Beauty is assumingly linked to privilege but the actual facts of modeling present an entirely different story. The girls wearing exorbitantly priced garments in opulent editorials and on high-end catwalks often work as the equivalent of unpaid interns or indentured servants, beholden to their agency. They are subject to abuse and harmful demands. Since many models are underage, they are especially vulnerable to having their long-term wellbeing undermined by an industry fixated with fleeting glamour.
Fashion’s sparkle and whorl can often distract models from gaining their own footing in life. Along with their own glamorous illusions, the fear of being replaced and the hope of being rewarded with rare super-star status keep most models quiet, which is why models need unity and an organization affiliation to change standards and norms. They also need a role model. Thankfully, Sara Ziff’s top-model status in campaigns for Tommy Hilfiger, Stella McCartney, and Kenneth Cole, coupled with her intellectual upbringing at Manhattan’s Bronx High School of Science, Dalton School and Columbia University, make her the ideal campaigner for Model’s rights.
After investigating the unglamorous struggles of models at all career stages for her documentary “Picture Me,” Ziff founded the nonprofit Model Alliance as models’ equivalent of the Actors’ Equity and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Ziff and fellow supermodel Coco Rocha are Model Alliance’s leading activists, and they’ve assembled a stellar base of serious support from top-billing models including, but hardly limited to Shalom Harlow, Trish Goff, Milla Jovovich, Carre Otis as well as support from Fordham University’s Fashion Law Institute.
After a Model Alliance gathering where supermodel Coco Rocha spoke, Ziff offered us her insights.
Ana Finel Honigman: When I spoke with the models after Coco’s talk, all of them articulated only romantic, abstract and largely unrealistic images of modelling (i.e.: “to be creative,” “to be a role model,” “to be beautiful and meet interesting people.”) Were the models only presenting polished, but mostly dreamy, responses to me because I am a journalist or do you find that models’ own shyness and their poetic, rather than pragmatic, aspirations are significant hindrances in helping models help themselves?
Sara Ziff: Obviously modeling is a career that can be worthwhile beyond purely a financial incentive — for those who love fashion, it’s great; it’s a creative industry; unlike a 9-5 there’s flexible scheduling; many models enjoy performing and the highly social aspect of the work.
That being said, modeling is a job and earning a living certainly is a factor for most models. Many of these young women who you spoke with probably live paycheck to paycheck and some might even be working in debt to their agencies. It’s tough to expect a teenager to be businesses-savvy. But as Coco and I said, they should be treating this as a business.
Typically young women, and women in general, are much less likely to stand up for themselves and negotiate in the workplace. They are taught to be sweet and accommodating, to be grateful for what they have and not ask questions or demand more. If these girls truly want to be “role models,” they should set an example like Coco by empowering themselves in their work.
AFH: What is the average age, career stage and nationality of members in the Model Alliance, or attendees to the events?
SZ: Our membership skews older (mid-20s, early thirties). Often it’s not until the models have some experience of the business and hit a few bumps in the road — like, even lose their life savings to an unscrupulous agency — that they question the industry’s practices and appreciate the Model Alliance and our mission. Fortunately this season we do seem to be signing more members who are younger and in the beginnings of their careers. Some of the models at our most recent event were as young as 15. One 15-year-old model from Lithuania approached me after the talk and told me she was living here in New York by herself without her parents. She asked me if she should have a chaperone with her. Obviously she was having a tough time and her agency isn’t taking care of her. Plus the minimum age for runway work in New York is 16. This girl shouldn’t even be here doing shows. She should be in school.
AFH: How have reality shows, like America’s Top Model, affected aspiring models’ ideas about the nature of the job, its degree of difficulty and their potential for success?
SZ: America’s Next Top Model is, I guess you could say, the Hollywood version of the industry. From what I’ve seen, it’s entertaining, but it has almost nothing to do with the realities of working in the business. If models want an inside look at the modeling industry they should check out my documentary “Picture Me” and Ashley Sabin and David Redmon’s documentary, “Girl Model”. These films explore real issues facing models, like agency debt and earning ability, extreme youth and the pressure to drop out of high school, and how it feels to be the object of physical scrutiny when your looks are your livelihood.
AFH: What has been the response among designers, editors, agencies and the power base to fashion towards the Model Alliance?
SZ: The response has been very positive. Diane von Furstenberg, Valerie Boster, the bookings editor at Vogue, top casting directors such as Jennifer Starr and James Scully, agency presidents including Chris Gay at Marilyn and David Bonnouvrier at DNA — they and many others have been supportive. There are some agencies have not made an effort to support our work and involve their models, but I hope they’ll come around.
AFH: How do assumptions about the inherent privilege of beauty impede models’ abilities to have their grievances taken seriously within and outside the industry?
SZ: My friend the sociologist Ashley Mears has said that taking models seriously is a way of taking women seriously. The fashion and beauty industries are overwhelmingly female and it’s no secret that what is traditionally considered women’s work has always gotten less respect. That’s certainly the case in modeling, when your work is your looks. But I think that’s changing across many fields. Look at domestic workers in the US: they’re essentially an invisible workforce of female immigrants who recently won basic rights and protections. (The New York Domestic Workers Bill of Rights was signed into law in August, 2010.) Models are also mostly female immigrants, but in contrast to domestic workers, they are young, highly visible and they work in a seemingly glamorous field. That’s perhaps the biggest challenge. I think models’ visibility and the perceived glamor or their work camouflages the fact that we are vulnerable because we actually have very few rights and protections under the law and work in what is essentially an unregulated business. If models start to take themselves seriously as professional business women who demand fair treatment at work, then I think we are more likely to have our grievances taken seriously by those outside the industry.