Godfrey George writes on how minors are deceived by model scouts and their agents into sex work in the guise of modelling
The evening breeze blew softly and caressed the gmelina trees along the Igbogbo/Bayeku Road, Ikorodu, Lagos, swaying the leaves in rhythmic wonder from side to side. It had rained earlier that Tuesday and the ground was still wet from the downpour. Frogs croaked afar off as the bright skies gave way to welcome the night stars.
After weeks of convincing, 22-year-old Munachi Achu decided to share her experience of sexual exploitation in the hands of a Lagos-based modelling and ushering agency.
She emerged from behind a Hilux van parked along a popular street in the community and gestured to our correspondent to join her, as she walked towards another street that gave way to a quiet crescent.
Her black gown flowed and dragged some dirt along the road path as she walked to the front of a popular church in the area and stopped right before the locked front door.
As the light from the fluorescent bulb in front of the chapel revealed her face, she swiftly bowed her head as though avoiding eye contact with this reporter.
Two young men, who Saturday PUNCH later learnt were her brothers, had accompanied her for the interview. Although the young men stood metres away, they maintained eye contact with her.
“I was 17 (years old) when Mr Godwin (surname withheld) saw me. He said he worked with a modelling agency and wanted me to be a model. That was in 2019. I was an admission seeker then. I was young,” she said, with a strange urgency in her voice.
She lifted her head, looked at this reporter, and sat up.
That morning, Munachi said she had gone out to buy some akara (bean cake) for her sick mother when Godwin, aka Mr Gee, accosted her.
“He kept shouting ‘fine girl, fine girl’ so, I felt it was one of these men who were trying to woo me. I was not interested. I didn’t stop. This man followed me to the akara spot, waiting for me to finish, and offered to pay.
“I was confused because I did not understand why anyone will want to do that to a stranger. Moreover, I was just 17,” she added with a broken smile and readjusted her gaze towards her brothers.
She said Mr Gee told her he ran a modelling agency and wanted her to be one of his models, promising to pay her N10,000 for every gig.
Fresh out of secondary school at the time and unemployed, Munachi said she decided to take the offer.
“I told my mum about it and she sounded skeptical but I told her it was just to pose for pictures because that was what Mr Godwin told me. I didn’t know this man had other plans,” she added, increasing her tone with every breath.
The first day Munachi went to the casting centre – or what looks like it – in Ikoyi, Lagos, she met only four girls her age and two girls a year older.
“All of us who were young, between 15 and 18,” she noted.
After waiting for more than three hours, Munachi said two more girls joined them at the venue and the casting began, adding that Mr Gee came in a few minutes before the end of the process and an argument erupted between the organisers of the ‘event’.
“I really cannot recall now what the argument was about but I know it had something to do with money. I kept hearing ‘my cut, your cut’ and the like, and I was confused. It was later on I knew that all of us there were commodities to these people. Each of them got a commission for bringing any girl there for the ‘job’ they had planned for us.
“When I got home that day, I told my mum and she told me to stop going there. But, I loved the way the other girls made me feel so I continued. I was naïve,” she added.
She recalled that one of the ladies there, whom they all knew as Ms Vee, kept telling them that they would need to train well first before they would be given their first job.
“She kept stressing that we were lucky to be the chosen ones to do the job as there were many girls begging them to be here. I felt lucky and proud. I was just a little bit confused about the so-called job they all had been talking about,” Munachi said, keeping an expressionless face.
After days of endless rehearsals, she said Mr Gee called her up one night and asked her to take snapshots of her breasts and private parts for him to see, claiming that he needed them for a ‘job’ he was working to get Munachi on.
“It was shocking. I slept in the same room with my mother since my dad’s death and my brothers slept in the sitting room. How will I do that without getting caught?
“I asked him what the job was and he got angry and hung up. I called him back but he refused to pick up. The next time we had rehearsals, he refused to say anything to me or give me transport fare like he used to do. It was frustrating,” she said.
After the silence, she said Mr Godwin texted her that she had less than 24 hours to send the pictures or she would lose the job. She called, but she said he refused to answer her calls.
Two days later, Munachi said she sent the pictures to him and he called to thank her hours later.
Model scout turn lover
The next day they met at the rehearsal, Munachi said Mr Gee looked at her differently, making her uncomfortable.
“I felt stupid. I felt empty. I felt dead. It was like I had failed my mother. I felt my dad would be turning in his grave. That man did everything to make sure I survived but look at me,” she said and broke down in tears.
Her brothers came around and sat beside her, patting her back. This reporter opted to leave and return later the next day, but Munachi said she wanted to get it ‘over and done with’.
One of her brothers, who connected Saturday PUNCH to Munachi via Twitter, decided to sit in through the rest of the interview.
He adjusted his shorts, dusted the cement slab Munachi and the reporter sat on, and joined the conversation.
Continuing, Munachi said Mr Gee said he loved her and wanted to take her to London for the London Fashion Week of 2016.
She needed to do one thing -– love him back. Before she could give a response to his advances, Munachi noted that Mr Gee began groping her in the presence of other girls.
“He kept saying that there was no way I would be able to do the job if I was not ready to ‘sacrifice’. As I say this, I feel used,” she said.
Her brother, who did not want his name in print because of the sensitivity of the matter, said Mr Gee used to visit them when their mom was alive, promising to take all of them to London.
“He promised to marry Munachi. We were deceived. He only used my sister,” the 26-year-old said.
Munachi said Mr Gee used to ‘force himself’ on her whenever he wanted and she would not be able to stop him.
Not knowing what to do, she said she told one of her friends at the rehearsal, who also claimed to be in a similar situation with her ‘scout’.
“I thought it was the way things were done. I had no one to guide me. If I were to turn back the hands of time, I would have acted differently, but it may be too late,” she added.
On Munachi’s 18th birthday, she said Mr Gee got her a new phone and some other goodies for her family.
This, according to her, made her not suspect anything was wrong.
“He openly told my mother he would marry me. My mum is dead now. But, wherever she is now if she can hear me, she will confirm that indeed no one suspected him. He was nice to me. But it was like fattening a cow for slaughter,” she added.
Munachi said her first job was at a street fashion show in Ikate, Lagos Island. She and some other girls from her group were made to wear ‘skimpy’ clothes, which, according to her, made her uncomfortable.
“I am from a very decent background and I knew my mother would kill me if she saw me with the kind of clothes they told me to wear. It was uncomfortable,” she stated.
In the dressing room, Munachi said Mr Gee did not let her body rest.
“He kept groping me and asking me silly questions about how I wanted our wedding to be. I was only 18 then, but what I was exposed to already scared me,” she added.
She said that night, Mr Gee told her he would take her somewhere to meet some of his friends, adding that whatever they told her to do, she should do it.
It was 10pm already. She was in Ikate, far away from her Ikorodu home.
Her mom had called her three times, but she said she sent her a text, saying she was stuck in traffic somewhere, adding that Mr Gee promised to pay for her taxi back home if she ‘acted like a good girl’.
Scarred for life
She said Mr Gee took her to a strip club and introduced her to a few guys, whom he spoke to in whispers.
She followed the young men into the room for what she thought would be a ‘clothing measurement session’ but was raped by the three men.
“I feel ashamed to say this and I say this today because I want to forgive myself and that man who did all this to me before I leave for Australia. My visa is ready and that was why I agreed to this interview.
“That night, I bled. I didn’t bleed because it was my first time; I bled because they treated me like an animal. They used me,” she stated with a raspy tone and stood up almost immediately as though in search of fresh air.
It was already past 9pm and it was becoming increasingly unsafe for the interview to continue, but Munachi said she would finish her story.
Model in the day, sex worker at night
Walking back towards the Hilux van close to the first street, Munachi narrated how she was now being used by Mr Gee as a call girl at night.
She also stated that many ‘top names’ in the modelling industry were known faces in the ‘night world’.
“They are the ones we call ‘armed forces’. In the morning, we pretend to be the models, walking the runway, but at night, we know where we meet.
“Mr Gee exposed me to a whole lot of harm. I remember one time a client almost left me killed. I told Mr Gee and he laughed it off, telling me that I was only getting stronger.
“He always spoke in codes that took me days to decode. It was his stock in trade. It took me years to understand that I was not the only girl he did it to. We were many. Pimping me to other men did not stop him from sleeping with me.
“People will ask me why I am talking now, but I just want to be free. I know people may judge me, but there is nothing I could have done. At a point, to be honest, I enjoyed it,” she added.
When she wanted to call it quit, she said Mr Gee ‘rose up against her and fought her both physically and spiritually’.
“I became helpless. I was always running to him for help. But when my mom died, I knew I had to stop all the nonsense and think about my future. I came clean to my brothers and they confronted Mr Gee, who sent thugs to beat them up.
“In fact, we found out that what he ran was never a modelling agency. It was just an alias to get girls to sleep with politicians and wealthy people,” she added.
With the help of Munachi, this reporter contacted more than five other ladies who, speaking anonymously, claimed that they were all ‘used’ by Mr Gee for sex work in the guise of modelling.
One of the girls, who spoke through a third party, said, “That man used me for more than four years. He simply stopped responding to my calls and blocked my number when I threatened to report him to the police for telling me to abort yet another pregnancy. I was not up to 20 (years old) then.”
Efforts to get her to share her story directly proved abortive.
However, further investigation showed that the lady was now married with two kids in Warri, Delta State, which explained why she did not want to go back into her past.
When contacted for a response to the allegations, Mr Gee said he did not know who Munachi was and had never heard the name before in his life.
“I don’t know what you are talking about young man. I am not even in the country. I am not in Nigeria, so how can I rape someone who is in Nigeria?” he asked.
When asked for the physical address of his modelling agency, he said he could no longer hear this reporter.
“I can’t hear you, Mr Journalist. I can’t hear you. I said I don’t know this Munachi lady you are talking about,” he before cutting the call.
Our correspondent visited the physical address of the agency Munachi gave and found out that it was occupied by a florist.
The florist, a middle-aged lady who gave her name as Omolara, claimed that she had been in that store for more than eight years, stressing that at no point was it used as a modelling agency.
Another resident, who did not want his name in print, said the place was refurbished eight years ago.
He also stated that the place never belonged to a modelling confirmed.
Days later, another phone number called this reporter in the wee hours of the evening. The voice sounded like Mr Gee.
It simply said, “Make sure you have proof that I raped and used the so-called Munachi for prostitution. These girls are lying against me. I don’t know them.”
Before this reporter could say anything, the call was cut.
This reporter kept reaching out to Mr Gee, but the line remained unreachable. Text messages sent were not replied to.
Munachi, who is now in Australia with one of her brothers, was reached via email about Mr Gee’s response, but she also refused to give a reply.
The modelling industry
The modelling industry in Nigeria is now known as home for call boys and girls, who are recruited between the tender ages of 13 and 19.
Unsuspecting teenagers are lured into modelling agencies and promised fortunes but made to sign dangerous agreements which make them give out not just their craft, but their bodies.
A lawyer, Titilope Adedokun, in a recent article published in the University of Lagos Law Review, noted that the rise of the fashion modelling industry in Nigeria has come with “accompanying legal questions”.
“The Nigerian fashion industry came to light a few years ago with the advent of platforms like the Lagos Fashion and Design Week (now Lagos Fashion Week), Arise Magazine Fashion Week, GTB Fashion Weekend, among others.
“The growing interest in fashion photography, fashion styling and make-up artistry among the millennials also contributed to this.
“All of these pushed the modelling industry to the forefront it acquires today. Soon, modelling schools began to spring up in the ‘fashion capital’ cities of Lagos and Abuja.
“Afterwards, modelling agencies followed suit, and so did scouting agencies. Today, Lagos boasts of two of Africa’s top modelling agencies, with affiliations with international modelling powerhouses such as IMG Models, Next Models, Boss Models and Elite Models.
“In fact, Nigerian models are increasingly being placed into modelling agencies across the globe in locations as close as Cape Town and others, as far as New York,” Adedokun stated in the publication.
But, the problem is many of these modelling agencies are exploiting the lack of regulation of the industry to wreak havoc in the lives of credulous young girls.
A quick search on the site of the Corporate Affairs Commission shows that many of the so-called modelling agencies are not registered to run as businesses in Nigeria.
Yet, they accept registration fees, draw up contracts with and among themselves and with models and transact business.
In fact, on the site of one of these agencies, clients are required to pay a registration fee of up to N15,000. This is after they must have taken some polaroids, which would be sent to the agency’s management to be sure one is qualified.
A recent study by researchers at Harvard University and Northeastern University noted that more than 81 per cent of models reported a body max index of less than 18.5, which is considered underweight by the World Health Organisation.
This is why a lot of models do the most in order to maintain a skinny figure.
Many models, in the worst scenarios, end up with mental health issues like depression and multiple eating disorders like Anorexia nervosa, Bulimia nervosa, among others, which may be detrimental to their health.
A model, Tofunmi Adekola, in an interview, said the Nigerian modelling industry was saturated with scammers, fake agents and people with ulterior motives.
She said, “Young and inexperienced talents who fall into the hands of these types of people can be exploited, sexually assaulted and subsequently scarred for life. Such experiences destroy the dreams of new models that could easily have been superstars.”
Narrating her experience, she said, “An agency in Lagos reached out to me and promised to sign me. They asked me and three other girls to pay N10,000 for two-month training, which we did. They only held lessons twice and they told me they weren’t holding lessons anymore. When I confronted them about my money and signing me, they ignored me.”
She recounted, in an expose titled, ‘Unfiltered: The real truth about the modelling Industry,’ how, at 17, a young man, who claimed to be the son of a modelling agency tried to rape her.
“It was in 2016 and I was 17 years old. A ‘model manager’ texted me on Facebook and invited me to a runway show in Ogun State. I didn’t sleep the night before because I was so excited that I was finally going to do my first paid job.
“I left my house around 5am and got to the supposed venue of the show. It was a hotel. On getting there, a man, who claimed to be the son of the manager, took me into a hotel room and tried to persuade me to perform oral sex on him.
“He told me that if I agreed, he would double my pay for the runway show and pay me N40,000 instead of N20,000. I insisted that I wasn’t interested, and luckily for me, the man let me leave the hotel room unhurt,” she said.
When she got outside, the same man snatched her purse and ran away with it.
“I shouted for help but the streets were literally empty and the thief was long gone before people came out to help me. I cried a lot and I had to trek home that day.
“When my mother asked me about how the show went, I lied to her that it was an amazing show and I was happy I went. I couldn’t tell her the truth because I knew that if she knew what I went through that day, she wouldn’t ever let me model again,” she added.
There was no runway show, and of course, no money. The whole thing was a sham.
Low pay, exploitation
Being underpaid is another issue models in underdeveloped countries like Nigeria face.
Adekola, speaking on this issue said she was once offered N2,000 as pay for a photoshoot before she left Osun State for Ogun State.
“The organisers of the photoshoot told me it was going to be a small photo-shoot to promote a fashion show. They paid me N2,000 for the shoot and that didn’t even cover my transportation, not to talk of my feeding. The same organisers who paid me N2000 for a shoot put me on a billboard in Ibadan,” she added.
Raising some legal concerns, Adedokun said child labour, low wages, sexual harassment and rape and other human rights violation had risen as a result of the unregulated industry.
Unfortunately, despite the industry’s steady evolution into a multi-million naira industry, there is little or no legal protection for Nigerian models.
“Fashion models have little recourse to justice and can only rely upon the sparse outdated laws in Nigeria. The expensive costs of litigation are, of course, another issue.
“[…] Rape is criminalised in Nigeria through the Criminal Code, Penal Code and the Child Rights Act. However, these laws are grossly inadequate and are usually invoked to the detriment of the rape victim due to the requirement of corroborative evidence.
“The scope of the Violation against Persons Prohibition Act is wider in punishing rape. However, it only covers the Federal Capital Territory, Abuja and can only be invoked elsewhere after being passed by the state House of Assembly,” she said.
Quite surprisingly, the model said there was nothing in the Nigerian Labour Act 2004 against sexual harassment during employment, despite Nigeria’s domestication of the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights and the subsequent Maputo Protocol.
According to the Criminal Law of Lagos State 2011, anyone who sexually harasses another is guilty of a felony and is liable to a prison term of three years.
Section 262 of the Criminal Law of Lagos States takes a step further by criminalising harassment that affects a person’s employment or reasonably interferes with the person’s work or creates a hostile working environment.
Regretfully, there are only a few cases of sexual harassment in Nigeria due to the culture of silence.
“In Nigeria, fashion models are subject to the whims and caprices of their agencies, managers and employers, because there are no specific laws protecting them from sexual, financial, or physical exploitation in the fashion industry.
“For many models, such exploitation begins even before they shoot their first campaign or walk their first runway, when they are asked to pay outrageous sums of money to get a chance or are subjected to ill-motived examinations, touches and caresses, in the name of fittings and measurements,” Adedokun added.
In other climes, the existence of fashion modelling laws and policies has successfully answered the legal questions arising from fashion modelling.
New York, for instance, passed the Child Model Laws, which protect minors from the educative and financial perspectives.
“In Nigeria, such laws would be beneficial because fashion models are usually scouted around the tender age of 13 years, when they are barely teenagers.
“Currently, there are no Nigerian legislations or regulations aimed at protecting their interests. In fact, unhealthily thin models are banned in France, the United States of America, Israel and Italy,” she added.
The Models’ Bill of Rights, a template for the fundamental human rights of models, which was created by The Model Alliance, a non-profit labour organisation for models in the United States, gives some professional ethics guiding the profession.
It states that every working model has rights to professionalism, transparent accounting practices, negotiable commissions, among others. It also provides for special protections for models under 18.
A 100-level student in one of the federal universities in the South-South region, who gave his name only as Emmanuel, told Saturday PUNCH how another young man posing to be an agent deceived him to join a strip club.
He said the ‘agent’ told him to come to a popular nightclub for an ‘ushering’ job on Christmas Eve of 2022. To his surprise, when he got to the locker room, he was given a white pair of boxers, a pair of socks, a bow tie and a Christmas cap.
When asked what he would do with the items, the officials told him he was to wear them as he served meals.
“They said they will pay me N10,000 for the night. The event started at 10pm and was supposed to end by 4am. It was a fair deal to me. I was not going to sleep with anybody, so I felt it was nothing,” he said.
On getting to the party hall, he said he noticed that the room was filled with agbada-wearing men. As he served, he claimed that they spanked him in his butt and groped his private parts.
Some of the people he met in the locker room were ‘performing’ a strip dance on the pole on the podium while the audience watched.
In shock, Emmanuel said the tray he held fell from his hands and the wine glasses broke.
“I ran to the locker room; all that was new to me. That was not what I signed up for.
“I called the agent in and he told me that if I cooperated with the men, he would pay me. I thought about it for a while and decided to go back there and be a man,” he added.
In the end, he said he was paid N5,000 after the sexual violations and overwork. The agent, he noted, said he would take 50 per cent of the pay because he was the one who brought the job.
The Chief Executive Officer of Mamahz Models, Nmachi Onyewuchi, in an interview with Saturday PUNCH, said sexual abuse had eaten deep into almost every industry, including modelling.
“I personally do not believe that a model has to sleep their way to the top of their career. I mean, cameras don’t lie. If a model is able to produce good content, in terms of pictures or videos or skits, they will definitely come highly recommended and that will automatically skyrocket their career.
“Unfortunately, most upcoming models already believe this rumour and they come into the industry with the mindset that for them to get from point A to point B, they have to sleep with someone and this makes them fall victim to cruel people in the industry with horrible intentions,” she said.
A supermodel, who was featured in popular American pop singer, Beyonce’s Brown Skin Girl video, Vivian Adenijo, in an interview with Saturday PUNCH said there were some sets of producers, creative directors and make-up artists who might want to take advantage of up and coming models.
She said, “I’ve heard of such things (sex work). It happens a lot. The most certain thing, however, is that it is an offer and it’s left for the model to accept or reject it.”
She also stressed that teenagers must have managers or guardians to avoid being misled.
“The industry will offer both good and bad (options), and they have a way of painting the bad to look attractive. But with the help of a good manager, the model has nothing to fear,” she noted.
Nonetheless, Adenijo said there were many models who were doing great without indulging in what she termed ‘underground hookup’.
“Up-and-coming models should not be carried away with what’s happening around them. Peer pressure is what is making most up-and-coming models do what they should not do.
“People believe that models are super rich and that is a lie. Those persons that people feel are rich probably have ‘sponsors’, and these sponsors may present good and bad (options),” she added.
On his part, a professor of clinical neuropsychology at the University of Ibadan, Oyo State, Abel Obosi, said sexual harassment had psychological effects on victims.
Noting that one might also develop low self-esteem or self-efficacy from the situation, he said, “Self-efficacy is the ability to know that one has the ability to do certain things. If you’re not permitting me to do it on your platform because I would not give my body, I’d rather not give my body until I get a better platform.
“Psychologically, there are significant effects on individuals but it depends on how well they develop their mental health so they can withstand the struggles.”
He added that as a coping mechanism, some victims could change roles or career paths, noting that those determined to do it against all odds might create their platforms to express themselves.