At 27, Sara Ziff calls herself “ancient” in the modeling world, and in a certain sense she is. “Just the other day I was backstage at a show talking to a model that was just starting out and doing all the shows. I asked her, ‘How old is old now?’ and she said, ‘Oh, you know, 23 or 24. That’s old!’ She’s probably 19 or something.”
Ziff began modeling at 14 when a photographer discovered her on the street in New York City. Clichés aside, it set the wheels in motion for an astonishing modeling career that most people dismiss as a pipe dream. At 20, Ziff was out-earning her neurobiologist father, and in her decade-long career, she has rocked the runway for Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Chanel and Marc Jacobs while lending her face to ad campaigns for the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Stella McCartney and Dolce & Gabbana.
These days, she’s not so much following a path, as she is creating her own. Ziff has scaled back on her modeling while finishing up her studies at Columbia University. She also co-directed Picture Me—an unsettling exposé on the modeling world—with her now ex-boyfriend Ole Schell. Giving voice to those who are often seen, yet rarely heard, the documentary probes the fashion industry’s ever-increasing demand for adolescent models, cases of sexual harassment and rampant drug use.
Anthem sat down with Ziff to discuss Picture Me, which opens in NY this Friday and in L.A. on September 24.
How’s everything going at Columbia?
Good! I’m pretty much done. I’m just finishing up my last couple of classes.
What have you been studying?
Political science with a focus on American politics.
Have you been modeling on the side?
Yeah. That’s how I paid for school and the bills. I haven’t been doing the shows or working at the same level as before though. I just took jobs here and there as long as it didn’t get in the way of going to class.
You also have this documentary that’s making the rounds called Picture Me. The film addresses a lot of issues in the modeling world like how models are sometimes treated like objects or “robots” as you put it. How do you cope with something like that, especially when you’re first starting out in the industry?
I think most people in the business are very professional. The majority of people—whether they’re designers, casting directors or whatever—are friends of mine and they treat us very well. But there are always exceptions to the rule. Sometimes I think people get so caught up in the way that the clothes fit that they’re eyes are trained to see you just as a hanger and not as a human being. So I think that’s part of the reason why some people make the kinds of comments that they make. My friend Katrina in the film mentions that someone slapped her thigh one time and said, “Too big here.” You can’t imagine something like that happening in an office job! [Laughs] At the end of the day, their job is to make the clothes look good or make the make-up look good or whatever. Sometimes they make insensitive comments, not necessarily because they’re malicious, but because they’re trained to look at people a certain way and treat people differently.
This is an age-old question, but from your own perspective, what are some of the biggest misconceptions about models?
The biggest misconceptions about models in general or how the industry works?
The biggest misconceptions about the models themselves. For instance, how do you respond to people who say models are vapid and unintelligent?
From my experience, I have found that a lot of the models I’ve worked with are pretty thoughtful and intelligent. In many ways, they’re very sophisticated, you know? Most of them don’t have a formal education—they didn’t go to college or maybe they didn’t even finish high school—and a lot of them have pretty much been on their own since they were 15 or 16 making their own way in the world. You grow up pretty fast when you’re around adults all the time. Modeling is not an easy business to be in; it’s a very social business. I think you have to be able to work very well with others. I think a lot of models are fairly witty and socially perceptive, which definitely helps. The people who are very successful in the business are very socially aware. It’s a very specific kind of intelligence.
How prevalent is drug use in the modeling world?
I personally never experienced that. I know other friends of mine who saw more of that. Maybe people could read me and knew that I wouldn’t be into it. [Laughs] I do have friends in the film who talk about a lot of their top model friends doing drugs. I guess the drug of choice is cocaine. I can’t say much since I didn’t see it.
What’s the general shelf life for a model these days? What’s considered “old”?
It changes. Just the other day I was backstage at a show talking to a model that was just starting out and doing all the shows. I asked her, “How old is old now?” and she said, “Oh, you know, 23 or 24. That’s old!” She’s probably 19 or something. [Laughs] So that makes me ancient. I would say you’re really in your prime between 17 and 21. After that, models tend to get worried that they’re over the hill if you haven’t already been successful. It’s a little bit different if you’d been wildly successful and you can sort of ride on that.
Was it like that when you started out or are models getting younger and younger as time passes?
I think they’re getting younger and younger. I’ve been going backstage to interview models for a little web series that I’m doing for New York Magazine and I talk to some girls who are 16. When I approach them for an interview, it doesn’t even cross my mind that they’re that young. I mean, they look like women and a lot of them are pretty mature. You talk to them and they don’t sound like kids.
Are female models and male models treated differently in the industry?
I think male models have it a lot harder, actually. They’re sort of treated like second-class citizens because women tend to care a lot more about their appearance. There’s obviously much more of an industry for the female models as a result, so male models don’t get paid anything like what the female models get paid. I’ve been curious to talk to some male models. A lot of the people in the business are obviously gay men and I’d say most of the male models are straight men. I can’t speak for them, but sometimes they might take sexy pictures and… I just think it might be a little bit harder for the male models.
I can see how straight male models might run into uncompromising situations if and when gay industry folk choose to abuse their power. There’s a power structure in place.
What are some fond memories of modeling that you’ve carried with you throughout the years?
Sometimes modeling can be a lot of fun! Generally when I talk about the film, people want to talk about the dark stuff. Most of my experiences have actually been very good. For me, I love being around different creative types. It’s like you’re putting on a performance. You don’t just get the final image like, “Poof!” You’re sort of living out this weird fantasy when you’re doing a shoot. You have to embody whatever the image will be and what the photographer, stylist and make-up artist want.
Who are some of your favorite designers?
I really like Nicolas [Ghesquière] of Balenciaga; I’ve done his show several times. He’s very sweet and he’s sent me some dresses that I liked from the runway shows. Nicole Miller has always been a good friend. She came out to our premiere the other night and she’s in the film. Jack [McCollough] and Lazaro [Hernandez] of Proenza, those guys are pretty cool. I like most of the people that I’ve worked with.
Just getting back to the film, some of the footage that we see dates back to when you were first starting out. Since the film wasn’t premeditated and you obviously didn’t know how you’d feel about modeling several years down the line, why did you start shooting these home videos?
A lot of the film is definitely home video footage that Ole and I shot for fun. Ole had just graduated from film school at NYU so he had real training as a filmmaker. He just had a habit of filming everything anyway. We both started carrying around a camera and then we gave cameras to friends of ours who were models. They shot little video diaries for us. It just kind of evolved organically.
That’s unreal. None of this was planned.
No! [Laughs] I think that served us well. I think the charm of this movie, hopefully, is that it’s not premeditated. It’s not like we had the story in our heads before we began shooting it. It’s like a diary in that sense. We just let things unfold and got tons of footage, which we boiled down and tried to come up with some sort of coherent narrative structure.
At what point did you guys realize there was a movie?
Ole’s dad is a journalist and he actually saw some of our footage. He said, “With a more serious and concerted effort, maybe this could be a film.” I don’t feel like there was any one particular moment where we said, “Ah ha! We’re going to make a film.” But by the time we decided to give cameras to our friends, we knew that this was more than us just shooting for fun.
Did you approach people who maybe didn’t want anything to do with the film considering its subject matter? You obviously didn’t start out with the intent of making a film, but something fundamentally changes when you thrust a camera in someone’s face.
Oh yeah. I’m glad you bring that up because I don’t feel like its contrived in that way. I think that’s one thing that a lot of people might not fully appreciate—how closed and insular this industry is and how hard it is to get people to open up. Ole and I were obviously together at the time and had a certain level of intimacy already, and the same goes for my friends who are models. So that’s how we got the footage that we got. It wasn’t like an outsider coming in and saying, “Tell me your story.” We were documenting conversations that we were going to have anyway.
In the film you talk about setting up a union for models. What’s happening with that?
There are actually two models that I know in the U.K. who approached Equity, the union for actors, and they extended union memberships to models. So there’s an official model’s union in the UK now. A lot of people roll their eyes and think, “Coalminers, maybe they need a union, but modeling just seems like a glamorous profession.” A lot of us do make really good money, but most models aren’t making tons of money. For every model with a Revlon contract, there are 70 others who are working for free trying to hit it big. There are no real rules or regulations. Since a lot of models in this business are very young and vulnerable, you need regulations in place. I mean, you have 15-year-old girls doing shoots topless. If there could be some sort of catalyst for change within the industry, I’d be very happy.
One of your friends in the film talks about how she’s piled under a mountain of debt from her agency.
Yeah. There needs to be more financial transparency as well. When a lot of models are starting out, they incur a fair amount of debt. Agencies will charge models for all kinds of things like messenger fees, putting a book together, travel expenses, etc. Those things are necessary, but I think it should be clearer exactly what these expenses are for. I talked to models backstage this season and asked them, “Are you getting paid to do this show?” and they don’t even know! It’s not that surprising considering how young some of them are. They don’t see it as a business a lot of the time. They see it as having this unique opportunity to get their picture taken and walk around in designer shoes. They should be thinking, “This is a career and I should be getting paid.”
So you’ve been checking out a lot of shows for Fashion Week?
We’ve been sort of waiting for the film’s release, but I’ve been able to get out for that. I went to a couple shows and went out during Fashion’s Night Out. The Fashion’s Night Out thing is a little bit ridiculous to me, but there’s a certain energy around it that’s sort of fun.
Do you think you’ll ever abandon modeling?
I actually didn’t know that I would ever work again when this film came out. I kind of mentally prepared myself to never work again. I thought people might not embrace a model going rogue, telling her own story and showing stuff that’s not always so flattering, you know? But I was pleasantly surprised to find that people in the industry responded very well. I actually found out today that they cast me in the Rodarte show, which I wasn’t expecting at all. I have to be at a fitting soon. I’m also holding a couple of other options for some really nice shows. It’s totally unexpected. I mean, it’s the last thing I would’ve expected to come out of this film.
Have you received any negative feedbacks?
Not that I’ve heard. I have no idea what people say because I only hear the good stuff. Every model that I’ve talked to has been overwhelmingly positive and it feels like I opened the floodgates. All of a sudden, they start telling me their stories and what was going on at the time when we were modeling together. I think it has allowed for some meaningful dialogue to take place and that feels really good.
What are your plans for the future aside from modeling?
This summer, I was working for Andrew Cuomo’s campaign for governor. Since I’m a political science major, I thought it’d be exciting to see the inner-workings of a campaign—that was fun. Honestly, I’m all about trying to make a difference in this business. It’s nothing like anything I thought I’d want to do, but it’s the industry that I grew up in and one that I know very well. If I could make it better for young women who are just starting out, it wouldn’t just help them, but also promote a healthier ideal for women in general who are affected by these images.