Share via Email A beautiful woman sits in front of a video camera. Her name is Sena Cech and she is a fashion model. Her tone is matter-of-fact, as though what she's about to describe is commonplace in the industry in which she works.
Halfway through the meeting Cech is asked to strip. She does as instructed and takes off her clothes. Then the photographer starts undressing as well. The photographer's assistant, who is watching, eggs her on. What's supposed to be the casting for a high-end fashion shoot turns into something more like an audition for a top-shelf magazine.
The famous photographer demands to be touched sexually. She turns it down. If the casting was that sexual I was sure the job would be really sexual and gross. Sara Ziff backstage at a Nicole Farhi show in Anthea Simms This is the ugly, sleazy side of the modelling industry, the side few insiders like to talk about.
It's one of the most secretive businesses in the world, which is ironic when you consider that it is also one of the most pervasive. Its stars are some of the most recognised icons of our time, household names whose bodies are frequently emblazoned across 40ft-high billboards, yet apart from the occasional flurry of publicity about anorexia or drug-taking, outsiders know surprisingly little about the multimillion-pound business which profits from some of world's most beautiful women.
Models rarely give interviews, and if they do they're as studiedly anodyne and vague as Premiership footballers quizzed outside the changing room after a match. Sena Cech is one of a handful of models who has decided to talk publicly about the seedy, unglamorous and, on occasion, abusive side to her profession for a new documentary, Picture Me.
The woman behind the film is Sara Ziff, a catwalk model turned documentary maker. Ziff makes an unusual whistleblower. She's made hundreds of thousands of dollars from the modelling business. Her motivation for speaking out has nothing to do with revenge or failure when I ask her what it's like to be rejected for a job because of the way you look, it's clear this has not happened to her very often.
Her long limbs and angular cheekbones, almond-shaped blue eyes and blonde hair have adorned hoardings in Times Square and beyond. She's strutted down the catwalk, eyes blank, unsmiling, for all the top designers from Marc Jacobs to Louis Vuitton, Gucci to Chanel. Picture Me began as a quirky homespun video diary. Ziff's former boyfriend and co-director Ole Schell would often accompany her on jobs, and because he was a film-school graduate it seemed natural to take along the camera equipment in order to make sense of the surreal, insular world in which they found themselves.
The earlier parts of the film reflect the lighter side of the industry such as the camaraderie among the models and the buzz of a catwalk show. Schell would also document their private moments: The process might simply have highlighted an industry as fake and frothy as a bowl of Angel Delight, but what emerged over the course of five years of filming and hundreds of hours of footage was something darker, more subversive.
They started giving the camera to fellow models, putting them on the other side of the lens and giving them a chance to speak.
Gradually the couple became less like innocent home-movie makers and more like undercover reporters. They sit in Ziff's minimalist apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and recall the years of filming. They broke up during the editing process but they still seem to be good friends. Ziff is tall, skinny, though she says she weighs more than she ever has done before.
There's something instantly arresting about the way she looks, even though she's unmade-up and dressed down, in black leggings, white shirt.
Schell describes being routinely thrown out of shows by notoriously publicity-shy design houses. At a private Gucci show at the Los Angeles home of the restaurateur Mr Chow, he came to the attention of the armed guards and was escorted to a holding cell in the house, his camera confiscated.
Shooting on a shoestring budget, editing in Schell's apartment, they end up with one of the best films about the world of modelling and an honest portrayal of an industry built on artifice.
The final film, which premiered in New York and is already picking up awards on the film festival circuit, is at times a rare and unsettling look at what must be one of the few unregulated industries in the western world. A year-old model is on a photo shoot in Paris. She has very little experience of modelling and is unaccompanied by her agency or parents.
She leaves the studio to go to the bathroom and meets the photographer - "a very, very famous photographer, probably one of the world's top names", according to Ziff - in the hallway.
He starts fiddling with her clothes. Your collar, or your breasts. It's not strange to be handled like that. He just looked at her and walked away and they did the rest of the shoot. And she never told anyone. The model had agreed to be included but the day before the premiere in New York she changed her mind and became frightened about the repercussions. She begged Ziff and Schell not to use the material.
Ziff was disappointed but she didn't feel comfortable betraying a friend in an industry where women, she believes, are betrayed all the time. It happens in the dark recesses. Pretty much every girl I have talked to has a story like it, but no one talks about it. It's all under the radar because people are embarrassed and because the people in the industry who are doing these things are much more powerful, and the model is totally disposable.
She could be gone in two years. She has benefited in all kinds of ways from the business in which she's worked for 13 years. She has earned the kind of money other twentysomethings can only dream of and travelled all around the world. She also knows that fashion plays with ideas around fantasy and sex.
It's an industry that is as much about undressing as dressing up, as much about what's underneath as what's on top. The model's job is to look into the camera lens and make a woolly, oversize cardigan look sexy. It was ever thus. Go back to the black-and-white images of models in the 50s - all New Look nipped-in waistlines and prim below-the-knee hemlines - and there's still a sexual undercurrent.
The industry has always had a predatory side. Anyone approached in the street by a middle-aged man and asked if they'd like to be a model would think twice about giving him their details which is the reason model scouts are generally women.
There is something inherently intimate about the whole business of fashion photography - the all-seeing lens, the exposed subject, the powerful photographer. What's shocking, listening to Ziff, is how prevalent, and how far up the fashion food chain, sexual exploitation goes. She is part of a small coterie of models who are beginning to speak out about the industry and break the mafia-like silence. A few have started blogs on which they talk frankly about their lives beyond the next fitting.
Eighteen months ago, two models based in Britain, Victoria Keon-Cohen and Dunja Knezevic, sought advice from Equity and set up their own union.
It campaigns for better working conditions, holiday and sickness pay, protection in case of injury. What alarms Ziff is that there's an expectation that models are comfortable using their sexuality. Often they can feel under pressure to conform, not least because they're being paid a great deal of money.
They sell it to you as: Obviously you are compromising yourself. How far am I willing to go? How much am I willing to show for a big fat cheque? Naked models inside the pages of a magazine or on a billboard are ubiquitous.
Add to this the fact that in their bid to find models that have the "ideal" model shape - flat chests, boyish hips - some agencies are hiring younger and younger girls. Ziff recalls one model sitting backstage at the shows playing with a colouring book.
You are asking for trouble. You are expected to go to certain parties and schmooze. They have the power. She tells the story of a year-old model who complained when a year-old photographer made a pass at her. Imagine how compromised they are.
Her third casting was in the East Village in New York. The photographer said he wanted to see me without my shirt on. Then he told me that it was still hard to imagine me for the story so could I take my trousers off. I was standing there in a pair of Mickey Mouse knickers and a sports bra. I didn't even have breasts yet. It was like he was a shark circling me, walking around and around, looking me up and down without saying anything. I did what he told me to.
I was just eager to be liked and get the job. I didn't know any better. She recalls being a "virginal teenager" and posing innocently when she didn't feel remotely sexy. What the photographer saw was not what I felt. It had nothing to do with that year-old and what she was feeling and everything to do with what the person behind the camera projected onto her.
Put it this way, she's the first model I've met who quotes Joan Didion. Her parents are academics who never approved of her career and it's possible she thought too much about the wider significance of what she was doing to really enjoy it herself she was taking courses in women's studies while at the same time modelling couture. For once, being beautiful and brainy doesn't seem such an enviable combination. Modelling wasn't a profession she sought for herself.
She was scouted in New York near Union Square by a female photographer when she was walking home from school.