Fashion Models Are Workers, Too

Fashion Models Are Workers, Too

Defying stereotypes, the Model Alliance gets serious about organizing—and writes its own law to protect the most vulnerable models: children and young teens.



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.”

To rectify the situation, the Model Alliance set its eyes on rewriting the laws in New York State so that models under 18 can have enforceable protections, including education provisions like on-set tutors in certain circumstances. The proposed legislation would extend to child models the protections that child performers currently enjoy. Child stars on Broadway, for example, have limits on working hours (and can’t work past midnight); they’re provided meals, rest breaks and dedicated study space, and trust accounts are set up to manage a percentage of a child’s earnings. Violators of these regulations face fines of up to $1,000 for a first infraction. The legislation to extend these protections to young fashion models passed the New York Assembly and Senate in June and awaits Governor Cuomo’s signature.

With many runway models performing in back-to-back shows, staying up until the wee hours of the morning for fittings and pulling sixteen-hour days during Fashion Week, restrictions on hours could make hiring underage models far less appealing to the industry. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), modeling agencies and the New York Department of Labor have been discussing how to tailor the law to the fashion industry. Small says it’s unclear whether the current caps on working hours will stay on the books when they are applied to models.

* * *

Since the 1990s, the fashion industry has grown in power and size, and reality television shows like America’s Next Top Model and Project Runway have glamorized modeling and amplified its celebrity status. Yet a young girl aspiring to be a supermodel might as well be aspiring to be the next Beyoncé; a growing number of young people are hitching their wagon to an increasingly unrealistic dream. Scouts and agencies these days recruit wannabe catwalkers from every corner of the globe, and as the number of women trying to break into modeling has grown, turnover has spiked at the same time that pay and success rates have plummeted.

The documentary Girl Model, which aired last spring on PBS, explores the intersecting lives of a former model turned scout, Ashley Arbaugh, and one of her finds, a 13-year-old Siberian named Nadya. Nadya is sent to Tokyo to meet with prospective clients, and although she manages to book a few jobs, she still comes home $2,000 in debt to her agency, a fairly common experience, according to both Ziff and Girl Model co-director Ashley Sabin. Modeling agencies typically front money for travel expenses, lodging and test shots, but these costs must be paid back.

Through the process of making Girl Model, Sabin says she came to view modeling as a form of indentured servitude for many women, where the stakes are very high for women from poor families without many other career options. “They’re indentured to their agency. They’re indentured to their debts and the debt isn’t really disappearing,” she says.

Since the 2008 recession, contract work has increased, replacing more full-time jobs with freelance positions. Studies by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that there are more than 20 million freelancers and other independent workers in the United States. Employers have gotten used to this system of hiring underpaid contract employees, where labor laws are entirely in the employers’ favor. Unpaid work, especially among young people, has also become rampant.

Models are independent contractors and are among the growing number of nontraditional US employees clamoring for more rights and better pay. Boston University sociologist and former model Ashley Mears, whose book Pricing Beauty: The Making of a Fashion Model investigates the economics of the fashion industry, found that the average fashion model working in the United States earned only $27,330 in 2009, with no benefits. It’s now more like $32,000. The average magazine shoot at the time paid about $100 a day; today, top magazines like Vogue pay $175.

Many models work “for trade” in fashion at some point, meaning they get clothes or other swag but no actual payment, and many view “free” work as a necessary stepping stone in their career. Fox Searchlight, Gawker and NBC Universal are among the corporations that have been sued this year for using nonpaid interns, and this uprising is beginning to spread to fashion.

This highlights yet another, equally insidious reason the fashion industry is so dependent on young girls—they’re cheap, especially those from foreign places. Just as the fashion industry has been attracted to countries like Bangladesh  for their low-wage garment producing, there is a certain economic logic to the way scouts find their next fresh faces in underdeveloped countries in Eastern Europe and Latin America. Sabin agrees: “In a lot of ways, it’s a business, right? So they’re about the bottom line. So, which is cheaper? Is it cheaper to have the parents come along too? Probably not, so where can they go where there’s going to be the least amount of hassle? Well, a place where these girls aren’t asking as much or don’t know their rights as much or come from a different kind of historical background.”

Globalization and technology have affected model scouting as much as garment manufacturing. Thanks to the Internet, scouts and agencies can instantly access models around the globe, with photos of new faces traveling from Siberia to Manhattan in seconds.

Historically, labor unions, through collective bargaining, helped workers to raise wages and pull the unskilled up to the middle class. Freelancers, by law, are not allowed to form unions. Still, the Model Alliance and organizations like Freelancers Union, which provides health benefits to its members, are part of a new labor movement trying to organize today’s flexible workplace. In a recent survey, Freelancers Union found that 29 percent of its members earn less than $25,000 a year. This is in line with what sociologist Mears found about models. It is currently very difficult to spin contract work into a stable, middle-class existence. On average, according to Mears’s book, models last about five years. It’s not a career as much as a stint, she says.

In this respect, models are less like wannabe pop stars and more like Olympic athletes—in that their careers are painfully brief. Models are often forced out of the industry in their early 20s. Sabin said she’s heard of girls as young as 18 lying about their age to avoid dwindling job prospects. “It’s sort of uniform that girls lie about their age,” says Sabin. How could women so young be considered undesirable? Sabin’s theory is that it has to do with the industry’s obsession with the newest and latest thing. “To me, it goes back to that word fresh,” she says, a word she heard scouts use often. “Maybe if they’re too old, they’re seen as sort of spoiled or something.” But it also has to do with oversupply—the sheer number of girls means that rapid turnover and a reliance on new versus established talent is a given.

After they hang up their heels at 18 or 20, what’s next for these young women? There is very little information collected about the trajectory of their post-modeling lives. Those we know about are the ones who succeeded, like Ziff, but what happens to a model scouted from, say, Belarus at the age of 13 who has no education and few opportunities back home? “That is a big question,” says Sabin. “There are not many statistics. The industry is really tight-lipped. They don’t really want you to understand.”

It remains to be seen how the fashion industry will respond to the new legislation—will it continue to book underage girls at the same clip, and just follow all the rules? Some predict that it won’t, and that the legislation will bump up the average age of runway models to 18. If the women on the catwalk and in the pages of fashion magazines are indeed women instead of children, this labor legislation just might have a profound impact on body image ideals as well.

This isn’t the first time the physical ideal in the fashion industry has skewed extremely thin. Twiggy made waifishness all the rage in the 1960s, and Kate Moss brought it back in the ’90s. As designers like to say, thin bodies make the best hangers. But the average size of runway and fashion magazine models has gotten far smaller in recent decades, and that has something to do with the prevalence of underage bodies. There’s also a bigger divide between models and the average woman. According to PLUS Model Magazine, twenty years ago a model weighed 8 percent less than the average woman; today, she weighs 23 percent less.

“What people don’t realize is that most of those girls are adolescents,” says Ziff. “They haven’t gone through puberty yet. And when it’s a 14-year-old that’s setting the standard for feminine beauty, that puts pressure on her not to grow up; it puts pressure on older models to starve themselves to get that gangly physique, and then there’s the effect that it has on consumers as well.”

For any model who hopes to have a career past the age of 16, this has come to mean maintaining something close to the physical appearance of a child. At the Model Alliance informational session in August, Anne Vyalitsyna revealed that when she went through puberty at 16, her agency told her to slim down. “Your body changes and you become a woman and there’s nothing you can do to control it,” she said. “I freaked out because your agency tells you to lose weight, and you don’t know how to do it. You don’t know what to eat, and they tell you to go work out.”

The fashion industry has attempted in earnest to regulate itself, to resist the inexorable pull toward hiring the extremely young. Vogue banned the use of models younger than 16 last year, and the CFDA, the organization of the top US designers, has a health initiative that recommends that models be at least 17 to walk the runway. But the regulations aren’t easily enforceable and are sometimes outright flouted. A 15-year-old model appeared in a Chinese issue of Vogue in September 2012, and Marc Jacobs—who sits on the CFDA’s board of directors—stirred controversy after he knowingly put two 14-year-old girls in his spring show last year and then defended his decision in The New York Times.

There is still a way to go toward getting the wider public to take Ziff and the Model Alliance’s idea seriously—that models aren’t just pretty faces, the winners of a genetic lottery, that they are workers who need regulations and representation to protect them from exploitation. But the attitudes are slowly showing signs of change, as the new legislation has shined a spotlight on the issue in the industry.

At the information session in Manhattan, model Hana Mayeda said she attended to find out exactly what the Model Alliance is about. She had the sense that the group was trying to do something greater than trying to prevent young models from working, as a publicist had tried to convince her. Her takeaway: “It’s not about not having models work, and it’s not about having casting directors not hire people under 18. It’s to protect them.”

The word, it seems, is getting out.

In “A Brooklyn Corner” (April 1), E. Tammy Kim described how day laborers who clean for ultra-Orthodox Jewish households are learning about their rights.

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