Realities of the runway: Models organize against abuse

Susan Scafidi in Metro, January 30, 2012

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New York models are banding together to become comrades in couture.

With Fashion Week around the corner, model Sara Ziff is launching the Model Alliance next Monday, a non-profit organization that will advocate for models’ rights.

“The modeling industry is essentially an unregulated industry,” said Ziff, 29, a New York native. She hopes to address the recurring problems she said many models endure, such as child labor, sexual assault, eating disorders, and fraudulent financial practices.

Some models are pressured into performing sexual favors in exchange for work, Ziff said, recalling one colleague who was asked to pleasure a photographer in order to be cast in his shoot.

"What's behind the scenes of these beautiful images is truly ugly." Susan Scafidi, Director of the Fordham Law School Fashion Law Institute

“She felt violated,” Ziff said. “This was a top fashion photographer who is well established and powerful. When you are replaceable, it’s not so easy to speak about abuse.”

While many people are familiar with the industry’s famous faces, they may not know the harsh realities of life on, and off, the runway. 

“There’s this misperception that models are making millions of dollars,” said Ziff. “What people don’t realize is that models are often working for free.”

Ziff said that many models are working to pay off debt to their agencies, which lend them money for expensive flights and visas required for work. On top of that debt, Ziff added, the models are often paid only in clothes. “You can’t pay your rent with a tank top,” Ziff said.

The Model Alliance will host its debut reception on Monday at the Standard Hotel. Interested models can join the Alliance for $50, Ziff said, but no model in need of aid will be turned away.

A ‘model’ organization

Williamsburg-based model Lauren B., 21, said an organization like the Model Alliance is sorely needed for the industry.

“I have girlfriends who are 15-years-old that are thrown into all kinds of situations,” said B. “They’re being given drugs; [The Model Alliance] is definitely needed.”

Like many aspiring models, B. moved to New York on her own as a teenager from San Francisco.

“It was really hard. I couldn’t talk to anyone about what I was going through,” said B. “A lot of these girls are alone and scared and no one is looking out for them.”

Pressured into sex

Nearly 30 percent of models have experienced inappropriate touching on the job, a Model Alliance survey found. More specifically, 28 percent said they were pressured to have sex with someone at work.