The Ugly Side of Modeling
The modeling industry is rife with exploitation and abuse. But the Fashion Workers Act could change that.
Sara Ziff: The picture that many people have is that models are very privileged. They’re making tons of money, they’re trotting all over the globe, walking down red carpets.
Rozi Levine: Models are often seen as this higher being or this sort of untouchable figure.
Mari Malek: You’re going to sign a contract, You’re going to become famous and you’re going to make it.
Sara Ziff: That image and the reality are for the vast majority of people working in the industry, very different.
Sara Ziff: I had worked as a child model from the age of 14. And even though I was lucky in my career, I also experienced the pitfalls of working in a largely unregulated industry.
Fashion is an aspirational business where there are many more people who want to gain entry to the business than are gonna get legitimate modeling work. It’s like there’s a carrot being dangled in front of you.
There are the sort of lucky few who do make it and make a lot of money. but for the most part, the everyday working model or person who’s trying to break into the industry, they’re really vulnerable.
Rozi Levine: Young me in the industry was just definitely on my own.
Madisyn Ritland: I walked into Women Model Management here in New York, which a big agency. They had me sign a contract and I asked for more time to look over it. Sergio, the CFO at the time said, “don’t bother reading it. You’re not gonna understand it anyway.”
Nidhi Sunil: It’s such a huge opportunity to just even be signed that you don’t actually question these contracts. And also everyone wants this opportunity. You are on the other end of a very short stick.
Mari Malek: When I first got discovered, I was 16. I barely spoke English, like I just came as a refugee. But all I knew is that I can make money to change my life and that’s what I wanted to do for my family.
Sara Ziff: We’re dealing with a mostly young female immigrant workforce, who basically don’t have basic rights and protections on the job.
Agencies through which models and artists work… claim that booking jobs for the talent is incidental to their primary role of providing advice. And that very conveniently means that while the agency, um, has exclusive control of their bookings and negotiations and working lives <laugh> they don’t have any responsibility to the people they represent.
Rozi Levine: I’ve had multiple occasions where I’ve been ready to be booked for a job and I’ve been told that instead of being paid money that I would be paid in clothes or some sort of trade or even just exposure. Being paid in a t- shirt for 8 hours of work does not help me feed myself.
Sara Ziff: These agencies require the models to sign multi-year exclusive auto renewing contracts that tend to be totally one sided in favor of the agency.
If they are getting paid, they don’t know necessarily how much or, um, when they’ll get paid. It’s pretty normal to wait months just to get paid for a job.
Madisyn Ritland: I didn’t even really completely understand how much was in my account at the agency, but they were acting as a bank kind of, and storing my money and I would come in and sort of ask permission to have my allowance.
Sara Ziff: Agencies have power of attorney over the models they represent. When you have power of attorney, you can basically have complete control over signing contracts and negotiating on someone’s behalf.
Rozi Levine: I’ve had money just randomly taken from me, from hidden fees and hidden loopholes and contracts that I’ve signed.
Mari Malek: I found out I was paying for all these fees that did not even make sense to me. Like why am I paying traveling fees? I had never even traveled.
Sara Ziff: I’ve seen models who are ten, 20, even $80,000 in debt to the people who are supposed to be representing their interests.
Sara Ziff: Financial exploitation begets sexual exploitation. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that when you look at Harvey Weinstein, Jeffrey Epstein, Bill Cosby, the list goes on. All of them were involved in preying on young women who worked or aspired to work in the modeling industry.
Madisyn Ritland: The connection between financial exploitation and sexual abuse has a lot to do with survival. And if you don’t feel like you can survive on your own, that you have the power to shape your own world, you’re more likely to do whatever it is that they want in order to have that stability, to have that safety. Not every single agent I had sexually abused me, but many of them did.
Rozi Levine: I experienced sexual exploitation that was all started by financial exploitation from the same designer. This designer really loved the idea of buying me drinks and eventually drinks led to being overserved and being blackout drunk. And learning that the designer sexually exploited me.
Madisyn Ritland: It wasn’t sort of a common conversation to talk about. LIke oh hey my agency is not paying me. And oh this photographer just sexually assaulted me. I actually went into a casting with a photographer who had me strip naked and it was just a casting, so I wasn’t even getting paid, had me strip off and took photos of me straddling me. Then I, you know, got dressed, walked out the door and walked past 15 other models who were sitting and waiting to go into the same casting. And I didn’t think to say like, ‘Hey, something was wrong. Heads up.’ And I think that because I probably didn’t even have the words to realize like that that was wrong yet, so I couldn’t even be there for anyone else.
In 2012, Sara Ziff formed the Model Alliance to give models a voice in their work. Today, the non-profit pursues legal paths to promote fair treatment, equal opportunity, & more sustainable practices. The Model Alliance now has its sights set on passing the Fashion Workers Act.
Madisyn Ritland: Walking into that first model Alliance community meeting was really powerful because it was the first time I’d ever been in a room with other models talking out loud about these situations.
Rozi Levine: To me, the Model Alliance is a sign of hope. And I sort of now view Sara almost in a way as like, she’s a bit of like a hero to all of us.
Sara Ziff: The Adult Survivors Act is a law that we helped to champion. It opened up a one year, one time look back window for survivors of sexual abuse to pursue justice.
Madisyn Ritland: It’s not uncommon to, to take over a decade to come to terms and, and finally be ready to share and to be in a safe enough place to share your story. That’s normal and that’s okay. And you’re not alone in that.
Sara Ziff: And so for all those people who were sexually abused and were not able to pursue justice, the Adult Survivors Act is really important.
Sara Ziff: The Fashion Workers Act would establish basic rights and protections for models and creative artists working in New York’s fashion industry. Models and creatives would have to be paid in a timely manner within 45 days of completing a job. They would have to see their contracts and agreements that are entered into on their behalf.
It’s about establishing basic protections. We’re basically cut out of labor law as it stands.
Rozi Levine: I think it’s really important to have solidarity along the entire fashion industry, because simply put, its strength in numbers. We really need to be helping each other when no one else will help us.
Nidhi Sunil: Models are workers and just like every other worker, they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
Mari Malek: For me as a model, I can’t just say, let’s make a change. I have to be the example of the change I want to see. Use your platform. Don’t let your platform use you.