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Sexy, 17, and Exploited—You'd Be Shocked at the Lack of Protection Teen Models Have

A new law finally gives models under 18 the same protections that other child workers have. Is that enough?

Photo Credit: Voyagerix/


On a humid evening in early October, workers from across the garment industry gathered for a panel discussion at the Retail Action Project’s Midtown West office in New York City. The event brought together people from across the supply chain — retail workers, members of United Students Against Sweatshops, labor activists — and representatives of an extremely visible group of workers within the fashion industry whose plight is often invisible: models.

While the conversation touched upon recent struggles and victories of front-line retail workers, and attaining justice for factory workers in South Asia, a large chunk of the discussion zeroed in on labor abuses within the modeling industry. Some in the audience nodded in agreement with the notion that fashion models are an exploited labor force, but the idea drew mostly genuine surprise and concern from the audience. “There’s a very cavalier, anything-goes attitude amongst higher brands who see themselves as artists,” said Sara Ziff, working model, filmmaker and founder and executive director of the Model Alliance, a labor group that fights for models’ rights. She went on to explain that the abuses, especially during Fashion Week, are shouldered by a workforce of minors.

New legislation, however, stands to change all that. On Oct. 21, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to amend New York state labor law and classify print and runway models under the age of 18 as “child performers.” This marks a watershed moment for the historically unregulated modeling industry, one largely composed of minors from across the globe, and one that has resisted reform — the first attempt at organizing models in the ’90s was shuttered after seven years. The law creates a new protected class, stands to force players across the fashion industry at large to change their modus operandi and hiring practices, and can change the very images we see on the runway if designers can no longer so easily rely on children to show their collections.  The legislation also represents a coming-of-age for the Model Alliance, the labor group behind it.

Due to a statutory loophole in New York labor law, print and runway models under 18 have long been excluded from protections given to other child performers. While working, protected child performers are required to have on-set chaperones, tutors and, in some cases, nurses. The number of hours a minor can work is closely monitored and capped. The lack of these protections for print and runway models has led to documented (and in many cases, undocumented) exploitation of these girls: Some models, facing pressure from their agents, have dropped out of school to work full-time. Others have been fleeced financially by less-than-stellar agents or employers. Some models have faced unwanted sexual advances by photographers, while others have suffered sexual abuse.

According to Ziff, fashion models — so often encouraged to “work it” — “are not taken seriously as workers.” Rather, they are “a raw material. You don’t see individuals on a runway, you see this abundant resource of youth and fragility.” Ziff is a Manhattan native who’s walked the runway for Prada, Calvin Klein and Balenciaga, and been a face for Tommy Hilfiger, Kenneth Cole and Nautica. She founded the Alliance in February of 2012 with help from Fordham’s Fashion Law Institute.

Ziff, now 31, began modeling at the age of 14 after she was scouted on the way home from school at Dalton. While she considers herself lucky to have made it as far as she has, she is candid in explaining the darker side of high fashion work, where the career of a model can look somewhat Hobbesian: solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. The picture that emerges is one of an unregulated industry reliant on a largely underage workforce, crops of youngsters who, after putting in long hours without adequate rest or meal breaks, get paid for runway work with a garment from a designer’s collection (known as “trade”) in lieu of a paycheck.