The Ugly Truth About Models

Ex-model Sara Ziff just released a tell-all documentary about the industry. She talks to Renata Espinosa about eating disorders, pre-teen fetishism, and earning $80,000 a day.

Courtesy of Sara Ziff

“Why be a prop in someone else’s story, when you can tell your own?”

This is the last line we hear model Sara Ziff say at the end of the new documentary Picture Me, a tell-all about the modeling industry co-directed by Ziff and Ole Schell.

The film, which premiered April 6 as part of the 2009 Gen Art Film Festival in New York, is one part personal diary of Ziff’s life as a model over the course of several years, and one part candid—and at times, critical—look at the fashion and modeling world.

Picture Me looks at the modeling world through a lens that most people don’t see—through the eyes of the models themselves. These people are usually the silent images that men and women project their fantasies and insecurities onto, the effigies of our desires and cultural tendencies—which is why this film is so instructive and engaging. It’s a sincere, inside look at what models do, how they’re treated by the people they work for, and how they see themselves as a part of this whole process. Framed by day-in-the-life snippets of Ziff, it moves between raw home-video footage of her early years as a model, shot by both Schell and Ziff, interspersed with a wider picture of the glitzy world of that initially draws these young women in. America’s Next Top Model, this is not.

“Models are people by nature who are the object of scrutiny—they are ones who are being looked at; they’re in front of the camera,” Ziff told The Daily Beast. “We changed the dynamic by having models film their own lives. The thread that is important in the film is inverting the normal power structure of a man behind the camera with a model behind the camera.”

Schell and Ziff started filming about five years ago, following Ziff around behind the scenes from castings to runway shows. “We started making a movie before we intended to make a movie at all,” said Ziff.

Eventually, it developed into a full-blown documentary, and they expanded the pool of footage to include interviews with other models—they gave some of Ziff’s friends cameras—as well as interviews with people like designer Nicole Miller, Elle creative director and photographer Gilles Bensimon and casting director Kevin Crier, who offer some of their own theories on everything from age to anorexia. Ziff’s parents, a neurobiologist father and lawyer mother, also weigh in on their daughter’s choice to pursue modeling at age 18 instead of heading off to college (At age 26, Ziff now attends Columbia University and is double majoring in English and Fine Arts, and writes for the school newspaper).

At another point, Ziff is on the phone begging her agent to let her skip a photo shoot because she’s running on empty, her forehead covered in pimples. “I’m pizza face!” she moans.

“The film was my way to make sense of my time as a model,” said Ziff, who was discovered, as many of her peers are, by a photographer on the street. “Not just to be critical of it, but to try to understand it. It’s not even about finding answers, but about having a dialogue.”

She continued: “It’s hard when you are working in the industry to try to make sense of it. As soon as you try to analyze it, it loses the sexiness of what the industry is all about. It’s a little bit like sex, if you try to break it down too much, you lose it.”

When we’re allowed into some of her most private moments, Ziff, the inaccessible model on a billboard becomes Ziff the person. We see her crying in the bathtub when she’s past the point of mental and physical exhaustion, desperately wishing she could sleep and not get on another plane. At another point, she’s on the phone begging her agent to let her skip a photo shoot because she’s running on empty, her forehead covered in pimples. “I’m pizza face!” she moans.

However, despite the difficulties of the job, you also see that this extreme fatigue adds up to a lot of money—in most instances, far more money than their parents have ever seen. We see Ziff open a check for more than $80,000, almost in disbelief. But at the same time, other girls express grief over the amount of debt they’re expected to incur through their agencies as they jet around the world hoping to make it big. And for some models, especially those from Eastern Europe, modeling is their ticket out of a humble upbringing and a chance to give their families back home a better life, even if it means sacrificing their teen years to be the main breadwinner for the family.

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Age is another central point of reflection in the film. “We had girls speak a lot about this issue,” said Ziff. “There were a few instances where there were really young girls staying in a hotel and they commented on the fact that they thought it was premature for girls to be working at 12, 13-years-old. One girl related seeing a girl working on a coloring book backstage. Hearing that really crystallized the issue for me.”

One of the most talked about and cliché subjects when it comes to models is, of course, their extreme thinness. From the outside, said both Schell and Ziff, people are quick to assume that every model has an eating disorder.

“People removed from the modeling industry tend to have firm opinions about it, but generally have little firsthand experience,” said Schell.

Both agreed that there is pressure on the girls from designers and agents to achieve an ever-shrinking figure in the quest to turn themselves into human hangers, and other models in the film relate stories of being slapped on the thigh and being told they’re too fat. But that this is the full story, said Schell and Ziff, is a popular misconception.

“You can’t talk about issue of body image without addressing extreme youth of the models,” said Ziff. “Girls that are 14, 15 and 16 can be naturally thin in the way that a 30-year-old woman can’t be. Certainly there might be cases of [anorexia], but most of the time it’s not that they aren’t anorexic, it’s that they’re extremely young.”

What people really should be asking, she continued, is “why do we have this Peter Pan syndrome where women never age? We don’t want to see images of women who are grown up. The models never age, and a 17-year-old will be replaced by a 15-year-old on the runway. For me, it was illuminating to realize that.”

Despite the heavy topics addressed in the film, you also see the light-hearted side of the glamour: Trips abroad, the thrill of brushing shoulders with Karl Lagerfeld and walking in a Chanel show at Paris’ resplendent Grand Palais and Ziff buying her own West Village apartment.

It’s not just the perks that are a part of the thrill of modeling, either—there’s also the work itself. Schell follows a giddy Ziff as she walks toward one of the most bustling intersections in New York, the corner of Houston and Broadway, to see not one, but two enormous billboards—one for Tommy Hilfiger and another for Club Monaco.

The more sinister aspects of the industry are fleetingly touched upon—some of the girls discuss being sexually taken advantage of during shoots by photographers—and that there are not more models talking about what the film hints is a widespread practice, is probably due to fact that it’s a subject too painful for most to talk about on camera. The heartbreaking stories you do hear, told both matter-of-factly and through tears by a couple of different girls, are so shocking that it makes you wonder why the TV program To Catch a Predator isn’t going after these offending fashion photographers.

“This film is quite intimate and personal, and I have mixed feelings about putting my and other people's lives on display,” Ziff said. “Still, models exist publicly almost exclusively in ads. I thought it was important to give myself and other young women in these images a voice beyond passively pedaling the latest brand or fragrance.”

Because of Ziff’s personal involvement with the subject—and the years of documentation— Picture Me is one of the most illuminating documentaries about what it’s really like to work in fashion to date and essential viewing for anyone who is curious about why things are the way they are in the industry, illogical or otherwise.

“In many ways, I feel lucky to have been part of this industry,” she said. “Fashion is all image and perception, and I think being framed by others gives you a greater sensitivity to doing the framing yourself.”

Plus: Check out Fashion Beast, for more news on the latest runway shows, hot designers, and emerging trends .

Renata Espinosa is the New York editor of Fashion Wire Daily. She is also the co-founder of impressionistic fashion and art blog TheNuNu and a sometimes backup dancer for "The Anna Copa Cabanna Show."