Model Alliance director Sara Ziff with board members Doreen Small and Alan Gordon at the New York State Dept. of Labor

On September 20th, 2012, Model Alliance director Sara Ziff testified before the New York State Department of Labor advocating for child models’ inclusion in the Department’s proposed regulations for child performers. Below is a transcript of her testimony.

My name is Sara Ziff and I am the director of the Model Alliance, a non-profit labor group for models working in the American fashion industry.

I appreciate this opportunity to discuss the New York Department of Labor’s proposed new regulations for child performers. As we all know, children working in entertainment are uniquely vulnerable and need protection. But unfortunately, according to these proposed regulations, not all child performers can expect equal protection under the law. While child models who engage in “television broadcast or performance” are included in the current definition of “child performer,” all other child models – namely those who do print and runway work – have been conspicuously left out.

Like many models, I believe very strongly that child models deserve, and desperately need, the same legal protections as other child performers working in New York.

I am here to make the case that all children who model professionally should be included in the definition of “child performer.” Like many models, I believe very strongly that child models deserve, and desperately need, the same legal protections as other child performers working in New York.  Children who are paid to model render the same “artistic or creative services” as dancers, actors and other children who are protected by the regulations.  For example, modeling in a runway show on a stage before an audience is no different than any other choreographed stage performance in which a dancer or actor might engage.  Similarly, posing for photographs that are published in magazines and distributed to the public involves the same type of “creative services” that might take place in a television broadcast or program. Children who render these services are just as in need of legal protection for their “safety, morals, health and well-being” as the other child performers the law is designed to protect. Therefore, including them within the definition of “child performer” furthers the goals of these regulations.

Currently, the Department of Education (not the Department of Labor) regulates child models. Under New York Arts and Cultural Affairs law, child models have modest protections regarding their working hours. But these regulations are rarely observed, and never enforced, particularly in instances where models as young as 12 or 13 are hired to model adult clothing. In fact, violations of the laws governing child models’ employment are so frequent and widespread that several models have likened New York’s modeling industry to the “Wild West.”

To this day there is no policy of informed consent for jobs involving nudity and there are no provisions for chaperones.

For me, this issue is personal. When I started modeling at 14, I was unprepared for the adult pressures I faced, like shoots with photographers who put me on the spot to take age-inappropriate photos. To this day there is no policy of informed consent for jobs involving nudity and there are no provisions for chaperones. In my early 20′s, the apex of my runway career, 16-hour days were routine for me, just as they were for my 15-year-old peers. Without provisions for tutors, many young models drop out of school to pursue short-lived careers that leave them in debt to their agencies. The perception that modeling is lucrative is far from the reality for most models, who often work for “trade,” meaning just clothes, and who incur numerous start-up costs that can amount to tens of thousands of dollars of agency debt.

Unfortunately, my story is not unique.  Many child models face these same problems every day.  That’s because modeling is a winner-take-all market; thousands enter the profession with dreams of becoming the next Gisele, but few actually “make it.” In what is ostensibly an unregulated industry, pressures to engage in risky behavior are all too real. And by “risky behavior,” I mean starvation dieting, long working hours without monetary pay, forfeiting compulsory schooling, pressures to pose nude or semi-nude and giving in to sexual demands from powerful male clients. For many young models working today, bowing to these pressures can feel less like a choice than a prerequisite for employment.

In New York, models under 18 are legally required to have work permits signed by their employers confirming that they have abided by strict limitations on the hours children can work, including provisions for rest and meal breaks. Yet, in my 15 years working as a model, I have never seen a child model carrying a work permit, nor has a single agent ever insisted on one. That’s why it’s so important that the New York Department of Labor include models as child performers in the proposed new regulations.

The industry has tried self-regulation. It hasn’t worked.

The industry has tried self-regulation. It hasn’t worked. The Council of Fashion Designers of America has made efforts through its Health Initiative to promote the message that “beauty is health.” But their guidelines are more lax than New York labor laws, and they are not a law enforcement body. Last season, one 17-year-old model complained that she routinely worked without monetary pay in preparation for a famous designer’s show, which demanded late night fitting sessions extending past 4 a.m., despite legal restrictions that prohibit minors to work after 10 p.m. (This model also had an 8 a.m. call-time the next morning.)

Even if existing laws were observed, child models would still lack protections that have been proposed for other child performers, who have union representation and provisions for chaperones, tutors and trust accounts. Sexual harassment and opaque bookkeeping are problems in many industries and modeling is no exception. Modeling agencies say that they take care of their models and so union representation is unnecessary, but often those agencies are the perpetrators of such abuses. Current New York statutes need to be changed so that any entity that secures representation for models should be subject to licensing by the Dept. of Consumer Affairs.

I sincerely hope that the legislature will amend the proposed bill to finally protect child models.

The enforcement of existing laws is a great starting point, but it’s not enough. More work needs to be done to ensure child models can finish high school and enjoy basic health standards. Models under 18 deserve the same protections as other child performers. I sincerely hope that the legislature will amend the proposed bill to finally protect child models. Thank you.

2 Responses to Testimony to the New York State Department of Labor

  1. Jill Johnson says:

    Correction: often WAY before they are adults.

  2. Jill Johnson says:

    Sara’s argument is right on. After two decades modeling, I could compile an endless list of inappropriate situations in which underage models find themselves constantly. So far as a mom of child models/actors, I’ve only experienced clients who are conscientious of their limits and make their jobs fun. However, as Sara notes, the line blurs when kids move into an adult division (often why before they are adults). I blog about modeling and just explored a related topic about stage moms. See: modelingmentor.com/blog

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