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The Business of Modelling

Ten things every model should know in a talk by Coco Rocha and The Model Alliance

A model's job is to embody a fantasy, but the Model Alliance is determined that models needn't live only in a dream world. While the brunt of critical press attention directed towards models focuses on their influence as symbols on other women, models today can face grave forms of exploitation themselves and lack a significant support network. And the actual lives of too many models are an abject contrast to the luxurious images they project. The girls who wear exorbitantly priced garments in opulent editorials and on high-end catwalks can work as little more than unpaid interns or indentured servants beholden to their agency. To confront and change this environment, the Model Alliance gathered models before New York fashion week castings at The Model Lounge for consciousness raising sessions, workshops and a talk run by MA's founder and supermodel, Sara Ziff.

After investigating the unglamorous struggles of models at all career stages for her documentary Picture Me, Ziff founded the nonprofit Model Alliance as models' equivalent of Actors' Equity and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). Ziff and fellow supermodel Coco Rocha are Model Alliance's leading activists, and they've assembled a stellar base of serious support from top-billing models including, but hardly limited to Shalom Harlow, Trish Goff and Milla Jovovich, as well as support from Fordham University's Fashion Law Institute and prominent members of the fashion industry.

As Coco Rocha, a prominent advisory board member, declares, "What the Model Alliance is asking for isn't outlandish or over the top. We're not being divas, we just want to be given the same rights and standards as any other group of workers." With increasing stress on maintaining healthy weight standards on the catwalk and in editorials, models’ bodies have become points of concern outside and within the industry. Yet high-profile concern about models' eating habits ignores their frequent inability to pay their rent. By establishing and enforcing a standard regarding compensation, work conditions, health care and other fundamental workers' rights, the Model Alliance seeks to save young, vulnerable girls from becoming waifs in all of the many senses of the word.

At the first seminar Rocha spoke eloquently and personally about the importance of each individual model keeping careful track of her agency's book-keeping and use of her image; practical pitfalls for models at all stages of their careers; and the fact that a torn jacket with the word "sample" written in the back should not count as payment for work. She urged models to actively use social media as a forum for establishing their personalities and developing their identities as workers, not tools, in the fashion industry.

Yet, talking with the attendees, even after Rocha's presentation, underscored the troubling discrepancy between modelling's romantic image and an earthly reality. The models lining up for The Model Lounge's generous, motherly swag bag of pragmatic daily necessities (panty-lines and Advil along with nail polish remover and lip-balm), were mostly under 25 and eager to participate in the fashion world. Despite origins as diverse as the Ukraine, Sudan, Paris and Carrot River, Canada, each of the models whom I spoke with had intangible and idealised answers to the question, 'why are you modeling?' Responses such as "to be beautiful," "to be a role model to all girls" and "to be creative and travel" highlight, rather than discredit, the urgent need for structure and oversight to protect young women who often forfeit education and incur significant debt while chasing Cinderella dreams.