The Model Alliance Will Receive the CFDA’s Positive Social Influence Award, But Founder Sara Ziff Is Still “At the Beginning of a Very Long Fight”

Four years later—what’s changed?

Pffft—disappointingly, not that much. Like I said, this is all a work-in-progress, but it does get dispiriting, that even with all of these well-documented stories of abuse, we’re still in a situation where the Model Alliance support line gets calls every single day. It can feel like we’re playing whack-a-mole—you bop one bad actor on the head and another one pops up. Until we start treating these as systemic problems, everything’s just fundamentally going to stay the same. And there’s probably less momentum towards that than there was three or four years ago, because these stories aren’t so much in the headlines anymore.

Well, one exception to that is the big lawsuit/investigation re: Gérald Marie…

OK, there’s a great example of context changing everything. Carré literally wrote a book about her experiences, it was published 10 years ago, and no one paid attention. Now, post-#metoo, post Jeffrey Epstein, we’ve got the language to say, I’ve been trafficked. And for people to know what that means.

I understand you’ve been quite involved with her lawsuit.

The whole thing started with calls to the MA support line—usually we’re dealing with callers on a case-by-case basis, but here it seemed like the right thing to do was to put these women in touch. And then, we’ve helped fly a few of them to Paris to give testimony as part of the criminal investigation, and in Carré’s case, we realized there was an opening for her to pursue a lawsuit. Ironically, she had been working with us on and off for years, she just hadn’t put it together. Which, again, just goes to show the evolving consciousness around these issues. And also that it takes time for people to wrap their minds around trauma. A lot of our work is about meeting people where they are, and just helping them understand their rights.

Last question: Because you spend so much of your time talking about what’s wrong with the modeling industry, people must assume you’re a total hater. But, because I know you, I know that’s not true. What did you like about being a model?

Gosh, I guess I figure that speaks for itself… When it’s all going right, it’s fun, it’s inspiring. I was really blessed to have a good career, for a time—I modeled for Tommy, and for The Gap, I walked the runway in Paris for brands like Stella McCartney and Balenciaga and Louis Vuitton. And I made money. Real money. Like, enough to buy the New York City apartment I then had to sell when the work stopped coming. And that really meant something to me, that I could take care of myself—I was raised with a strong sense of the importance of financial independence for a woman, and in a funny way, because modeling is one of the few jobs where women get paid way more than men, it felt almost feminist to be doing it. And there are so many people I met through modeling who are important to me—including the models who came out early for the Alliance and who have been amazing supporters, like Milla [Jovovich], like Coco Rocha and Doutzen Kroes. I know there’s a tendency in the press to treat me and the Model Alliance as interchangeable but I cannot emphasize enough, this has been a team effort and I’ve relied all along on volunteers. 

I mean—of course there are great things about being a model. Potentially. Which is why the stakes are so high. If you grab the brass ring while you can, the payoff can be enormous. I totally get it when calls come in from girls who are like, um, I just got DMed on Instagram from someone who wants me to be the new face of Chanel; what should I do? You want to believe. You want to get into the club. And the industry can be a stepping stone to other things, too. If you feel like you have a shot at real success, it makes it very tempting to go along with shady behavior—it’s like, don’t ruffle any feathers, keep your eyes on the prize. The whole structure is built on dreams.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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