As a supermodel, Constance Jablonski seemed to have the perfect résumé, having earned $5.4 million posing for big-name designers such as Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, streaming down catwalks for Victoria’s Secret (LTD), and representing Estée Lauder (EL) in global ad campaigns. This week she can add to the list yet another modeling career accomplishment: inciting a legal feud.
On Wednesday, the 21 year-old announced that she’d signed a deal with DNA Model Management, even though her current contract with Marilyn Model Management doesn’t expire until 2014. So Marilyn is suing her and DNA for $3.3 million.
“Despite the multi-year contracts, models tend to move around from agency to agency quite a bit,” says Susan Scafidi, a Fordham law professor and founder of the Fashion Law Institute. “They know their careers are very short—especially for female models—and they need to grab the brass ring while they can.” Models who want to break contracts can negotiate exits with their old agencies. But agencies are loathe to release higher-profile models quite so easily. In October, Ford Models sued the supermodels Karolina Waz and Alanna Zimmer for signing with a rival agency. Ford also filed suit against the agency Next Management and model Kendra Spears in 2009, reportedly claiming that it had turned Spears into “the next Cindy Crawford.”
According to Marilyn, Jablonski reached the heights of her fame while working under a 2011 extension of a contract she had originally signed in 2008, when she was relatively unknown. One possible explanation for her decision to leave Marilyn is the issue of the agency’s commission. Typically, agencies pocket 20 percent, but well-known models tend to negotiate that down. “Gisele and Kate Moss probably don’t pay their agencies a commission at all,” says Sara Ziff, founder of the nonprofit model advocacy group Model Alliance and a working fashion model who is currently represented by Marilyn. “I took a look at Constance’s contract and was surprised to see that she’s still paying that 20 percent commission. I’d expect a model of her caliber to pay only 10 to 15 percent.”
Even if Jablonski wants a lower commission, there’s not much she can do to get out of a contract, says Richard Hendler, a clinical associate professor of law at NYU’s Stern School of Business. “The same is true for actors and musicians, too—when people first start out, they’ll sign any contract because they think: ‘This may be my only shot.’ Then, two years later, they’re famous and they have this terrible deal,” he says. Hendler says Jablonski shouldn’t worry; lawsuits like hers are usually resolved quickly and without too much hassle. “Nobody wants to go to court,” he says. “A lot of dirty laundry is aired in public and people usually try to avoid that.” Even when the laundry belongs to a Victoria’s Secret model.