Sara Ziff was a 14-year-old student at the Bronx High School of Science when a fashion photographer "discovered" her as she was returning to her family’s apartment in Greenwich Village.
Within months, she was modeling for Calvin Klein and Seventeen magazine, but she soon encountered some compromising situations. When her modeling agency sent her to a photographer’s apartment for a shoot, he told her to take off all her clothes. At age 15, she was sent to another shoot where drugs flowed freely and she was ordered to pose against a backdrop of explicit images from an adult magazine
Now, Ziff, 31, is seeking to help the next generation. Ziff – who still works as a model and recently graduated magna cum laude from Columbia University with a bachelor’s degree in political science – has founded an unusual labor organization for fashion models. It aims to prevent abuses like agencies cheating models out of pay and coercive contracts dictating that 15-year-old models not let the circumference of their thighs or waists grow.
Its motto could be "5-foot-10, Size-Zero Workers of the World Unite."
In its year of existence, the group, the Model Alliance, which is backed by big-name models like Coco Rocha and Milla Jovovich, has already registered a major victory. In October, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a bill the alliance championed that significantly increases protections for child models by, among other things, requiring agencies to provide a chaperone whenever models under age 16 are sent to a fashion casting or shoot.
The Model Alliance hopes to succeed where a previous union for models fell short. In the 1990s, Donna Eller, a model with the Wilhelmina agency, created the Models Guild, which, backed by a major labor union, sought to unionize models. But after an initial splash, the glamorous guild fizzled, as modeling agencies resisted the idea of unionizing and many models worried that agencies would blacklist them for union ties.
Eager to lure models to her new group, rather than spook them, Ziff says the alliance is not seeking to unionize agencies or bargain contracts. Instead, it is vigorously promoting a longtime labor strategy — strength in numbers — to press for better conditions. In that sense, it resembles a host of new, innovative labor efforts, like the Freelancers Union and the fast-food workers’ movement, which have sprouted up in an era when unions are in decline. At a time of high unemployment when many workers are on the defensive, these groups have become laboratories struggling to reinvent and reinvigorate labor advocacy to advance the cause of particular groups of workers.
Ziff, who has been a face for Tommy Hilfiger and Stella McCartney, acknowledges that models’ concerns are often met with little sympathy. "A common comment we hear is, ‘You’re being paid to look pretty. Just shut up. You don’t have a real job,’" she said. "My response is: Modeling is a job, and we deserve basic protections like any other worker, and it’s all the more important when you realize that it’s an industry that relies heavily on children, often just 14, 15, 16 years old."
Ziff first entertained the idea of unionizing models when she and her then boyfriend, an New York University film student, were making a documentary about models. That film, "Picture Me," released in 2009, shows Ziff and other willowy models at parties and fashion shows, but it also highlights their 18-hour days on runways in New York, Paris and Milan. One American model tells of a famous photographer who urged her to remove her clothes and perform a sexual act — and of being in perpetual debt to her agency because it billed her for flights to Europe, for models’ apartments and for preparing and distributing her photo book.
After the documentary’s initial screening, where numerous models told their own stories of abuse, Ziff became convinced that something needed to be done. That was when she first met Susan Scafidi, director of Fordham University’s Fashion Law Institute, who offered to help — but balked at any talk of unionizing.
"Founding a union makes a strong oppositional statement that scares off people," Scafidi said. "All of our conversations have been about how do we make change happen."
The two pointed out that models tend to be far younger and less securely employed than workers in other professions, especially now that the age of the supermodel — a Cindy Crawford or Iman — seems to have passed. That makes models increasingly interchangeable "clothes hangers," less able to take chances in the here-today, gone-tomorrow modeling industry.
Carolyn Kramer, former head of the Marilyn Model Agency, stressed how difficult it is for working models to challenge the status quo. "They’re still modeling so that makes it hard for them to come after the modeling agencies," Kramer said. "And it’s the agencies that start this insidious pattern of young girls being exposed to sex, sexual harassment, drugs, alcohol and being pushed not to finish school."
After Ziff founded the alliance last year, the group’s leaders deliberately focused on what they thought would be winnable issues. Early on, it persuaded New York Fashion Week to bar photographers from the changing areas where models dress for the runway. Too often, models complained, photographers shot them while they were changing, and those topless photographs found their way onto adult websites.
The group has also worked with designers and agencies to fight anorexia, a common industry hazard. It urged Vogue to stop using dangerously thin models or models under age 16, and soon afterward Vogue stopped doing so.
The alliance has promoted a model’s Bill of Rights, and is pushing for more transparency in pay. The industry’s modeling agencies typically take a 20 percent commission and impose a 20 percent service fee on a model’s earnings. (While top models may command tens of millions a year, the average pay for models was $42,670 in New York last year and $26,110 nationwide, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)
By far its main achievement has been the unanimous enactment of New York’s child model law, which in addition to a chaperone guarantees a tutor whenever a child model under age 16 misses three or more consecutive days of school. The law affords child models the same protections as child actors and dancers.
Brittany Mason, a fashion model and former Miss Indiana, applauds Ziff for training a spotlight on the industry’s problems.
When she first moved to New York as a teenager, Mason said, she faced significant pressure to be dangerously thin. "I was running on a treadmill 5 miles a day, and they told me not to have any carbohydrates," she said, noting that her agency tested her urine for carbohydrates. "I was eating just sugar-free Jell-O. I lost so much weigh that it was painful to lie on my side."
She said that she – just like Ziff – once hired a lawyer because an agency owed her tens of thousands of dollars for months. For both women, as soon as their lawyers wrote, the agencies paid up.
"It’s great that Sara has been creating awareness of these problems, there wasn’t enough awareness before," Mason said.
With its membership at about 400, the alliance might find it hard to achieve some of its more ambitious, longer-term goals. The group is discussing whether to push for a law in New York that would make models employees, rather than independent contractors. Under federal law, contractors cannot sue for sexual harassment or discrimination. Another idea is to fight to revamp the standard model’s contract. Such contracts bind models to an agency, but do not create any duty on the agency to help find them work.
The alliance has faced little criticism from the industry — perhaps because its strategy so far, as Scafidi described it, has been more "Erasmus not Luther — to work inside, to forge alliances, not to nail one’s complaints on the Fashion Week tents."
Nicole Miller, the designer, said she welcomed the new group. "It’s definitely needed because all other industries have something like this, and we’re the one industry that didn’t," she said.
But she said for many designers, the jury is still out about the alliance. "I think we have to wait and see," she said.
Steven Kolb, chief executive of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, said his group worked with the alliance in supporting the child model law, noting that his council recommends that designers not use models under age 16 on Fashion Week runways.
But his group has sometimes differed with the alliance. Ziff, for example, objected to his council’s decision to team up with Organic Avenue, a chain that sells juices, food cleansing programs and snacks, contending that the partnership would put even more pressure on models to lose weight.
Kolb dismissed such criticisms, saying the effort was aimed at improving nutrition.
For veterans like Ziff and Rocha, who has done dozens of fashion covers as well as campaigns for Chanel and Dior, the alliance offers a chance to achieve lasting change.
At 16, Rocha recalled that she was 108 pounds and 5-foot-11. Still, she said her agency pressured her to lose weight.
Years later, Anna Wintour, the longtime Vogue editor who now is artistic director for Condi Nast, Vogue’s parent, invited Rocha to join a panel on how to improve the industry. Wintour, she said, "made me think I could really help change the industry to the good if I found the right place." For her, that place is the Model Alliance.
"I want to leave the industry as not just someone who had some covers and some campaigns, but as someone who improved the industry," Rocha said.
"It’s a great industry. I love it. But like all industries, it needs some change."