The industry is broken when it comes to protecting models, and in the righteous wake of #MeToo, an increasing number of voices are speaking out on issues that have long been ignored.
The issues at hand for models in particular—a lack of control over one’s own finances, sexual harassment and assault, pressures to meet extreme, unhealthy physical standards—are deep, and let’s be honest, nothing new. The Model Alliance’s Sara Ziff has been working to protect her fellow models and create a more equitable system since founding her organization in February 2012. On top of her advocacy, Model Alliance launched the heavily supported, worker-driven RESPECT Program which aims to curb sexual and financial exploitation. She’s not alone, although oftentimes it may have felt like it.
Others have risen to the calls of accountability in their own native homelands. There’s newcomer Ekaterina Ozhiganova of Model Law, who is working to reexamine the legal status of models in France so that models have basic benefits awarded to full-time employees. In the UK, nutritionist Elizabeth Peyton-Jones of the Responsible Trust for Models, is working from an outsider’s perspective to create global certification for modeling agencies. Models.com spoke to the heads of all three initiatives along with several outspoken models themselves, to talk more about what needs to change, how individuals can instigate real movement, and what’s next on the horizon for fair treatment.
By Ashley W. Simpson
Edited by Irene Ojo-Felix
About two months ago, Sara Ziff launched the RESPECT Program with Model Alliance, which seeks to end sexual harassment of models and calls on brands, publishing companies, and agencies to sign a legally binding agreement to uphold certain enforceable standards. The call comes directly from the models themselves to the parties holding the veneer of corporate responsibility.
“Since October, with the allegations against Harvey Weinstein sort of catalyzing everyone in this discussion around #MeToo and Times Up, the industry has had to recognize and reckon with the realities that I and the Model Alliance have been working to address for several years now,” related Ziff to Models.com. “None of this has been news to us or surprising at all. The difference is that it’s become a national discussion and our industry really has to address these concerns in a meaningful way.”
RESPECT comes after the Model Alliance’s introduction of the Model Harassment Protection Act, a proposed bill which would give models protection against harassment in New York. “Because of the multi-level structure of hiring between models, agencies, and clients, through this bill, we’re trying to clarify where legal liability falls in respect to sexual harassment occurring in our industry and our goal is to afford models basic protections,” said Ziff. “That said, we know that legal protections alone are not enough and to address sexual misconduct and other issues, we really need to educate all parties so they know their rights and responsibilities.”
Sara Ziff by Kreg Holt
Ziff and her fellow board members held listening sessions with models in New York and Los Angeles, and worked with Suzanne Goldberg, a senior administrator at Columbia University, along with a team of law students at Fordham Law School, and researchers at Harvard and Northeastern Universities to help develop the RESPECT program along with individual legislative bills leading up to it. “It’s the only program that models had a central hand in designing and that a large number of models are supporting,” said Ziff. “We obviously know our concerns more than anyone and have the greatest incentive for [change.]”
“We’ve seen LVMH and Kering issue their models charter and Condé Nast has put forth a Vendor Code of Conduct, and although these are good first steps, a code of conduct that is voluntary when there are no proper complaint mechanisms is not going to be meaningful,” she said. “It’s important to make the distinction between legally binding commitments and voluntary standards and associations. Virtually every company in the corporate world has had voluntary standards for decades, and what has that done?”
All of these issues are really interrelated and are symptomatic of a bigger problem, which is the power imbalance between the models on the one hand and agencies and clients on the other
Prior to developing #TimeForRESPECT, Ziff and the Model Alliance issued a survey asking models about whether or not they’re given meals and breaks on the job, if they’ve experienced sexual harassment, when they are paid, if they were provided private changing rooms and more. “All of these issues are really interrelated and are symptomatic of a bigger problem, which is the power imbalance between the models on the one hand and agencies and clients on the other,” said Ziff. “So, our program is global in scope, but it also aims to tackle all of these concerns by working with affiliated businesses who publicly commit to the core principles of dignity and would enter into a binding agreement to ensure enforcement of the program’s standards.” Freelancers and creative agencies will be required to comply with the code in order to do business with the participants who have signed on.
“This is a stand-alone initiative which for it to be effective needs to reach models all over the globe,” explained Ziff, who was joined by over 100 models including Gisele Bündchen, Edie Campbell, Karen Elson, and Doutzen Kroes in the launch of RESPECT, with more models signing on since the program’s introduction. The program asks industry stakeholders to sign on and agree to be regulated by an independent, non-profit organization dedicated to auditing the RESPECT program solely; if there are complaints it will interview all parties and review evidence before making recommended steps. Parties who are not compliant may be suspended from the program upon further investigation. Ziff added that the investigative process is internal for those who sign onto the program: they do not take the accused to court on behalf of the models, but rather hope to provide a more efficient form of dealing with issues for all parties involved, especially for parties that can’t afford the legal fees. “This is based in New York, but it has the capacity to travel,” said Ziff. “What makes this program really different is it’s not a voluntary program. This is a legally binding program that involves third-party monitoring which would avoid conflicts of interest. This can’t just be about having a code of conduct. It’s really about how you implement that.”
Across the Atlantic, newcomers to organizing for active change are carrying Ziff’s torch to their own regions. “We started thinking about it back in 2015, we didn’t know what we wanted to do exactly, but already back then we were thinking there were things that needed to be changed in this industry,” said Ekaterina Ozhiganova of France’s Model Law. The Paris-based, Russian model says she and former co-founder Gwenola Guichard began working for more concrete change after Models.com’s 2017 survey asking how models should be treated and Model Law launched officially, soon after, in January 2018.
“The main purpose is to protect and defend models’ rights in France,” said Ozhiganova. For her, the backbone of issues that models face is financial and stands with their legal status in France as employees of model agencies as opposed to independent contractors, or even employees with some sort of union representation. “Most models are not aware of why they get paid the legal minimum wage of 33 to 36% (by their modeling agency after the amounts paid from clients). They also don’t know that they are considered as “employees” in France,” explained Ozhiganova, who thinks it doesn’t make sense for models to carry the same heavy tax burden as more traditional full-time employees with benefits or to be unable to get paid if they are unsigned. While not every model is being paid this minimum amount and payments vary across clients and agencies, it is a source of vulnerability for many.
The way things are “corresponds to a traditional vision of work in France, where an employee works with the same employer on a regular basis for a long period of time and receives the same amount of money monthly. But the modeling industry is the extreme opposite. Most models are foreigners, working irregularly; most of them won’t work enough hours to actually see any returns on the social contributions they had to pay (like unemployment allowance or retirement pensions),” she explained. A few weeks ago a first step was achieved with the national union of French modeling agencies, SYNAM ordering a translation of the current labor agreement into English so that more models can understand it and join the conversation. The direction of a possible new legal classification will depend largely on Emmanuel Macron’s treatment of freelancers as his government develops, as he is currently looking to simplify the taxation process for independent workers by merging several social security contribution funds; as it stands there are hundreds of freelance status’ in France, each with their own rules, contributions and regulations. However, the jury is still out if he will be able to make significant enough changes to an immensely complicated tax code when the general public is more concerned with unemployment and the need of rising wages.
So what is the best option for working models in France? From the perspective of models working in other countries with no guarantee they will be paid or legal minimum wage, there is a question as to whether or not changing to freelance status is actually beneficial in the end. However, Ozhiganova is confident that the current protections will be sustained while models’ financial agency is increased. “Any type of worker (employee, independent contractor, other “hybrid” status) has a social security guaranteed and enforced by the State [in France],” she said. “So if we manage to change the current legal status of models, we won’t lose these mandatory protections. As to payments, the legal delay for independent contractors is roughly 60 days from the invoice,” – a helpful stipulation in an industry where models often complain of delays in payment. Of course, Model Law is in the very early stages and its hard to imagine that a reclassification of the tax code of any type of employee would not be lengthy and involved.
In the UK, Elizabeth Peyton-Jones entered the fashion world from the outside. “I’ve been for twenty years a health care practitioner,” explained the Londoner. “About four years ago I was asked by the British Fashion Council to do a nutritional plan for models. I thought: rather than just do another diet, why don’t I really look into what the problem is? When you’re a practitioner and you’re looking at eating disorders, you don’t just look at the diet. You look at what’s affecting that person in order to create an environment which is making them use food as an immediate relief. What was happening to create what seemed to be a lack of concern within the fashion industry?”
For Peyton-Jones, the problem lay in a lack of transparency and regulation.
“This is an industry with no best governance. No best practice. No status of certification,” she said. “It’s a trillion-dollar industry, yet didn’t seem to have any standard in place for its organizations. For me, it was impossible for anybody to do any serious protecting or safety measures because you’re sending human beings all over the globe and there is no way of ensuring safety.” Moreover, no one on the inside — or outside the industry for that matter — wanted to look into the wider issues. “The danger zones for me were very high and nobody was prepared to take a risk within the industry,” continued Peyton-Jones. “I’m not in the industry, so I don’t really care or need protection. I can’t lose my job by going to modeling agencies or brands and saying you need to develop better practice.”
Albeit in its very early stages, the program Peyton-Jones is developing called the Responsible Trust for Models, seeks to put up a standard certification over modeling agencies. It will be independently run by British Standards Institution (an institution which regulates a host of industries, from e-cigarettes to greyhound racing), and will put a visible stamp on agencies using best practice—something like an organic food stamp, which says that the agency treats their models respectfully. Peyton-Jones held a two-day forum which brought together various stakeholders — models, agents, brands, publishers, and photographers to discuss what they saw as major issues. She also spoke with the Houses of Lords recently to discuss modern slavery and supply chain and has garnered support from Arizona Muse and Natalia Vodianova.
Peyton-Jones says it’s not about shaming and it’s not about punishment. “What I’m trying to do is to create protection and prevention,” she explains. I’m trying to create a scenario where they will be found out if they are employing girls that are under the age of the standard. They will be found out if they are not paying girls properly. They will be audited. They will be caught if models are sent to a photographer who is not on a register that shows that they have a clean criminal record.”
Peyton-Jones plans that once agencies pass certification and pay dues, for models to take a week-long curriculum that includes lessons on walking, nutrition, skin and make-up, personal finance, and contracting. The access to medical specialists and therapists would be useful to any working professional and certainly having access to financial advisors would empower models who often have trouble accessing basic information about how much they are getting paid for a specific job. As for the information on skin, makeup, and self-presentation – how much does any women, even if her job relates to aesthetics, benefit from this type of grooming instruction? From inside the industry, there’s no shortage of criticism and pressure to fit certain standards, and the assumption that the models are lacking these skills seem somewhat antiquated. In total, getting agencies to pay for their own certification will undoubtedly be a hurdle that RTM will have to be clever to cross.
Outside of the educational component, the goals of the Responsible Trust for Models seem quite closely aligned to those of Model Alliance, just in much, much earlier stages. They are both seeking to regulate working conditions and bring about real consequences for those who violate the rights of working models, though the approach to regulation is different with Model Alliance working with industry authorities directly and demanding binding contractual agreements and RTM looking to regulate from the outside. Like Model Law, RTM seems to be quite nascent in its development and if the regulations Peyton-Jones is seeking to develop are achieved, there is still an argument that this measure of oversight is not enough to truly protect working models. The issues are so complex and there is so much skepticism, even among those trying to create change, as to what the best method for doing so would be.
If you speak to the models who are dealing with these issues on a day-to-day basis, it’s quite clear that like the women who are advocating for legal and regulatory change, the girls walking and shooting today see the problems as multifaceted.
“I started when I was 16, and I developed an eating disorder,” said Katie Moore. “I do not regret modeling at all. It’s taught me so much and I’ve grown so much as a person. But it was pretty severe for a really long time. I ended up having the best season of my career thus far when I was at my smallest. Even then, it was like, you could lose a little more…but, with the circumstances, you’re fine. We can manage, the clothes are baggy anyway… I walked 42 shows that season. I’ve had agents in the past who have forced me to do three-day juice cleanses. They don’t care. They measured me every day and expected changes in a day. I think what needs to change in the industry is there’s no real in-between for girls who aren’t very, very thin and girls who are plus size.”
Katie Moore by Steven Yatsko
Whether you’re talking about harassment and sexual abuse, the pressures to be extremely thin, the lack of financial regulation, or seemingly smaller issues—like feeling free to represent their true self on set and in castings, changing clothes privately, and microaggressions in the working environment—nothing is in isolation. It gets even more complicated when models young age is an added variable as sometimes abuse isn’t understood.
“I’ve experienced some very strange things,” said Matilda Lowther from the Models.com office. “I was very lucky that nothing has happened. But there have been things that definitely made me feel a bit uneasy, and I was scared to talk about them [at the time] because you feel this weird guilt like it’s something you’re doing and because you’re young, you don’t know if it’s what supposed to be. And it’s only years down the line that I’m like, okay, that was really not right. There is a lot that is changing in a great way and there is still a lot that I think needs to change.”
Matilda Lowther by Steven Yatsko
“It’s insane that they make you feel like you’re not in control of your own body and that it’s a product,” said model and actress Barbie Ferreira. “I’m a white woman and I’m not even that big and I still get the token role all the time. It took me a long time to get people to tell me how much money I was making from jobs.”
What needs to change first and what are possible solutions?
“This is not how things should be,” said Ferreira. “You’re collaborating with an individual who is helping you sell those clothes and that vision. Because there are no rules, they feel like it’s one less thing they have to worry about. They’re not worried about the health and safety of these very young people. There are 15-year-olds out here. Alone. They’re 16 [and] alone. You show up and you’re like, what is this world that I’ve only ever known from the outside? I think if there is a set placement of rules in place from a third party, [you wouldn’t] feel as if you’re fucking up your entire career [by speaking out].”
“We need to build each other up instead of putting each other down,” said Moore. “I think if you have a social media following—or even if you don’t have a lot of followers—speak your truth and portray who you are on Instagram or whatever else and be a good role model for other girls. I wish control over what the sample sizes are. We’re making baby steps, but I wish there would be more.”
Barbie Ferreira by Steven Yatsko