Sara Ziff first spoke out about abuses in the modeling industry 10 years ago. In the age of #MeToo, it's clear she was ahead of her time.

By Julia Malacoff
December 27, 2019
Michael Loccisano / Staff/Getty Images

Ten years ago, Sara Ziff was an incredibly successful model working in the fashion industry. But when she released the documentary Picture Me, about how young models were often treated, everything changed.

"The film covered issues such as sexual abuse, agency debt, and pressures to be extremely thin," says Ziff. "I didn't simply want to expose abuses; I wanted to address and prevent these problems from happening to others." (FYI, sexual assault affects both mental and physical health.)

Ziff thought creating a union for models could be a possible solution (she'd been studying the labor movement and exploring labor rights advocacy as an undergraduate at Columbia University), but Ziff discovered that as independent contractors in the U.S., models are unable to unionize.

And so the Model Alliance was born: a non-profit research, policy, and advocacy organization that advances fair working conditions in the fashion industry. Since the organization's founding, it's offered models a grievance reporting service, where they can report issues like sexual harassment, assault, and late or non-payment. The model alliance has also been involved in legislative advocacy New York and California, supporting labor protections for young models and requiring talent agencies to provide talent with information about eating disorders and sexual harassment.

Together with Harvard University, the Model Alliance also collaborated on what's considered the largest study on the prevalence of eating disorders in the modeling industry. (Related: This Model's Post Shows What It's Like to Be Fired Because of Your Body)

Last year, the organization introduced the RESPECT Program, which invites major players in the fashion industry to make a real commitment to stop harassment and other forms of abuse. Notably, the organization sent an open letter to Victoria's Secret, inviting the company to join the program after the organizations' ties to Jeffrey Epstein were revealed.

"Under the program, models and creatives working in fashion will be able to file confidential complaints that will be independently investigated, with real consequences for abusers," explains Ziff. "There will be training and education so everyone knows their rights."

With so many accomplishments under her belt and a clear view of what she hopes to achieve in the future, here's how Ziff balances it all and stays inspired.

Risking Everything for What She Believes In

"When I first spoke out about abuses in the industry, I was labeled a whistleblower. I was making a good living from modeling, paying my way through college and then, suddenly, when I spoke out, the phone stopped ringing. I had to take out loans and went into debt.

I've faced a lot of pushback for my advocacy work and it hasn't been easy. But it also marked a turning point for me, personally and professionally. Forming the Model Alliance and everything that has come since—victories like championing child labor legislation and spearheading protections against sexual harassment—has been very meaningful."

The Women Who Inspire Her

"I'm particularly inspired by other women in the labor movement: people like Ai-jen Poo at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Michelle Miller at Coworker.org, and Kalpona Akter at the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity."

Her Advice for Anyone Interested In Advocacy

"There's power in numbers: Organize your peers! And if it were easy, it wouldn't be fun."

How She Handles a Never-Ending to-Do List

"This summer I adopted my foster dog, Tillie. She's actually helped me be much more productive. I find that pacing myself by taking breaks during the day and going for walks with her helps me avoid burnout."

(Related: Burnout Is Officially Recognized As a Medical Condition By the World Health Organization)

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