Gotham Magazine- Why Sara Ziff Founded Model Alliance

Why Sara Ziff Founded Model Alliance


Sara Ziff, founder of the Model Alliance, and casting director James Scully discuss how to improve working conditions in a business that isn’t always as glamorous as it seems.

Sara Ziff
James Scully joined forces with Sarah Ziff of Model Alliance to create a better work environment for models.

After Sara Ziff, who began modeling at 14, codirected the film Picture Me, a 2010 documentary about the highs and lows of the modeling business, she was determined to bring awareness to the often less-than-ideal working conditions in the industry—a disregard for child-labor laws, a lack of financial transparency, the encouragement of eating disorders, and instances of sexual abuse.

Ziff founded the Model Alliance in 2012 and immediately drew in big-name supporters like Coco Rocha, Milla Jovovich, and Fordham Law’s Susan Scafidi. The group scored its first big victory last November when child-model legislation went into effect (the law states that child models who live or work in New York State are protected by the Department of Labor, with the same rights and securities afforded to other “child performers”). But Ziff notes there is still tremendous work to be done. Here, she and James Scully, a leading fashion-industry casting director, discuss their ongoing mission to improve working conditions for models of all ages.

What was the impetus for founding Model Alliance?
Along with other models, I wanted to have a voice about our work and address issues, especially concerning the protection of kids in the industry. We got together and thought we would be more powerful as a group.

How did it come into being?
When I was in college, I studied labor and community organizing, and I had it in my head that I wanted to unionize the industry. I realized it would be impossible because models are considered independent contractors, not employees. Under federal law, they can’t unionize. So after some frustration, I met Susan Scafidi, director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School, who wanted to help. We met at a screening of my documentary about the industry. It was because of that film that I was really able to talk about the issues.

Sara Ziff
Elettra Rossellini Wiedemann and Sara Ziff at the White House to mark passage of the Affordable Care Act.

How did you get involved with the Model Alliance, James?
When I began in the industry over 20 years ago, most girls didn’t start modeling until they were 18 and had finished high school. It was so rare for them to be any younger. Back then, a model’s career never really hit [its stride] until she was in her late 20s or early 30s. Christy, Kate, and Naomi were the ones who pushed that boundary. Then the starting age started shifting downward, and it coincided with the Model Alliance trying to make it right. I was definitely on board

Why did the starting age for models get younger?
One of the first factors was the opening of Eastern Europe, where the ages of girls weren’t supervised. Also, there was client preference, which went from wanting a female aesthetic to desiring a very prepubescent body type. Editors would keep demanding these younger girls. By the time models started to go through puberty, the editors mistook that for weight gain. No one was winning at the end of the day.
SZ: When we looked at the law, we saw that child models were the only child performers not covered under the labor laws in New York State. When we spoke to lawmakers, they didn’t seem to be aware [of this loophole]. Even within the industry, they weren’t thinking of these kids as children.
JS: There were just so many children in the industry being taken advantage of.

One of Model Alliance’s initiatives was backstage privacy. Tell us how that came about.
Models were concerned about unauthorized photos being taken of them changing clothes backstage during New York Fashion Week. We needed to raise awareness and introduced a backstage privacy policy that encourages show producers to limit backstage access once “first looks” are called during a show.

Sara Ziff
Model Alliance members celebrate Governor Andrew Cuomo’s signing the child model bill into law.

Have things improved concerning the issue of overly thin models?
 While I was able to maintain a certain body type and eat whatever I wanted, I would hear criticism when doing shows that models were too skinny and anorexic. It wasn’t until years later that models came to me and said that they had gone to extremes to fit into sample sizes. A friend who was on the cover of Italian Vogue when she was about 14, was told by her agency to only eat one rice cake a day as her body started to fill out. This is a model I’ve worked with for years, and it wasn’t until years later that she told me she had been desperately ill.
JS: In Sara’s day, it was more unusual [for models to be anorexic], but then it started to become the norm. No one was doing anything about it. The people who could [do something] were saying they were, but they weren’t.

Part of the Model Alliance mission statement is to educate models about their rights. What do you emphasize?
When we formed our group, we established Model Alliance Support, our discreet grievance reporting and advice service for members. We encourage any model who has been the subject of unwanted sexual attention on the job, or who has experienced any other work related problem to contact us. We also talk to them about finances. Many girls getting into the industry are just excited to shoot with a well-known photographer or get on the runway. They need to treat modeling like a business because it doesn’t last forever, even if you’re one of the lucky ones.

Read more in Gotham.


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