NEW YORK, N.Y. - Models are more than just pretty faces. They're often overworked, underfed and underage independent contractors with little say when things go bad behind the scenes.
Many are just teenagers far from home, in some cases earning as much in a day as their poor families back in Russia and Eastern Europe do in a month. As a result, many fear speaking out about sexual harassment, unscrupulous booking agencies, demands to alter their bodies, lack of backstage privacy and punishing stretches with little sleep.
"Modelling is precarious freelance labour," said model Sara Ziff, who was discovered at 14 walking home from her New York City high school. "We have very little job security. It's also a winner-takes-all market. There's only one Gisele. Basically, it's a labour force of children who are working in a very grown-up business."
In hopes of changing things, Ziff has founded The Model Alliance, dedicated to improving the working conditions of models and persuading the industry to take better care of its young.
Among other things, Ziff has set up a confidential system for models to report inappropriate conduct or other abuses during New York Fashion Week, which opens Thursday. She is also working on a Models' Bill of Rights.
Backed for now by anonymous donors, the Alliance was launched Monday and has a board of directors and an advisory board drawn from the worlds of law, labour and entertainment.
Ziff, who has more than a decade on the runway and has served as the face of Tommy Hilfiger, Banana Republic and Stella McCartney, has enlisted some of her famous model friends, including Doutzen Kroes, Oshawa, Ont.-born Shalom Harlow and fellow Canadian Coco Rocha, one of the first to speak frankly about eating disorders in the trade.
Ziff, 29, also has the support of the powerful Council of Fashion Designers of America. The trade group gave her fledgling non-profit a boost when it issued its annual pre-Fashion Week plea to designers and model wranglers to keep photographers at bay when models are changing backstage and to keep girls under 16 off the runways by checking IDs.
It's not the first attempt to improve the working conditions of models. A union, The Models Guild, was founded in 1995 along the lines of the Screen Actors Guild, but it faltered a few years later for lack of members.
Ziff's alliance isn't a union but an effort to persuade models to take control in an industry where they're often treated as a commodity — "like choosing a gallon of milk at the deli," she said.
"One beautiful 13-year-old can be substituted for another beautiful 13-year-old," added Susan Scafidi, who heads the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University and is on the Alliance's board of directors.
A draft of the Models' Bill of Rights includes demands that all jobs and castings involving nudity be subject to informed consent, and that no model under 17 be asked to pose nude or semi-nude. It also calls for booking agents not to lie about the ages of the models they represent and for agents to work with parents of high school-age models to draw up an on-the-job education plan.
The Alliance also wants changing areas that are off-limits to photographers and is asking for more transparency in the way money is handled.
Elettra Wiedemann, the 28-year-old daughter of actress and model Isabella Rossellini, recalled her own start in the business at age 14. She took part in a panel discussion Tuesday hosted by the CFDA's health initiative, begun in 2007 to address unhealthy eating and the debate over how thin is too thin for models.
"I did experience when I first started modelling a lot of pressure from my agency in Italy. They asked me to get a breast reduction. They asked me to get a nose job. They constantly critiqued my weight," she said. "You go through a period of sadness and anger and self-loathing, and then I just decided, 'You know what, I'm much more than just a number on a scale.' I chose to have a boundary for myself."
In 2006, at least two models died of complications linked to eating disorders, which prompted some in Europe to try to ban ultra-skinny models from the runway.
Efforts have been more modest in the U.S. The CFDA held workshops on eating disorders and recommended that designers offer healthier snacks backstage and require those with eating disorders to seek professional help if they want to continue modelling. In the past few years, sunken-eyed, skeletal "heroin chic" has given way to a sportier, healthier look among some designers and labels.
North of the border, Quebec's culture minister Christine St-Pierre launched the Charter for Healthy and Diverse Body Images during Montreal Fashion Week in 2009. The voluntary charter was designed to fight extreme thinness in the fashion industry and promote a healthy body image.
The majority of models never hit it big, never starve themselves to hospitalization or death and never fall prey to sexual predators with cameras or a casting couch.
But some end up working for clothes instead of cash, spend years in debt to their booking agencies for travel and living expenses as they jet around the world, and struggle with depression and other fallout from little sleep and poor eating habits.
What will it take to achieve widespread reform?
"Part of it is educating the public to see things differently," Ziff said.
— With files from The Canadian Press