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Women of the Runways Unite--in a Union

May 28, 1999|BARBARA THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Most models are tall, beautiful and the epitome of glamour. Like football players and movie stars, theirs is a world supposedly filled with wealth and privilege.

So who's going to believe them when they say they have the same work problems as everybody else--payroll disputes, sexual harassment, misleading job advertisements?

Meet Rhonda Hudson the new president of Local 51 of the Office and Professional Employees International Union. Local 51, based in New York, is called the Models Guild. Hudson, herself a model and aspiring actress, hopes the guild can soon do for models what the Screen Actors Guild does for actors.

As part of the AFL-CIO, Local 51 already provides health insurance, mortgage programs, legal services and loans to its members, which now number just under 100. It has already helped models recover millions of dollars in unpaid fees and money scams from unscrupulous agencies in New York and Los Angeles. And the union has lobbied the state of Florida (another hotbed for models) to pass legislation that will regulate talent agencies, which often represent models.

Hudson, who first modeled at age 4 for her grandmother's church, began her career in 1993 with the traveling Ebony Fashion Fair show. She assumed the presidency of the union in March. The Models Guild has been around for five years but came into the public eye recently after a newspaper article reported models were angry because they were losing magazine cover jobs to celebrities.

Hudson says she understands the celebrity appeal. Celebrities are portrayed as accessible personalities and they are often featured in interviews inside the magazines. Models, except for the handful of supermodels, remain largely anonymous, explains Hudson. And celebrities, she adds, tend to have bodies more like the average person so readers relate to them better than models.

And, the public no longer is buying into edicts about what it means to be beautiful, she says. "We're coming into a certain level of maturity and we might not accept what somebody says is so cute anymore." She says a designer recently had complaints from customers about using 14-year-old runway models. The clients said adults were the only ones who could afford her gowns, which started at $650.

Other issues Hudson hopes the guild will act upon include food disorders, sexual abuse, drug abuse and age and racial discrimination. "Those are uglies in this industry that I would like to see addressed, put away, packaged and shipped out," she says.

Hudson is glad to see the end of such trends as the waif and heroin-chic looks made popular with ultra-thin young models with stringy hair and blackened eyes. "I don't think that it is a wise portrayal of beauty to display those things in a fashionable sense," she says. "Being thin and being sick are two different things."

To become a guild member, a model must have had two modeling assignments in the year she joins and pay an annual $300 membership fee. "The average income [for a model] is fairly small," says Hudson. A catalog job can pay $1,200 for a sitting. "But that may be the only job they do that year."

Anyone who works around models, such as hairstylists, photographers, agents, makeup artists and bookers, can also join as nonvoting members for $165 a year.

The guild also helps models who are not members. Hudson expects to launch a Web site this summer to offer public service announcements for anyone thinking about a career in modeling. "I'd like to see all models and supermodels come on board, if nothing else to make a positive statement," says Hudson.

The Models Guild can be reached at (800) 864-4696.

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