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Inside the World of Alternative Modeling

See more behind-the-scenes alternative modeling photos here.

Preparing for a photo shoot, Athens photographer Craig Gum writes “f**k your standards” on model Marauder’s arm. If you could boil down alternative modeling to one phrase, that’s it. Pink hair? Tattoos? A curvy physique? Doesn’t matter. Alternative modeling adheres to the principle that beauty isn’t bound by one style.

Athens-based alternative model Marauder is sometimes bound herself—or binds her boyfriend, Phil—in the name of art. She finds that beauty comes in many shapes and sizes, and she doesn’t care if you disagree. Inspired by her modeling idol, Marilyn Monroe, and guided by her interest in all things dark and macabre, this local alt model and “huge Harry Potter nerd,” isn’t shy of exploring her creativity, challenging the mainstream standards of beauty, or showing off some skin.

For Marauder, modeling is an outlet for boosting her confidence, and celebrating her sexual self. “It’s a good way for a girl to feel sexy, without having to portray themselves as whores or sluts,” she says.

Although you wouldn’t know it today, Marauder says she didn’t always exude that confidence. She first posed in front of the lens at 14 for a friend who wanted to study photography. “I was so self-conscious,” she says. “And I was miserable the whole time. I was so upset, I thought I was ruining all the photos, because I didn’t know what I was doing… It eventually became a huge confidence booster. And it just made me feel better about myself.”

With that confidence comes freedom. “We’re not held to the same conventions” as the traditional fashion world, says Craig Gum, an Athens-based model and freelance commercial photographer. “We’re tired of seeing the same stuff over and over. It’s pretty girls in pretty places, brightly lit, and there it is. Not a single one of those images is memorable to me. Alt modeling gives us the freedom to express whatever we want… We express our body type, our interests, whether it be Goth or horror, emotional, expressing sorrow or glee, or fulfillment or love—through our pictures, without any restraints; we can tell a story in a single frame.”

And on their own terms. Marauder, a former Suicide Girl—one of the most notable alternative modeling companies—says it’s often hard for a model to retain the rights to her image, and she believes she’s better off on her own, representing herself, owning her own image and her own likeness.

Not having an agent or a modeling company to guide her, an alt model has to build her own professional network, provide for her finances and do much, if not most, of the promoting, booking, wardrobe and makeup herself. 

“I’ve used agents before,” Marauder says. “And I, honestly, as an alternative model, don’t really think it’s worth a damn. If you’re trying to be alternative with tattoos, and you’re not typically the 5-foot-7-inch and size-four model, it’s harder to find agencies to promote you.”

In spite of Marauder’s edgy look, tattoos and piercings aren’t requirements for being an alternative model, she says. “Even if you look at girls like me, I actually have no tattoos,” says Lady Ash, an Atlanta-based model who just started a year ago. “But putting models in dynamic or edgy situations, it has that certain look to it that makes it alternative modeling to me. It’s just different, or I would say it’s definitely a more fun version of modeling. It’s a fun way of breaking out of the box and being able to do something exciting, edgy or darker.”

Social Media Success

Alternative models primarily promote themselves online. With professional networking sites like Model Mayhem, Model Society, Deviant Art and the Alternative Model Directory, the digital world serves as a vast networking tool for models and photographers alike. On top of these trade-specific sites, Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr are tools for alt-models and photographers.

“I have my own website I use for bookings, and there’s also a few different modeling sites to use,” Marauder says. “I’d say Facebook and Model Mayhem is where I meet most of my photographers. And if we like working together, then we’ll usually continue it.”

Gum posts his work daily to his Facebook page, which has more than 90,000 fans. “It’s flattering to know that people are connected to me,” he says. “Or at least the work that I’m producing. And I will continue to share it. I feel more gratitude, and I want to do more, and I want to share and teach more.”


Photo Credit: Randy Schafer

Photographer Jacob McClain and model Marauder laugh during a photo shoot in the woods.

For some photographers who have less of a following, like Jacob McClain of Athens-based Simple Shot Photography, with a significantly smaller following online, social media can help elevate their work. “You kind of also realize who knows each other,” McClain says. “You’re thrust into that web there. You post a picture of someone on the web, and you get a bunch of photographers and models jumping on that photo, especially on Facebook, or any other social media networking sites. You realize this person is a friend with that person, or that person is working with that person—there’s a huge connection between word of mouth and the Internet.”

Marauder says she prefers Twitter to Facebook in regard to promoting, but she posts statuses and photos to over 18,000 fans of her Facebook page, and she even has a separate page for an alternate alias, “Mara Der Mistik,” to relieve some of the social media clutter. And Lady Ash, who started last January and has modeled in approximately 25 shoots, has 450 Facebook followers.

Although many models, like Marauder, have day jobs, they can make money on the side by selling prints online and selling their services to amateur photographers. They also receive gifts from fans. 

“I think that [my online presence] helps with fans,” Lady Ash says. “I do have a wish list. So, sometimes people will buy me things or donate 20 bucks, so I’ll give them a print. Sometimes people donate money, or they will actually buy me a pair of shoes or an outfit, which is really kind of nice, but it doesn’t happen as often.”

Although social media can boost the careers of models or photographers, they also run the risk of someone stealing their work or stalking them online. (The latter is why Flagpole is identifying models by their professional names.)

“I’m in some private Facebook groups that are just models,” Lady Ash says. “And others that are for just photographers, and others that are mixed. It’s kind of a little mix there, and that’s how a lot of us communicate, until I exchange numbers with some of them.” 

Separating personal and professional identities can sometimes be a delicate process in the alt-modeling world. “A lot of models [don’t use their real names] for safety reasons, believe it or not,” Marauder says. “Because it can get kind of crazy. You get a lot of really creepy fans and people on the Internet. And you can pretty much find anything on a person if you know their real name, so most times, girls will try to separate their modeling life from their regular life.”

Aside from fans, some models may want to keep their modeling a secret from family or friends they feel won’t understand it. “Many girls just don’t want their family to be involved with their modeling life,” Marauder says. “And a lot of it is just safety. Plus, I don’t really want my grandma checking out pictures of me half-naked. She’d ask me, ‘Why are you painted blue with your boobs hanging out?’ That’s just kind of awkward.”

From a business standpoint, working around Facebook’s pay structure for promoting posts can prove difficult, and it can often cripple a model or photographer’s ability to connect with fans. “You could pay to an extent,” Marauder says. “But it can get pretty outrageous with how much they charge. I’d say it’s one of the most valuable resources, but it’s not the most valuable. You can have 14,000 fans on your page, but only 200 people will see your posts.”

The number  of fans who see a photo or status is often minimal (without paying to promote it) and those who do see them may not like them. Most of the time, when reported, the model or photographer has no defense against a faceless Facebook report, never being able to face their accuser. “Number one, people will report any photo you put up there,” Marauder says. “No matter what. Even if it has nothing slightly bad, they’ll still report it, and Facebook will immediately take it down.”

Art Therapy

Models and photographers often find each other through Facebook or mutual friends, or even on the street. Lady Ash met her first photographer working at an electronics store. “You should come take some sexy boudoir shots for your husband,” says Lady Ash, quoting the female photographer who scouted her to model for her first time.


Photo Credit: Kidd Fielteau

The results of one of Lady Ash’s photo shoots.

“And I thought about it,” she says. “But I never contacted her. She showed up two months later, and she said, ‘I need you to come shoot with me.’ So I went in and I did my shoot with her, and Craig was actually there. And that’s how we met.”

But not all experiences are pleasant. “Sometimes they’re really creepy,” says Marauder, laughing. “I try to avoid the really uncomfortable or unsafe situations, because it’s kind of dangerous going to random photographers’ houses when you’re meeting.”

Marauder says she usually crowd-sources her photographers through mutual friends and models. “One thing people don’t realize is that the models like to talk in this community,” she says. “If you treat one model badly, it’s going to get back to every model. And the same goes for if the photographer is really good. All the models are going to talk to each other about it. It’s a good way to find out if a photographer is safe.”

Marauder says she hasn’t had too many bad experiences at photo shoots and that she tries to learn from other models’ bad experiences. “But I’m also very outspoken and bitchy, so I think that’s why,” she says. “And if I don’t know the photographer, I’m bringing an escort. I’m very big on bringing an escort, because I’ve heard too many bad stories of friends having bad experiences with photographers, in a sense that they get too touchy, thinking it’s OK to grab you between the legs, and shove your legs apart.”

That’s crossing a line, of course, but there’s sometimes a bit of push-and-pull between models and photographers over how much—and how fast—a model should disrobe. Nude modeling and photography generally pay better than clothed.

“You get a lot of models that worry that if the first time they go to someone, they want to instantly shoot semi-nude to nude,” McClain says. “Because that’s not what a lot of models want to do right off the bat, but that’s what a lot of photographers want. Because as humans, we know what draws other humans’ interest. You put pictures out there of a girl that is scantily clad, there’s going to be a lot of views. And views are kind of what feed photographers.

“At the same time, you don’t want to go beyond your model’s comfort zone,” he says. “In order to get a really good shot, you don’t have to be nude or semi-nude to get a lot of views.”

Nude or not, alternative modeling can be a cathartic release on both sides of the lens. “It’s like therapy,” Lady Ash says. “There are so many girls out there, and not just me, who have people in their past that were abusive. That’s part of my past, I was in an abusive relationship. And my husband kind of dug me out of that and made me feel beautiful again. And then I lost 20 pounds and I cut all my hair off, and I started modeling.”

For Miyoko Tsume, an Athens-based amateur model who is married, and whom Marauder is mentoring, modeling has helped alleviate her self-esteem and body issues. “I guess I get satisfaction from it,” she says. “I mean, I’ve just really never been comfortable with myself a lot. And that kind of helps me a lot in expecting it. It always rears its head, but I’m definitely way better than when I first started.”

In the end, it’s about being OK with your own image and taking back your sexuality, Marauder says. “If you weigh 800 pounds, you could be an alternative model, because no one cares,” she says. “It doesn’t have to do with fashion, or clothes or anything like that. It’s all about self-image, liking who you are and liking yourself.”