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.