Academic Models in Hollywood

Posted by on Nov 3, 2020 in Blog, Critic's Area | 0 comments

Academic Models in Hollywood

Do fashion models need a Ph.D.? Some certainly do — especially when it comes to walking their talk, so to speak, in critical studies of fame and fashion. Gaining a practical understanding of the Hollywood industry rather than simply studying the runways can provide deep insights into academic models: academics who choose to represent their fashion in media and public relations including communication through social media.

As a certified actor from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts (Los Angeles), an independent model represented by LoveLight Model Agency (Los Angeles), and the first celebrity studies scholar in a Hollywood tabloid, I critically explore socio-cultural issues in fame while I offer media interviews and modelling to represent visible minorities and fight sexism in the entertainment industry.  My theoretical and practical experience in media led me to the successful  facilitation of the Centre for Media and Celebrity Studies (CMCS) — a non-profit media organisation focused on media commentaries in celebrity culture that I studied during my Ph.D. program at Curtin University in Australia.

During my post-doctoral research and practice  surrounding fame and fashion in the US and Canada, I observed a rising interest in critical studies of fame and fashion in Hollywood. In fact, a rare number of academics have also publicly become fashion models, such as Chris Campanioni and Yeila Yavari of Vogue magazine. A prolific number of female academics have particularly started using #phdstyle, #academicfashion, or #whatprofessorswear on Instagram. Models are not required to have a Ph.D., but academics — rather than simply researching models in fame and fashion — are interested in being inclusive of modelling as a representational practice  as well as to fight off harassment in racism, sexism, and classicism in Hollywood. However, most academic models — including @cloegoesslwoly, @theconstantcloset, and — have not revealed their full real names while modeling on Instagram.  So, is it possible that  academics like me fear the same harassment and repressions that they resist in celebrity culture and feel challenged to effect actual change beyond their studies?

Celebrity Culture

The need for this change lies in the recent rise of celebrity culture on social media, which has led to an exponential increase in academic work that is not reflected  throughout wider society. Clearly, there is a voyeuristic desire or interest to critically study or follow what it takes to become a model in Hollywood. There is a much-needed representation of gender and cultural diversity in modelling, as in acting. However, there is still evidence of repression of diversity and equality in entertainment industries. Both models and actors  continue to face significant harassment in cases that academics critically approach.

In practice,  needed ethical treatments and representations at large seem to be lacking amid public discourse.  But why? Are the media and public unequipped to address these critical studies, or are institutionalised racism and sexism at fault?  Does this lead to continued repression of role models including diverse models and actors?

Visibility and the Unknown

During my graduate studies and post-doctoral research, I observed that higher visibility of dominant groups ironically plays a crucial role in addressing the invisibility of social differences and class-based issues in the media. The privilege of entitled groups  attempts to challenge and hide minorities facing inequalities that they theoretically aim to voice. I’ve experienced these issues first-hand. Despite official registration of CMCS with the government  of Canada and my well-known track record in print, broadcast, and online media, a Toronto-based academic A. K. CCed me in a sarcastic group email attempting to publicly shame and state unfounded claims of my work being “unknown.” Is there a narrative of systematic erasure of visible minorities that are “known” for a specific achievement or curbing what is worthy of being further known?

Hundreds of academics continue to voice their theoretical ideas on ethical issues in terms of what enables or erases  “knownness” – these are well-researched in celebrity studies. In fact, since the founding of CMCS, several professors and affiliated Ph.D. students have been inspired to create and run similar networks,  examining these issues on fame.

As a South Asian falsely being accused of being “unknown” and rendered unrecognized, I had to wonder: Was it the minority of female scholarship, of brown skin, or lack of social class in a corporation that made some people deem certain groups unworthy of visibility and subject to possible erasure? Who has more privilege and access to research on visible minorities – those with practical experience of invisibility or those responsible for its erasure?


The Fight for Academic Visibility

A Toronto-based affiliated professor, M. P., once publicly shamed several students in a prejudiced tirade. His rant was ageist, sexist, and racist – and I was one of the targeted students.

To this day, I remember when he called me into his office. He proceeded to interrogate me about the Indian languages my parents spoke, and he urged me to switch my academic focus from Hollywood to Bollywood. When I refused, he told me I didn’t deserve the $15,000 provincial grant awarded by the Ontario Graduate Scholarship (OGS) for my master’s degree at York and Ryerson universities.

‘The government made a mistake,’ he raged during the second incident of harassment.

I ask again: Is there a narrative of systematic erasure of visible minorities “known” for a specific achievement?

Such intimidation did little to hinder my practice-based research on fame and fashion.  I proceeded to receive grants valued at $120,000 for my Ph.D. on Hollywood fame and media coverage. Shortly after my Ph.D., SUN Media’s 24 Hrs news coverage featured my work with Jeremiah Hill Photography, as well as Madonna, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Kim Kardashian, in an interview on Hollywood.  I am grateful to journalist Brad Hunter from Postmedia Network, who brought visibility to my ethical research as the first South Asian celebrity studies scholar in the Hollywood tabloids.

Still, in my fight for visibility, I found myself continually explaining the need for my representation nearly 80 hours a week behind the computer. Despite all contributions, I had colleagues that intimidated me and broke my trust. The intellectual  labour of examining fame and fashion did not allow time and confidence in presenting my modelling photographs and videos. I kept writing about glamour while  neglecting to illustrate it as a self-reflective practitioner in celebrity culture.

In fear of repeated harassment that I had experienced in the past, I found it was much easier for me to hide behind the computer, as many famous writers do. As I mentioned earlier, many academics, particularly female scholars, also hide their names while posing as a model on Instagram.

But why was this the irony? There has been an obvious self-policing and learned behaviour in our inner critics, derived from a larger social condition that sexualises and consumes models in print, broadcast, and online reports. The higher the productivity  of publishing these reports in media, the greater is the perpetuation of classism that rewards such productivity.

What’s missing in today’s practice is the actual representation of minorities for which the critical studies of fame and fashion arecontesting . I realised that if I were to continue studying behind closed doors, I would be equally responsible for disabling marginalised bodies’ visibility – including my own – and perpetuating hidden truths of representations in Hollywood that male and female scholars like myself are continually battling.

The exclusive writing on marginalisation  within imagined, entitled spaces perpetuates invisibility and its need to be addressed.  The key to addressing inequalities in Hollywood and similar celebrity cultures is to represent or enable the representation of marginalised bodies through practical methods.

Becoming an Academic Model in Hollywood

Consider the opinion of 2019 CMCS delegate and adjunct professor Chris Campanioni, who uses his real name and models for men’s magazines in New York City; for instance: Campanioni states he’s always found it crucial to converge both theory and practice – the intellectual and the personal, if you will. “My experience as a model has helped me trouble the binary between the public and private in ways that call attention to the performative body and its hyper mediation — a nexus that has greatly informed my study of migratory texts and post Internet culture,” he  states in an email conversation with me on November 9, 2019.

“I don’t actually consider my work in the culture industry as a fundamentally different task than my work on the culture industry,” the City University of New York and Pace University professor explains.

One must also consider who is profiting from such mass print. I agree with the words of academic-turned-Vogue model Dr Leila Yavari, who told Elle magazine, ‘I have a sharply-honed critical eye – one that is hyperaware of the divide between surface and intellect, appearance and truth. And it’s an age-old opposition that always pops up in the most unexpected places.’

Dr. Will Visconti, an art historian and performance studies scholar affiliated with the University of Sydney and CMCS, further situates modelling in precarious economies of both the fashion and academic industries. “As concerns Leila Yavari’s piece, one of the things that leap out at me is the economic imperative behind her decision. Fashion is a thriving industry where education, particularly tertiary education, and especially the Humanities, is under constant threat (course and funding cuts, increased casualisation of the workforce, and issues like those around the UCU strikes in Britain are but a few recent and ongoing problems to navigate). There is something to be said to translate skills across what may seem like disparate fields – as Yavari points out, a critical eye is a valuable one. In an age of sensationalised news and misinformation, being able to engage with what’s going on critically is all the more pertinent. Fashion and academia also share a sense of precarity, and even the notion of “trends” to an extent in scholarship and theoretical frameworks: whether one is “in” or “out,” and whether one is employed/funded or not are not dissimilar in my opinion,” Dr. Visconti asserted in an email to me on November 14, 2019.

Dr. Visconti further points out the significance of feminist modelling in studies and practices of fashion and celebrity culture. “The listicle of models seems part of a broader issue, that is, downplaying women’s achievements, particularly in Hollywood or when looking at celebrities. Consider the treatment of Mayim Bialik during Q&A sessions about the “Big Bang Theory” and the realisation that she holds a Ph.D. in neuroscience. Another thing worth noting is where the models have studied degrees in fields that are not known for high enrolments of women (engineering, tech etc). The initiatives undertaken by women like Karlie Kloss are echoed in projects underway around the world such as programs to teach coding to secondary students and address the gender imbalance in various subjects. Some of the women mentioned have, however, been able to meld their celebrity status with work that is a more obvious fit with their academic backgrounds – Lily Cole’s documentary shows about art history, for instance,” asserts Dr. Visconti.

As Dr. Yavari further states in her academic stardom, ‘There are issues of women’s bodies, class discrepancies, alienation of  [labour], the ideology of the luxury system – but that is precisely the point. Rather than engaging this rich terrain and its many implications, we dismiss it all as shallow appearance. It is worth noting, a liberal arts department will break new ground with a porn studies department…but still scoffs at the possibility of devoting a single class to the study of something as frivolous as fashion.’

I believe academic models are able to engage this rich terrain of fashion, especially in fashion activism, and address ethical issues they study throughout tabloid media. In my interview with Hollywood and Bollywood film actor Dr. Kabir Bedi, I found that the star’s advocacy for fashion activism – as seen in the Fashion Revolution – is what journalism schools need when training tabloid reporters. This, of course, only became clear after engaging in candid public discussion.

I must confess: I am not a tall, fair, skinny, blonde model like most of the women idolised and victimised in Hollywood’s high fashion industry which also involves exploitative labour and needless and costly waste. For more information, read the description of a fashion studies conference I hosted: So, I am most comfortable and pragmatic in representing and  advocating for  fair trade and cruelty-free, vegan clothing or re-use my past clothing as a part of a sustainable “slow fashion” in the Fashion Revolution on IMDB, Instagram, and other media. Furthermore, I share my short feminist fashion films on social media which often can be contested space, open to both public harassment as well as ethical voices.

Put simply, I have committed to representing and voicing my beliefs and findings in public practice rather than leaving them for writers and critics that challenge equal access in an imagined space of privilege.  In fact, I encourage more writers to not only speak on invisibility in Hollywood, but put forth an actual representation of minorities and, in the process, resist class-based privilege that silences such practice.

I believe the right to be equally represented will stand strong.

And now, I pose one final question: Is a steep investment of money required to be an academic model throughout Hollywood discourses?

The answer: No, especially in cruelty-free, slow fashion that is sustainable and resolves issues noted in the link.

As an independent scholar and model, I have not secured financial stability, but rather dedicated half of the assets in my will to grassroots animal activist Dr. Anita Krajnc, an academic star, whose role in the Save Movement was recently featured alongside Joaquin Phoenix – both in fair trade, cruelty-free clothing, in several Hollywood news outlets.

To this end, money is not so much the issue as having the confidence needed to represent oneself without fearing loss of job, colleagues, family or friends. As noted in Brown Girl magazine, these family members or friends may leisurely consume the work of film stars supporting #MeToo while bearing some responsibility for the abuse leading up to the movement.  In fighting patriarchy and  lending a unique voice, what sustainable styles can academic models use in performing diverse representations, especially when capitalist industries increase the demand of labour in the practice and understandings of unachievable ideals of standardised glamour?

Dr. Visconti offers a unique example of how La Goulue performance rewrote life narratives in a way that challenged patriarchal barriers and made her narrative identity stand out in the media. “As concerns performance and biographical elements, one of the things to point out with specific reference to La Goulue is how she has been explicitly identified and reclaimed as a feminist. Sometimes this takes the form of being called a feminist “avant l’heure,” positioning her as part of a kind of avant-garde. Some performances have constructed narratives where she is known to feminist figures of the period like Louise Michel. This is not without precedent during her lifetime, with a reference in the feminist newspaper La Fronde linking La Goulue to their cause, contrasted with derisory newspaper articles elsewhere aligning her transgressive behaviour with a “victory” for feminism. In this instance, both La Goulue and feminism were treated as unseemly or as jokes, whereas contemporary representations draw humour from other aspects of her story.”

In contemporary performance, however, her mythicised decline is still the central focus. For Dr. Visconti, this decline exists even when she is portrayed as empowered during the peak of her celebrity. In his words, La Goulue ends up disenfranchised and impoverished (with most representations emphasising her death in penury). Several productions, however, retell her story and represents her as a woman who lived life on her own terms.

The significance of rare and bold models, representing hidden voices, continues to rise with specific living examples of changes. Both female and male academics may well help restore the presence of role models in the current political and environmental climates that do not represent modern ideals of beauty and life, in general. In exclusionary practices, dominant representations tend to include access to luxury, exotic pleasures, and feminism. Either way, practice-based research needs to empower female models, particularly female academics, to voice the silencing that continues to occur in the post-Weinstein era in Hollywood.

Being an academic model in Hollywood can significantly reinforce a well-informed and confident ‘voice,’ which I will bring to life in feminist shorts using generic styles of fashion films under the banner of Samita Nandy Productions. The process and essence of giving a voice to critical issues can be found in Becoming Media Critics and Ethical Glamour and Fashion: Styling & Branding the Persona released by WaterHill Publishing in 2020.  For more information, visit or my IG @samitanandyofficial.

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