When she was 14, Sara Ziff was on her way home from school when she was noticed by a female photographer. Soon after, she found herself at model castings and photo shoots, her carefree teenage years suddenly ensnared by the demands of a very grownup industry. In 2009, Ziff co-directed Picture Me, a documentary-diary mashup about her highs and lows on and off the catwalk. With it, she established herself as a champion for the plight of the model, however unlikely a plight that may seem. Her latest venture is The Model Alliance, a non-profit that has elevated Ziff’s preoccupation into a full-blown occupation. Launched at the outset of Fashion Week, Ziff hopes the Alliance will raise awareness and affect change in an industry with some very bad habits. Ziff cites an unregulated child labor laws, widespread sexual harassment, and a lack of financial transparency as some of the issues she hopes to change through the organization. Models like Coco Rocha and Doutzen Kroes have shown support, and the CFDA is fully behind them. We recently spoke to Ziff to find out more.
BULLETT: You started modeling at fourteen—do you think that in retrospect it was too young?
SARA ZIFF: In retrospect, I do think it was too young, especially to be working in a business that’s unregulated. You look at other groups of performers like child actors and musicians and ballet dancers, and the problem is not necessarily that they’re working at a young age but that the modeling industry, unlike these other industries, is totally unregulated. I’ve seen firsthand disregard for child labor laws, a lack of financial transparency, and even tolerance for sexual abuse of very young people. When you think about this from a labor standpoint, a lot of people criticize the fashion industry for promoting an unhealthy body image, but the problems go much deeper than just questions of models’ weight.
When you say child labor, can you talk about what you mean specifically?
It’s a host of issues. We conducted a survey of 85 models, and the people who responded were working models who were based in New York and Los Angeles and several high profile supermodels, and we found that the vast majority of models start their careers between the ages of 13 and 16. That’s a young, vulnerable demographic. And frankly, I know from working in this business from a very young age that I myself was put on the spot routinely to take topless photos and pose seductively in a way that is illegal. No young person should have to face those kinds of pressures. I was lucky because I grew up here in New York and I had my family here. I wasn’t one of these girls who was coming from Brazil or Eastern Europe—totally like a fish out of water without any kind of support system. If you consider that for a lot of these girls, English is not their first language and certainly they don’t speak the language of contracts, then you’re putting kids in a potentially exploitative environment. A lot of these girls and boys—it’s not just a women’s issue—are pressured to drop out of school when they’re just starting high school.
I read a quote of yours in that piece in New York where you say these girls are forced to drop out of school at 15. Who’s forcing them to do that?
I’m hesitant to say where it starts because it’s pervasive throughout the industry, but when designers and editors test models who are still minors for big jobs and when, for example, a thirteen-year-old was the face of the Prada campaign last season, then that sends a message to young women and aspiring models that they have a very small window to achieve a successful career.
Why do brands want to use such young people to sell products that are made for adults?
That’s a really good question and I think there isn’t a short answer to that. You could write a dissertation on that. Obviously youth and beauty are not mutually exclusive and yet, there’s a focus on using extremely young models. A 22-year-old model is young and beautiful and yet the industry seems to gravitate to pre-pubescent children. It’s not good for those kids who are forced to drop out of school and who are being pressured to take photos and work in an unregulated business that’s just exploitative of kids.
Aren’t modeling agencies supposed to look out for their clients?
They are and some of them do. I spoke with the head of my agency who is on our advisory board and he’s very supportive of everything that we’re doing, I’m grateful for his support. He said himself that signing 13/14-year-old kids whose bodies are bound to morph drastically in just a couple of years is a bad business model for them, too, because then they’re stuck with these young models who develop eating disorders and who run into all kinds of problems, and no one likes to see that. I think that we’ve gained sympathy not just from an empathy, but from other people in the business including the heads of agencies who, from purely a business standpoint, are in line with us and what we’re trying to achieve.
You’ve mentioned that models have shared stories about specific instances of harassment, horror stories from the industry. Do you ever feel pressure to come forward and expose certain people for things that they’ve done?
Right, well, I’ve experienced some of it myself.
Are you not in the business of doing that—of calling people out and potentially ruining careers?
I’m hoping this can be a constructive effort. I prefer not to have to have to get into the business of shaming people or blaming people because ultimately, I don’t think anyone gets up in the morning and says, I want to go and exploit some Lithuanian 15-year-old, but I think a lot of it has to do with some kind of lack of awareness, and at the same time, this is an industry where basically all that you have is your image, so I think eventually if people don’t wise up to this and take some responsibility, then maybe shaming people is the way to go.
How do you feel about the reaction the Model Alliance has garnered, from the press and otherwise?
I have actually been encouraged. The vast majority of the press we’ve received and the feedback I’ve gotten have been pretty positive. But I’ve looked at some of the press and the comments section—people say never read the comments but I can’t help myself—and there are a lot of people, mostly people outside of the business who aren’t familiar or are blinded by the supposed glamour of the industry and have trouble sympathizing with models’ concerns. I see a lot of comments like, Oh, well you get paid to look pretty, shut up, and my reaction to that is when you’re talking about an unregulated industry that relies on a labor force of kids, I think that’s a very unfortunate response. I think there’s a sense that fashion is frivolous, and so a lot of people are sort of dismissive. They don’t think of models when they imagine a labor force that’s dealing with bad working conditions, but that’s the catch 22. When you are the face of a brand in an industry that is about selling fantasy and glamour, then it makes it that much harder to acknowledge that the fantasy and the reality are sometimes miles apart.
How widespread a problem is sexual harassment? Accusations against Terry Richardson are well-documented, but does it go beyond that?
It’s not about any one person. It is a widespread problem. I think most people act professionally, but just look at the last few years. In 2008 that designer Anand Jon was found guilty of multiple counts of rape and assault of young aspiring models who were aged 14 to 21—and he’s in jail now. A lot of models at this point have come forward and spoken out about Terry Richardson’s practice of putting models on the spot to take their clothes off and perform a sex act which he and his assistants document. He says that models are consenting to this. Well, if they were really consenting to it then why would they be speaking out against him?
Fashion Week was the perfect time to launch your organization, because of the attention surrounding the fashion industry this time of year. But where do you go from here?
I’m not the only one involved. Jenna Sauers is on our Board of Directors and has been an integral part in making this happen. We have the fashion law institute at Fordham Law School involved, and they’ve really made all of this possible, and we also have the support of Diane von Furstenberg and the CFDA. So this isn’t a one-man-show. This is the beginning of what I hope will be a movement to empower young women in a business that can really be a fantastic opportunity and that is filled with creative, talented people. I like the fashion business and I like working as a model, I just don’t want to be complicit in working in an industry that exploits kids. I think if we articulate our message clearly and show that we’re not adversarial, we’re just trying to make sure that people are treated with the same human dignity and respect that any worker deserves, then I think we’ll make real progress.