Clips of Girl Model, the ominous looking documentary about a 13-year-old Siberian girl’s foray into the world of modeling, more than piqued our interest when they popped up in March. And while we’d explored the murky back story of the film, we’d yet to see it in it’s entirety. So, naturally, we jumped at the chance to watch the full film at a special ‘fashion industry’ screening last week, hosted by the Model Alliance at the Sunshine Theater in New York. So did industry insiders like Natalie Joos, Scott Lipps, Milla Jovovich, along with a slew of models.
Even before Girl Model was released, it caused quite a stir for touching upon such heated subjects as models’ ages, rights and working conditions, which the fashion industry has, in the past, tended to ignore or overlook. But thanks to organizations like the Model Alliance--and films like Girl Model--that's changing.
Models’ working conditions and rights are finally being addressed by people in positions to actually enforce changes. And after watching this film, it’s clear that this new found awareness is coming not a moment too soon. Read on for our take on the film, plus find out what Model Alliance directors Sara Ziff and Jenna Sauers had to say about it.
Directed by Ashley Sabin and David Redmon, the story told by Girl Model was heartbreaking, to say the least. A self-described "gray mouse" sharing a bed with her doting grandmother, thirteen-year-old Nadya Vall is chosen from hundreds of girls to become a 'top model'-- a huge honor in her tiny Siberian village, where they think that "models are not only beautiful and charming, but also rich!" Nadya's parents hope their daughter's earnings will fund an addition for their house--but when she's sent alone to Japan, things go awry. Nadya returns home, $2,000 in debt and with hardly any portfolio work to show for it.
A sub-story focuses on Nadya's scout Ashley Arbaugh, a former model herself who once despised the industry for being "boring" but can't seem to break away. It was Ashley who initially suggested a documentary to the filmmakers, about models who turn to prostitution. The film depicts Arbaugh as a paranoid weirdo (and that's putting it lightly) who shares her Connecticut home with two naked baby dolls (she had dismembered the third). There's also a scene where she has a hairy cyst removed?
The film was an eye-opening wake up call (and not just because we were grossed out by the cyst scene). Everyone can connect with being a self-conscious and unsure adolescent. The first-hand experiences shown in Girl Model put a name and a face to the horror stories we've all heard about the fashion world. Nadya was a victim of an uncontrolled system which took advantage of her vulnerability--summed up by her modeling contract, which absurdly stated "the agency has the right to change the terms of the contract at any time."
The Model Alliance takes a stand
But who's to blame for Nadya's botched experience? Was it Nadya herself, for not asking enough questions? Her parents, for not taking umbrage for their daughter's shady contract? Or Ashley, for perpetuating her own cycle of misery on naive girls? According to the panel discussion following the screening, it's a problem with the whole system--a problem, well, many problems--that the Model Alliance aims to abolish.
Led by Sabin, Redmon, Model Alliance directors Sara Ziff and Jenna Sauers, model Rachel Blais (who appears in the film), and Harvard psychologist Brianna Goodale, the panel used Nadya's story as a jumping off point to discuss the career-destroying stigmas attached to 'whistle blowing' in the fashion world--Blaise, for instance, admitted that she's been dropped by several agencies since the film's release.
Regarding the appropriate age to start modeling, everyone seemed to agree that 16 (Vogue's new magic number) is still too young for girls to enter the business. Another hot topic was the lack of structured payment plans for models, particularly for the younger, more naive girls. "I think Marc Jacobs can afford to pay his models..." blurted Ziff, which drew major applause.
After the panel, we caught up with Ziff and Sauers to discuss what the Model Alliance is doing to help models like Nadya. The two directors could relate to her story: Both women began their careers as teen models and Ziff was once in so much debt, she had to sell her house to make payments. She told us that, while the NYC-based MA is still in its infancy, she hopes to help the many models who come through the city for fashion weeks and other gigs. An anonymous help-line has been put in place for those 'whistle blowers' who aren't quite ready to retire from the still largely-unregulated world of modeling--models who utilize the service can receive free legal counseling and professional advice without compromising their careers.
Another component that's lacked regulation in in the modeling industry is payment: More often than it should, payments get lost somewhere between clients, agencies, and models--an issue that's touched upon in Girl Model. Ziff and Sauers recently made the trek to Albany to lobby for the Freelancer Payment Protection Act, a law which would guarantee payment to both freelancing models and writers. "We met with four Senators, it was very exciting," Jenna told us. "We're feeling really good about it."
For the sake of every young girl like Nadya, here's hoping the Model Alliance continues to make strides to give models the rights they deserve as workers.