“Maybe it’s easier to be a prostitute than a model.” That’s the shock quote from Girl Model, last year’s festival-winning documentary about a troubled ex-model and freelance scout, Ashley, whose job it is to find 12-and-13-year-old Eastern European girls to follow in her pretty, miserable footsteps. I’ve seen the film twice, first at the Toronto International Film Festival (after which I wrote this), and secondly, last night, at a screening and panel hosted by the Model Alliance and moderated by Bloomberg Businessweek’s Diane Brady. Anyone who cares about fashion should be made to squirm through Girl Model, now on Netflix, and getting familiar with the means and ends of the Model Alliance isn’t much to ask either.
There is no creative worker whose labour is less regulated, and whose body is moreso, than the fashion model. Actors can start very young and often work long hours, but guild membership is mandated to protect them. Ballet dancers—maybe the most analogous group—have guilds, too, and elite schools. Even the potential exploitation of textile and garment workers doesn’t start until age 16, and those workers rarely leave their homes in Siberia or Russia or America to go live and toil alone in Thailand or Japan. And while making clothes seems a thankless hell, modelling them is not a strictly physical, but also a deeply psychological, burden. To be charged, at puberty, with manufacturing desire? How might you cover that cost? Hence the scout’s assertion that, if you’re already selling your body, maybe it’s preferable to get more money in private than to surrender it all in the public eye.
The Model Alliance, a non-profit organization co-founded by Sara Ziff and Jenna Sauers, isn’t a union. It’s a regulatory body for the world’s most regulated bodies, our fashion models, most of whom are still female and still—despite new efforts by the CFDA and vows by Vogue to stop underage modelling—far too young. “My worry is that people watching Girl Model will think these things are happening somewhere else,” said Ziff at the post-screening panel. “But I’ve witnessed mistreatment and harassment of underage girls everywhere I’ve worked, including here.”
As Brady pointed out, you wouldn’t pay a carpet factory worker in rugs, so why does a 15-year-old Marc Jacobs runway model get reimbursed in clothes she frankly has no occasion to wear?
Girl Model seems a dire portrait, and a narrow one, but it’s not unrepresentative of the industry. Ziff and Sauers are both from more privileged places (America and New Zealand, respectively) and had greater success, making good money and parlaying modeling into other careers (Ziff made 2009′s Picture Me; Sauers—who, I’ll disclose, is one of my favourite people—writes for Jezebel and others). They are both quick to say that modeling comes with opportunities. But the models whose names you know and whose salaries you envy are that accurate cliche, the one per cent. For everyone else, there’s the Model Alliance. Read up on their site, and—if you care and can—donate. At the least, consider it a luxury tax.