Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 12, 2010

Picture Me: “a model’s diary”

Filed under: fashion,Film — louisproyect @ 4:45 pm

As a fan of cable TV’s Project Runway and documentaries about Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino, I jumped at the opportunity to see a press screening of Picture Me: “a model’s diary” last Thursday that was scheduled to coincide with Fashion Week in New York. (The movie opens at the Angelika Theater on September 17.)

However, this film was anything but the kind of free PR that the fashion industry might have expected. It was co-directed by Ole Schell, a documentary filmmaker, and Sara Ziff, his girlfriend—a professional model since the age of 14 who kept a video log of her experience in the industry over a five-year period. Weaving together her amateurish shaky footage with his own interviews with industry honchos, the finished product is a complex, ambivalent and altogether fascinating glimpse into the world behind the photos seen in Vogue and Elle magazines and the mammoth billboards on Times Square.

That is what one might have expected given their background. Ole Schell is the son of famous Sinologist Orville Schell whose first movie was Win in China, a documentary on the country’s entrepreneurial tidal wave. By the same token, Sara Ziff is not the stereotypical bubble-headed model (the movie’s main breakthrough is challenging these stereotypes) but the thoughtful and self-aware daughter of an NYU biochemistry professor and his wife, an attorney.

One day a total stranger approached Sara on the street asked her if she was a model. When she answered no, he set up an appointment with her at a top agency and her career began immediately. She knew that this would take her away from the path of college education and a career more in line with her parent’s expectations but the promise of a glamorous world, travel and buckets of cash persuaded her to take a shot at it. Although the film does not mention it (and really does not need to do so), the third “benefit” (buckets of cash) is exactly what draws young women into exotic dancing, porn films and prostitution.

While the world of runway modeling would seem to have little to do with these tawdry professions, we learn that they now recruit from the same labor pool: the impoverished nations of Eastern Europe such as Byelorussia and Romania, two countries whose representatives are seen in the film.

There is also the same kind of meat market mentality that operates in both realms. Sara Ziff says that the objectification is so extreme in the modeling world that an agency bigwig will often grab a model’s thigh or rear end in his or her hand and comment “She’s too fat” without even asking the model’s permission. For them, the model amounts to the same thing as a head of cattle on display at an auction.

We also learn that sexual predation is commonplace in the fashion industry. A top photographer will have his version of the casting couch, often selecting a young model under the age of 15. It is a sign of the desperation of poor women trying to break into the field that charges are not filed on a regular basis as they were in the Polanski case.

Despite the horrors that Sara Ziff put up with, she freely admits that the money kept her going. She was making more money than her dad and able to buy a fancy loft in Soho. But the longer she stayed in the industry, the more alienated she became. It was also getting to the point when she was becoming “too old”, an astounding verdict given that she was only 23. We learn that the industry is a revolving door, always on the lookout for the next big sensation, ideally a 15 year old just beyond the body of an anorexic.

At the end of the film, Ziff has been accepted into Columbia University General Studies and the closing credits inform us that she is majoring in political science and has begun work to launch a fashion model’s trade union. Good for her and good for Ole Schell for making a remarkable movie.


  1. This blows. All these amazing documentaries coming out and I’m stuck in a little college town without even HBO. Plus I had to cancel my Netflix account because of lack of funds. Oh well… I’ve still got a truckload of radical literature I raided from the library to keep me company.

    Comment by Rob — September 13, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

  2. What the hell? Sara Ziff also directed (along with her non-model, male counterpart Ole Schell) so give credit where it’s due. I could name a few more places this review was lazy with the facts… but I’ll refrain from nitpicking.

    Comment by subrosa — October 3, 2011 @ 10:24 am

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