These Models Marched the SAG-AFTRA Picket Lines. Now They’re Fighting Against AI ‘Digital Blackface’ and Working for ‘Glorified Pimps’

Alyssa Sutherland was 15 years old when she was discovered by a modeling scout in her native Australia. As soon as the 5’11” strawberry blonde finished high school at the age of 17, she moved to New York and began traveling the world on high-end fashion assignments before settling in Los Angeles to focus on acting. Although she found success in both professions as a go-to face for Chanel and Bulgari and as Queen Aslaug in the hit TV series “Vikings,” she endured her share of humiliations. But there was one major distinction.

“I’ve experienced people trying to bully me into being naked, both as an actress and as a model, and those experiences went very differently for me,” she notes.

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As an actress, her contract contained a nudity rider that stipulated any such requests had to be discussed two weeks prior and couldn’t be sprung on the actress during production. On the one occasion it did happen, she called her entertainment lawyer from the set, and the matter was handled immediately.

“As a model, when the same thing happened to me on set and I refused, I was fired and sent home,” she adds. “I was teenager. And you’re well aware that the modeling agency sponsors your visa.”

After nabbing her first screen role in the 2006 film “The Devil Wears Prada,” Sutherland became a SAG member and mostly left the world of modeling behind. But she’s never forgotten the indignities she suffered. Like many actors who marched on the picket lines during last year’s historic SAG-AFTRA strike, Sutherland is now calling for similar workplace protections for the men, women and children whose faces front the $2.5 trillion fashion industry. Given that New York modeling agencies — including top players like NEXT and Wilhelmina — enjoy unique exemptions from traditional labor laws, they face no significant regulatory oversight.

As Fashion Week in New York kicks off on Feb. 9, a growing chorus of hybrid model-actors are drawing attention to the woeful working conditions that models face and are calling for meaningful change. Variety spoke with eight people who have straddled both professions and who argue that the modeling world suffers from a lack of guardrails. Their grievances range from sexual misconduct to racism to an inability for models to own the rights to their own image. All are backing New York’s Fashion Workers Act, which would close a legal loophole that allows modeling agencies to act with impunity. Taking a page from last year’s WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes that shut down the industry before settling in September and November, respectively, these actors-models believe that it’s time for a reckoning within the fashion industry.

“Obviously, there’s a lot of crossover between what’s happening in Hollywood and what we’re seeing in fashion, so it’s nice that we’re not starting from scratch and can build on their hard-won fight,” says Sara Ziff, a former model who also worked as an actress and director before launching advocacy group the Model Alliance in 2012. “The reality is we have far fewer protections than actors and other folks in entertainment.”

Last year, the New York Senate passed the Fashion Workers Act, which enjoys bipartisan support and is being championed by the Model Alliance. But the Assembly didn’t vote on the bill before the legislative session ended, leaving the thousands of models whose smiles sell products, hanging in the balance. Ziff is currently gearing up to reintroduce the bill. If it passes in the new legislative session, Ziif explains that modeling agencies would have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of their clients, provide them with copies of contracts and protect their health and safety. And in a sign of the times, the bill has been updated since last year to include protections against the use of artificial intelligence.

AI became a key sticking point in SAG-AFTRA’s negotiations with the studios, with many union members believing that the technology poses an existential threat to their profession. The same issue has become a growing concern for models.

“We know that models are undergoing body scans by their management companies, but it’s unclear how the scans are being used and who owns the rights to those scans?” Ziff notes. “Whether and how models are being compensated for the for the use of their scans remains unknown.”

The fashion world has long faced accusations of racism. AI has only heightened the conversation. Last year, Levi’s launched a campaign featuring computer-generated models of color in an effort to promote diversity. The campaign drew sharp criticism. A Levi’s spokesperson described the company’s project as a controlled pilot and adds in a statement: “We are committed to using this technology equitably, transparently and, most importantly, assessing benefits, risks and drawbacks as we further test and learn. This includes listening to employees, consumers and stakeholders and utilizing that feedback as part of how we navigate the use of this type of technology.” Ziff calls the practice “digital blackface.”

“The use of AI models to address diversity issues is a new phenomenon that is highly problematic, especially when human models from diverse backgrounds are available and willing to work and have historically been excluded from the industry,” Ziff adds.

Mame Adjei is one such model who has experienced the industry’s exclusionary practices.

“I had a situation recently where the hair and makeup person did not know what they were doing on me as a Black woman, and so I had to do my own hair and makeup,” says Adjei. “And the producer had the nerve to call my agent and say, ‘Mame showed up two hours late, so we don’t feel justified to pay her.’ We shot in Palm Springs in the dead of winter in bikinis under a windmill in in 60 mile-per-hour winds. It’s not glamorous. I had to send an email to them saying, ‘I’ve never in my life been treated this way.’ But girls who speak up for themselves get blacklisted or have been called bitches.”

Adjei also is a working actress, having joined SAG in 2017. She says there is a “stark difference” between a TV production and a photo shoot.

“As an actor, I am treated with respect,” she adds. “They give us ample breaks. I’m presented with a clear, concise and transparent contract to sign, which I take to my agent before anything goes into effect.”

Similarly, Liris Crosse, who was scouted as a teen, says models, particularly Black models like herself, are “invisible labor.” As such, the fashion world needs to catch up to Hollywood and is calling on her fellow models to find a way to unionize.

“When you see a New York Fashion Week show, a lot of these models aren’t paid. They’re getting ‘exposure,’” says the SAG member whose acting credits include “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” “Then, with craft services, production has to eat first. So, if the models are volunteering their services, the least you could do is make sure you have water and that they are properly fed.”

Crosse continues: “As a SAG actor, if we go past six hours, we are paid a meal penalty. And we have a proper dressing room. For so many years, [models] have said, ‘Oh, this is just the nature of the business.’ Everyone gets undressed backstage, no matter their gender, together. A lot of people may be uninhibited because they’ve been conditioned to feel like that is the nature of the business. But some people do care.”

Actors first successfully unionized in the United States in 1896 when their charter was recognized by the American Federation of Labor. By contrast, it is unclear whether models can legally unionize in the U.S. under current law because they are usually considered to be independent contractors. With New York Fashion Week running through Feb. 14, the spotlight is on the modeling agencies, who have been accused of financial exploitation.

Alex Shanklin, a former J. Crew model, is the lead plaintiff in a class action suit filed against NEXT and Wilhelmina. Shanklin, who was repped by Wilhelmina during his dozen years working as a model, says he was pressured by his reps to move quickly and sign contracts that gave away rights to his images. On the flip side, SAG-AFTRA proactively helps actors avoid signing such rights away.

“On a SAG job, everything was straightforward, from the pay to the scheduling. You get treated like you’re an actual worker,” Shanklin says. “I never had to look for my residuals or to make sure my image didn’t pop up somewhere weird.”

Kenny Sale, who modeled and acted for about 10 years, had his image reused without providing consent or receiving compensation. He shot a campaign for Jordache, which then used his images in ads for one of its licensed brands, U.S. Polo Assn. One of those images landed on a giant billboard in Times Square. Sale never agreed to shoot for that brand.

“It would pretty inexcusable if something like that happened on a SAG job. And if it did, they would have my back and help me seek recourse,” says Sale, who is active with the Model Alliance. “Instead, I had to go through my own legal hoops.” (Sale tried to sue but wound up hitting a statute of limitations.)

In fact, many advocates including Sale note that financial exploitation begets sexual exploitation. In 2015, Sale accused photographer Mario Testino of sexual assault. (Testino, who has been accused by at least 18 men of sexual misconduct, has denied any wrongdoing.) He says his modeling agent mocked him for complaining about the incident. (The agent denies.)

“These modeling agencies basically own models without having to bear any responsibility or offer recourse when something goes awry,” Sale says.

For Barrett Pall, who modeled for 10-plus years before transitioning into acting, there are no apparent rules in the fashion industry, with every job a potential minefield.

“On my first photo shoot, I was sexually assaulted. It started with the photographer just like moving your [clothes] around and then eventually, coming in like full-on touching me,” says Pall, who went on to appear in “Magic Mike” and “True Blood.” “As an actor, there was a closed dressing room or bathroom where you were by yourself. You’d come out. They asked you to move things around on your own without touching you. The boundaries were incredibly different than on modeling.”

Adding insult to injury, Pall modeled for an underwear company and was paid about $2,000. To his surprise, his photos were then used on Grindr and other queer party advertisements with no compensation.

“The agency doesn’t do anything,” he says. “A lot of these modeling agents are just glorified pimps.”

Ultimately, those fighting for stronger safeguards for models say they have been inspired by the SAG-AFTRA showdown with the Hollywood studios and other labor battles that are raging across corporate America. Former model Kai Braden, who joined SAG in 2008 and whose credits include NCIS: Hawaii,” “Magnum P.I.” and “Orange Is the New Black” says the fashion industry has reached an inflection point, and now is the time to act.

“It’s not even just entertainment or fashion. It’s UPS, Amazon. There’s so many industries right now where there’s a labor resurgence and people are just fed up with corporate greed and poor working conditions,” says Braden, who walked the SAG-AFTRA picket lines last year with his union. “And people are now aware of how it can be and how it should be. And we need to encourage people to speak up and be a part of the movement.”

Braden pauses and adds: “Because we’re making history.”

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