SAN DIEGO — It’s no secret that Southern California is a hotbed for human trafficking in the United States.
Some of the criminal activities that fuel human trafficking happen in plain sight.
Modeling is one such industry that is competitive and cutthroat to begin with — and that’s before any criminal elements factor into the equation.
Hannah Joya, 29, has modeled for years and was eager to land a job that would launch her into supermodel stardom. But during one audition in Los Angeles, Joya encountered a man who asked her a series of questions ranging from her citizenship status to whether she was comfortable with sexual requests while on the job.
“I remember feeling invalidated,”Joya said. Increasingly uncomfortable with the interaction, Joya made an excuse to leave and returned to her car. “I looked at my mom and said, ‘I don’t think this industry is for me.'”
With the #MeToo Movement fresh on her mind, Joya thought it was possible casting directors would make inappropriate requests — but the reality turned out to be worse than she expected.
“That same man I saw face-to-face was actually kidnapping young girls — models — for human trafficking and pornography,” Joya said.
Luckily for models like Joya, there are people within the industry who are trying to change it for the better.
Years ago, Mark Willingham had the idea to revolutionize the modeling industry through Agent, an app he launched that aims to increase transparency between models and clients.
“It’s time that it becomes more transparent, more efficient and safer — better for the models, and absolutely better for the clients,” Willingham said.
Willingham stresses the app’s transparency for the safety of both models and clients. “The client can’t even book a model on Agent before they apply. The application process requires a criminal background check, sex offender check, ID verification and verification of need.”
This year in San Diego alone, two cases made headlines: Carlsbad photographer Robert Koester pleaded guilty to rape and possession of child pornography after being charged for luring young girls to a studio for modeling sessions before sexually assaulting them.
In August, three men behind the website GirlsDoPorn.com were accused of luring beginner models with jobs that turned out to be pornography shoots. The men now face sex-trafficking charges, among others.
The San Diego District Attorney’s Office says 55 human trafficking cases with sex trafficking involvement have been filed in the last year alone. Forty-two of those cases were convicted.
Aleksander Davignon is one of 30,000 models who’ve signed up on Agent. He says both female and male models can be subjected to lewd acts or favors.
“I’ve had guy friends too who were cornered in an office and solicited,” Davignon said. “There’s situations like that that come up pretty often.”
This is where the app’s transparency makes all the difference.
“They vet models and they vet the companies that are going to be involved,” Davignon said. “Having some sort of policing buffer in between and another person that’s in the conversation changes a lot.”
Apart from its obvious safety features, Agent also gives quick and easy access to a diverse selection of models across 10 cities.
“We use artificial intelligence, machine learning, predictive analytics and things that really allow us to do things human beings can’t do,” Willingham said. “We allow clients and companies to find models literally in minutes, versus what might take days or sometimes weeks.”