June 11, 2012 • In web :: Features
Modelling Workers’ Rights
Model and community organizer Sara Ziff speaks up for models’ rights in the fashion industry.
Working as a model has always seemed to promise a lifestyle of fame, fortune, and luxury. Remember supermodel Linda Evangelista’s famous quip, “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day”? This is not what most of us think of when we think about work. The Model Alliance aims to disrupt these superficial assumptions and expose the decidedly less glamorous aspects of modelling, which are deeply tied to issues of workers’ rights. The Model Alliance is a non-profit labour organization founded by model Sara Ziff, who after co-directing the 2010 documentary Picture Me, decided it was time to do something about the labour challenges models face. These challenges include working for free, a lack of basic labour protections, child labour, racism, sexual abuse, a lack of financial transparency by modelling agencies, physically impossible beauty standards, and a range of other pressures faced by women in this highly competitive, fickle industry (check out Ziff’s overview of these issues).
By sharing models’ stories of their working conditions and experiences, the Model Alliance aims to give models — who are always seen but rarely heard — a voice. For example, women of colour members highlight that issues of accessibility in the industry go beyond having the “right” body type for selling clothes. Marcia Mitchell relays her experiences with stylists’ racist reactions to her hair, which is often deemed “unruly” and “difficult to manage,” and shares her story of being let go from her agency after being told, “We’re not doing Black girls right now.” Meanwhile, Jessica Clark examines the complicated ways ethnic identity is constructed and commodified in the industry. These stories open space for understanding the intersecting challenges models face as part of their everyday working lives.
In December 2011, Sara Ziff was interviewed by Greig de Peuter, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University who is researching labour organizing among media and cultural workers. They spoke about working conditions, organizing strategies, and the challenge of making concrete change in an industry built on images. An edited version of their interview appears below.