Sept. 16, 2010 — -- 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.
"Some of them come from pretty humble backgrounds," Schell said in an interview with ABCNews.com. "Sometimes they're supporting their whole families. They're literally children -- they don't have enough life experience to know what the correct decisions are, and they're being treated as a commodity by agents, by photographers. It's hard to understand who's using you and who's a friend."
Jetting around the world to collect checks for tens of thousands of dollars the way most teens go to the mall can age young models in heartbreaking ways. Near the end of "Picture Me," Schell interviews Tanya D., a model from Belarus, backstage at a fashion show. With a face full of makeup and sexy swirls of hair, she could pass for 30. She's not.
"I think it's a good school," she tells Schell of the modeling world. "I'm 16 now and I don't feel like I'm 16, I feel like I'm much older."
"Picture Me" isn't one-sided: it includes interviews with designer Nicole Miller, photographer Giles Bensimon and fashion show producer Kevin Krier. While they agree models aren't always treated fairly, even humanely, they seem less than hurried to shift the status quo. Schell said that for all the noise that's been made about models needing to maintain a healthy body weight, about putting women of all shapes, sizes and colors on the runway, he hasn't seen anything change.
"I think it's often part of the conversation but nothing's ever done. The girls are always skinny," he said, adding that if models have to weigh in before a show, "what a lot of those girls do is just down a two-liter bottle of water before they go on the scale."
At the end of "Picture Me," Ziff steps back from the spectacle to pursue an undergraduate degree at Columbia University. Now 27 years old, ancient by fashion's standards, she continues to model in her spare time. Ziff realizes the ramifications of dissolving the veneer on an industry that doesn't want anyone to see it without its makeup. But she believes modeling deserves to be unmasked.
"As for how it's affected my career, I think that's yet to be seen," she told ABCNews.com. "Clients like Nicole [Miller], who I've worked with for years, have continued to hire me. I made the film knowing that it would ruffle some feathers and that I might not work again in high fashion. But I guess that's okay so long as this film can generate a meaningful dialogue and hopefully affect some change within the industry."