Sexual Harassment, Abuse Systemic In Modeling World

Charges of harassment and abuse against major players in the fashion world have put the industry under scrutiny. NPR's Lynn Neary talks to model Sara Ziff, who founded a nonprofit to protect models.

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary. Two high-profile players in the fashion world are bringing some unflattering attention to an industry that is all about appearances. American Apparel chief executive, Dov Charney, was suspended due, at least in part, to allegations of sexual misconduct against his employees. During Charney's tenure, the clothing company became well-known for its sexually explicit advertising campaign. Also in the news again, top fashion photographer Terry Richardson, who has been accused of sexually harassing models during photo sessions. Sara Ziff is a model who established a nonprofit group called the Model Alliance, which seeks to improve conditions for models in the workplace. We asked her how pervasive the problem of sexual exploitation is in the modeling world.

SARA ZIFF: I would say that sexual harassment and abuse are systemic problems in the modeling industry. Obviously, Dov Charney and Terry Richardson are well-known. And these allegations against them have garnered a lot of attention. But it would be a mistake to think that they're the only bad apples in the business.

NEARY: A lot of fashion photography, now, really is sexually explicit. Are models pretty much told they have to go along with whatever they're asked to do in order to be successful?

ZIFF: It's quite common for models, including minors, to be put on the spot to pose semi-nude or nude and, in some cases, be asked to give sexual favors to powerful men, like photographers, who have a lot of control over their careers.

NEARY: Well, considering that so many models are young, and very inexperienced and vulnerable, what responsibility do modeling agencies have towards these young women?

ZIFF: Well, yes. First, I want to underscore that most models begin their careers when they're very young, under the age of 16, in most cases. So they're particularly vulnerable to abuse. And it actually wasn't until last year that models who are minors even had the protection of the Department of Labor. They were excluded from labor law protections. So things are changing. But certainly agencies should have a responsibility towards their models. Right now I don't think that's entirely the case because sometimes, I think, the agency does not want to compromise their relationship because obviously, you know, big magazines like Harper's Bazaar, or brands like H&M, will generate business for decades, whereas, you know, the models' careers come and go.

NEARY: How much does the fashion industry care about this? You were just mentioning some of these big-name fashion magazines. I mean, I would say they would have to be complicit with this as well. Do they care?

ZIFF: It's sort of an open secret. I think that brands that have publicly come out saying that they are no longer working with Richardson should be applauded. I just don't understand why any brand would want to continue to associate with him and profit from working with him. But I think there is still this sense that what some people call art is a realm that should not be subject to sort of ethical standards. And that is something that I and the Model Alliance are working to change, that perception.

NEARY: Sara Ziff is a model and the founder of the Model Alliance. Thanks so much for being with us today, Sara.

ZIFF: Thank you.

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