Why The "Model-DJ" Craze Is Officially A Thing Of The Past

Photo: Pierre Zonzon/Getty Images.
Electronic music has seen an explosive resurgence in the past ten years, becoming a multi-million dollar industry where top DJs are paid unfathomable amounts to rage. The music industry has historically been male-dominated, and the DJing world is no exception. Armed with vinyl and ambition, women have had to work twice as hard to gain the respect of their peers as both DJs and electronic music pioneers.
So what should we make of the trend that saw Paris Hilton and other bikini-clad models taking over after-party turntables? Was this a trend spurred by tokenism? Did it diminish opportunities for other women in the game, or did it ultimately open up the industry for women to scratch records with abandon? We asked veterans and industry experts to map the origins of this trend, and how women in the DJing world are finally garnering the respect they deserve.
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Photo: Courtesy of STADJ.
Back in 2008, the ‘90s rave fervor had long since died down, hip-hop had gone from being banned to becoming a middle school dance staple, and mash-ups of the two genres reigned (remember Girl Talk?). But during this economically tense time, electronic music was welling up from bacchanalian underground haunts to the glitter-encrusted mainstream, bringing a slew of DJs with it.

That same year, the Electric Daisy Carnival launched, Swedish House Mafia was born, and a husband-wife duo launched a “Model-DJ” Academy in Williamsburg, Brooklyn called STADJ Music, which offered promoters the musical services of women who were attractive, musically gifted, and met a height requirement to spin at parties. While STADJ co-founder Edan Miller has said that back then, “we couldn't get a gig anywhere and had to produce our own shows,” that soon changed.

Pictured: A model-DJ from Williamsburg's STADJ Music Academy.
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In 2009, the willowy hotel heiress Paris Hilton requested a song at a party in Miami (which Swedish House Mafia's Steve Angello reportedly rejected). She stormed off and vowed to someday be the one calling the shots behind the decks.

Three years later, Hilton made her infamous debut at the massive Pop Music Festival in São Paulo, Brazil, where she met with groans and boos. She brushed it off, and by 2013 had landed a residency in Ibiza with her “Foam & Diamonds” party. The model-turned-DJ trend took off roughly around then, with the Grammys booking models-turned-DJs for after-parties and Fashion Weeks worldwide doing the same. It’s unclear when this trend was born exactly, or if Paris Hilton was fully to blame, but her sudden interest in spinning records was well-timed.
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Photo: Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images.
The thing is, women have been helming turntables since DJing became an act of sonic rebellion aimed at making the masses bust a move (just look at legends Anita Sarko and DJ Cocoa Chanelle). Yet clubs in the 2010s suddenly appeared to have the overwhelming desire to book models instead of professional DJs with actual music cred.

Some industry experts argue that this particular trend has been around longer than the record itself. Ric Leichtung, founder of the New York-based booking agency Ad Hoc (which books some of the area’s top clubs, including Trans-Pecos and Market Hotel) says,“I don’t think that the model as DJ phenomenon is something that’s unique to the early aughts. I mean, you’ve seen pretty faces put on center stage to sell tickets for decades, hundreds of years, centuries, maybe.”

Pictured: DJ Anita Sarko at NYC's Mudd Club in 1979.
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Photo: Rob Cable/REX/Shutterstock.
The uptick in people identifying as model-DJs around the 2010s is perhaps a prime example of the desire to excel in several creative spheres. And if you’ve got it, all the more reason to flaunt it.

I feel like there's a real desire some people have to be a double or triple threat, to try their hand at various differing yet tangential careers — either for fun, exposure, or more money,” says Gabriella Paiella, a humor writer and editor at Maxim who also flexes being somewhat of a model-DJ expert. Promoter Disco Donnie Estopinal Jr., a fixture in electronic music since the ‘90s rave days, says that in the early 2000s, “people wanted to show up and see [women] play. I don’t know if it’s because they were girls or not, but a lot of them had a pretty big fanbase.”

Pictured: Mollie King of The Saturdays guest-DJing at a London club in 2013.
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Photo: Anthony Pidgeon/Redferns.
But the trend left a sour taste in people’s mouths, especially when Hilton told V Magazine in 2014 that she didn’t consider herself a DJ so much as a “businesswoman.” People who had been in the game for a long time (and perhaps had been passed over for not having a certain look) were understandably miffed.

Pam Warren, aka DJ Pam the Funkstress, a Bay Area DJ and the “turntable queen” who’s been wowing audiences since the ‘90s for her singular take on funk jams and who can scratch records with her breasts doesn’t speak highly of those years. “People would look at me and Paris Hilton behind the decks [back then], and they’d take her first because she’s got that look like a Barbie Doll,” she says. “As opposed to someone like myself, who’s a little more heavier set. But she’s going to keep nobody on the dance floor. When I’m mixing you can see it my face. I sweat. People feel me when I DJ. I’m not someone in a bikini top trying to look cute.”

Pictured: Pam Warren (DJ Pam the Funkstress) in 2002.

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Photo: Courtesy of Nastia's Facebook.
Jennifer Lee, a musician and producer who records under the moniker TOKiMONSTA, and a mainstay of the Los Angeles-based label Brainfeeder says, “That’s not to say that models can’t be good DJs, they can definitely be good DJs. [What's] interesting about those types of women is that they’re not really making tracks, not making music, not producers. They’re just people that go out and play music. That is an art form also, there are some amazing DJs that are really good at playing music and selecting music.”

But even those bearing modeling and dance training are wary. Nastia, a Ukrainian DJ, radio host and founder of the label Propaganda, says she began as a dancer in clubs and then moved to DJing. Frustratingly, people often thought she was just a hobbyist. “It was more difficult, because I wanted to be surrounded by people who understood electronic music deeply,“ she says. “I was taking it seriously when I started playing. I couldn’t do anything else.”

Pictured: Nastia in 2016.
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Photo: Via Instagram.
Veteran DJs note that there’s been a clear tidal shift in recent years, especially in terms of production. “When I started there were not a lot of female producers, especially in hip-hop and electronic music,” Lee says. “I’m seeing more people do that, where they produce beats and play tracks of their own. They’re creating and being the sort of full-spectrum musician.”

Warren adds: “I don’t know what happened, where [the model-DJ trend] stopped at, but I just know that now it’s gone to talent,” mentioning that the Bay Area currently has extraordinary talent rising to the top. “There are more female DJs because when girls see someone doing it, they understand that it’s possible,” says Nastia.

Pictured: London-based female DJ collective BORN n BREAD.
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Photo: Courtesy of Discwoman.
So what happened? The Internet, for one thing. “[It has] democratized music substantially to a point where the cream rises to the top more than ever before, and quality has been able to been able to take center stage above substance,” Leichtung says.

The emergence of collectives like New York’s Discwoman, which books all-female DJs to perform, are also fighting the battle to broaden representation for not just women, but genderqueer and trans folks as well. And at the end of the day, revelers know that bringing the house down is what matters most. To wit: Warren was recently hand-picked by Prince himself to DJ his after-parties after he heard her spin; she is currently on tour with him. “When I come in, I come in to slap it,” she says. “I don’t have no time. I’m taking no prisoners. Because I’m doing me.”

Pictured: Discwoman in 2015.
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Photo: Via instagram.
That’s not to say that models behind the turntables have gone extinct. Paiella notes that in recent years, the popularity of platforms like Instagram have enabled further model-DJs to promote their services. Donnie says he still books plenty of model-DJs for clubs that request that kind of thing. STADJ Music is still alive and kicking, and fashion weeks worldwide book lookers to helm their designers’ parties, such as DJ May Kwok.

Yet misogynistic expectations for female DJs sadly remain. Just this past February, DJ Justin James caused an uproar when he posted his absurd list of qualifications for female DJs hoping to join him on tour in Asia (You must be between 21 and 32 years old, between 5’2” and 5’7” and 105-120 pounds). When
FACT Magazine questioned these criteria, he said, “Sex sells. Period.”

Pictured: DJ Mary Kwok in 2015.
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Photo: Steven Lawton/Getty Images.
Blatant misogyny aside, there’s still much work to be done. While the likes of Maya Jane Coles, Nervo (pictured), and Magda are constantly name-checked for making some of the most creative electronic music today, women are still lacking as headliners in major electronic festivals like Tomorrowland and Electric Zoo. In 2015, THUMP crunched the numbers and determined that the biggest festivals in North America bore depressing ratios of women as performers: Ultra had just 10%, and Las Vegas’ Electric Daisy Carnival had just eight women out of 199 headline acts that year.

Pictured: Olivia and Miriam Nervo at Las Vegas' Electric Daisy Carnival in 2013.
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Photo: Stephen J. Cohen/Getty Images.
Once female producers and DJs reach a point of equilibrium with their male counterparts, it won’t be a contentious issue, much less one where gender is mentioned. And we’re on our way there. “Literally half the time I’m listening to somebody’s Soundcloud, with the way somebody’s names are these days, half the time I don’t know if it’s a guy or a girl,” Donnie says.

Several years ago, much was said of the fact that TOKiMONSTA was the first female signed to the Los Angeles label Brainfeeder. But now, she says it’s not a big deal. “At that time when I looked at that, I thought that was a way to show other female producers that you can hang with a majority of men,” she says. “Now, it doesn’t help anyone to point that out. [Gender] will become something that just hangs out in the background. We’ll have the ability to produce regardless of gender, whether you’re female, male, trans, or whatever.”

Pictured: Jennifer Lee (TOKIiMONSTA) DJing at Kentucky's Forecastle Festival in 2013.
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Photo: Courtesy Young Art Records' Facebook.
The combination of education, outreach, and collaboration will be instrumental in getting more women and girls behind the turntables at clubs and festivals alike. Lee says that lately she’s been giving people tutorials online about how she makes beats. “I’m very open to sharing knowledge and showing people that I’m a legitimate musician that wants to encourage people to create regardless of gender,” she says.

Lee also helms her own label, Young Art, which aims to help bring other artists up. Nastia’s all-vinyl label, Propaganda, follows a similar ethos. “When I hear something that touches my soul, I think, ‘Ok, I want to release this, even if it’s not going to be popular,’” she says, mentioning that she often puts out releases from newcomers.

Pictured: A poster from a recent listening party for Lee's Young Artist Records.
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