It starts like any ordinary "dream" story.
At the age of 14, Sara Ziff was approached by a model scout on the streets of New York City. She was signed and found herself in high demand, albeit overwhelmed by her instant success.
She was still a teenager after all, traveling the world to walk runways and starring in major campaigns for the likes of Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren. From the outside, it was a dream. From the inside, it was something entirely different. Working as a teen model with little emotional, logistical or financial support, Sara was dealing with intense feelings of vulnerability and confusion.
In 2009, she and a boyfriend, director Ole Schell released the documentary Picture Me, an inner look at the fashion world. Initially intended to be a video diary of her experiences as a model, it became an exposé on the sinister underbelly of the fashion world. The documentary told her story, but it told another much darker story of child workers in a completely unregulated industry. “I think because we are young, women have not been taken seriously for such a long. People think it’s glamorous or we’re lucky. But it can be as non-glamours as trafficking,” she's said.
Since Picture Me, Ziff has dedicated her life to improving the working conditions for models, fighting for their rights on set and off with Model Alliance. Models, unlike actors, have no union. They are considered freelancers and are offered little protection, from long hours to abuse on set. And it's not only limited to females. A NY Times piece recently outlined egregious abuse of male models on set as well. In light of reports of abuse, Condé Nast, LVMH & Kering have announced voluntary, self-enforced codes. "A successful effort will require benchmarking best practices, running trainings & submitting to independent oversight," Tweeted Sara. In December, Sara testified at the NYC Commission on Human Rights hearing on sexual harassment in the workplace.
She has truly lived a hundred lives since the day she was scouted, graduating magna cum laude from Columbia University with a degree in political and receiving her M.P.A. from Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
As founder and Executive Director of Model Alliance, a nonprofit organization that works with major designers and industry leaders to establish fair labor standards within the American fashion industry, she is dedicated to moving the needle in the modeling industry. It is run entirely by volunteers.
More from Sara below.
Name: Sara Ziff
What are some of your proudest accomplishments?
Model Alliance launched in February 2012, and we’ve done so much. I’m most proud of the extended child labor laws that protect models under 18 in the state of New York. As I reflect on the last year, I am both immensely proud of what the Model Alliance has accomplished and hopeful for what the New Year will bring. We kicked off 2017 at the Women’s March on Washington and closed out the year with the announcements of two pieces of legislation, which, if enacted, will afford models protections against sexual harassment in the workplace from New York to California.
What was your first project with the Model Alliance?
The very first thing we did was partner with two unions: Actors Equity and AGMA, the American Guild of Musical Artists. With them, we set up this grievance reporting service because we knew we ourselves and other models had all this sexual harassment and abuse that we’d experienced, or one-sided contracts with our agencies, or difficulty getting paid the money that we were owed, but there wasn’t really a safe place to air those grievances. So that was, I think, the very first thing that we did.
We also met with editors at American Vogue and talked about this connection between the extreme youth of models on the runway and the body image concerns, and shortly thereafter they introduced the Vogue initiative. We also pushed for backstage privacy during fashion week.
Those were our three primary things, and we did that knowing the industry is resistant to change, but things like backstage privacy, or creating a policy of not hiring models under the age of 16, there’s no expense involved. It’s just about rallying different stakeholders together to agree that it’s the right thing to do.
What was the community's response to Picture Me?
["Picture Me"] was on the festival circuit in 2009, and it was really at Q&A discussions for the film that we started talking about the need for a union, like the equivalent of the Screen Actors' Guild, which is now SAG-AFTRA, for models. Models would come to these screenings and get really emotional talking about bad experiences they’ve had, and the film became this organizing tool to raise awareness publicly, but also within the industry. We wanted an existing union to extend membership to models, but when it became clear that that wasn't possible, I was crazy enough to take it upon myself and start up from scratch, which people warned me not to do, but I also was studying labor and organizing in college.
What are the day-to-day operations of the Model Alliance like?
We have this grievance reporting service so we hear pretty regularly from models who have questions about their agency contracts — there are a lot of models who have difficulty getting paid the money they’re owed. Just yesterday, I was dealing with a model and her mother who were dealing with a bogus agent who was posing as a legitimate agent, and who was trying to get her to send photos and measurements to someone who was, I think, clearly unprofessional and kind of dangerous. There are so many scams in this industry, even at a high level. It’s more than any one organization working on a volunteer basis can handle, and that’s why we’ve looked at what we can do with legislation to save our models in the industry.
If you had a daughter who wanted to follow in your footsteps what advice would you give her?
If I had a daughter I’d say to her “Hold off on modeling, focus on school. There’s no need to grow up too fast.” I think it’s important for young girls to know that they really need to set their own standards and understand their own comfort levels.
Were there moments of self-doubt during your modeling career?
When you’re working at 14 you’re such an opportunist! You’re not thinking about the long term and what you want and need. I had this sense for a long time that was gnawing at me that I needed to be in a different environment where I wasn’t just being asked about myself all the time — my horoscope or hair color. That can be fun, but if that is all you are talking about with people it can be a little mind-numbing.
This interview has been edited and condensed from multiple sources.