Pretty frocks and fantastical heels, flurries of tweets and bottles of bubbly -- this is the facade of fashion week, going on now in New York City.
But beneath the surface -- as the new documentary "Picture Me" shows -- the loveliness and luxury wither away. The film, which opens Friday in select theaters, shows an ugly underbelly of the fashion world no pair of super-powered Spanx can suppress: that sexual advances, weight issues and drug problems are as much a part of being a model as putting one foot in front of the other.
"Picture Me" follows Sara Ziff, a New Yorker who started modeling at age 14, over five years of falling in and out of love with the fashion industry. She struts for Calvin Klein, Chanel and Marc Jacobs; she poses in London, Paris and Milan. But backstage footage of Ziff and her friends (shot by Ziff and her then-boyfriend, filmmaker Ole Schell) reveals realities of the job that few outsiders ever see: models crying as shameless photographers snap them semi-nude, stylists pulling at scalps and tugging at limbs as if their subjects were Barbie dolls.
Some of "Picture Me" plays like a lighthearted diary -- one scene shows a giddy Ziff holding an $80,000 check earned for one day of work, another follows her as she rushes to gape at her larger-than-life figure on a billboard above a New York City intersection.
Other parts are darkly confessional. Sena Cech, one of Ziff's modeling friends, recounts her experience at a casting (the modeling equivalent of a tryout) with a "very well known photographer who's very well known for being sexual." He asks her "do something a little sexy" and suggests she take off her clothes; she obliges. He starts taking his clothes off too, despite Cech's baffled exclamations. ("Nobody's going to take pictures of him!") But his assistant picks up the camera, starts shooting, then instructing -- "Oh Sena, can you grab the photographer's c**k?"
"I did it," Cech tells the camera with a shrug. "But later I didn't feel good about it. I didn't feel good telling my boyfriend about it." She adds that the photographer eventually cast her in the job but she turned it down -- "If the casting was that sexual, I'm sure that the job was going to be really sexual and gross ... and that was the end of the story. He never booked me again."
More model friends talk about rampant cocaine use and already stick-thin girls who try to lose just another pound or two. One lithe woman tells the camera: "In castings, people have slapped my thigh, and I'm not in any sense overweight ... but they'll slap your butt and be like 'Oooh, fat' in Italian or in French. 'It's too big here.'" Another mentions a studio owner who complained his toilets were always clogged with vomit after he hosted a fashion show.
Throughout the film, the models interviewed insist they eat just like normal people. But the only food shown is an airplane meal, wrapped in plastic and apparently untouched.
For Schell, who co-directed "Picture Me" along with Ziff, the most shocking revelation was how aggressively the fashion industry preys upon young girls. Like Ziff, many models enter the industry as teenagers. For those far from home, like the Eastern European imports that the fashion industry covets, navigating adolescence and a volatile industry can take a toll.