A five-year project filming the lives of model Sara Ziff and her friends is now a documentary called Picture Me, which premieres after the close of New York Fashion Week tomorrow. We spoke with one of the models, Sena Cech.
Ziff and the other models who appear in the film worked on some of the biggest campaigns in fashion: Marc Jacobs, Stella McCartney, Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger. Sena Cech started modeling at 17. A bed of roses it wasn't. On one shoot, a notoriously sleazy photographer had his assistant ask Cech for a painful sounding hand job: "Sena, can you grab his cock and twist it real hard? He likes it when you squeeze it real hard and twist it."
Cech spoke with us from her Oregon home where, besides going to school, producing fashion shows and her own clothing line, she's also raising a young daughter named Naia.
The film isn't short on awful stories from fashion models. What's one story from your time working in the industry that stands out?
I was invited to a Christian Dior party in Paris, and I got drugged there. It was a big party on Avenue Montaigne, and there were a lot of people. I thought, "Oh my gosh, John Galliano is going to see me." It was a small bar, really crowded and the line was like ten miles long. So some guy just handed me a bottle of champagne. I drank some and he disappeared. Soon after I felt really sick and had to run for the door. I ran out into Avenue Montaigne and cars were coming at me, but all I could see were flashing lights. I just knew I needed to get into a cab and out of there. Luckily someone who was working the door pulled me onto the sidewalk.
Did you share stories with your friends, and were they being put in similar situations?
Yeah. My roommate in Italy was date raped at a party and she would have to see this guy out all the time. Not everyone wants to come out with these stories. Maybe you don't ever want anyone to know that you got date raped. I mean, I can be getting roofied at the Dior party. It was all just denial.
What about on shoots? Can you recall some of the working conditions?
I was working for Air France Magazine, and my agency calls me and says, "One of our girls had an allergic reaction midway through a shoot and had to go." They told me she'd gotten hair in her eyes while they were cutting her bangs. They said "Get down there!" It was really weird when I got there. So they do my hair and makeup. Then the photographer was shooting and he's using a UV flash, and it burned the first six layers of the whites of my eyes. Six cell layers. It even burned the assistant's arm.
After the shoot is finished, I'm rushed to the hospital and the other model was already there being treated for burns. For three hours I worked on that shoot while the girl who went before me was being treated in the hospital. They knew what had happened to her and they still had me work. I get there they put ointment on and taped my face shut. They asked me, "Do you have anybody you can call? The agency is closed. No one's coming for you."
My friend brings me home, I'm blind, and he had to feed me for two days. After taking the bandages off I had to wear dark glasses and carry an umbrella. It took two months to heal, so I ask, "Where's my worker's comp?" They said, "We don't sue each other in France."
Good Lord. Where was your agency in all of this?
They would set these things up. I went to work in France once and this famous photographer who I'd been put in bad situations with before was there, too. He booked me for dinner through my agency. They told me, "Oh this is your chance to make up. Can't you go to dinner with him? Others girls from the agency will be there." I agree to go and he's trying to make out with me at the table in front of everyone at the restaurant. I still don't think he even knew my name. He just called me 'Blondie.'
Who at your agency was facilitating this stuff?
At my agency, the new faces booker. He took care of the teenage models and worked nights as a club promoter. He'd say, "After work you should come out to dinner with me, we'll invite like 20 girls from the agency…" And [the models would] all trust him. They'd get everything for free and they'd get really drunk. 15-year-old girls.
I mean, my booker would book me for dinner with somebody influential from the industry just because he wanted to have dinner with a hot chick. The modeling agency would double as a dating agency. They'd say "When you're out with him you can show him your stuff." On time this guy picks me up and I'm starving. He says "I just want to stop at this hotel and have some champagne." So we drink like a bottle of champagne. Then he says "I need to go back and change," and we end up in his hotel room. Pretty soon he comes out in just his bathrobe and I was like "oh, shit." Then I couldn't find my shoes, because he had hidden them so I couldn't leave. I see one of my shoes that he had kicked under the bed. He hid my shoes! I grabbed one of them and just ran. My agency put me in these situations.
They never protected you in the slightest.
No. They'd also sometimes say, "You need to get to this place [for a shoot]. We know this guy with a private jet who would like to take you." They'd be flying you out, booking hotel rooms, booking you out for events. It was just rich guys with jets trying to get laid. The agency didn't protect us at all.
What's the biggest lesson you learned during your time as a fashion model? And what sort of advice would you offer a girl who's interested in following the same path you did?
Only trust yourself. People who say they'll take care of you are the very ones who will hurt you the most. Only trust yourself. Whatever the situation is, think for yourself.
I would hope my daughter would learn to say no. I've finally learned to say no just in the last six months. I never knew how to say it. I'm happy here. I've done so much healing. It's been a big journey for me. I'm actually going to school now, too, for naturopathic medicine. I know that this is my calling.
Picture Me opens tomorrow at Angelika Film Center in Manhattan and in Los Angeles on September 24, before opening in Europe. Here's a trailer for the film: