It seems like a Zoolander skit, models organizing,” Sara Ziff says between bites of pizza in the East Village. “And I am very aware of that.”
It’s a frigid afternoon, and Ziff, a flaxen-haired, pale-blue-eyed Manhattan native who’s walked the runway for Prada, Calvin Klein, and Balenciaga and modeled in print for Tommy Hilfiger, Kenneth Cole, and Stella McCartney, is discussing her new role as the face of something entirely different: a labor movement. For models.
“Obviously it’s sort of a unique industry,” Ziff says. “It’s a very strange job—being a clothes hanger, essentially—but it’s still a job. We have fundamentally the same concerns as the American worker.” She lists them: the enforcement of child-labor laws, financial transparency in dealing with agents, supporting those who are the victims of sexual harassment and assault, and lack of health care for working models. With her advocacy group, the Model Alliance, launching February 6, she hopes to push for reform on all fronts. “I think that at a minimum we can set up, like, a group health plan,” she says.
But it’s difficult enough, she says, to convince people that models are an exploited group in the first place. “That messes up the fantasy,” she says. “If you get your nice, glossy fashion magazine in the mail and you flip through the pages and you enjoy looking at these pictures of these models, the last thing you want to think about is the fact that this girl might have been forced to drop out of school at 15 so that she could work for a photographer who demands hand jobs at castings.” She told one such story in Picture Me, a 2009 movie mixing memoir and exposé that she made with her then-boyfriend, Ole Schell. The Times called it a “ ‘poor me, I was a supermodel; now I’m a Columbia student’ documentary.”
To Ziff, it’s no surprise there’s so little outrage about sexual exploitation in an industry full of young girls. “People confuse an aesthetic with how people are being treated in the workplace,” she says. “They might think taking issue with the work is a matter of being prudish, but it’s not. It’s a labor issue.” Ziff has heard stories of models leaving castings crying, having been ejaculated on. “I get so many messages on Facebook where I have models telling me, ‘I was molested by this person.’ They will tell me the person’s name—‘I really wanna call him out, I’m angry.’ And a check does not justify other kinds of exploitation.”
Besides, she says, those checks aren’t very big to begin with: Modeling is technically a “bad” job, as sociologist and former model Ashley Mears has put it, one that nets a median annual income of just $27,000. Gisele may rake in up to $45 million each year, Ziff says, but she’s a clear exception: By the time most models are her age, they’ve already been forced into retirement, with hardly any savings to show for it.
“When you’re talking about a labor force of kids, which most of them are, that should be a red flag,” Ziff says. “Minors often putting in long hours without rest or meal breaks, and dropping out of school to be able to work for free: There are so many levels of wrong there.”
Ziff was once one of those minors. She began modeling at the age of 14 after being scouted on the way home from school at Bronx Science, and now, at the ripe old age of 29, she still looks good enough to stomp down the runway alongside her much-younger peers. “It does feel like a long time ago,” she says of her working years, quoting Joan Didion and sounding much less like a model than the Columbia undergraduate she became at 25. She’s also got a soft spot for Saul Alinsky and Marshall Ganz—she read them in a seminar called Community Organizing.
Ziff still feels warmly about most everybody on the other side of the labor divide, she tells me. “I don’t think that most people in this industry are malicious. I think a lot of it just has to do with awareness, as corny as it sounds,” she says. “I speak with other models, and they say, ‘Anna Wintour must know that some photographers are sexually abusive to models.’ Does she? She might not.”
It helps to take a sympathetic view of your adversaries, she says, loosely citing Alinsky: “You can’t make radical change being totally out there; you have to work with people in a way that is not totally combative. So does it drive me crazy to think that we might have to compromise?” she asks. “Sure. But this is part of politics.” Recently, she took a class at Fordham on fashion-modeling law—yes, they actually have those. “I’m studying modeling,” she says sheepishly. “I’m such a loser. I’m like such a nerd.”