Health Starts with Having a Voice

February 6th, 2012  - Sara Ziff

For too long, there has been a myopic disregard for the modeling industry’s systemic abuses of its workforce.  While I have been very fortunate in my modeling career, I have also seen firsthand how the industry often disregards child labor law, lacks financial transparency, encourages eating disorders, and blindly tolerates sexual abuse in the workplace.  The lucrative careers of high-profile supermodels misrepresent the reality for most working models, who are young, mostly female, and uniquely vulnerable.

For this reason, I have established the Model Alliance, a not-for-profit organization (application for recognition of 501(c)(6) status pending), with the assistance of fellow models and the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School.  Our goal is to work with progressive modeling agencies to give models in the U.S. a voice in their workplace and organize to improve their basic working conditions in what is now an almost entirely unregulated industry. How the industry treats its models influences the ideal presented in the magazines, and these images have a powerful, far-reaching effect on women in general.

Lack of financial transparency is a significant problem. Last year, three models brought a lawsuit against their New York agency Next for allegedly stealing $750,000 of their earnings. Like the plaintiffs, I also left an agency after becoming increasingly wary of their opaque bookkeeping, and I was paid the outstanding earnings owed to me by that agency only after I consulted a lawyer and threatened legal action. As a model, simply getting paid can be a major issue, and, of the models who achieve a coveted spot walking in New York fashion week, many in fact are never paid at all, instead working for free or for “trade,” meaning just clothes. (Note it’s not that models “get to keep the clothes” as is commonly thought.) Many young models also become crippled by debt to agencies that charge myriad of unexplained expenses and hold significant power over a model’s security as the sponsor for a model’s work visa.

While the majority of people working in fashion act professionally, sexual abuse is also a problem.  Consider just the last few years: in 2008, fashion designer Anand Jon was found guilty of rape and multiple counts assault of aspiring models, who ranged from 14 to 21 years old. Last year, models began to speak out in numbers against the photographer Terry Richardson for his practice of putting models on the spot to disrobe on castings, soliciting sex from them, and documenting these exploits, and in November 2010, an aspiring male model sued a noted stylist for alleged sexual harassment. What is worse, in an industry that relies on kids working in unchaperoned situations, often far from home, the incentive to say nothing in order to keep your job creates an environment of coercion that is not only unconscionable, but also illegal.

The prevalence of unusually thin models on the runway is well known, yet the industry relies on a labor force of children, valued for their adolescent physique. Model Amy Lemons, who started modeling women’s clothing at age 12, reached instant supermodel status when she graced the cover of Italian Vogue at 14.  But just three years later, as the gangly 17-year-old began to fill out physically, her New York agent advised her only to eat one rice cake per day; and, if that didn’t work, only half a rice cake.  Lemons got the hint, “they were telling me to be anorexic—flat-out.”

This pressure, combined with financial dependency and an unsafe work environment, can be a lethal combination. 18-year-old Uruguayan model Eliana Ramos died of anorexia just six months after her model sister Luisel Ramos, 22, suffered a heart attack after stepping off a runway. In 2009, 20-year-old Korean supermodel Daul Kim, who walked in runway shows for the likes of Chanel, hanged herself in her Paris apartment just weeks after writing a blog entry that she was “mad depressed and overworked.” Last year, one day before Milan Fashion Week, 22-year-old French model Tom Nicon threw himself to his death from his Milan apartment, as did 26-year old Canadian model Hayley Kohle, and 20-year-old Russian Vogue cover girl Ruslana Korshunova, who leapt from her ninth-floor apartment in New York’s Financial District.  Lucy Gordon, formerly the face of Cover Girl, hanged herself in her Paris apartment, and 24-year-old American male model Ambrose Olsen, whose work included campaigns for Hugo Boss and Louis Vuitton, hanged himself in New York.  This tragic slew of deaths cannot be blamed on the industry alone, but suggest that models deserve healthier standards and need more support.

Unlike actors in the U.S., who rely on strong unions like SAG and AFTRA, models in the U.S. lack union support and basic workplace protections. Strict rules that govern child actors’ working hours and provisions for tutors during professional commitments are not applied to child models, who often work long hours and drop out of school to make the most of their earning ability during their teenage years.  Many models lack affordable health care, which is particularly troubling considering the psychological and health costs on models who anxiously struggle to control their bodies over short-lived careers and are isolated by their frenetic and nomadic lifestyles.

The Model Alliance is part of a growing movement worldwide to combat this exploitation. In 2009, the British trade union, Equity, agreed to take models into membership in the U.K. As members of Equity, models can enjoy benefits including injury compensation, legal and accounting services, and visa advice.  In 2010, Equity established a minimum wage of £100 per runway show that increases depending on the number of seasons that the designer has presented his or her collection.  Future efforts include crediting models and their agencies in magazine editorials, and criminal background checks for anyone in the industry who works with minors. These standards established by Equity are encouraging, as they set a precedent for the kinds of benefits and reform that are both necessary and possible for models working in the U.S.

Meanwhile, in 2007, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) formed a health initiative to address the concern that some models are unhealthily thin.  While the CFDA’s recognition of eating disorders among models is a huge step forward, their guidelines designed to promote wellness are just the beginning.  Models deserve industrywide standards that extend beyond the bi-annual fashion weeks in New York—a mere 14-day span of runway jobs that apply to a relatively small, select group of high fashion models.  And eating disorders are only symptom of a much larger problem plaguing the industry—namely that most models’ clout in the workplace is as miniscule as their size-zero frames.

We cannot promote healthy images without taking steps to promote healthy bodies and minds, and that starts with giving the faces of this business a unified voice. By giving models a platform to organize to improve their industry, the Model Alliance aims to enhance the vitality and moral standing of the fashion business as a whole. Correcting these abuses starts with seeing models through a different lens: not as dehumanized images, but as workers who deserve the same rights and protections as anyone else.

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