Her law background had given her the knowledge to recognize the red flags in these contracts, preventing potential future consequences, but her fellow models didn’t have this background to recognize them and would sign these contracts anyways. This happened so much to the point where Kaitlin decided to shift her focus in law to the modeling industry in particular, helping models navigate these ambiguous contracts with agencies.

“I just got to that point where I said, you know the modeling industry can be so great,” she starts. “The fashion industry has so much potential and it’s one of the most unregulated industries that we have. Models are very unprotected, so I thought, well, this is something that I can really dig into because I do have a masters of science in bioethics. My focus is really ethics in general and bioethics and modeling might sound like they’re very different, but really, if you think about it, it’s just how to treat people the right way.”

This career pivot sparked the beginning of the merger of Kaitlin’s two worlds – modeling and law. She brings to light an issue that rarely gets talked about in the fashion industry, which is the exploitative treatment of these models, both through contract and on a humane personal level. With her unique background given her firsthand experience in the modeling industry, she was able to find this niche sector of law where she shined and was able to provide guidance and consult from a point of view most other lawyers could not. 

As our conversation moves forward, we dive deeper into the obscurities the modeling industry has to offer, especially how it relates to policy and law. Having dabbled casually into modeling industry while also studying sociology and public policy in college, Kailtin’s strengths match my interests, both academically and personally. 

Kaitlin mentions that as of right now, she can only protect models through contracts, but she hopes for future policy reform. One of the major areas that needs this reform is clearer and consistent wording of the law throughout different states. California has a very clear law that states anyone who procures work for actors, models, etc. needs to be licensed, whereas in New York, where Kaitlin is based, the law is much less clear, which actually doesn’t harm just the models, but also the management companies and agencies as well. This gray area within the law, in New York especially, leads there to be two major entities that procure work for models – model managements and model agencies, which are distinct. 

“The agents are licensed and the managers are not,” Kaitlin starts. “If an agency is licensed, their commission is capped at 10%. For an unlicensed manager, there is no commission cap. They’re very unregulated, so what a lot of these contracts will report to be is a management contract. But that means that they are not permitted to procure work for their models. In reality, the management company will be procuring work for them. That’s their whole purpose. But the writing of the contract doesn’t match the reality of the model relationship.”

This difference between the wording of a contract and the reality of it is one major area where Kaitlin’s background in the modeling industry is an extreme benefit because she is able to immediately notice this distinction and therefore, inform clients of the truth. “It’s that extra piece of understanding the industry that I think models really need to look for in a lawyer because you know, modeling is a business and you have to kind of marry the law and the business sometimes,” she says.

Another major red flag Kaitlin sees in modeling contracts and the first thing she looks for in them are the expenses and fees clauses. “It’s usually not actually written in the contract that a model needs to sign off on any expenses that an agency dispenses on his or her behalf,” she explains. “So a model might be very surprised to find out that he or she has paid for something that’s coming out of the paycheck. The agency is taking their commission plus whatever they’ve determined to be an expense that they’ve doled out on your behalf. So I always say it’s necessary to make sure that any expenses that the agency is permitted to dole out be approved by the model prior to the expenditure in writing so that the model knows exactly where the money is going.”

Financially, models are at a severe risk when signing these unclear contracts, especially if they live in a state that doesn’t have a clear wording of the law. This lack of transparency between the model and management company is one of the main reasons that Kaitlin refused to sign any contracts she came across and ultimately decided to pivot her career due to the amount of exploitation she witnessed in the industry when it came to models. They’re at a heightened risk of falling into a cycle of debt to their management companies if they don’t go through the aforementioned step of making sure to approve any agency expenses on their behalf, which is why the expenses and fees clauses are the first thing Kaitlin looks at when consulting models with their contracts.

The length of a typical contract is also one aspect that Kaitlin hopes to see potential reform for in the future. Although a three year contract is standard in the industry, this particular time length can be extremely detrimental to models because it’s such a long commitment and being standard, most don’t have a say in changing this length. From a management’s perspective, three years allows enough time to potentially train a model and get a return on that initial investment. “It might take a year for her to work on that portfolio to get to the point that she needs to be at to be able to go out and work,” she explains. “And an agency might not want to put all that work into someone who then leaves and goes and makes money for another agency. So from the agency business side, it’s an investment of their time and they want to be sure that they’re potentially getting a return on that investment. And not to talk about people as commodities, but that’s just from the business aspect of it.”

However, a three year contract can be detrimental to a model as well. Kaitlin explains that “one year from a model’s perspective is ideal. Because then you can say, ‘Okay, if it’s not working out after a year, it’s a year of my life. I can move on.’ From the agency’s perspective that’s too short. But there is, you know, a middle ground between one and three. We might want to talk about that number. Can you develop and get a model working and recoup the investment within two years and if not, why?”

Although three years is and has been the standard length of a contract, Kaitlin argues that two years allows for a compromise between models and agencies. It allows enough time for an agency or management company to potentially develop a model and procure enough work for them to get a guaranteed return on their investment, while also not being too long of a time where if the relationship between the two parties doesn’t work out, a model isn’t stuck potentially getting benched for multiple years. However, if a model does find themselves in a toxic relationship with an agency, buying out of it is not always the only way to get out, Kaitlin explains. “Sometimes it’s just a conversation with the agency and they don’t want that dead weight on their roster, so they’ll let you go and sometimes they really want to fight. There are always ways to look into that contract and say ‘Okay, here’s a way out. Here’s where the breach is, whatever it is.’ There’s never just one way, it will depend on the contract.”

On the topic of getting out of toxic contracts, we discuss potential preparations models can take to assure them they’re not getting in any toxic contract for any amount of time. “One way to tell is to just invite them to the table to discuss the contract and if they’re unwilling to, it’s an indication that all they want is bodies,” Kaitlin explains. “It’s very hard, but you have to be able to at least bring them to the table and talk to them so that you can ask them these questions and see what their response really is.” She further explains that although you can go through the content of the contract to search for any red flags, you also have to be able to trust your gut and intuitively assess the situation to see if you feel comfortable with it.

Kaitlin is able to use her expertise in both of her industries to provide guidance for models, but what if a model isn’t based in New York, or even worse, can’t afford a lawyer? Lucky for them, Kaitlin has a podcast called Insight, where she provides baseline information for models navigating their own contracts without a lawyer. “I started Insight as a tool for models who do not have a lawyer. It’s not meant to be legal advice. It’s just meant to be some information as a starting point for models. You know, this is something that you want to watch for, here’s why you need a lawyer. Things like that, just to equip them with a little bit of information so that they can proceed with their own careers if they’re representing themselves, essentially without a lawyer with something in their pocket.”

Kaitlin’s drive to prevent current models from going through the things she witnessed during her time in the industry speaks volumes about the kind of person she is and her true intentions behind what she does. Although her advice is to always seek proper representation if you come across something fishy in a contract, she understands that lawyers can be expensive, which is why she urges you to have a conversation with one to help them understand your situation at the very least. “I think a lot of people are afraid to have those conversations and you shouldn’t be,” she says sincerely. “You always have to advocate for yourself in every instance. The lawyers are not out to get you, in general. Yes, you do as a lawyer need to maintain your practice, but from my perspective as a former model, a lot of what drives me is protecting the models. I’m all about the ethics and if you say ‘I can really only afford 200,’ okay, we’ll talk about it. We’ll work it out in some way. But if you have something that is concerning you, you need to find the appropriate representation because it might cost you more in the future.”

This perspective of always putting the client first could be connected to Kaitlin’s past experience in the modeling industry, as well as her educational background in bioethics. Her high level of empathy could be due to her past experiences she says, but she reminds us that other lawyers have pro bono practices. “I don’t know how other lawyers conduct themselves. I always do everything with an eye toward what is the best way to treat this person as an individual. It’s not really about my practice. Yes, again, I need to be able to support myself and support my practice, but if I see someone, if they say to me, ‘I have this contract and it’s so oppressive and I just keep bleeding money,’ that’s a situation where I don’t want to see them get deeper into debt. And that’s just who I am as a person. You know, I would like to go in and help if possible.”

Having many friends in the modeling industry, it’s relieving for me to see lawyers like Kaitlin always keeping models’ rights and safety in the forefront of her mind and advocating for policy change to equal the playing field. The modeling industry is extremely unregulated and inefficient considering how large of an industry it is and society has become numb to the exploitative nature of it, which is why this issue is not being addressed much.

As our conversation comes to a close, I reflect on the current stage of the entertainment industry. The (recently ended) SAG-AFTRA strike was still happening at the time and our conversation shifts to the potential significance of Hollywood stylists unionizing if it were to happen. London celebrity stylists went on strike just a few months ago, so there had been buzz about Hollywood stylists potentially doing the same. “It would send a message to people that people really want to be treated fairly and they need a baseline to protect them or some entity to protect them,” she says. “[Unions] are about that baseline fairness and about strength in numbers and coming together and fighting for what you believe is right for you. I think the effect would be that a lot of people would look at stylists and what they’ve done and say, ‘I wonder if we can do that as well.’”

This potential domino effect would be sure to have great effects on the industry. Models might finally start the union that many have talked about for years, but first they would need to be recognized as employees instead of independent contractors and like the recent SAG-AFTRA strike, there could be real, sustainable policy change enacted. Even greater, society might take this mindset of fighting for your rights and apply it to other issues. “It might just be for the stylists, but I think the conversation could very well be turned to, you know, we really need to reassess how we treat people, especially in the United States,” Kaitlin says.

Throughout our almost hour long conversation, one theme has rang through – Kaitlin’s ideology of always treating people the right way. Yes, model/agency contracts are important, but that is still a part of the overarching theme of treating people the right way. From loving animals ever since she was a child, to her background in philosophy and bioethics during college, to her current work to protect models through fair contracts, this theme has always been in the forefront of Kaitlin’s mind in whatever she does. And I think that’s one thing we could all take away from Kaitlin’s work. Reassess how we treat others, put yourself in their shoes, and go forward in life with a more empathetic outlook on others and the world.