Discovered at age 14 outside her Manhattan school, Sara Ziff was quickly swept up into the high-glamour whirlwind of the fashion industry, jetting to Paris and Milan for shoots and shows and getting paychecks with an astonishing number of zeros.
She and her boyfriend, a film school graduate, started taking home videos backstage on a lark, but the couple's hobby bloomed into something bigger — an inside peek behind the industry's high-gloss facade into its darker side of body image problems, drugs and even sexual abuse.
Ziff, a blue-eyed blond who walked for luxury supernovas including Louis Vuitton and Chanel, says the couple's documentary, "Picture Me," shows an industry sometimes out of control.
"It's sort of the 'Wild West,' with people feeling the rules don't apply in fashion, for some reason. I'd like to be a part of making some sort of changes in that way," Ziff, 28, told The Associated Press.
She and her boyfriend and co-director, Ole Schell, were in Paris Monday to promote the movie among the fashion glitteratti, who are flocking to the city for the spring-summer 2011 ready-to-wear show, which begins Tuesday. The movie, which is currently playing in Los Angeles, is scheduled to be released in Paris next month.
Shot over a period of five years by Ziff, Schell and their model friends, "Picture Me" makes a convincing case for the need for some sort of regulation in an industry where girls begin their careers at age 14 or even as young as 12.
Ziff waited until after high school to pursue her career in earnest. Soon, she was gracing mammoth billboards in her native New York and out-earning her father, a neuro-biologist and professor at New York University.
In the film, we see Ziff evolve from a wide-eyed ingenue into a harried and emotionally strung-out young woman.
She's often in tears, reeling from the sheer exhaustion of the brutal monthlong fashion show calendar, or upset about a tactless comment from one of the professionals backstage. Ziff says the industry tends to see models as objects to be poked, prodded and painted, rather than as sensitive young women.
The movie also prods what Ziff calls the "sordid and salacious" underbelly of fashion, with her and her friends talking on camera about the taboo subjects of cocaine use backstage, bulemia-clogged toilets and photographers' unwanted sexual advances.
Ziff, and Schell, 35, insist they hadn't initially set out to make a tell-all documentary.
"I started by just innocently shooting for fun," said Schell, adding it was his journalist father who convinced the pair to make a film. "So we took all this home video footage, about two years of home video footage, and then interviewed a bunch of Sara's friends, other models, and photographers and fashion designers."
In an industry that Schell describes as "all literally about the image, the final image, (and) all the money and effort that goes into that," it wasn't easy to get such explosive revelations on tape, the pair said.
"It's not always considered so cool to analyze things in the fashion industry," said Schell, who also directed "Win in China," a documentary about capitalism in the Asian giant. "When you peel back the layers and start to examine the machinations behind the scenes, not everyone is interested in participating in that."
Ziff said her modeling agency was not aware of the couple's project. After "Picture Me" debuted on the film festival circuit she changed agencies, she said.
Still, the movie is not all negative. It showcases the camaraderie and the close bonds that develop between models as they turn to one another for support, and it often focuses on the lighthearted and happy moments they share.
"Picture Me" also underscores the way modeling allows teenage girls, often from small towns in Eastern Europe or Latin American, to lift their entire families out of grinding poverty.
At the end of the movie, Ziff is looking for a way out of modeling and gets accepted at Columbia University. Having paid her way through the Ivy League college on her income from modeling, Ziff is to graduate with a degree in political science in December.
In addition to making the movie, Ziff also worked on Democratic candidate Andrew Cuomo's campaign for New York governor and said she was surprised about the amount of crossover between fashion and politics.
"In the end, they're both about image," she said.