The standard modeling contract

I recently covered my experiences with editorial models, editorial and commercial agencies and their agents. Most of these articles were in response to questions people asked me, and while they gave a limited overview of the business in general, one area that I never addressed was the contract used by most of the major editorial agencies.

Photographer: John Fisher; Model: Jade Perkins (Next Model Management)

So, I thought I’d take a few minutes to discuss the so-called “standard contract,” which is the one used by editorial fashion agencies when they “sign” a new model. This is not meant to be a legal discussion (I’m not a lawyer), but rather a layman’s journey through the main points of the contract. My bona fides for writing this is that I first assisted a model who signed with IMG almost 20 years ago, and I’ve worked with virtually every major agency in the business and reviewed most of their modeling contracts.

A quick side note here, editorial agencies often “sign” models they represent (although not always). Commercial agencies rarely “sign” (the correct terminology is actually “list”) models, although it is possible under very unusual circumstances for a commercial agency to use a standard contract with a model.

The standard contract outline

The first paragraph or paragraphs of the standard contract outline that you (as the model) appoint the agency as your personal manager and they (the agency) consent to act as your personal manager for the term of the contact. Most often (although not always) the words “exclusive worldwide manager” will appear, sometimes (rarely) the scope of the contract may be limited to a geographical area such as the city or state the agency is located in. Worldwide? Yep, they’re your exclusive worldwide manager. You may work with other agencies in other cities or countries (and often do), but only with the consent of your original “mother” agency. The next thing you will see in these opening paragraphs is the agency only agrees to advise you, and that they will offer “counsel” on a whole range of issues. What they don’t agree to do (this will be repeated and stated explicitly) is to find you work or employment offers. And they (the agency) will collect a percentage (typically 20 percent) of all the gross money you make.

Photographer: John Fisher; Model: Jason O’Brien, Front Model Management

What? They won’t find you work, and they’ll only “advise” you, so why do they still want 20 percent of everything you earn? Strange as it seems, this has to do with tax law and getting around the restrictions typically placed on employment agencies in many places, NYC in particular. The next unusual thing about the standard contract is that you agree that the agency can sign your name to documents (like checks), and in many circumstances act as if they were you legally. They (the agency) will bill your clients, collect the money, put it into their accounts and eventually pay you (minus their commission and any other money you might owe the agency at this point). Are we having fun yet? It gets better! Do you remember the part about “any other money you might owe the agency”? Keep this in mind—you pay for everything. You pay for your book (with the agency name on it), you pay for your comp cards, you pay for testing, you pay for being on the agency website and you pay when your comps are sent to prospective clients. Now, the agency might advance these expenses and hold them against your account, but you will pay. If you’re lucky, when you are getting started the agency might arrange for a free test, but that’s only because they talked the photographer into shooting without compensation. If they (the photographer, makeup artist, stylist) charge, you will pay.

How much do agencies charge and for how long?

And now, for the coup de grâce, a quick sample from the contract we’re discussing, “you understand and are aware that the agency may collect from some or all of your clients an additional service charge which will be considered an additional inducement for the agency to act on your behalf.” Huh? What additional service charge? If they can, they’ll try to collect from all your clients if they can get away with it. How much can they collect? The service charge is typically an additional 20 percent of your billing rate to the client. Per the math on an imaginary job, your rate to the client is $1,000. The agency collects 20 percent ($200) from you, and bills the client (typically) an additional 20 percent ($200) as a service charge. So on our imaginary $1,000 booking you would receive a (net) $800, and the agency would receive a (net) $400.

Photographer: John Fisher; Model: Sarah Bruski, Front Model Management

Finally, the term of the contract is (typically) two to three years. And the contract will automatically renew for one year unless either you or the agency gives notice of non-renewal 60 days prior to the expiry date of the contract. This is just a heads up on what to expect when you sign with a major editorial fashion agency.

In truth (regardless of my comments), this is a good contract; it has allowed the agencies to function properly for many, many years and to provide an excellent environment for models to make a good living (and for some, a very good living!). There are small variations from agency to agency, and there are models that will have slightly different commission rates for various reasons, but this is the language you can expect to see when you are offered the opportunity to sign with an editorial fashion agency.

Photographer: John Fisher; Model: Mia Giacobbe, “Sweater Girl” editorial, Hair and Makeup: Frances Lordan

One thing I always caution models about is when you finally sign with an agency is that this is not the finish line—it is the starting line. However hard you had to work to get there, you must work ten times harder to stay there. You will not try modeling; modeling will try you.

P.S. All the models featured in this article have signed the standard contract.

John Fisher

John Fisher

John Fisher is a fashion photographer who does magazine editorial, advertising, catalog and swimsuit photography. He's a member of Canon Professional Services and was recently named as a sponsored photographer for Paul C. Buff Companies. His website is

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