The Ugly Truth About the Sexual Harassment of Models

ANNE KINGSTON explores how the modelling industry provides the perfect hunting ground for sexual predators

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(Photo: TommL/Getty Images)

(Photo: TommL/Getty Images)

Misty Fox vividly recalls the first time she was harassed on a shoot—it was in 2001, for a lookbook to be used by a major denim brand, one of her first assignments in London after she arrived from her native Australia. Her agent was thrilled, she says, because the photographer was a rising star in the fashion world, gaining attention for his risqué work. Fox, then 20, had never heard the photographer’s name before. On set, she was put off by the presence of alcohol—something she hadn’t seen in Australia—and his “You’re so sexy and cool Misty Fox” line of patter, which repelled her. “The entire experience was gross,” she says.

It got worse. When Fox took a break to go to the toilet, she was shocked to look up and see the photographer. “He went to the next cubicle, leaned over like a kid in primary school and took my picture.” Livid, she called him a “disgusting old man,” and demanded he hand over the film. He refused, she claims. “He just sneered, ‘What are you going to do, tell your daddy?’”

Fox called her agent to say she wanted to leave and faced a second shock. “He said, ‘Honey, it’s [name redacted]; he’s a really big deal. You’re lucky to be there. Get some good shots. Gotta go.’” And so she continued with the shoot. (When contacted by FLARE, the photographer’s representative said there is no record of him doing work for the denim brand in question in 2001; multiple attempts to contact Fox’s agency and booker and the brand to corroborate details went unanswered.)

Fox, now a Toronto-based makeup artist, saw further objectionable behaviour in her nine-year modeling career—underage girls sleeping with 60-something men, big breaks dangled in return for sex. She learned to pick her battles: “Models aren’t in the corporate workforce where there’s zero tolerance,” she says. “They’re young girls making career decisions, weighing pros and cons, and sometimes one of the cons is putting up with sexual harassment.”

For decades, putting up has meant shutting up. But that’s changing as models—traditionally valued for being seen, not heard—are speaking out and mobilizing. At the forefront is former model Sara Ziff, whose 2009 documentary Picture Me chronicled modelling’s ugly side: sexual harassment, unhealthy body image and financial exploitation. By the end of the film, Ziff forms the Model Alliance, a New York City–based not-for-profit advocacy group dedicated to ensuring safe, fair and healthy working conditions for girls (and they often are girls). British models established a similar initiative in 2007 under Equity, the U.K. actors’ union. Fox doesn’t see any reason similar protections can’t happen in Canada, though she says her experience working here, as both a model and a makeup artist, has been great … for the most part. The Canadian industry is protective of its models, she says: “But it’s small, which means models have to travel.”

Toronto-born Coco Rocha, too, is using her celebrity to advocate for change. Her first exposure to harassment was shortly after she was scouted in Vancouver at age 15. Working in Taipei, she was forced to change in front of an audience, common in modelling. “The other models and I could easily have been given a moment of privacy,” she says. “But we felt powerless to say anything: we could be sent home, lose the job and be forced to pay for our flights.” Early on, she met girls from Russia and eastern Europe who’d had more horrific experiences—“Being coerced to strip nude was standard, and on occasion even worse happened.”

High-profile charges and sentencings have also drawn attention to model exploitation. In August, London-based photographer Shaun Colclough, then 40, was sentenced to seven years on two counts of sexually assaulting aspiring models. And last fall Toronto-based agent Norwayne Anderson, then 43, was charged with five counts of sexual assault and two counts of sexual exploitation that took place between 1996 and 2010 involving a 15- and a 16-year-old boy—in the agent’s home studio—and one man in his early 20s. Anderson, who runs NAM Personal Management, is known for scouting attractive teenagers, mostly male, on the street and in clubs, dangling the promise of celebrity. His case, which has a publication ban, is ongoing.

Listening to Rocha speak on the topic is a wake-up call: a lesson in the fact that the sort of exploitative child labour practices typically associated with offshore sweatshops can also exist behind the scenes of the glossy campaigns for the clothing these factories produce. She speaks of underage girls “roaming the world alone and being sent blindly into compromising situations.” If they complain, they’re told they’re exaggerating or acting like children, she says: “But in reality they are children, and there is no one to protect them.”

The issue is particularly timely in a year punctuated by talk of “rape culture” and the #YesAllWomen movement. Yet little has been written recently about rape in the fashion industry, ground zero for creating idealized imagery surrounding women—and men. Given the industry’s influence, the issue has broader social ramifications, says Rocha: “How we treat our models says a lot about how we feel about women in general.”

She has faced resistance, she says. “When I talk about protecting models, people laugh at me, as if to say, ‘What do models have to worry about?’ But we’re talking about some of the most vulnerable young women.” The glam façade of fashion—models enjoying 24-7 fabulosity, star-studded parties and “nonstop caviar and couture,” as Rocha puts it—can make it difficult to believe exploitation exists. “We often hear Linda Evangelista’s quote about models not getting out of bed for less than $10,000 a day,” she says. “But in general, most of the world’s models are insecure teenage girls, earning less than $30,000 a year and living and working in countries far from home.”

“People think, How could you have problems when you’re so pretty and have beautiful clothes and handbags?” says Fox. “There’s this idea that nothing is bad for them, but there’s a secret darkness to the modelling industry that doesn’t show up in print.

That reality is reflected in the results of an anonymous online Model Alliance survey. Of the 85 models who responded, 24 reported feeling pressured to have sex with someone at work. Twenty-five reported inappropriate touching, while 74 experienced a surprise nude shoot or casting. Forty-four say they rarely or never have parents or guardians on shoots or castings. Only 25 models who had been sexually harassed at work felt they could tell their agency (of that group, another 16 said their agents didn’t see a problem). Some models even reported that their agents encouraged them to have sex with their harassers to further their careers. Additionally, 65 had been exposed to drugs and/or alcohol on set; 58 suffered from depression and/or anxiety.

Such stories, sadly, are not new. Investigative journalist Michael Gross’s 1995 book, Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, detailed the indignities young models endured—or felt forced to embrace—to further their careers. The industry’s response, typically, has been to ignore the allegations until they can’t any longer. John Casablancas, who co-founded Elite Model Management in 1972, was drubbed out for being a “modelizer,” the dismissive term used for those who prey on models like they’re fungible objects. Gérald Marie, a former Elite executive (and Evangelista’s ex-husband), was caught on BBC hidden camera trying to give an underage model money for sex. Marie kept his job at the time and now runs another Paris modelling agency; in her 2011 memoir, Beauty, Disrupted, actress Carré Otis accused him of raping her when she was 17 and he was her agent. Then there’s the sordid case of Jeffrey Epstein, the multimillionaire financier who served jail time for soliciting an underage girl for prostitution.

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A blog post by Roswell Ivory brought forth a slew of aspiring models harassed by the same British photographer

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In her memoir, Carré Otis wrote of being raped by her agent at age 17

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Sarah Ziff’s documentary Picture Me shed light on sexual exploitation in modelling

The latest industry darling mired in abuse allegations while being defended by powerful players is Terry Richardson, one of the world’s most recognizable photographers, and one of the most visually influential. His roster of high-profile clients includes Harper’s Bazaar, GQ, Purple, Vice, Yves Saint Laurent Beauté and Valentino; he routinely photographs celebrities and other public figures, including Barack Obama, and has a genius for garnering attention, as seen in Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” video, which he directed. Richardson is also famed for normalizing “porno chic” in mainstream culture—his work features bukaki poses, and images of the photographer himself being fellated before the camera are now so common as to summon yawns. Allegations that he has harassed and coerced unwilling models into sexual acts have swirled since 2005; multiple lawsuits have been filed, though no criminal investigations have been launched.

Richardson steadfastly denies all charges. Writing in The Huffington Post earlier this year, he called the allegations an emotionally charged witch hunt, explaining that sexual imagery has always been a part of his photography and defining his work as “transgressive,” “provocative” and always conducted with “consenting adult women.” Yet a June New York cover profile of the photographer called “Is Terry Richardson an Artist or a Predator?” suggests the two are mutually exclusive. In it, former French Vogue editor-in-chief Joan Juliet Buck explains how fashion shoots stoke arousal, whether or not it’s calculated: “That thing of being told you’re the most beautiful works everyone into a state of desire, where the girl is being appreciated and she feels loved. There’s a very fine line between abuse of that innocence and validation of their beauty.” In the 2012 documentary About Face: Supermodels Then and Now, Paulina Porizkova, a model who came to fame in the mid-’80s, recalled teenage girls being routinely propositioned, in vile ways, by powerful men: “What people called sexual harassment, we called compliments.”

If someone set out to create an industry that enabled—then masked—sexual harassment, it would look like modelling. In no other realm do adults routinely work with the underage in situations that are so highly sexualized. Most female models start before 16. Many drop out of school and live transient lives far from home. “The basic structure of the industry—its focus on beauty, the youth and inexperience of many models, the global travel, even the constant changing of clothes—creates an environment far more conducive to sexual abuse than the average day at the office,” says lawyer Susan Scafidi, the founder and academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University, which has worked with the Model Alliance to advocate for legal reform in the industry and counsels models on their rights.

Industry professionals who engage in harassment aren’t the norm, Scafidi says: “Most professionals associated with the industry, including agents and photographers, are there simply to do their job, but there are clearly opportunities for predatory behaviour.” The fact that models are not “employees” but independent contractors means they cannot legally unionize. Yet where independent contractors can pick and choose with whom to work, models’ exclusive contracts prohibit them from accepting work that doesn’t come through their agencies, defined as management companies. Models also do work negotiated on their behalf. “At no stage are we told what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour on a shoot,” says British model Rebecca Pearson, whose blog ModelTypeFace provides advice to help models protect themselves and navigate uncomfortable situations.

This is where a strong agent is vital, says Pearson: “Any booker worth their salt will back up their model,” she says. Veteran Toronto agent Elmer Olsen, who reports that he hasn’t personally been witness to sexually abusive situations, agrees: “We tell all the girls, ‘You have to feel comfortable. You don’t have to wear it; you phone me.’”

Ben Barry, an assistant professor of equity, diversity and inclusion at the Ryerson University School of Fashion and founder of the Ben Barry Agency, has long been a champion for greater diversity in fashion. He believes sexual harassment is inevitable in an industry based on objectification—and selling sexuality and desirability, in increasingly overt ways. Fox recalls one shoot in Toronto when she was 21, working with another model, who was 15. The photographer told them to look as if they’d had the best oral sex of their lives. After looking at the shot, he told them they looked uncomfortable. “That’s because you made it uncomfortable,” Fox replied. “I was a feisty model,” she says, adding that making models feel awkward is counterproductive to getting good shots.

The fact that models often live with the agent who discovered them can also enable abuse, as Otis wrote in her memoir. The issue is at the heart of a 2012 lawsuit by 19-year-old Pennsylvania-born and -raised model Hayden Holt and two other models, who claim that Aristeo Tengco’s agency, Emmanuel New York Models, charged them to live in his own apartment, where he ran his agency and where the assaults took place. The models are claiming they’re Tengco’s employees, which would entitle them to a significantly greater level of protection from sexual harassment, wage theft and other abuses. (Tengco’s lawyer calls the claims an extortion plot and the suit frivolous.) Lawsuits alleging sexual harassment or assault are difficult to pursue in general, Scafidi says. “It’s a he-said-she-said problem, and the victims are reluctant to come forward to admit they were sexually assaulted. Models’ legal rights as independent contractors are limited. It’s not surprising that there are very few cases.”

Those who come forward can often be ostracized or accused of trying to get publicity. Fashion is extremely sensitive to anyone rocking the boat, says Rocha: “The industry gives off this impression of being forward thinking about change and ‘the new,’ which is true in the sense of design and style, but not in terms of the way business is run.” Her own outspokenness has cost her, she says: “Whenever I’ve spoken out on issues that affect the industry, I’ve felt a backlash. I’ve lost work and I’ve made some enemies, but in the long run they were not the people I wanted to be around anyway.” Fox expresses concern that her candour will be read as disloyalty. “Will people think I’m ratting the industry out? We are all independent contractors—it’s every woman for herself.”

Fashion, by definition, is an exclusive club, and the A-list protects itself, often in subtle ways. For magazines, there’s no upside to disrupting relationships with advertisers and their preferred photographers. A protective cone of silence prevails. Jeanne Beker, host of Fashion Television for 27 years and the author of Strutting It!: The Grit Behind the Glamour, a book about the modelling industry, recalls shooting a profile of a model for FT. The crew waited for hours while the model shot privately with a well-known photographer; finally she emerged and told them to go on, that she and the photographer were going out for dinner. “That certainly didn’t make the final edit,” Beker says. She sees sexual harassment in modelling as part of a broader continuum in which rich, powerful men take advantage of beautiful, ambitious young women.

But the lines of more explicitly sexual imagery are blurred. Dov Charney, the founder and former CEO of American Apparel, who was known for advertising campaigns inspired by child porn, was appointed CEO after masturbating in front of a female journalist and being named in a parade of sexual harassment lawsuits. (He was finally ousted earlier this year, after new facts emerged about his behaviour.) Social media has also been a game changer. “It’s amazing and also the kiss of death,” says Olsen. “Every teenage girl wants to be a celebrity. They want to follow in the footsteps of Karlie Kloss; she gets 40,000 likes from one picture on Instagram.” Beker, a former judge on Canada’s Next Top Model, is horrified at the parents who push their children into the spotlight. Others speak of Eastern bloc girls—inspired by Cinderella stories like that of Russian model Natalia Vodianova—who want out of their countries so badly they’ll do anything.

Colclough used an industry website to lure models with the promise of helping to improve their portfolios for free. But the Internet bit him back when model Roswell Ivory, 26, sexually harassed by Colclough, took to her blog to ask if other models had problems with an unnamed East London photographer; around 10 wrote back naming him. He’d been associated with top international agencies, which made her ignore her initial unease: “Often in creative industries you come across eccentrics, so I tried to be accepting with his behaviour.”

And in another case of the web providing a gateway to exploitation, Tevon Harris was sentenced to 40 years in a Houston jail this August on two counts of trafficking minors for commercial sex; he was 22. The charges came after he approached young girls on social media, promising to help them become models.

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Photographer Terry Richardson, known for his sexually transgressive work, faces allegations of sexual harassemtn, all of which he denies

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Agent Gerald Marie was caught red-handed offering an underage model money for sex

Often left out of the conversation is harassment of male models, who tend to be recruited older and are not as well paid. A rare glimpse is seen in a sexual harassment lawsuit from model Benjamine Bowers, who sued Abercrombie & Fitch and modeling agent Brian Hilburn. Bowers was employed by Hollister (owned by Abercrombie) when a company casting director referred him to Hilburn. The suit claims that during a 2011 shoot to create a portfolio, Bowers was told that the best way to achieve a “relaxed” look before the camera was to masturbate, so the photographer could capture his expression immediately after orgasm. Bowers says that after he complied, Hilburn exposed himself and made inappropriate comments. No one talks about men being harassed, says Pearson: “I know many male models who have been made to feel uncomfortable or like a piece of meat, even some who felt obliged to engage in sexual behaviour on trips or shoots—by men and women.” Men face more pressure to “suck it up” or even laugh off these cases, she says. “But they’re as vulnerable to the same issues—weight, loneliness, abuse—and less likely to discuss them. Sadly, the fear of being seen as less masculine keeps them quiet.”

Change requires organized effort, says Scafidi—among agencies, casting directors, stylists, designers, magazines—in addition to models speaking out. We saw industry mobilization in 2012, when editors of all Vogue editions signed a “health pact” agreeing not to use models under age 16 or those they believe have an eating disorder. Last year, New York passed a law giving models under 16 the same protections as other child performers.

Rocha is proof models can draw clear lines and thrive. Among other stipulations, her contract outlines her refusal to be involved in “risqué/sensual scenarios” or appear nude, semi-nude or in lingerie or swimwear. She’d like to see models start work a little later. “Living away from home and working at 13 or 14 is not a wise move,” she says, adding that she herself was too young at 15. Underage models should have chaperones, she says—“no exception.” But that can be a problem, says Olsen: “Most teenage girls don’t want their mother sitting there watching them—and chaperones can stifle the creative process.” Barry believes models under 18 should not be exposed to sexual situations, and that even then “an 18-year-old can be ill-prepared to handle the sort of pressure this industry can put on her.”

Pearson maintains the issue is far more complex than simply setting age limits. “The narrative of a sweaty, lecherous photographer preying on innocent, young, naïve girls sent to them by an uncaring, money-grabbing agent is too simplistic,” she says. Abusers are often far subtler and more manipulative. “They know models place implicit trust in the team they’re shooting with—which a handful of predatory men (and, in some cases, women) take advantage of. This means that even an experienced model like me might put up with a scenario that makes them uncomfortable, for fear of looking unprofessional.”

Rocha is optimistic, noting that sexual harassment isn’t being pushed under the rug or attributed to the “boys will be boys” attitude of the ’80s and ’90s: “The more we talk, the better it gets.” Rocha and other models have come forward to say they refuse to work with Richardson; several of his former clients, including Target, H&M, W and Vogue, have publicly distanced themselves. Rocha also wants magazines and brands to consider why they need 14-year-old models to portray fashion sold to grown women in the first place, a question grown women should also ask themselves.

“It’s important that big brands and corporations make a concerted effort to not allow sexual harassment on shoots,” says Rocha. “The clients who hire the models, the stylists and the photographers can all cast their jobs with whomever they want. Why would they choose someone who’s known to prey sexually on others?” As long as that’s even a question, there’s awareness to be raised, work to be done.

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