- Gleb Garanich/Reuters
US President Donald Trump founded a modeling agency in 1999. Business Insider interviewed two former Trump models who spoke about their experiences working with the agency. They talked about business practices that included lying about their professions to customs agents. One of the two models said she was left in debt to the agency. Referring to the industry as a whole, one of the models told Business Insider: “There’s quite a bit of exploitation of young girls going to America illegally and being overcharged for apartments and making very little money.”
For fashion models around the world, making it to New York Fashion Week is a dream. That was the case for two young models from the Netherlands, whose Dutch agency coordinated with Trump Models to bring them to the US in the mid-2000s. They were 17 and 19 years old at the time and had never heard of Donald Trump.
One of the two models now says she’s ashamed that her name was ever connected to his brand. Both women say the agency asked them to lie about their profession and to concoct stories to avoid alerting Customs and Border Protection agents to their intention to work in the US without authorization.
Their account of what it’s like to work as a model in New York – including that they were not paid adequate wages and were housed in cramped, dorm-like apartments – could be said about much of the industry and do not apply only to foreign models. But President Trump has made an anti-immigration campaign an early hallmark of his presidency. He is focused on those who are working illegally in the US and foreign workers who could be displacing Americans. The women Business Insider spoke with fit both descriptions.
The two models spoke on condition of anonymity. One said she was trying to get a work visa, and the other did not want to use her name because she feared repercussions for speaking out. The details they gave matched those given by other models as reported by Mother Jones and CNN last August.
Trump Models did not respond to several requests for comment about the allegations.
Trump’s foray into the modeling business
In 1999, Trump decided to extend his business empire into the world of fashion, opening the New York-based agency that bears his name. Trump had previously been married to professional model Ivana Trump, and he was dating then model Melania Knauss, whom he would marry, but this was Trump’s first step into the business side of the industry.
Today, Trump Models represents more than 100 women, which, along with its main line of talent, includes a “development” line, which focuses on new talent, and a “legacy” line, which represents more experienced models. Trump Models’ website says that the agency “is the brainstorm and vision of owner, Donald Trump.”
Last May, when the Federal Election Commission released Trump’s 104-page personal financial disclosure, it was revealed that Trump had generated a nearly $2 million dollar profit from the modeling agency, and Mother Jones reported that Trump owned an 85% stake in the company at the time. Before the inauguration, Trump announced that his business holdings would be placed in the Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust; however, recent reports show that Trump is still closely tied to the trust and it is listed under his Social Security number for federal tax purposes.
In addition to the usual runway shows, advertising campaigns, editorial spreads, and Fashion Week bookings, Trump Models is closely tied to Trump’s other endeavors. The agency and its models have worked with Trump’s reality-TV show, “The Apprentice,” starring in episodes that included fashion-based challenges. Mother Jones reported that some of the agency’s models were discovered through Miss Universe and Miss USA competitions, which Trump purchased in 1996 and has since sold.
Coming to America, without a visa
One of the former Trump models told Business Insider that when she was 17 years old she was represented by a local modeling agency in the Netherlands and was looking for more work to build her portfolio. Her agency coordinated a work trip to New York where she would work with Trump Models. Along with two other models from the same agency, she planned to spend three weeks in the US. They did not have work visas, but they were chaperoned by someone who did.
Upon entering the country to work, without a visa she and the other model Business Insider spoke with were potentially violating immigration laws. Though they were still being paid by their Netherlands-based modeling agency, anyone working and receiving compensation for work done for any time in the US is required to have a work visa.
“I was 17 years old the first time I came [to New York] and one of the girls I was with was 14,” one of the models said. “She was told to tell people she was 15 because they know that a lot of people would feel difficulty working with a 14-year-old.”
Like many foreign models, her goal was to find a US-based modeling agency that would represent her and help her get a work visa so that she could legally come to the US for jobs. But finding an agency that does both is challenging.
She said their first trip to New York for Trump Models was positive overall. “The first experience was quite good,” she said. “They arranged test shoots, got me one job, and a good editorial [shoot]. I was very happy.”
The second model agreed: “They were professional like any other agency – everything seemed professional.”
After the first model’s visit, Trump Models still wasn’t ready to help coordinate a work visa for her. The agency said she needed to work on her portfolio more and build her client list. Over the course of a year back home, she took jobs in Europe and Australia. The second trip to New York to work with Trump Models was initiated by the model herself, who was determined to build her portfolio and have the agency sponsor her work visa.
They gladly took her on, she said, but again didn’t work out a visa before the trip.
According to accounts from both models, they were specifically instructed by Trump Model agents not to take their portfolio books with them on the plane, as doing so can be a red flag to customs agents. They said Trump Models gave them the address of a booker and told them to tell customs that they were visiting a friend at that address. Under no circumstances were they supposed to tell customs that they were models.
That – and the fact that she’d be going through customs without a chaperone or visa – made the first model freeze up, and she ultimately told customs that she was a model when asked about her occupation. It wasn’t an issue, and she was let through.
“I was so nervous, I was sweaty, and I was red. I was so tense,” she said.
On this second trip, she stayed at the “model apartments,” where many would stay while in town on jobs.
“It’s a box. It’s tiny,” she said. “There’s a living room with an open kitchen … a tiny bathroom, the bedrooms, and in each room there was two bunk beds.”
Her plan was to stay for four weeks, but the bookers at Trump Models requested she stay another month once they saw that castings were going well. Homesick and ready to return to her boyfriend in the Netherlands, she stayed for only another two weeks.
Her third and final visit with Trump Models was for Fashion Week later that year. Arriving at a New York City airport right before Fashion Week can be risky for those coming into the city without a work visa. She and the agency strategically planned around this, she said. Her flights, coordinated by a booker at Trump Models, had her visit a friend a week previously “elsewhere in America” and then fly into New York for Fashion Week.
But Fashion Week “didn’t go well,” and between the cost of the flight and housing, she was in debt to the agency. Most important, her third visit confirmed what she had already thought: “I never believed that Trump Models believed in me, and their lack of effort getting me a visa is proof of that,” she said.
Ultimately, her Netherlands-based agency broke off all ties with Trump Models, and she has since started working with another US-based agency that she says is working to get her a visa. The second model has left the fashion world altogether.
‘American workers first’
Both models said their experiences with Trump Models are not that different from what they’ve seen at other agencies.
“It’s regular fashion business s— that you have to put up with. The experience I had with Trump Models … wasn’t different from experiences I’ve had with other places and other agencies,” one said. “Agencies … fabricate a very beautiful story, and tempt you with it – it works well when you’re younger.”
According to the first model’s account, the agencies pay for the flight up front, expecting the model to pay them back with jobs once she arrives. That, coupled with housing expenses, means that some models are just breaking even.
“They book you a job with quite a lot of money when you first arrive so you [can] pay back your flight and advance on the apartment,” she said. “There’s quite a bit of exploitation of young girls going to America illegally and being overcharged for apartments and making very little money.”
In the past year, Trump Models has come under fire for the practices – in particular, the alleged visa violations – because of how the business contradicted candidate Trump’s public statements on the issue.
One of his campaign pledges was to “establish new immigration controls to boost wages and to ensure that open jobs are offered to American workers first.”
More recently, Bloomberg News obtained a draft executive order relating to work visas – the same kind that some modeling agencies would use – that says:
“Visa programs for foreign workers … should be administered in a manner that protects the civil rights of American workers and current lawful residents, and that prioritizes the protection of American workers – our forgotten working people – and the jobs they hold.”
- Reuters/Carlo Allegri
Backlash from other models
In August, Mother Jones cited three former Trump Models who said they had worked in the US without proper work visas. Former model Rachel Blais, who is now an advocate against unjust practices in the modeling industry, spoke out about her time at Trump Models, saying they are “the most crooked agency” she’s ever worked for.
Model Maggie Rizer, who seems to have had a positive experience with her agent at Trump Models, publicly left the agency on the eve of election night.
She wrote in an Instagram post that “as a woman, a mother, an American and a human being, I cannot wake up Wednesday morning being the least bit related to the Trump brand; win or lose. I owe it to myself and to my children to proudly stand up for what I believe in and that is a world where Donald Trump has no voice for the future of our country.”
Today, the first model who shared her story with Business Insider says she feels ashamed of her involvement with the agency.
“It’s embarrassing to say out loud, to say that I’ve worked for Trump Models,” she said.
“Now, looking back knowing that I worked for Donald Trump … it’s really insane, it’s really awful. It’s bizarre working for someone that you now realize how completely opposite his ethics are of mine,” she said. “I despise that, and it’s bizarre to know I’ve made money for him.”
If you are a model who was once represented by Trump Models and would like to share your story, please contact Sarah Jacobs at email@example.com.