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Modelling Workers’ Rights: Modelling Workers’ Rights

June 11th, 2012     by Greig de Peuter     Comments

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.

Greig de Peuter: I’d like to begin by asking you to describe a model’s typical employment status.

Sara Ziff: Models’ employment classification has been debated. Typically, models are deemed to be independent contractors, and occasionally they work as employees. Models have exclusive contracts with their agencies, and the agencies book jobs for their models with clients. The work ranges from advertising and catalogue jobs to runway and editorial shoots for fashion magazines.

Essentially the client dictates the job duties, while the agency handles recruitment, bookings, payroll and, in some cases, management. After the model has completed a shoot, the client pays the agency and eventually the agency distributes payment, less a 20 percent commission and expenses, to the model.

Generally models do runway and editorial work for free or for “trade,” meaning just clothes, in order to gain prestige and exposure. And they supplement their income with “money jobs,” meaning catalogue and, if they’re lucky, advertising. Often models work internationally and their bookings are very last minute. Normally models don’t know their schedules more than a day, or even an hour, in advance, so they have very little control over their work schedules.

Modelling agencies in New York used to be licenced “agencies,” but Ford Models decided that this was limiting and decided to stop paying the licensing fee and declared themselves to be a “management agency.” All the other agencies followed suit and called themselves managers, and so they escaped regulation and caps on commissions. Agencies now charge models a standard 20 percent commission of their earnings, as well as many bookkeeping expenses that can add up to thousands of dollars per month.

They also charge their clients — meaning the magazines, catalogues, and designers — a 20 percent “service” fee. Clients are steady, whereas most models come and go, and sometimes it feels like the agencies put the clients’ interests before their models’ interests. Agencies take a cut of their models’ successes, but technically they are not liable for their models’ failures.

What do those additional charges include?

Those additional charges include messenger fees, car service, composite cards, printing and scanning, and rent to live in the model apartment. These charges are billed against the model’s prospective earnings and are automatically deducted from her account. Essentially this means that most models start working in debt to their agencies, and models do not see their first paycheck until they book work that is greater than the sum of their debts. Models have told me about “e-sending” charges. A friend of mine went to her agency and asked, “What is this e-sending fee for $350?” And the person in the accounting department said, “That’s for the e-sending of your material.” So she said, “Are you charging me for e-mail?” And the accountant said, “Yeah, we basically divide the cost of our Internet service between all of the models.” So the bookkeeping can be pretty opaque. And getting paid can be an ordeal. Payments are slow and sometimes they don’t come at all. If the client doesn’t pay, the model takes the loss, not the agency. So what in some way resembles indentured servitude is [actually] part of the independent contractor agreement.

There was a class-action lawsuit about six years ago that models brought against the major agencies in New York. The suit was for collusion, for price-fixing, for charging bogus fees. The lawsuit was settled for many millions of dollars, but models were so disorganized as a class that they didn’t collect. Something like $6 million went to charity!

Have there been other efforts to collectively organize models in New York?

There was a union for models called the Models’ Guild that existed about 10 years ago in New York. It actually made some progress. It established a health insurance plan. It put statutory rapists in jail and closed the doors of bogus agencies. The Guild did a lot of good work. But once they went to state legislators and said, “Hey, we think that we’ve been misclassified as ‘independent contractors,’ we’re actually treated more like employees,” my understanding is that agencies caught wind of this, and basically got some of their top talent to rally against the union effort, and it dissolved.

Organizing models is like herding cats. You’re dealing with a labour force of children. A lot of models are 14, 15, 16, 17 years old. By the time you’re 25, you’re at retirement age. There’s such a high turnover rate. And you’re dealing with a global market: a lot of these girls are undocumented workers, they don’t have working papers, sometimes they don’t speak English very well, a lot of them have dropped out of school.

I also think a lot of models are under the spell of “you’re so lucky to be part of this glamorous industry,” and they buy into it. So when you’re organizing workers whose job is to project effortlessness and flawlessness and glamour, it’s hard even for them to recognize how unglamorous their profession can be. To acknowledge this is to recognize the myth and break the spell. It goes against everything that we’re hired to embody.

In that sense, the effort to improve models’ working conditions faces a double challenge in terms of representation: the “herding cats” challenge you mentioned, but also the challenge of contesting glamorous media representations.

Right. It’s interesting because recently I filmed the Domestic Workers United campaign, where they’re organizing nannies and cleaners. I interviewed these remarkable women. They kept saying, “We’re an invisible work force.” I couldn’t help but think that, as models, we’re the most visible workforce, and yet this actually works against us. People aren’t sympathetic because they see these images and it looks like we’re in a glamorous business and we are being treated like goddesses when, in fact, clients disregard child labour laws – you’re looking at images of kids who have been pressured to drop out of school and sometimes do work that is not age appropriate – often we’re not getting paid any money for our work, and we’re working very long hours.

Getting public support for our work is tough because, as Naomi Wolf writes in The Beauty Myth, fashion models are this elite corps who are deployed to “‘keep 150 million American women in line,”’ when, in fact, there are a select few models who are making the big bucks and who are managed properly and really treated well. Fair labour standards shouldn’t depend on celebrity.

The age of the supermodel is over. Models used to be household names. Think of Naomi Campbell or Cindy Crawford or Christy Turlington. They commanded huge sums. They were really able to throw their weight around and make demands. Today, most models don’t even have the clout to turn down a non-paying job.

Why has that bargaining power been eroded?

I think part of it is that designers and clients wised up and said, “Why should I pay Naomi Campbell a million dollars to walk down the runway when I can get models to walk down my runway for free?” I think that it is also because people started to feel that the model’s celebrity was overshadowing the clothes. Ultimately, our job is to sell merchandise. So if you have this standard size-zero girl walking down the runway, the same silhouette every time, you don’t really know the name or the face, then you’re not distracted by the body, by the personality. You’re just looking at the clothes. There’s also been a large influx of models from Eastern Europe and Brazil, where there aren’t the same expectations that they complete their compulsory schooling. Often these models begin working without papers and they are more vulnerable than their American peers.

Do new entrants to modelling face greater levels of precariousness than they would have even a decade ago?

Absolutely. Right now the competition is fierce and models know they are highly replaceable. Clients know that if you’re at all difficult to work with, if you’re not willing to stay at a fitting until 3 o’clock in the morning, well, then there are plenty of other girls who are willing to take your place.

Fashion is inherently transient – in one moment and out the next. I think that one of the problems is that the fashion industry has confused “newness” with age. So in looking for the “new thing,” they’re also looking at girls who are younger and younger, who are fresher and fresher. And so when a 14- or 15-year-old girl becomes the ideal, then you’re looking at an adolescent physique that would be unhealthy for any woman who is over the age of, say, 18, to achieve.

The work I’m doing through the Model Alliance is trying to reframe the conversation about body image and eating disorders in our industry in terms of labour standards. Because for such a long time now people have failed to ask, well, “why is that girl a gangly beanpole?” It’s because she’s 15! And a lot of people are naturally beanpoles at 15. We should be thinking about child labour laws and the fact that that girl has dropped out of school to walk down that runway, and she’s probably not even getting paid any money for her work. I feel that if you discuss the issues in less subjective terms – in terms of aesthetics and image – and more in terms of labour standards, then you’re talking in terms that allow us to act and actually bring about change.

Before we get to some of the specific proposals for improving labour standards, would you give some background on how The Model Alliance formed?

I’ve worked as a model for a long time—since age 14. While I was modelling I made a documentary called Picture Me. While making the film, I started speaking with other models and tried to discuss these issues. I was still immersed in the business when I made the film. I see things differently now than I did then. When we were finishing up the film I got in touch with two models in the UK who approached Equity back in 2007. Equity is an established union for performers in the UK, and it extended its union membership to models. Since 2007 Equity has established minimum rates and made sure that models have private changing areas.

So Equity provides a precedent that you can point to when attempting to improve labour standards here?

Exactly. The union effort here through the Models’ Guild failed, which is a little discouraging. But there’s an existing models’ union in the UK. Granted, the terrain for labour is totally different in the UK. But, as you said, it sets a precedent. I reached out to Equity and became more informed about the work they were doing there. And I also became friendly with a former model, Jenna Sauers, who writes for Jezebel, and we started collaborating on this effort.

I also just graduated last year from Columbia University, where I studied labour and community organizing. I was a political science major with a focus on American politics. I did an independent study with professor Dorian Warren and was really turned onto learning about the history of the labour movement. I studied labour and politics because I wanted to pursue this work.

The night we screened Picture Me in New York, this wonderful woman in the audience, Susan Scafidi, approached me after the Q&A. Susan is the director of the newly formed Fashion Law Institute at Fordham Law School. She came up to me and said, “I would love to help you.” That relationship really kick-started the Model Alliance, because it was through Fordham that I had access to law professors who suggested to me that maybe thinking in terms of unionizing was too narrow, path dependent, and unrealistic. I started to think more in terms of organizing and less in terms of unionizing. Through the law school I’ve worked with their legal clinic, and they helped me form a 501c group (a non-profit organization).

The Model Alliance is a not-for-profit that provides models and other industry leaders a platform to organize to improve models’ working conditions, give models a voice in their work and set standards. We’re not a union. But we’ve forged a partnership with two unions – the American Guild of Musical Artists and Actors’ Equity – and we may work to gain legal status to become a trade organization.

Are there specific traditions of unionism that inspired or influenced the design of the Model Alliance?

A lot of my thinking has gone from thinking purely in terms of wanting to join a union to recognizing that this would be very difficult in our industry, and seeing union representatives as key advisors, but not as folks who are necessarily going to extend their membership to us. I think collective bargaining would be tough. Of course we would love that, but I’m trying to do what’s possible.

Do you think minimum standard rates are possible?

I think that minimum rates should be. Right now something like 70 percent of the designers who show at New York Fashion Week do not even pay their models. They pay in “trade,” meaning just clothes. A lot of the time those clothes are never delivered. And you can’t pay your rent with clothes. So you’ve got minors who don’t have working papers who are working for free and in debt to their agencies — there are so many levels of wrong there. Unpaid labour seems to be an increasingly common concern among cultural worker organizations.

Sara Wookey wrote a piece related to this. She’s a performer in the art world and also a choreographer and a dancer. She wrote that when you’re dealing with people working in the culture industries, the people who are probably most in need of fair labour standards are people who are using their bodies to work, whether that’s a performer or a model. We’ve seen models literally dying to try to achieve this very narrow standard of what the body type should be on the runway, and that standard is set by a labour force of children working in an unregulated industry.

Would you tell me about your organizing strategy for Model Alliance?

So far I’ve done a lot of one-on-one meetings with models, which has been extremely time consuming. That’s been the main organizing strategy, and it’s worked. We’ve picked up steam. We’ve got some top models who are behind our effort now, and who are willing to lend their name to our cause. That’s important. Look at the Screen Actors’ Guild. That was formed with some top actors getting behind it. But I’ve realized that you can’t just try to organize the models, because they’re terrified. There’s only so far they’ll go. They don’t necessarily want to be associated with it, especially if they don’t think they have enough clout. All you have is your image in this business. All you have is your reputation. So I’ve realized that it’s important that this be not purely an organization of models but for models. Rather than just relying on organizing models, we need to bring other stakeholders into this, other people in the industry: designers, agents, photographers.

When you describe it as an organization not “of” models but “for” models, it sounds like a top-down approach. Do you imagine a participatory organization in time?

I’d prefer a bottom-up approach, but I realize that you also have to bring agents and the people who are employing the models into the conversation and offer them some say or else it becomes very adversarial. I have been lucky to get the support of the president of my own modelling agency.

(Since this interview, The Model Alliance has also received support from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and its president, Diane von Furstenberg.)

What about other sectors of the fashion labour economy, like designers who aren’t necessarily at the celebrity level? Are those workers a part of The Model Alliance’s constituency? Or is it exclusively for models?

Right now, the Model Alliance is for models, but we see this as an inclusive effort. Jennifer Gordon, a law professor at Fordham, and I discussed the idea that the Model Alliance could work for justice all along the fashion chain. So you have highly visible workers — the models — girls who often are not being paid. And then you have, say, girls working in sweatshops in developing countries and even here in the US who are the invisible labour force who aren’t being paid. We could come together and say, “lLook at this industry that is built on the backs of low-paid girls.”

I’d like this effort to become more inclusive and expand and grow in this direction. But I don’t want to lose sight of the emerging field of labour issues in the image-based work of the modeling industry, and I don’t want to bite off more than I can chew. We’re a small start-up, and organizing models is already a lot of work! It’s a different way of thinking about how this would be structured and who it could benefit — the larger goal of working all along the fashion chain. But I’m still learning about these other workforces. I’m not in regular, direct communication with garment factory workers yet. So it might be premature at this stage to say that this is part of our overarching goal.

What is the short-term plan then?

We held a launch event in February, where we introduced a model’s Bill of Rights that we’ve drafted. We’re also introducing Model Alliance Support, which we’ve established with the American Guild of Musical Artists and Actors’ Equity, our confidential grievance service to models who are dealing with sexual harassment and abuse.

So the Model Alliance will start by launching an information campaign, which will include circulating the Models’ Bill of Rights. Will the organization offer membership?

We are offering membership. We don’t have voting members, but for a small membership fee models can subscribe to our newsletter and access our Model Alliance Support service.

What would you say are the most important changes that need to be made to mitigate the precariousness that models face?

The goals are to make sure that existing child labour laws are being enforced. Establish a good, affordable health insurance plan. Improve financial transparency. Institute a code of conduct. And establish a recognized grievance and enforcement system for issues of sexual harassment and abuse. Those are our five main goals.

I also realized through making my film and studying the work of Marshall Ganz, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School, that individual stories are the basis for great collective strength, so that is another part of this organizing campaign. Jenna and I have worked with models to develop first-person accounts of industry experiences, whether that’s dealing with opaque bookkeeping, or not getting paid, or being put on the spot to take their clothes off when they’re on a shoot at 15 years old.

One model talked about what it was like to walk into her agency and be told by the head agent “we’re not doing Black girls this season,” and was let go. She kept an eye on the agency’s website, and saw that, sure enough, every single model of colour who the agency represented disappeared. These are the kinds of stories we’ll have on our web site. I find the issue of racial discrimination in our industry revealing because obviously this is a superficial business where the very basis for employment is skin deep.

Our first initiative is to advocate for private changing areas backstage at shows. Right now, it’s a free-for-all. Anyone can go back there and take a picture of a model changing on their phone and boom, it’s on the Internet, and then the photo lives forever and the model has no control. Models have no privacy back there. When you’ve got 15 year olds changing and people are taking pictures, you’re getting into concerns about child pornography. I think people realize that models shouldn’t have to worry about naked images appearing on the Internet forever when they’re just trying to do their job. So private changing areas is a first step, and a relatively easy fix.


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