Child model advocates press for New York law

By Victoria Fitzgerald  |  June 13, 2013 at 6:36 PM
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NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)-- Child model advocates are in talks with state policy makers here to improve protections for runway and print models under the age of 18.

"We are hoping to get the legislation passed before fashion week in September," said Ashley Sabin, 30, director of the documentary "Girl Model," in a recent interview.

On June 5, Sen. Jeffrey Klein, co-leader of the New York State Senate, and Sen. Diane Savino, chair of the State Labor Committee, agreed to propose legislation that will give print and runway models under the age of 18 who work in New York state the same protections and benefits afforded to all other child performers.

If it passes, all New York Fashion Week shows and local magazine shoots there would require such things as chaperones on set, tutors on set, consent forms for nudity, no 16-plus-hour days and access to food.

On June 9 Savino, a former caseworker for New York City's Child Welfare Administration, said in a press statement: "Today, we are bringing attention to the rampant exploitation and sexual abuse of child models and announcing legislation that will give child models these critical protections they have gone without for too long."

The effort follows a significant amount of media advocacy work.

On March 24 David Redmon and Sabin's documentary "Girl Model" was broadcast on PBS's POV and streamed online until April 24. The film offers a backstage look at the modeling industry, in particular the unique vulnerability of child models and the industry's lack of regulations to protect them.

In August 2012 Model Alliance began circulating a petition demanding the same rights for child models as those in place for other child entertainers. The petition currently has over 1,300 signatures and support continues to grow.

Young Start

The average fashion model begins her professional career between the ages of 13 and 16, according to Model Alliance, an advocacy group based in New York City that was founded by Sara Ziff, a 30-year-old model.

Under the New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, models under the age of 18 have limited protections in regards to working hours and rest breaks, meaning that on many occasions such provisions are either ignored or violated.

Seventy-six percent of models have been exposed to drugs and alcohol, eighty-seven percent have experienced a "surprise" nude photo shoot or casting and currently no child models have provisions for chaperones, according to the Model Alliance website.

Youth performers in New York are currently protected and regulated by the Department of Labor; however, these provisions exclude child fashion models under the age of 18. Sabin, the director of "Girl Model," and Ziff are calling on the state to change this.

Teen and child models working in New York City are covered by the Department of Education, where only modest protections are provided for them and regulations such as limits of working hours and regular breaks, pay transparency and chaperones are regularly violated. Advocates say that these protections need to be part of state law rather than through a local government entity with little enforcement power.

"Currently in New York, this particular section of employees is uniquely vulnerable and regularly exploited," said Sabin. "You do not need any type of permit or qualification to be a model scout."

At a screening at PACE University on March 14 of this year for young women ages 14-25, Sabin asked the audience if a scout had ever approached them. She said she was staggered when most of the room raised their hands.

One woman told Sabin that a man in his 40s came up to her in the street saying he was a scout and she soon found herself alone with him in his apartment.

Nadya's Modeling Journey

"Girl Model" tells the story of Nadya, 13, plucked from a poor neighborhood in Serbia and promised a lucrative modeling career, a better future for her family and the chance to be more than "the gray mouse" she believed herself to be.

Nadya is chosen from 100 bikini-wearing Serbian teenagers by model scout and ex-model, Ashley Arbaugh. The scout agency sends Nadya to their Tokyo office with the promise of two modeling jobs.

On her trip Nadya was not accompanied by any representatives from the modeling agency; instead she was given only a scrap of paper with her destination's address. She landed in Tokyo not knowing a word of Japanese or English and only found her way to the Tokyo office when one of the film crew from the documentary stepped in to help her. Nadya learns she has casting calls as opposed to actual jobs.

During the film, Nadya has one job, the pictures to which she finds in a magazine, her face half obscured by a thick, black wig. Nadya is given an English language contract that she cannot understand and has no knowledge of the payment from the modeling job. She leaves Tokyo in debt.

"Our interest in this film wasn't to make an expose, it wasn't to point fingers, it was more to tell a story," Sabin said. "So whatever way that story went, our camera would follow. It's a process; we have an issue, a character and a place and the film then produces unexpected moments."

In August of last year, Sabin's Kickstarter campaign raised $14,495. The funds were spent on publicizing the dangers to young models through educational materials for schools and hosting screenings of the documentary.

She added: "This is such a tricky issue because although models will admit that this happens they don't want to speak out because they will be blacklisted within the industry and because they are so young they are easier to control."

The directors of "Girl Model" began collaborating with the Model Alliance after Ziff reached out to Sabin following the film's launch last year.

In 2009 Ziff and Ole Schell produced the documentary "Picture Me: A Model's Diary," set in the United States, in which models were interviewed and talked about not knowing what they earn, having few breaks and being told to lose weight.

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