IN HER TWO DECADES AS A PROFESSIONAL MODEL appearing in campaigns for designers such as Stella McCartney and Tommy Hilfiger—Sara Ziff has seen the industry’s glamorous side and its underbelly, which is rife with child labor, low wages, and sexual harassment. Model Alliance, the nonprofit she founded in 2012, advocates for fair labor standards and safer workplaces for models. Under Ziff, the alliance has pushed lawmakers in New York and California to protect underage models, partnered with researchers to study human trafficking and other issues, and launched a high-profile campaign—signed by close to 140 models—to get Victoria’s Secret to commit to safeguarding its models from sexual misconduct. Here, she talks about how modeling agencies have enabled the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, and why the exploitation of models should concern us all.
Modeling has always seemed so aspirational. But your work— and the Epstein headlines—has pointed out how vulnerable models are. What accounts for this discrepancy?
I grew up in New York City and was scouted on the street after school when I was 14 years old. Like many models, I fell into [the career] by accident. For most industries, you train, prepare, and apply for a job that you want. In the modeling industry, you are selected, then thrust into this industry that’s unique. Often, you face adult pressure at a young age. One of the biggest challenges for me [is that] there’s not a lot of sympathy for models. People have heard stories of Linda Evangelista saying she wouldn’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day. In reality, the vast majority of working models are not making large sums of money. In many cases they’re young, immigrant women. Many are actually working in debt to their agencies. They are among the least protected workers in the world.
It seems like a lot of the issues we’re grappling with today as a society, such as sexual harassment, are widespread—and acute—in the modeling industry.
It’s a mistake not to see these issues holistically. People have, for a long time, talked about extreme thinness as a consumer-protection issue, without recognizing that it’s actually a labor issue. [You can] address this problem if you think of it in terms of creating rights and protections for the models themselves, rather than trying to promote healthier images by banning [too-thin] models.
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