This wild year has given me a newfound appreciation for all of the people in my life that are always in service to others. As I wrap up 2020, I want to take the opportunity to share the story of my friend Elizabeth Peyton-Jones.
Elizabeth has spent two decades confronting the two largest industries — food and fashion — to help change our perception of what is “normal” and creating awareness over bad practices. As an example, the work she’s doing through her organization Responsible Trust for Models (RTM) is making an enduring impact on the retail and modelling industries. The role models play in influencing commerce can’t be underestimated. At the heart of every transaction between a merchant and customer lies a story, and many of these stories are told through the lens of models who are entrusted with the colossal responsibility of shaping our interpretations of brands — they are an important and exciting piece of the brand building puzzle.
But models are in need of our help and attention. The industry is due for an overhaul that puts the mental, physical, and economic needs of talent first. Elizabeth has made it her mission to be the champion for change through RTM, alongside a passionate team of advocates that includes the likes of Thandie Newton and Arizona Muse.
My interview with Elizabeth sheds light on this inspirational woman, and explains how you can get involved to pledge your support to RTM.
So much of commerce is influenced by the manipulation of imagery and semiotics. And models are among the key ingredients in the marketing equation. In your opinion, how powerful are models as visual metaphors for the brands they represent?
Models are like actresses. They are given a role and some clothes to wear, and their job is to make us — the voyeur — want more, want to buy, want to give up what we are doing and either get in line, or put our boots on and walk outside to buy whatever they are selling. Each brand, as part of their campaign, will choose a model that directly represents what they are trying to sell, so yes, they are visual metaphors for a brand’s core value.
Unfortunately the modelling industry seems to have a dark side that you’re revealing through your work at RTM. Tell us about the organization and why it exists.
The modelling industry has managed to operate without optics. It grew fast in the 70’s and 80’s without the normal restrictions that businesses would traditionally apply, and of course it was glamorous and involved mostly underage girls. It was only when the “Super Model” arrived that the power of the model shifted to big reputations and big financial reward. In the 90’s it shifted again, with the influx of Eastern European models and a feeling that there was more supply than demand, and thus the economic value of the model dropped drastically.
Modelling is very hard work. It is not about being beautiful — although you need to have that x-factor. Modelling is about being a business and being good with people. It’s about knowing how to look at a camera and get people to want what you have. And yet there is no real “market value” for these professionals. There are no standards, no best practice, no training, no financial guidance or business help. As a result, young people who are trying to make a living from this profession are easily manipulated, exploited, and occasionally trafficked. There is poverty, modern slavery, sexual, emotional, and physical abuse, all behind a glamorous façade.
RTM is addressing that balance by creating standards, offering training and support, and a way of working with brands to ensure best practices and a clean supply chain.
I like how you always talk about modelling as a business. What has been the most rewarding part about building RTM when considering the professionals you’ve impacted globally?
I think the older I get, the more I want to help the next generation. If I can help young professionals go into (and come out of) the modelling profession undamaged, that’s a good thing. If I can encourage them to help their contemporaries spread good healthy messages, encourage mindfulness, good mental health, good physical health, and some understanding of being a business person in this industry, then that is a good thing.
If a retail or brand executive is reading this right now, how would you ask them to support the RTM cause right now?
I would ask them to reach out to RTM and sign up. Sign up to show that they care about young people and their welfare. Sign up to show that their supply chain matters. Sign up because not being aware of what is happening to the people you employ, and who represent you, is not a good thing. Sign up to show your consumers that all people matter, all the time, and that equal opportunity is something you believe in. Change is coming — in a good way — and this is how to be ahead of the curve.
You have such an interesting background. Before RTM, you spent years writing books about nutrition and natural well-being, and had your own practice as a consultant. How did your past life influence your foray into disrupting the modelling industry?
Mental and physical health, and translating it to people, has always been a passion. When I began to see that the industry was actively portraying sickly images, and that the majority of women felt that was the norm, I felt compelled to find out what was happening in the industry — to better understand the size zero issue, the eating disorders, the images. Why women of all ages were drawn to pages of a magazine, and informed by images which were damaging mental and physical health in young and grown up people.
My view was that change from the inside will deliver change on the outside. Cleaning up the modelling industry — by having it become more respectful, and giving equal opportunity and training — meant that these influencers would go on to influence tens of thousands of others more positively. Conversely, when they are allowed to be mistreated and controlled, and coerced through bullying behaviour, then influencers will reflect that on social media and go on to influence thousands of others in a negative way.
I’m always amazed by the number of projects you’re able to juggle at any given point in time. Where do you find the time and energy?
That’s a very naughty question coming from you, because you don’t stop! Haha… well… I eat well, I don’t drink or smoke, I try to exercise every day. I have dogs which keep me mentally sane. And sometimes I have to remind myself that if I do too much, I don’t do anything that well!
Who inspires you to keep going and doing what you love?
The people I meet every day inspire me. It sounds corny, but genuinely, I find people extraordinary beings of huge capacity for doing the exceptional. I am also very stubborn and when I see a wrong, I can’t rest until it has been righted.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs that are just starting out, be it in the fashion or modelling industry, or in something else?
You have to be brave and you have to have passion. You have to believe in yourself and you have to listen to good advice — but always listen to your heart. “For those who say it cannot be done, they should not stop the person doing it.” Don’t wait for praise, or a pat on the back. The passion has to come from within yourself, and then you know you will go through hell fire to succeed.
We have a shared love for fashion, so I have to ask, which is your favourite brand right now and why?
I thought about this a lot and I have to say I don’t really have a favourite at the moment. I think we are spoiled for choice and what I do is keep looking at the brands that are innovative, that are trying, engaging, and have the environment and the planet’s needs at its core.
As a parting gift, what’s one video, book or other resource that you’d like to leave our readers with that will make them smarter?
I read the Alice Network, a very unsexy name for the most extraordinary book. It was about the resistance in the first and second world war. Written as a novel which was very compelling, but I was horrified to read what these women resistance fighters went through and all they did, and yet they are unknown, unsung, and unspoken of. They were amazing. It gave me stamina and conviction. It was a fabulously written, page turning book — I learned so much about the human spirit and how to harness my own.
[Note to readers: The first time I met Elizabeth, she graciously handed me her own book Cook Yourself Young. A page turner with recipes for a hundred easy-to-cook dishes that use the natural medicines in foods. As a fan I wanted to link to it so you can check it out for yourself. It made me smarter on how to take care of myself through what I eat 😊]
This interview was edited for clarity.
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