Models Open Up About Sexual Harassment In New Modeling Documentary

Even though model Sara Ziff has walked for Chanel and Marc Jacobs and has been the face of Calvin Klein, Gap, Stella McCartney and Dolce & Gabbana, she strips the modeling industry of its glamour like she’s ripping off false eyelashes. Mentorship from Twiggy? Coddling from Miss Jay?

Actually, the life of a professional pretty face means fending off a scuzz-load of pervy photogs, according to Sara’s documentary “Picture Me” about the behind-the-scenes of modeling.Sara’s co-director (and ex-boyfriend) Ole Schell joined her on go-sees and photo shoots for five years, taping hours and hours worth of pretty peoples’ lives. And though the pair filmed the razzle-dazzle that all wannabe catwalkers dream about—gossiping backstage at shows, basking in Karl Lagerfeld’s glow, earning $150,000 a day—young models kept revealing a seedier side of the modeling industry less known to us mortals.

Some photographers don’t seem as interested in taking pictures as they do in taking liberties with young models, many of whom are barely out of middle school and living away from their parents for the first time.

And these aren’t sleazy Craiglist “photographers,” either. The genetically blessed women Sara interviewed all work in the high-end fashion world with supposedly reputable professionals, including one snapper which Sara described as a household name.

Sara talked about how on her third casting call, at age 14, a photographer asked her to take her bra off. “I was just eager to be liked and get the job. I didn’t know any better,” she said.

A model named Sena Cech described how one casting call turned predatory when a photographer and his assistant pressure her to jerk the lensman off. “Sena—can you grab his c**k and twist it real hard. He likes it when you squeeze it real hard and twist it,” Sena recalled the photographer’s assistant saying. Sena explained she did it—and the next day was offered the modeling job.

Yet another model, this time a 16-year-old girl new to the industry, said she was sexually assaulted by a photographer who put his hands between her legs while he pretended to adjust her clothes.

That young model asked not to be included in the documentary, though, because she was afraid of backlash from other photographers. Sara told The Guardian:

“The people in the industry who are doing these things are much more powerful, and the model is totally disposable. She could be gone in two years.”

Sara bravely stands up for the young women she works with not only by pulling back the curtain on exploitation and abuse, but on how these girls—many of whom are recent immigrants who don’t speak much English and are sending money back home to Belarus or Moldova— are ignored by the very people who should be their protectors. One model Sara interviewed complained to her agency about a photographer who made a pass at her, but they told her she should have slept with him! As Sara told The Guardian:

“Vulnerable girls are being put into a potentially predatory environment. What’s in the agency’s interest is not always best for the girl, and if she’s in a compromising situation, she doesn’t necessarily have anyone to turn to.”

What sounds truly awful is the confusion about whether these models are inviting sexual advances because, let’s face it, so much of advertising is sexualized to begin with. Sara spoke candidly about how she has modeled naked for classy “art” photo shoots, but still felt unsure whether she had her dignity intact. “I used to wonder: what’s the difference between doing a shoot in your underwear for Calvin Klein and being a stripper?…How far am I willing to go?”

It probably takes a stronger sense of self-preservation than most 15-, 16- or 17-year-old young women possess, who are being lured by the promise of big bucks, free clothes and fame, to say “no” or “or MY terms.” And I’m sure there’s a lot of girls who are afraid that if they called home to Mom and Dad to say a photographer asked them for a hand job, the ‘rents would put them on the first plane back home to Fargo and their modeling career would be over. Maybe “Picture Me” will put pressure on the modeling agencies who’re supposed to be responsible for these young women and encourage the models union that Sara mentions.

Hmm. The women on “America’s Next Top Model” learn all about how to relax their face muscles and memorize Cover Girl pitches. But it could be time Tyra gave the genetically blessed a lesson in self-defense. [Guardian UK]