Creative Conversation N
LABOR ACTIVIST SARA ZIFF IS HOLDING
THE INDUSTRY ACCOUNTABLE
FOR THE WAY IT TREATS MODELS.
BY ELIZABETH SEGRAN
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
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.
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.
In terms of sexual harassment and assault, it was Am-bra [Battilana Gutierrez], one of the models in the Model
Alliance, who really cracked that open in the Weinstein
story with her police report in 2015. Bill Cosby was basically going through a modeling agency, and they were
effectively pimping girls out to him. And Epstein had
relationships with modeling agencies that were sending
him young women. We’re now starting a Department of
Justice–funded study looking at the overlap between the
modeling industry and trafficking.
How does trafficking work in the modeling world?
Modeling agencies are not licensed, and they’re really
not regulated. So there’s a lack of accountability when
it comes to how models are treated. Generally, the top-earning supermodels—the top 1%—tend to be treated
pretty well. But there’s a lot of exploitation of the average
If you are working in debt to your agency, if you
don’t have insight into your finances, if you can’t guarantee that you’re going to be paid within a reasonable
period of time, you’re essentially beholden to your
agency. We’re seeing a lot of examples of models being
sent to what they think are castings or meetings for job
opportunities—such as meeting with Jeffrey Epstein,
thinking that they’re [attending a] casting for Victoria’s
Secret—when in fact they’re being lured into a trafficking situation. In light of the Epstein case, we’ve gotten
a lot of inquiries and requests
for help from people who are
reevaluating their experiences
in terms of trafficking. So much
of this abuse is normalized,
and the industry is so misunderstood, that it’s been hard for
people to find their voice.
Soon after you launched, the
Model Alliance got New York
state to adopt the Child Model
Act, which extends child labor
director of the
FIRST JOB Walking
the runway for