As a model, activist, entrepreneur, actor, speaker and coach, Elliott Sailors spoke at length Friday morning about the power of individuality to unite an increasingly fractured world.
As the name of her Be You Be True movement suggests, Sailors repeatedly encouraged attendees at LIM College’s Student Leadership Conference to do the same. After buzzing her hair in 2012, Sailors redefined her modeling career, walking in shows for Chromat, Diesel and Rick Owens, and opening for Vivienne Westwood’s men’s wear show in Milan. The ANTI Management-signed talent opened up about the recurring criticism, stereotyping and setbacks she has faced and detailed the routes she found to get around them.
“You each have every opportunity to make a tremendous difference on this planet. And the only person who gets to say who you are in this world is you.” she said. “You are who you are regardless of what anyone else has to say about it. In saying who I am and creating who I am in the world, I live a life by design and not a life by default.”
Afterward, Sailors spoke candidly about the mistreatment and abuse that models face just as she has. Sailors praised her new agency for giving models their own voice “rather than just the voice of brands,” she said.
WWD: What do you think about all the allegations and discussion about the mistreatment of models?
E.S.: There is an awful lot of accuracy to the fact that many of us are treated in a way that is really unacceptable. I am happy to see there have been actions taken in terms of less of our younger models being used and by making sure that the younger ones who are, are getting the education that they need. There needs to be more of us who are older speaking up about speaking up when something happens, not just after the fact, not just #metoo. I understand that all these voices make a difference. It’s [more a matter of] in the moment actually saying something and actually doing something. I know how uncomfortable that could be. I’ve been there. I’ve dealt with unwanted sexual advances, what they talk about in dealing with weight issues and now ageism. There are all the different parts of what we have to deal with in the industry.
WWD: What do you think needs to be done to change the situation?
E.S.: The Model Alliance is doing a great job. I think more needs to be done to bring models together almost in a family way. There’s not a place where you can go for sexual harassment. It’s not as though we have human resources for models at all. It is illegal though. If you want to press criminal charges, you can do it. It’s not impossible to do but I know a lot of models are worried about, “But am I still going to have a career?” It is true that there are nasty people who are going to use that against you in your career. That is going to happen just like with Harvey Weinstein. There were those who didn’t take his advances and they didn’t have as much success. But I think that’s a cost that we want to pay. When you know that you’re supposed to speak up and that that is stopping things from happening to others in the future, it does give you more strength in life.
WWD: Do you think the alliance is too often between the agents and the photographers?
E.S.: There is a need for models to feel safe in their agencies. I’m at one now where I know I can go back and tell my booker anything and it would get handled. It has not always been that way. Often the agents are saying, “I’m going to have a long-term relationship with this photographer. I don’t know how long I need to have this relationship with this model.” It’s horrific. Those are the hang-ups where models are worried it’s going to affect their career. It’s not just the photographer, the casting director or whoever it is that treats them that way. It’s the fact that they don’t feel safe speaking out. They call their bookers to say “This has happened to me,” and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s just how Terry is or whoever it is.” It’s not OK. It is not OK to let our bookers silence us and to not have our backs. I know that it’s not fun and it’s not comfortable. I’ve been there…Those are the kinds of things where social media is on our side.
WWD: How many times would you estimate that someone made advances toward you?
E.S.: Oh gosh, definitely more than 40 times. Just like in life, if people make advances and you say no, then they do listen. That number includes times when the person did listen to me, too. In terms of times things that were inappropriate, illegal or should have never have happened, there were many times early on when I didn’t say anything that I wished that I had. There were times that I went back to my agencies and that’s exactly what happened. My booker said, “Well, that’s who that photographer is. It’s not really that surprising.” And I said, “I wished I’d known that ahead of time.” And there have been times since then where I have booked a job, gotten the job and I’ve told the client that I am not going to work with that photographer and I have lost the job. And I told the client why. There were times when they have chosen not to work with that photographer, which is pretty cool. And there were times when they went ahead and did it anyway. It’s never worked out great [by speaking up] but I know what it felt like when I didn’t say anything so now I’d rather say something.
WWD: Can you name the photographers you choose not to work with?
E.S.: Terry Richardson is someone who I had an unwanted experience when I was very young  so since then I’ve chosen not to work with him. [It was later specified that they did not have sex.]
WWD: Have there been other photographers?
E.S: There have been others who I have chosen not to work with. But there haven’t been times where I’ve booked a job, found out who the photographer and I went back…that hasn’t come up again. There were ones where I found out which casting directors and photographers were doing it and I told my agency to not put me up for it.