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It's hard for some of us to view models as “workers” in the way labor rights advocates understand the term, but working conditions in the fashion industry indicate a need to organize.

Written by Sheila Bapat for RH Reality Check. This diary is cross-posted; commenters wishing to engage directly with the author should do so at the original post.

In 1990, supermodel Linda Evangelista famously said that she wouldn't "wake up for less than $10,000 a day." Her words have since been used to mock her mercilessly, and continue to influence public perception about what the lives of models are like: overpaid, overindulged, privileged product pushers. When New York Fashion Week took place earlier this month, with models sashaying in clothes too expensive for most people to buy, it was hard not to see past this perception.

So, it's even harder for some of us to view models as "workers" in the way labor rights advocates understand the term, and complaints from models about, well, anything, may seem insufferable. How can someone whose physical appearance is validated by the culture and the mainstream economy possibly have it rough?

But Evangelista is far from representative of all models. This is a point The Model Alliance, a 501(c)3 nonprofit advocating for improving working standards for models, is trying to make clear. Like many sectors, we tend to see and hear about the most successful, elite few; the proverbial "one percent," as Sara Ziff, a model of 15 years and founder of the Model Alliance points out. (She is also a graduate of Columbia University and a community organizer.)

Ziff educates both labor rights activists and the fashion industry about why working conditions for models need to improve. "Modeling seems like a privileged profession, so the general public attitude is not at all sympathetic [to organizing efforts]," she told RH Reality Check. "Most people have a hard time even understanding that it's work."

Since models are generally independent contractors, they are not covered by major labor laws and their organizing efforts aren't necessarily protected. Ziff says many members of the Model Alliance join anonymously, so that their chances of getting work aren't hindered.

Unlike actors, who can join the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) once they have fulfilled a certain amount of acting work, there is no union for models that offers health insurance and basic protections.

Yet working conditions indicate a need to organize. Even though modeling is one of the few sectors in which women out-earn men, the majority of women and girls in New York City trying to work as models are having a tough time making a buck. Between paying their agenciesupwards of 20 percent of all their earnings, covering the costs of their lodging and transportation, and to pay their own rent, many models spend time working off debts they owe to their agencies.

And debt is hard to pay back when you're not getting paid at all: often designers will pay models with clothes or other products instead of with a paycheck, something Marc Jacobs was criticized for last year. (He has since changed this practice.)  In 2011, the average model salary was $33,000 per year. One activist at the Model Alliance points out that earnings can be skewed, with some earning up to $400,000 per year and others steeped in debt to their agency. Like many other workers, it is rare for models to be paid overtime, no matter how late into the night a shoot may last, or to have employer-sponsored health insurance.

Peeling back the layers of many industriesreveals a consistent truth: industry bosses earn high dollars on the backs of cheap, unprotected labor. But fair pay is far from the only workers' rights issue models face. Ziff's group is focused on moving the fashion industry in a number of different directions, including ending sexual harassment and assault, which some contend is widely under-reported by models fearful of losing work, and changing basic standards of beauty, which she feels have too long promoted unrealistic and unhealthy weight for women and girls.

Ziff is also focused on improving protections for minors working as models: "You see 14- or 15-year-old girls coming to New York to model, and these kids are not thinking about their rights," Ziff said. "They might even feel lucky to have a picture in a magazine and not ask if they're getting paid."

So where are the "momagers" who can attend shoots to protect their kids? "Probably working themselves," Ziff points out. "Most parents can't afford to devote their lives to their kids' careers."

The Model Alliance has garnered some supporters from within the industry and secured partnerships with Fordham Law School and the Fashion Law Institute; it now plans to focus harder on payment-in-trade practices and on changing a host of other working conditions. "I don't want to paint the career in a bad light," Ziff says. "Modeling can be wonderful work. But hearing other models stories' has made clear that bad experiences in the business -- lack of financial security, sexual harassment -- are systemic and need to change."

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Comment Preferences

  •  Women generally are exploited (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Why should women have to earn their living this way?  It's a lousy job.

    "Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich."--Napoleon

    by Diana in NoVa on Tue Feb 26, 2013 at 01:55:51 PM PST

  •  Interesting diary (4+ / 0-)

    In New York recently, we were riding the subway and there was a young lady, who looked to be about 18 or so with a "Ford Modeling" binder.  She looked both underfed and extremely bummed out.  I'm guessing that she didn't get the job she probably was coming from an "audition" for.

    I wondered how I'd feel if she were my daughter and trying to make it in a profession that literally "eats it young", chewing them up and spitting them out when they no longer meet the "standards" of whatever beauty is today.

    Kudos to the folks who are trying to make the profession more equitable and less about taking advantage of vulnerable young women (and men).  

    A celibate clergy is an especially good idea, because it tends to suppress any hereditary propensity toward fanaticism. -Carl Sagan

    by jo fish on Tue Feb 26, 2013 at 01:56:29 PM PST

  •  This was one of the ways my son worked in college (7+ / 0-)

    People thought he was making a ton of money when in fact he was making very little.  We drove for hours to get to auditions, paid fees, hotels, clothes, etc.  But you're not guaranteed the spot no matter how much money you sank into it.

    He was paid in cash, photographs, credits and sometimes in money.  Your diary was right, he spent a lot of time working off agency fees.  And just because you do a job doesn't mean you're ever going to get paid.  The money is passed through the agency.  If they don't collect, you don't get paid.

    It was, however, a good experience for him.  

    If you want to know the real answer: Just ask a Mom.

    by tacklelady on Tue Feb 26, 2013 at 02:01:07 PM PST

  •  sexual harassment and models (10+ / 0-)

    I do photography as a side line and I've assisted on a few higher profile product and editorial shoots.

    During some of the down time, I tend to engage the models in conversation and some of the stories I hear are just heartbreaking.

    The amount of shit some of these women have put up with from asshole photographers trying to emulate Terry Richardson is yet another reason why models need good strong labor representation. If the models complain or sue, they can look forward to looking for work in another industry, leaving them with the choice to accept all sorts of unwanted advances as their only means of keeping a career.

  •  question: how do child labor laws play into the (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    situation since many of the models are so very young.  The Jackie Cooper scandal supposedly reformed Hollywood's treatment of child actors but we have Gary Coleman claiming much later to have been defrauded of $20M.  Actors, as noted are unionized.  OTOH it seems underage models are at the mercy of parents/agents so I have to wonder which if any laws govern shoots involving minors?

    Watching a rerun of Project Runway, it seemed to me (albeit in a sleep induced fog) that a couple of models in chatting with the designers said they were 16 years old  

  •  Sounds familiar. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Illinois IRV, RiveroftheWest

    Musicians are treated much the same way.  The ones who get the press are the ones who get the big money, but the vast majority make little or nothing.  My Union publishes annual reports, and the average Union (professional) musician last year made under $5000.  And that includes the ones who pull in 4-6 figures per night.  Some locations have better averages, like L.A. and new York, but the competition there is also much harsher.

    Add in club owners stiffing bands, or offering to "let you play for half the door, if you can guarantee $1000 in F&B", and it is sometimes surprising that anyone makes any money as a musician, much less a living.

    "The Glamour of Show Biz" is, I am afraid, mostly a lie.  Most musicians, actors and models are treated like most strippers, in my experience.

    I am not religious, and did NOT say I enjoyed sects.

    by trumpeter on Tue Feb 26, 2013 at 04:32:46 PM PST

    •  musicians, artists, writers, designers - all kinds (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      of creative professionals are somehow supposed to be able to work for free. "But you'll get credit for it ..."

      Coincidentally (or not) a FB friend who is a musician posted this interestingly picture/commentary today:

      (sorry for the link; I have never figured out a simple way to post FB pics here)

      BoldlyLiberal on Zazzle: Products for proud and pragmatic progressives, liberals, tree-huggers, and loyal Democrats

      by jan4insight on Tue Feb 26, 2013 at 07:25:47 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  Two jobs I considered after college, model and (0+ / 0-)

    flight attendant, I modeled just once in a major fashion show and decided it sucked and I interviewed as a flight attendant and when they gave me the job requirements and asked me to stay to do more interviews(on my own dime), I said thanks but no thanks.  I fortunately had another job lined up and just did it for fun.  

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