Sept. 13, 2011— -- Beautiful teenage girl comes to the big city. After a few months of picturesque, laugh-about-it-later poverty in a fourth-floor walk-up, she gets her break. Bookings follow, she gets her own place in a chic loft downtown, meets a banker, and the two live happily ever after.
That's the modeling dream -- to the public and to the young girls themselves. The reality is much less pretty.
Watch the full story as "Primetime Nightline" goes behind the scenes of the modeling business in the "Celebrity Secrets" special, "A Model Life," airing Wednesday, Sept. 14 at 10 p/9c on ABC.
"The impression is this smooth, beautiful, dream-like experience for everyone, you know? And it's not that at all. A lot of people don't like to talk about the negative," said aspiring model Ehren Dorsey.
Like most new arrivals, Dorsey is beautiful and broke. She lives in a bare-bones "model apartment" with several other girls, whose names and faces change all the time, as models come in and out of New York City vying for modeling jobs. They share twin beds -- and a dream.
Dorsey has been here just over two months. Her new roommate is 16-year-old Hayley Wheeler, whose mother has brought her to New York City. Haley will be finishing high school online so she can give modeling a shot. Her mother plans to stay a few weeks to help her settle in.
Wheeler has a lot to learn -- not so much about fashion and posing, but about the tough business she's entering.
New models lucky enough to get work start by shooting editorials, which don't pay a dime but help build a portfolio.
"When I make money I just pay [the agency] back. Right now I am basically unemployed, so..." Dorsey said. She gets $120 per week for food and other essentials -- money she'll have to pay back with interest.
Fashion Industry Secrets
Lonely and low on cash, many models fall prey to a tempting but dubious lifeline: party promoters, perhaps the biggest and best-kept secret of the modeling world.
"It's almost like a secret society, so if you're not in it you don't understand it," said a promoter named Isaiah.
It appears to work like this: Party promoters befriend young models. Nightclub owners pay promoters to bring models as young as 15 to their clubs to attract rich men. Rich men go to the nightclub because young models go there, then spend lots of money partying with them. The club owners pay promoters a cut of the nightclub's profit.
Some might liken party promoters, many of whom are college-educated, to pimps.
"You get paid based on your quality of what you can bring to the table," Isaiah said. Quality of what? "Girls."
Whatever they're called, they certainly make a lucrative living off the attractiveness of young women.
"There is a [customer] who spent $500,000 in a club three different nights in a week," Isaiah said. Isaiah's link in the value chain connecting the big spender, the club and the girls is worth enough to pay for a $6,000-per-month apartment in Soho, he said. "If you're not making six figures, you're not doing it right."
Agencies play down the role party promoters play in their business, wary of its seedy image, and urge the girls not to go out with them.
"Yet we're poor and it's a free meal, and it's a chance to have fun, and so it's just like, how do you choose?" said Dorsey, who added she had two promoter friends.
Nights out with promoters often begin with a free meal at an upscale restaurant. "We all look like we're rich ... continuing that fantasy. We pretend we're not hungry, but we'll just eat it slowly, so it doesn't look like ... we need this meal," said Dorsey.
"You see these girls in magazines, and you think they're millionaires. ... We actually know they have $50 in their bank account. We know that if it wasn't for us they wouldn't eat every day," said Isaiah.
'You Shake Your Ass and You Take Shots'
Then the models are ushered into nightclubs. Dorsey, who is 19, confirmed the legal age requirement did not apply. "Oh yeah, when they check our cards, I hand [the bouncer] a credit card. He'll be like, 'Thanks.'"
Dorsey described her experience of what happens once they're inside: "You go out and you get drunk, but compared to other things … I don't know what people do, but it wasn't that crazy of an experience. You stand around a table and you shake your ass and you take shots," she said.
Given the power dynamics and the raw ingredients of glamour, alcohol, and drugs, sex inevitably creeps into many model-promoter relationships.
"Most of it is friendship," said Isaiah. "Then there is the other half where you can use your imagination," his math as slippery as the morals of his profession. Asked to confirm if the bedroom was part of his business, he replied, "The bedroom? Yeah, a big part."
Isaiah rejects the criticism that he is using the girls by saying they are using him as well. He and his crew said they were "100 percent" comfortable that they were doing the right thing by the girls.
As Hayley Wheeler's mom, Gabriella, prepares to leave her daughter alone, promoters are one of her main concerns.
"She has been approached. She's cordial, friendly with everybody … but Hayley knows why she's here. Why are you here?" she asked Hayley.
"I'm here to work, not to party," Hayley replied.
"Remember: buddy system, you and Hayley," her father tells two of her model roommates. "You all take care of each other and that will be doing the best favor you can do."
Before leaving, Hayley's father gives her self-defense spray, which he tucks under her teddy bear.