Sierra Sullivan was discovered at a modelling convention and shortly after graduating high school was treading the runways of Milan, Paris, New York and London. She secured a solo girl spot in the Spring 2000 Prada advertising campaign in addition to the covers of numerous fashion magazines. Sierra took the time to speak with me and Emily Sandberg about her time modelling with unusual candor and maturity.
The Model Alliance is working toward improving the working conditions of models. What’s your experience been like?
I’ve experienced pretty much every working condition – good and bad. The worst condition was working past midnight and for over 14 hours with minimal food. The best was in a controlled studio environment with plenty of food all day and finishing by five o’clock. In France it was amazing because they would take a leisurely lunch with (diluted) wine! While I don’t think the general working conditions are too terrible, I agree that they should be improved and maybe even regulated to prevent overworking the models, and other crew members, because of a lack of organization on the client’s part.
The payment system used by agencies has been nebulous. What type of reform would you like to see happen to the way models are paid?
This is a very good question as there is no way to keep agencies accountable without contacting the clients themselves. Personally, I would have no problem receiving the payment directly from the client and then pay the agency their cut plus any expenses incurred on my behalf. After all, the agency works for me. Since that will most likely never happen, I would like to see it become mandatory that clients receive a model’s personal phone number and/or email address at the time of booking so that when the client cuts a check to the agency, the model is also notified. That way the model knows that a check is arriving in a matter of days to the agency. That prevents an agency from “holding” the funds (whether the model is aware of it or not) for any unnecessary reason. I have heard horror stories of an agency using payments to pay for a booker’s personal home while telling the models the clients never paid. Awful.
I would also love to see a system where there is, at the very least, a deposit on the models at the time of booking. Nowadays it can take from six months up to a year, or more, to get paid for a single job. This has to stop. The system as it is is so abused. It’s simply not fair. Either pay a 50 percent deposit before the shoot date, or better yet, pay the rate in full. Otherwise, how do you enforce a 30 or 60 day payment rule? It’s a tough one.
What do you think about the celebrity culture that dominates the fashion industry?
I totally get that celebrity images sell. There’s no doubt about that. It’s really unfortunate though because for me, it’s getting old. I admire certain celebrities, I do, but it has become one huge marketing tactic with a celebrity appearing on a cover mostly to promote an upcoming film or project. There’s no longer much of a celebration of beauty and something new, like when Karolina Kurkova made the cover of American VOGUE. That was exciting! I love perusing the French and Italian VOGUE’s and other independent fashion magazines for the love of aesthetics and art. That is something we don’t really seem to appreciate in American fashion. The fact that women like Snooki and the Kardashians are highly profiled is deeply disturbing to me. I don’t necessarily want to ban all celebrities but there needs to be more of a mix of models, art, beauty and worthy celebrities…like Adele.
How do you feel about the media’s portrayal of beauty?
There is definitely far too much Photoshop being used. I don’t mind a pimple or glaring mark being erased, but when a model or celebrity’s actual physical attributes start getting changed, such as boobs, waist and hip sizes, and faces get completely cleaned up to the point of absolutely no wrinkles or marks on the skin, then it’s no wonder teens, and adults for that matter, are being driven mad trying to keep up with the ideals of media-enhanced beauty. It’s just impossible! Only a few of us are so blessed with near perfect skin or body shapes. I remember a photo shoot I did years ago for Numero magazine with photographer Thomas Schenk. The call time was 8 a.m. and I was in front of the camera by 8:15 a.m.. How did I get my hair and makeup done so fast? There wasn’t any! All they did was curl my eyelashes and tease my hair a bit. I pretty much woke up from bed and got in front of a camera. Very refreshing and the portrait turned out great. Also, when I did the Guerlain beauty campaign, they even left in my scar that’s on the side of my eye; No Photoshopping. I’m not sure they would do that now. So yeah, let’s get back to real beauty.
How do you think the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s health initiative will impact the types of images presented to the public?
Didn’t they try to do this in Europe? I didn’t see any changes in the size of the models and I would be very surprised if there was much of a change here. The bottom line is that as long as designers use small sample sizes and demand tiny models, the models will have to be thin to work with them. The designers will have to change. I’m sure some will, but not all of them will. While I’m glad there’s a plus-sized modeling industry out there, what about the normal girls that are size 4-8? That is what a large number of healthy women are. It’s not healthy to be underweight but it’s not healthy to be overweight either in reference to plus-sized. It may be average, but it’s not necessarily healthy. So, I don’t have a lot of confidence that the health initiative will have much of an impact.
You are a diabetic, how did you manage your health with the stressful physical demands at the height of your career?
It was very difficult and a less than ideal situation. Being a diabetic and having to be that thin did not mix. I simply did not manage it well. It is actually because of it that I had to leave New York City and move to California. I couldn’t handle the pressure to be that thin as a diabetic anymore. It wasn’t sustainable. I got healthy again after my move. While I lost the momentum of my career, I gained my life back and am now happily married with an amazing little two-year-old.
Does your hearing impairment affect your modeling?
Only when it comes to having to understand what the photographer is saying when his/her face is behind the camera. The fact that I’m hearing impaired may have scared off some clients from booking me. Other than those two things, it hasn’t affected my career at all. I’ve never let it keep me from achieving my goals.
How did fronting the Prada campaign change the course of your career?
It brought on a slew of new bookings and campaigns. It was great!
Who were some of your favorite people in fashion to work with?
Some of my favorites were Bruce Weber, Debra Watson (stylist), David Sims, Ralph Lauren crew and Thomas Schenk.