Fashion Models Are Workers, Too
In late August, while many models were hustling from casting to casting in hopes of landing gigs at New York Fashion Week, a handful were gathered in an auditorium elsewhere in Manhattan, listening to supermodel Anne Vyalitsyna recount her dicey, unsupervised years as a teen model. After being plucked from Russia at the age of 15, Vyalitsyna says, she was tempted with “partying, alcohol and men” and was asked to pose nude. She feels it is easy for young models to go the “wrong way,” but she is one of the lucky ones: “My story is an exception, I feel like; it’s not the rule,” she insists, having landed covers of Vogue, Elle and Glamour and been featured in nine issues of Sports Illustrated. Perhaps most impressive, she is still working as a model at the ripe old age of 27.
Vyalitsyna is a member of the Model Alliance, a nonprofit group trying to rein in the largely unregulated labor practices of the cavalier business of fashion modeling. The Model Alliance’s main objective is quite simple, and it just might be the group’s most difficult challenge: to give models a voice while educating the public to view them not as privileged preternatural beings, but as workers who have wage and health-and-safety needs like everyone else. “The modeling industry has a lot of problems, like any other industry,” Vyalitsyna told her audience of fellow models. “But the regulations are very important.”
The Model Alliance grew out of the industry experiences of its whip-smart and accessible founder, Sara Ziff. The child of a New York University professor, Ziff, with her blond all-American good looks, caught the eye of a scout when she was just 14 (she’s now 31). Her career took off, and she landed ad campaigns for Tommy Hilfiger and Nautica and walked the runways at Fashion Weeks around the world for top designers such as Marc Jacobs, Chanel, Calvin Klein, Stella McCartney and many others. Ziff filmed her experiences modeling from ages 18 to 24, with the help of her then-boyfriend, the filmmaker Ole Schell, and released them in the 2010 soft exposé Picture Me: A Model’s Diary.
Ziff’s documentary captures intimate moments of her enjoying the success of her modeling career (at one point in the film, she flashes a check for more than $111,000). But like Vyalitsyna, she considers herself an exception, a lucky one, and she saw and experienced things (like being asked to pose nude at 14) that she hopes the generation behind her is spared. “Would I let my 14-year-old daughter model? No!” declares Ziff. “But certainly, some of my experiences from when I started out modeling were the basis for wanting to form the Model Alliance.”
Among the widespread industry troubles Ziff’s documentary highlights are sexual harassment, intense pressure to lose weight and the feeling of being “disposable” at 24, the age at which Ziff stopped filming the documentary. According to a Model Alliance survey of eighty-five working fashion models, 30 percent have experienced inappropriate touching on the job and 64 percent have been asked to lose weight by their agency. None of this is particularly surprising, but Ziff believes it should be.
After the release of Picture Me, Ziff started to think about what she could do to change her industry. “It’s one thing to expose issues and another thing to try and do something,” says Ziff. “Even though many models start their career when they’re 13, 14 or 15, they are put in pretty adult situations. And as an independent contractor, you’re not protected.” After failing to get the attention or support of traditional labor unions, Ziff decided to form her own labor group under the guidance of Fordham University fashion law professor Susan Scafidi.
The Model Alliance launched in February 2012 with a models’ bill of rights and a grievance reporting service, among other early campaigns. Their latest, and most ambitious, task has been taking on the issue of underage workers in the industry. Ziff says the group focused on child labor as their first piece of legislation because they saw an obvious and glaring loophole in the law and because, she admits, the Model Alliance had a chance of getting public support for the cause. “There are a lot of issues that we would like to tackle,” says Ziff of the Model Alliance’s goals. “But we chose this one because, while people are not sympathetic to beautiful fashion models, they are sympathetic to kids.”
While Broadway child stars and child actors are protected by the New York Department of Labor, models somehow have been left out of these protections. Current laws place child models under the puzzling jurisdiction of the New York Department of Education, which has very limited enforcement mechanisms and, ironically, no education requirements. It’s not clear how this came to be. Attorney Doreen Small, adjunct professor at Fordham Law School’s Fashion Law Institute and a Model Alliance advisory board member, says it’s probably a holdover from when children were modeling clothes for kids rather than working in the adult fashion industry as many do today. “It could be because the assignments were shorter term and there was no real perception that child models worked as grown-ups and not just as children,” says Small. “There was not the phenomenon of the runway and children working in editorial and working commercially. There was a disconnect.”
While current law does require underage fashion models to have work permits and limited working hours, it seems that it is rarely enforced. As Ziff explained in her testimony to the New York Department of Labor in September 2012, “In my fifteen years working as a model, I have never seen a child model carrying a permit, nor has a single agent ever insisted on one.”