NEW YORK - Models are more than just pretty faces. They're often overworked, underfed and underage independent contractors with little say when things go bad behind the scenes.
Many are just teenagers far from home, in some cases earning as much in a day as their poor families back in Russia and Eastern Europe do in a month. As a result, many fear speaking out about sexual harassment, unscrupulous booking agencies, demands to alter their bodies, lack of backstage privacy and punishing stretches with little sleep.
"Modeling is precarious freelance labor," said model Sara Ziff, who was discovered at 14 walking home from her New York City school. "We have very little job security. It's also a winner-takes-all market. There's only one Gisele. Basically, it's a labor force of children who are working in a very grown-up business."
In hopes of changing things, Ziff has founded The Model Alliance, dedicated to improving the working conditions of models and persuading the industry to take better care of its young.
Among other things, Ziff has set up a confidential system for models to report inappropriate conduct or other abuses during New York Fashion Week, which opens Thursday. She is also working on a Models' Bill of Rights.
Backed for now by anonymous donors, the Alliance was launched Monday and has a board of directors and an advisory board drawn from the worlds of law, labor and entertainment.
Ziff, who has more than a decade on the runway and has served as the face of Tommy Hilfiger, Banana Republic and Stella McCartney, has enlisted some of her famous model friends, including Shalom Harlow, Doutzen Kroes and Coco Rocha, one of the first to speak frankly about eating disorders in the trade.
Ziff, 29, also has the support of the powerful Council of Fashion Designers of America. The trade group gave her fledgling nonprofit a boost when it issued its annual pre-Fashion Week plea to designers and model wranglers to keep photographers at bay when models are changing backstage and to keep girls under 16 off the runways by checking identification.
It's not the first attempt to improve the working conditions of models. A union, The Models Guild, was founded in 1995 along the lines of the Screen Actors Guild, but it faltered a few years later for lack of members.
Ziff's alliance isn't a union but an effort to persuade models to take control in an industry where they're often treated as a commodity.
"One beautiful 13-year-old can be substituted for another beautiful 13-year-old," added Susan Scafidi, who heads the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University in New York and is on the Alliance's board of directors.
A draft of the Models' Bill of Rights includes demands that all jobs and castings involving nudity be subject to informed consent, and that no model under 17 be asked to pose nude or semi-nude. It also calls for booking agents not to lie about the ages of the models they represent and for agents to work with parents of school-age models to draw up an on-the-job education plan.
The Alliance also wants changing areas that are off-limits to photographers and is asking for more transparency in the way money is handled.
Elettra Wiedemann, the 28-year-old daughter of actress and model Isabella Rossellini, recalled her own start in the business at age 14. She took part in a panel discussion Tuesday hosted by the CFDA's health initiative, begun in 2007 to address unhealthy eating and the debate over how thin is too thin for models.
"I did experience when I first started modeling a lot of pressure from my agency in Italy. They asked me to get a breast reduction. They asked me to get a nose job. They constantly critiqued my weight," she said. "You go through a period of sadness and anger and self-loathing, and then I just decided, `You know what, I'm much more than just a number on a scale.' I chose to have a boundary for myself."