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How Model Alliance Founder Sara Ziff Became One of the Leading Advocates for Models' Rights

In just a few years, her not-for-profit labor organization has made major strides for model rights. Now she's taking a look at the rest of the fashion industry.
Sara Ziff. Photo: Marilyn Agency

Sara Ziff. Photo: Marilyn Agency

In 2012, a model by the name of Sara Ziff started making headlines for an organization she'd started called the Model Alliance, which aimed to serve as a sort of union for working models.

The 32-year-old is certainly familiar with the experience of being a working model: She was scouted at just 14 years old here in New York, and has been working ever since. But after scoring campaigns with the likes of Gap and Tommy Hilfiger, she decided to take a step back from the industry and attend Columbia University.

It was during her time studying, and working on her first documentary — 2009's "Picture Me" — that the idea of the Model Alliance began to form. "The Model Alliance started as a paper as an independent study in college," Ziff tells Fashionista. "It was something we were all sort of thinking about during the editing [of "Picture Me"] as well, but the film really gave me this platform to form the Model Alliance."

And while Ziff is quick to point out that the Model Alliance is a group effort — "I'm very lucky to work with a whip-smart, fun and dedicated team of ladies who help to make it all possible," she says — there's no question this is Ziff's baby. The organization has already brought about considerable action, mostly notably changing New York state law to extend child performer rights to underage models. It's no small feat — and beyond having a great support system, this is how she's getting it all done while still modeling and filming a second documentary.

Why did you decide to step back from your modeling career to attend Columbia University?

I always planned to go to school. My dad is a professor at NYU, he’s a neuroscientist, my mom works as a lawyer — I came from a background where it was assumed I would go to college. Then I didn’t and started modeling full time. My parents were really upset with me. It was a little lonely at first because all of my friends were at school and I was working, but I felt like I had this narrow opportunity to make the most out of it because our careers tend to have a bit of a shelf life — which is changing — but I really felt that strongly at the time.  

I was lucky enough to get booked on campaigns for the Gap, Abercrombie [& Fitch] and Tommy Hilfiger shortly after I finished high school, and then I was doing all of the shows and living out of a suitcase. But every year that went by after graduating high school, I felt more and more like I was getting away from my roots and from my expectations for myself of furthering my education. When I was still working, pretty successfully, I applied to school and ended up going to Columbia, and that was like the best decision I ever made. I really enjoyed it.

Did you keep modeling while you were at Columbia at all?

Yeah, it took me five years instead of four because I was working the whole time. But I was also very strict — I don’t think I missed a single class while I was there, just because when you’re paying for yourself and you are an older student you really appreciate it.

I’m curious if there was a point when you were modeling where you thought, “Okay, something is not right here.” 

There was only one moment like that? [laughs]. When you’re working at 14 you’re such an opportunist! You’re not thinking about the long term and what you want and need. So, was there a particular moment? I don’t know. I had this sense for a long time that was gnawing at me that I needed to be in a different environment where I wasn’t just being asked about myself all the time — my horoscope or hair color. That can be fun, but if that is all you are talking about with people it can be a little mind-numbing. 

When I went to school... I didn’t tell anyone I worked as a model or that I came from the fashion industry, and in a way I was overly conscious; I was worried I wouldn’t be taken so seriously. But it was fun, I went to school with people who were interested in so many things and around professors who exposed me to things like the history of the labor movement that I hadn’t considered before, and I think it gave me a better world view and it made me more confident.

When did the idea of the Model Alliance start to form?

["Picture Me"] was on the festival circuit in 2009, and it was really at Q&A discussions for the film that we started talking about the need for a union, like the equivalent of the Screen Actors' Guild, which is now SAG-AFTRA, for models. Models would come to these screenings and get really emotional talking about bad experiences they’ve had, and the film became this organizing tool to raise awareness publicly, but also within the industry. We wanted an existing union to extend membership to models, but when it became clear that that wasn't possible, I was crazy enough to take it upon myself and start up from scratch, which people warned me not to do, but I also was studying labor and organizing in college.

And you pretty immediately got some big people on board supporting you, like Coco Rocha. How did that happen?

It feels like a long time ago, and honestly, I can’t remember; I was just so singularly focused on that work. A lot of it really came out of relationships that I’d developed just working in the industry.

What was your first project with the Model Alliance? 

The very first thing we did was partner with two unions: Actors Equity and AGMA, the American Guild of Musical Artists. With them, we set up this grievance reporting service because we knew we ourselves and other models had all this sexual harassment and abuse that we’d experienced, or one-sided contracts with our agencies, or difficulty getting paid the money that we were owed, but there wasn’t really a safe place to air those grievances. So that was, I think, the very first thing that we did.

We also met with editors at American Vogue and talked about this connection between the extreme youth of models on the runway and the body image concerns, and shortly thereafter they introduced the Vogue initiative. We also pushed for backstage privacy during fashion week. 

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Those were our three primary things, and we did that knowing the industry is resistant to change, but things like backstage privacy, or creating a policy of not hiring models under the age of 16, there’s no expense involved. It’s just about rallying different stakeholders together to agree that it’s the right thing to do.

Is there a moment where you thought people were catching on?

Extending child labor laws to models who are underaged was definitely the biggest boon for us. I do think that people looked at our organization differently and took it and the Alliance more seriously after that. To be able to say [we got the legislation passed in] just a year is pretty amazing, because there are plenty of people who push legislative efforts that take years and who don’t have the success that we have. I think when you’re working in an industry that is so visible, you are lucky enough to get press and that helps you with legislation. And also, this was a child protection law, so I think it was difficult to be against it. Everyone came out looking good and making a change that was really needed in the industry — that’s not to say that it solved every problem, but it was a very important step.

What are the day-to-day operations of the Model Alliance like?

We have this grievance reporting service so we hear pretty regularly from models who have questions about their agency contracts — there are a lot of models who have difficulty getting paid the money they’re owed. Just yesterday, I was dealing with a model and her mother who were dealing with a bogus agent who was posing as a legitimate agent, and who was trying to get her to send photos and measurements to someone who was, I think, clearly unprofessional and kind of dangerous. There are so many scams in this industry, even at a high level. It’s more than any one organization working on a volunteer basis can handle, and that’s why we’ve looked at what we can do with legislation to save our models in the industry.

How do you guys get volunteers? Are they all from the industry? 

It’s a mix of people. Alexandra Simmerson, she was my first intern as a law school student, and now she works really closely with me and she was really key to helping us champion this child labor law. It’s been fun working as a mentor to people and collaborating with younger women who are interested in this stuff and helping them make their own mark.

Who do you guys work with legally?

On legal issues, it depends. Sometimes we’ll have people on our board help out; our primary person is Alan Gordon, who is the executive director at the American Guild of Musical Artists, one of our guild partners, and then sometimes we’ll refer models to an outside lawyer. I also work with Fordham Law School's legal clinic, so law school students have done a lot of research for us.

Is this a 24/7 job for you?

I’m trying to lead a more balanced life because I don’t think it’s good or healthy or sustainable to be working the way I have for the past few years. Outside of the Model Alliance I am working on my second documentary and I’m still modeling. I envy people who are able to block off an hour or two in the morning to respond to email and just focus on their work with no distractions. I’m going to try to start doing that. I don’t have a super structured day, I just respond as things come up.

What do you feel the next steps are for the Model Alliance?

I think that models, not just in New York but nationally, should have basic child labor protections. There are really a list of issues — wage theft and sexual harassment are two of our main concerns. We like to work to improve financial transparency and to make sure that models have some recourse if they are harassed or sexually abused. If the organization could address those concerns, I’d feel like we accomplished most of what we set out to do.

Do you guys work closely with agencies? Do you stay in touch with people in the industry? 

We have people involved at the organization who are not just models. We just had a board meeting and I spoke at length with James Scully, who is a casting director, or Chris Gay, who is the president of The Society Management [agency]. I’d say we’re primarily in touch with our members and models' parents who want to see these changes or ask us for help.

You’ve been in this for almost 20 years. Are there things about the industry you still enjoy?

Oh, totally! I think sometimes people assume I’m down on the industry and I’m not. I’m down on the problems in the industry. This is the business I grew up in, most of my friends are still in the business. 

I think I gravitated toward the industry, in part, especially so young, because when you’re growing up in New York as a girl, you realize that image is important. It affects how you’re treated and the opportunities you have, and so being able to have some control over that seemed really empowering. That was something that I felt really strongly when I was in my teens in a way that I don’t now in my early thirties. It just doesn’t seem so important. Maybe part of that is that maybe my appearance isn’t the first thing people respond to in the way that it was when I was 19 — and that’s a nice thing, actually. But maybe it is also having developed my interests and having accomplishments under my belt, so I’m less occupied with issues of appearance.

Do you have an end goal for the Model Alliance?

I’d like to see the Model Alliance work to address labor issues more broadly in the fashion industry, not just to help models, but looking at commonalities between models and other people who work in the industry — like makeup artists and hairdressers, and look even further down the supply chain, like garment workers, who, like models, are young women and girls — to think about novel approaches to organizing and how we can use our visibility on this side of the industry to promote better working conditions across the board.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that Ziff's father got his masters at NYU; he is a professor at NYU and received his PhD from Princeton. It also stated that Ziff hadn't been aware of the labor movement before attending Columbia; she was aware of it, but was exposed to its history in college. The article also misspelled "SAG-AFTRA" as "SAG-AFSTRA" and "boon" as "boom." The previous version stated that sometimes the Model Alliance will refer models to a lawyer; they refer models to lawyers outside the organization, as Alan Gordon is also a lawyer. Ziff also clarified that she took it upon herself to start the Model Alliance only after seeing that existing unions wouldn't extend membership to models and that her intern's name (referred to as "Alexandra" in the original story) is Alexandra Simmerson.