Ten years after starting the Model Alliance, Sara Ziff will be honored with the French National Order of Merit Thursday night at the Consulate General of France.
The consul general of France, Jeremie Robert, will lead the ceremony in New York and present the honor to Ziff, who is the founder and executive director of the nonprofit that is committed to advancing the fair treatment of models, as well as equal opportunities and sustainable practices in the fashion industry.
In an interview Monday, Ziff said, “It’s nice to be recognized after banging the drum for so many years. But I’m really in this to create meaningful change. The question still is, ‘Will companies step up to address issues of rampant wage theft, lack of financial transparency, sexual misconduct and even trafficking?’”
The Model Alliance has put these issues on the map, she said. “Frankly, the #MeToo movement hadn’t happened yet. People weren’t talking about sexual misconduct and other workplace abuses as openly as they are today. There was a climate of fear. And I think there still is. There is a recognition now that this is a systemic issue now. We’re not talking about individual bad actors.”
Although the industry has been slow to embrace the rights of models by implementing enforceable standards, Ziff said she is honored by the growing recognition of the alliance’s work from France. Her hope is that others will be inspired to “finally collaborate” with the alliance to create safe, fair and respectful working conditions.
Last year, Ziff traveled to Paris with Carrie Otis and other models who have accused former Elite Europe president Gerald Marie of varying degrees of sexual misconduct. At that time, Otis and others gave their testimonies to French police and Senate members.
In late August, Otis filed a complaint in a Manhattan federal court against Marie and former Elite modeling scout Trudi Tapscott, claiming that she faced sexual abuse and negligence as a teenage model. Otis detailed how she had turned to modeling because she was a runaway teen from a broken home, who had dropped out of school. She claimed to have been raped repeatedly by Marie at the age of 17 in his apartment, often in his daughter’s bedroom.
At that time, Otis had been living with Marie’s model girlfriend, Linda Evangelista. Marie and Evangelists we’d in 1987 and divorced in 1993. Last year the supermodel spoke out publicly in support of Otis and other women who had accused Marie of sexual misconduct and rape.
Their efforts have been recognized by the former first lady of France Carla Bruni, who has also worked in modeling.
Last fall, the Council of Fashion Designers of America honored the Model Alliance with the first Positive Social Influence Award.
One of the attendees at Thursday’s event will be Karen Elson, who has been a leader in the Model Alliance’s fight for fair working conditions in the industry, Ziff said. Elson, a high-profile model, has also served on the alliance’s board. “She’s been one of the leading voices in our efforts. Having her standing beside me at this ceremony is really meaningful to me,” Ziff said.
Leading and advocating for the passage of the Child Model Act in New York state and the Talent Protections Act in California were two key initiatives for Ziff. The development of the alliance’s Respect program, which calls on fashion companies to create enforceable standards to stop harassment and other forms of abuse, was another.
The Model Alliance encourages any model who feels they have been subjected to any unwanted sexual attention or abuse at work to contact its support team, which offers discreet grievance reporting and guidance. Looking ahead, Ziff believes the industry needs to think about the mistreatment of models as a global issue.
“Many models are young and highly mobile. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that in the case of [the late financier and convicted sex offender] Jeffrey Epstein, Gerald Marie and so many others that predatory people were able to abuse young people — [and] in many cases minors — through unregulated modeling agencies,” Ziff said. “We’re looking for companies to step up and take responsibility. But we’re also not going to wait. We’re looking to advance legislation on that front as well.”
In addition to Ziff, Robert and Elson, Thursday’s attendees will also include New York State Sen. Brad Hoylman, attorney Sienna Baskin and the Model Alliance’s Sydney Giordano.