07.02.13 Career & Finances
Sara Ziff: Changing the Modeling Industry from the Inside Out
BY Kay Montano
The Model Alliance (MA) is a not-for-profit labor group for models working in the American fashion industry. Founded in 2012 by Sara Ziff, with the support of other models and the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School, the organization offers workshops as well as a grievance reporting and advice service to its members. Models have an industry voice through the MA. For more information, please visit our website at www.modelalliance.org
The Model Alliance believes that models deserve fair treatment in their workplace. They aim to establish ethical standards that bring real and lasting change to the fashion industry as a whole, and support the enforcement of existing child labor and contract laws, promote financial transparency and redress for issues of sexual harassment, recognize that all models have the right to complete their compulsory schooling, and encourage a safe and healthy work environment that protects models’ mental and physical wellbeing.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in New York in NYU faculty housing on Bleeker Street.
How did you become a model?
A photographer scouted me on University Place when I was walking home from school, and she introduced me to an agency.
How old were you?
Fourteen, which I think was too young. I remember feeling that I had a narrow window of time to “make it,” which was true by the industry’s warped standards, but essentially it’s a grown-up business with grown-up pressures, and so I think it’s a job that’s better suited to adults.
What did you like and dislike about it?
Overall, I’ve been lucky and most of my experiences were positive. Modeling is one of the few jobs where women out-earn men and can rise to the top of their profession, so it can be extremely empowering. It gave me financial independence and paid for college, and I got to work with a lot of fun, talented people.
That being said, modeling can be pretty mind-numbing. And you have little control over your career — from scheduling, to the types of jobs you do, to when you’re paid the money you’re owed. You have no job security. In that sense, it’s a “bad job,” as sociologist Ashley Mears has pointed out.
Did you have a career mapped out for you based on your studies?
At fourteen, I didn’t have a career mapped out, but I come from a family that values education and I always expected to go to college. I never saw modeling as my one ticket to professional success; it was more of a steppingstone.
At eighteen, I started to keep a video diary with my then-boyfriend, Ole Schell, a filmmaker. In our spare time we filmed backstage at shoots and shows, and then we expanded the pool of footage to include other models’ stories. We asked them to film themselves and speak directly into the camera in a very unfiltered way. That home video turned into “Picture Me,” a feature documentary I produced about my and other models’ experiences in the industry.
What inspired you to start the Model Alliance?
The film helped me make sense of my experiences and gave me a platform to speak and organize within the industry. In “Picture Me,” models shared stories of sexual abuse, agency debt, and the connection between the industry’s use of extremely young models and the pressure to maintain that adolescent physique. A couple of models got cold feet and asked me to cut their stories last minute, which was difficult. As a filmmaker and advocate, I knew those accounts were compelling, but, as a friend, I didn’t want to further that exploitation, so we cut some of the harder-hitting footage out right before the premiere.
By that point I’d returned to college, where I was studying labor and community organizing. I was reading about great organizers like Marshall Ganz and Saul Alinsky, I realized that I had already inadvertently become an organizer by telling my story in the film and helping other models share theirs.
Before the film’s release, I approached established unions to see if they would accept models into membership. Equity UK extended membership to models in London, but the US has federal antitrust laws that prevent independent contractors from unionizing, and the industry insists that we’re independent contractors, not employees. When it became clear that we weren’t going to be able to unionize, I started to think about alternative organizing structures.
Around that time, at a screening of my film in 2010, I met Susan Scafidi, director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School. With Susan and the legal clinic at Fordham, that we established the Model Alliance, a nonprofit labor group for models working in the American fashion industry.
I see a lot of pressure on the fashion industry to provide images with more diversity regarding the size, color and age of women. I’m not convinced how effective pressure alone can be to inspire a visually-based industry to change what they have chosen to find beautiful. I wonder if it’s the editors who need to book photographers and stylists who share this kind of appreciation of womanhood, who are interested in exploring more physical archetypes other than the present, very lovely, but nonetheless post pubescent type of model. Editors booking artists who find diversity beautiful, in order to create images that inspire a new aesthetic, and a wider variety like nature offers in all it’s beauty.
What are your thoughts on body image within fashion?
The fashion industry draws a lot of superficial criticism of models’ weight and body image, but for all the talk, we’ve seen little change. However, these criticisms and concerns become actionable when framed as labor issues.
Case in point: we sat down with editors of Vogue and the CFDA last year to talk about the connection between the extreme youth of the models and the unusually thin body ideal. Age and body image are inextricably linked, since a 14-year-old can be naturally thin in a way that most twenty, and thirty-somethings, who have hips and breasts can’t, and shouldn’t aspire to be. A few months after our meeting, all international editions of Vogue agreed not to hire models under 16 or who appear to have an eating disorder.
If you were in charge of a committee or body created to make these changes, how would you go about it?
I think the Model Alliance has been pretty effective so far, in part because we’ve tried to be inclusive, not adversarial. On our Advisory Board, we’ve brought together supermodels, like Shalom Harlow, Coco Rocha and Milla Jovovich, but also an agent, a make-up artist, professors and union leaders.
Tell me about the recent achievements of The Model Alliance, I believe legislation has been introduced to afford child models the same legal protection under the Department Of Labour as all other child performers?
On June 9th, with the support of Senators Jeffrey Klein and Diane Savino, and Assemblyman Steven Otis, the Model Alliance introduced a bill that would afford child models who perform print and runway work the same protections as other child performers working in New York. Three days later it passed the Senate and the Assembly unanimously. It’s the first piece of legislation that we’ve introduced, and it’s a major victory for models. I think it could have a pretty big impact, not just on the industry’s hiring practices, but also body image standards.
How can this be enforced, monitored and checks made?
Currently fashion models under 18 are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Education, which really doesn’t make sense. Under this arrangement, child models have modest protections regarding working hours, but the rules are not widely understood or enforced. The Department of Labor, on the other hand, has strict rules governing the employment of child performers, and they have enforcement power. Under their governance, child models will have educational requirements, and provisions for chaperons, trust accounts, meal and rest breaks. I think it’s common sense that child models need and deserve the same protections as other children working in the entertainment industry.
Do you work alongside other organizations in any capacity?
The Model Alliance works in partnership with two unions: Actors Equity and the American Guild of Musical Artists. With them, we established Model Alliance Support, a grievance reporting and advice service for our members.
What are the next goals for the Model Alliance?
At the moment we’re focusing on the child model legislation being signed into law, and helping all different stakeholders in the industry understand how that’s a necessary and positive step. We’re also continuing our Mentorship Program with agencies, and we’ll continue to host workshops for our members on contracts and accounting. (The last two were with Coco Rocha, who is a wonderful and very active member of our team.) As we aim to expand our programs, fundraising will be crucial. We don’t want to turn away anyone in need, so basic membership free of charge, but that means we rely on donations.
Do you still model yourself?
Yes. In fact, I’m on location in Copenhagen right now.
If so, how does it feel, post Model Alliance, to be in front of the camera compared with before?
I feel a sense of solidarity with other models and folks in the industry. These days I don’t consider myself a model so much as an organizer, but I still enjoy modeling and it’s nice to be able to do it part-time on my own terms.
What people inspire you, past and present and why?
Last summer I traveled to Bangladesh, where I toured factories and met with garment workers to better understand the conditions on the ground. Since my trip, I’ve been in touch with Kalpona Akter, the Executive Director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS). Kalpona is a remarkable woman and she’s an inspiring organizer. Since the tragic Rana Plaza building collapse that killed 1,127 workers, it’s painfully obvious that the global fashion industry still has a long way to go to address workers’ rights.
Are there other areas of vocation that you are curious to pursue?
I’m interested in organizing along fashion’s supply chain to improve labor standards both at home and abroad. This is something I’m pursuing individually for now, with other activists and international labor rights groups, but I’m very interested in developing and expanding this work in the future.
Where do you find peace?
My boyfriend and I just planted a herb garden. We’ve been cooking with our basil and Oregano and Rosemary. All very domestic, I love it.
Where do you find inspiration?
There’s a saying, “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
Photo credit: Stephanie Leone
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The Model Alliance
The Model Alliance (MA) is a not-for-profit labor group for models working in the American fashion industry. Founded in 2012 by Sara Ziff, with the support of other models and the Fashion Law Institute at ...