Sara Ziff Gives PAPERMAG An In-Depth Look At Her Film Picture Me

Alyssa Vingan

While the issues of body image and youth have been hotly debated in the modeling industry for decades, the rampant sexual harassment and financial exploitation that goes on behind the scenes is rarely discussed. The sentiment that models should be seen and not heard is still a big problem within the fashion world, considering the compromising, demeaning and shady situations models' agents and employers often put them in. Successful model Sara Ziff and her ex-boyfriend, filmmaker Ole Schell, compiled their home video footage of Ziff's experiences throughout her modeling career to create a full-length film, and, ultimately, give a voice to models everywhere who are hesitant to share their stories.
Sara gave PAPERMAG a more in-depth look at a number of the film's more appalling themes, and make sure to check out Picture Me, which is now playing in New York and Los Angeles. 

Where is the money in modeling? In what situations do models actually get paid money nowadays, and when are they only being compensated in trade, or free clothes? 
I would say about seventy percent of shows during New York Fashion Week do not pay money, they pay trade. And in the experiences of my friends and me, sometimes we never even see that trade. The idea is that it is an "honor" to be able to walk for a prestigious designer, because that can be a launching pad for your career. So you're not so concerned with the money as you are with being seen by the right editors and photographers. 

When you were walking the shows in the early 2000s, were you getting paid money for your daily work during the Fashion Weeks? Would you say it's gotten a lot worse and more unfair for the models working now? 
Anyone who works in this business will tell you it's a totally new landscape now. The models are much more disposable, and part of the problem is that the models are so young, they don't even necessarily see the runway shows and photo shoots as "work." They just feel lucky to be able to be there and to get their pictures taken. I know we are coming out of a recession and a lot of the companies just don't have money, but I think that some of the big design houses could afford to pay the models [in lieu of giving trade] but they just don't because that's the norm these days. Because the models come and go so quickly, someone's going to do the job regardless if they pay anything. 

So if a girl is going to make money, what kind of jobs does she need to book? Does editorial pay? Ad campaigns? 
Basically, models do the shows to be seen by the editors, so that they can do the right editorials, which is basically like free exposure. You're either not getting paid for the editorial, or you're getting paid, like, $90 for the day, and you won't ever see that money because the agency will take their cut. Editorial and runway you do for free, mostly, so it's really the big campaigns that pay anything, and that has changed too. Those days of getting $100,000 checks are, I think, over. I think I was at the very tail end of when modeling was still lucrative. And of course, for the real stars like Gisele, I'm sure they're still making a ton of money, but I think the campaign rates are about half of what they used to be. And that's only for the stars of the business -- most of the models aren't making anywhere near that money. 

Do you think agencies sometimes take advantage of the models? For instance, taking your trade, or making you pay for your own travel and comp cards? 
There are various expenses that agencies charge the models for, sometimes without their knowledge. A lot of the times those expenses will be deducted from your account with no explanation of what they're for. It's financially a very transparent business. 

I remember the scene in the film where you were basically begging your agent to let you have a day off because you were so exhausted. Do your agents ever take your feelings into account when they book you on weeks of continuous jobs? 
It really depends on the model. When I was at my peak and I was lucky enough to be shooting these big campaigns and making a decent income, the agency really pushed me and milked me for all that I was worth. There would be times when I would be flying between the US and Europe three or four times in one week. It's pretty draining. They'd book you on a Monday in New York, on a Tuesday in Paris, and on Wednesday back in New York. Just because you're having a "moment," it's great that you can make a lot of money but it's not a very good long-term strategy because you get burned out really fast and you start to look terrible. When you have this international schedule and half the time you're not even sleeping in a bed -- you're flying on a red-eye somewhere -- it really takes it out of you. That combination of exhaustion and feeling pressure to make the most of your "moment"... it's not easy. 

What happens to the girls who are walking in the shows but never get the money jobs and end up in debt to their agencies? 
In the movie my friend Sena Cech talks about this -- she was working for a couple of years and was booking a few jobs a week, but still had a negative balance in her account. The agencies will give you what they call "pocket money" to keep you going, maybe $50 for the week, and it's very condescending. It's almost like you haven't earned it -- like you're a little girl. For some girls, the debt is forgiven, and for others it isn't, which puts a lot of pressure on the models to do whatever it takes to repay that debt and try to make some money. 

If you were going to start an agency with your own policies, how would you attempt to change the industry? 
There are rules, they're just not enforced. There are child labor laws for a reason -- and lots of times the models look so grown up and sophisticated that people don't think of them as kids, but they are. I would make sure that those laws were really enforced. At the moment, it's not uncommon for a fourteen-year-old model to have a test shoot and get asked to take her top off. That happened to me a bunch. That's not appropriate. I think there should be a minimum wage set for doing the shows, which sounds funny because some models make so much money, but no one should be working for free. And it's not easy work. Some agencies and agents are so great, but a lot of agents are unscrupulous types who take advantage of the fact that these girls are so young and don't know any better. 

Do you think that designers should take more care when they decide what they're going to send down the runway -- namely the too-tight garments and seven-inch heels -- or do you think that's just part of what you sign up for when you take the job? 
It's hard to know where you draw the line there. If something happens, like you slip and fall in shoes and break your leg, you should have some sort of workers' comp for that. As it is now, most models that I talk to don't even have health insurance. There's an interview on Gawker with my friend Sena who talks about getting horrible burns during a photoshoot and wound up in the hospital. 

In the past six or seven months, there's been so much negative publicity coming out of the woodwork about modeling. Do you think there's a reason that so many girls are sharing their stories now?
I don't want to take too much credit, but I really think Ole and I spearheaded that. Our film premiered at festivals almost two years ago and we never thought that anyone would care about it. After it showed at a festival, overnight we got all of this attention, and I got a cover story in the Guardian in the UK, and that started the whole "dark side of the fashion industry" thing that everyone else ran with. Every model I know contacted me when that came out and thought it was great that we were talking about this, and since this dialogue has been going on for a while now, the movie really is not that revealing. Models didn't speak out -- they were too scared! I had it in my head that I was never going to work again and that my agency was going to disown me. Models didn't even want to have their faces shown in the film. It's not really done to "go rogue" and speak out about the business, especially when you're doing well and making money and you're potentially jeopardizing that.

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