The Rise Of The Video Girl

There has been a phenomenal rise in demand for ‘video girls’ in the UK’s black music industry, with the rise of Channel U encouraging more wannabe rappers to whip out their home recorder and knock up a video. Cue crop tops, batty riders and quivering un-toned flesh bulging through tight-fitting micro-dresses, convulsing, winding and popping with untrained urgency, while hungry, smirking boys with tilted caps stare and gesture leeringly in-between exaggerated displays of bravado…
There is a thin line between video girls, and girls in videos. The above description, firmly illustrates the latter. I felt disillusioned after a day of watching Channel U alternated with random no-budget UK hip-hop documentaries I’ve accumulated from the flyering masses after raves around London. In the middle of a one such video, the camera zooms in on a seated girl as she gyrates, her ample bosoms spilling out of a white bra clumsily poking above a strapless black top that looks like it might disappear at any minute. The word “whoring” springs to mind in trying to describe her expression, along with the twenty other girls doing much the same around her.
Young men pursue careers with the (unbeknown to them) unmarketable, showcasing their lusty female companions from up the road, ‘round the corner, and all over the neighbourhood, in a bid to be the guy men want to be and women want to be with. Instead, they come across as juvenile, sleazy and inexperienced. They exploit girls’ insecurity, briefly making them feel hot and desirable enough to feature in their video, when in reality they look… well, cheap. I’m not claiming that professional video models necessarily have low self-esteem (however masked it may be) – but it is certainly a widespread theory. I’m not pulling it out of thin air, either: at the Essence Music Festival in Houston, Texas last July, Jill Scott spoke out against “dirty, inappropriate, inadequate, unhealthy and polluted” portrayal of black women in music videos. At the same conference, former video dancer Karrine Steffans (author of the kiss-n-tell book Confessions of a Video Vixen) admitted that it was low self-esteem which led her to dance in hip-hop videos: “I was always told I was ugly,” she said. “I didn’t realise my own power and my own worth.” This only seems to ring semi-true for Emily Rose, who won the Hip Hop Candy competition and runs workshops for aspiring video models (www.kandyfactory.co.uk). She says of her self-image, “I’ve always had an issue with my face. I’ve always known my body has always been effortless – I do sit-ups and that’s it basically. I’ve been born with a chest that most girls want, a butt that most girls want, and a really small waist. I know I’m not ugly, but I’ve always thought of myself as quirky looking. I’m one of those girls that not everyone would find beautiful but a certain type of person would find me beautiful. I get self-doubt all the time. But even though I have issues with my face, I’m a confident person so I can do the job that they’re gonna give me.”
ksteffansWhatever drives our young women to appear in music videos, the current problem is not necessarily the concept of professional women who have turned video modelling into a career, but the vulnerability of the directionless TV-hungry girls who land the parts because they’ll do it for free. For every boy whose dream it is to become a successful rapper, be sure that there are a dozen girls they’re persuading to shake it in their videos, unpaid, often unrespected. Then there are the dangerous situations that can be brought about by amateur production, with our interviewees relaying tales of gang beef disrupting video shoots (“When we were filming a dance scene, loads of boys run in with masks ready to fight. Everyone was screaming and ran away as fast as they could, I came out with a cut on me from being trampled on” – Layla). With no budget to play with for most artists, ‘real’ video models – i.e. the girls who know how to pose, act for the camera, look fabulous and earn money for it – are left workless, because our artists can’t afford them, or they end up compromising their income by doing the job for little or nothing, for the same reason. “There’s no money here. Everyone wants to do videos now, through MySpace and Channel U. so there’ll be a younger, prettier girl than me that will do a video for free, where now I’ll charge £750. It’s a dying trade, the budgets are getting smaller and smaller and girls are doing it for cheaper – because they just wanna get on TV, and everyone’s obsessed with being on the TV in England. Agents can’t even get a cut; you can’t take a cut off a girl who’s getting paid £50 to do a video,” explains successful video model Emily Rose.
With such high competition for regular work, it’s not just money the girls have to fight for. With every girl knowing that there are another hundred willing to take their place, it can be hard to question how well they are being treated. In general, Emily has always felt more appreciated for her work as a video model in the US than in the UK. She compares, “What annoys me is, in America they worship their video models but in England video models don’t get any support. I always find Americans quite anal but they get the job done. The director respects you and looks forward to working with you, whereas in the UK they use you as a prop, but in America they call you ‘talent’ and they respect you and you’re important to them – you’re there to make them look better.” Sindi, who models with www.ukbeautylicious.moonfruit.com, reveals, “We are sometimes treated in such a way we feel as if they think we are groupies and don’t deserve to be paid. Which is the biggest hurdle we are still trying to conquer. On one occasion money was settled but on completion of the video we were laughed at when asking for payment.”
Whilst America crowns its video models, who are polished, seasoned, and effective trophies to compliment the swagger of their lucrative hip hop stars, UK hip-hop is, on the whole, distinctively downmarket in its approach and finish. Our regard for video models is particularly low, akin to the general perception of strippers. Even the video models have absorbed negative perceptions of their own industry: Emily, who got into video modelling inspired by the pop videos on CD:UK and Live&Kicking admits, “I’m a bit of a hypocrite because I never wanted to be a video girl. I do sometimes stereotype them! I always thought I was different but when it comes down to it, I’m not: I am a video girl – but I never want to call myself a video girl.”
hiphopcandyOur impressions of the career of a video model may be of a life of sleaze, amateurism, and bitchiness. What do we really know about it? I decided to get some first hand views on the matter. 20 year-old Layla Louise, who formerly attended Emily’s workshops and has since enjoyed success as a video model whilst studying for a degree, says of the atmosphere between models, “It’s nearly always competitive, then sometimes it gets a little bitchy. I’ve been to a few castings with girls giving me dirty looks, I normally like to take that as a good sign though, they must see me as competition.” Sindi, says “You get a lot of ‘cliquey-ness’ with girls not wanting to integrate with other ladies even though they would have done a video with you before. Sometimes it will go as far as when the filming begins you get pushed and shoved so they can have their clique on screen.“
The tale of the video girls is one that translates across the black music industry – everyone wants something for nothing, because we’ve got little to play with in the first place: whether you’re an artist trying to persuade a director to shoot you a free video, a director gathering girls to feature unpaid, or an editor finding passionate writers to volunteer (ahem…!). With the professional video models pushed out by eager girls who do it for nothing, there is no consistency in the standard of our videos. Many cite the poor quality of several of the videos regularly played on Channel U as a reason for general low standards in video production in the urban scene, but Layla remains positive: “Without Channel U, there would be hardly any videos in the UK for models to dance in or get their foot in the door with.” Sindi theorises that artists “have not yet realised that they are selling a package to the general public. In this day and age people are very visually inclined and if what they see is cheap, that is what you will be ranked as. We see 50 Cent in his video with the cream of the video models because he is selling an image to the consumer, that he only has the best associated with him, and because everyone wants to seem like the best so they will jump on the bandwagon. There needs to be a level of unattainability with the artist.”
So how do we break the cycle and raise the standard in the UK? Emily’s advice: “It’s our generation that will be the next talent. Everyone’s up and coming, you don’t always have to work with the best of the best. But you can’t disrespect yourself if you’re getting paid £50 pounds or doing it for free, because you’ll never make money and you’ll always be asked for favours.”

MARSHA GOSHO OAKES

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