#MeToo: sex scandal in the model industry

Jessica Perez should have been on top of the world.

She was in her mid-20s and her modelling career was taking off. Striking and ethereal, with fair hair and an elfin face, she had just finished shooting for a major US brand on location in the American South and was out celebrating with the rest of the crew.

But what should have been a joyful evening turned into a nightmare when she was assaulted by one of her senior colleagues — a figure of trust. ‘There was a truck outside where I had a sweater,’ she explains. ‘I said, “Oh, I need to get my sweater.”’ The colleague in question said he would accompany her. ‘He opened the truck and I leaned in to get my sweater. All of a sudden I felt his hand inside of my leg, as though he was grabbing my butt and part of my vagina at the same time.’ Stunned, she turned around and said, ‘What the f*** are you doing?’

She got up to leave; her assailant followed her to her hotel. ‘I looked at him and said, “This is what’s going to happen right now. You’re going to walk over there and I’m going to walk over here and that is what the f*** is going to happen.”’ Thankfully, he left. Afterwards Perez, who is based in New York and has modelled for some of the biggest names in the industry, felt betrayed. ‘If he’d followed me a little bit more, would he have gotten physical at any cost? I have no idea. I’m so glad I don’t know the answer.’

Ever since stories of Harvey Weinstein’s alleged predatory behaviour shone a spotlight on sexual harassment in Hollywood, industries from politics to sport have been convulsed by allegations of abuse. Fashion is no exception. In October, the American model Cameron Russell, 30, began posting fellow models’ anonymous experiences on Instagram. They include stories of masturbating on set and demands for oral sex. The same month, Condé Nast — publisher of Vogue and GQ — and fashion houses Valentino and Bulgari announced they would stop using photographer Terry Richardson, 52, who has long faced accusations of inappropriate behaviour including allegations (which he denies) that he forced his penis into women’s faces.

Then in December, Bruce Weber, 71, famous for his sexually charged photos, was accused of pressuring two male models, Jason Boyce and Mark Ricketson, to touch their genitals. And, of course, January saw Mario Testino, 63, accused of inappropriate advances, including groping and masturbation, by 13 male assistants and models in a New York Times exposé that also saw further allegations against Weber. Lawyers for both Testino and Weber have disputed the accounts.

As Perez’s experience demonstrates, these aren’t isolated allegations. I have spoken to more than a dozen working and former models and heard myriad stories of abuse. They include tales of groping, propositioning and of bullying when models refused to go topless or nude. In one instance, a photographer told a model, ‘I want to rape you’. In another, a model was asked to spit on her breasts. In yet another, a model posed nude for a world-famous photographer who said the results would not be published — only to find the image displayed in an exhibition of his work.

Then there are the day-to-day indignities such as being forced to change in public with no changing area (which can, at fashion shows, mean unwittingly appearing undressed in backstage photographs), having to wait ‘like a piece of meat’ for hours at castings and being scolded for turning blue in the cold. That something has gone badly wrong isn’t in doubt. The real question is whether things can change — and how.

Like Hollywood, the modelling world is fiercely competitive. For every Cara or Kate success story there are thousands of anonymous models. This was highlighted last year when James Scully, a former bookings editor, attacked Balenciaga’s casting directors, Maida Gregori Boina and Rami Fernandes, for allegedly leaving models shut in a dark stairway for hours during a casting (the label has severed its relationship with Boina and Fernandes, while Boina has denied Scully’s account). The vast imbalance of power between the ‘gatekeepers’ of success (photographers, casting directors, creative directors) and models makes voicing objections incredibly difficult.

‘People say, “Why didn’t these men or women just say no?” It completely misunderstands the dynamics of power when you’re in that situation,’ says Edward Siddons, 24, who while modelling was pressured to pose nude and had his bottom slapped by a fashion consultant on a shoot. ‘Saying “no” means you need to be able to afford to pay your rent if that job gets pulled. It means being able to take up a different line of work if your career is effectively killed by being blacklisted, or being “difficult”. There are economic barriers to saying “no” — it isn’t just about “strength of character” or “courage”.’ Siddons, who lives in north London, has since left the industry and written about its problems as a journalist.

Too often, modelling agencies have been in thrall to the photographers and brands with whom they work. Some insiders claim allegations of harassment have circulated for years. Says one agent: ‘Everybody knew and nobody really wanted to do anything.’ One 28-year-old west London-based model recalls being sent to a test shoot in Milan. At dusk, the photographer suggested they go to his apartment for some final pictures. Once there, he became increasingly angry when she refused to pose topless. ‘He was shouting and said that I was unprofessional.’ She left in tears; the next day she received a torrent of texts saying, ‘I’m going to ruin your career — you’ll never work again.’ He was wrong — she subsequently modelled for major high street brands such as Asos and Topshop. But when she told her agent, they simply asked why she hadn’t done as he said. She has since left the agency and joined Linden Staub, which was set up in March 2016 by two former bookers, Esther Kinnear-Derungs and Tara Davies, with a view to bringing ‘honesty and integrity to the world of modelling’.

Then there’s the fact that fashion workplaces — shows, shoot sets — are less structured than others. While this can be a boon for creativity, it’s open to abuse. Supermodel Edie Campbell alluded to this in an open letter published in Women’s Wear Daily in November. ‘Pranks, sexually explicit jokes, suggestive comments,’ she wrote, ‘these all slide under the radar in a “fun” and “creative” industry like fashion. Please note the irony of tone.’ Sex sells so shoots are often knowingly suggestive. As model Elliott Sailors, 35, says: ‘So much of what we do is intentionally sexualised,’ making it ‘tricky sometimes to see at what point that line is crossed’. On a shoot five years ago, a photographer began ‘complimenting me on what a good job I was doing and how sexy I looked’. Then his tone changed: ‘It was, “We should have sex now, we should have sex now,”’ says Sailors, who has modelled for high-profile labels. ‘Once he got that I was not going to have sex with him, he asked if instead he could come on my ass.’ He spent the rest of the shoot commenting on how ‘rude and arrogant’ she was.

It’s these qualities that measures to stamp out abuse will attempt to change. In the US, New York State Assemblywoman Nily Rozic, a Democrat, is pioneering a so-called ‘Models’ Harassment Protection Act’ to extend workplace protections to models who, as independent contractors, occupy a grey area in employment law. Whether others follow suit remains to be seen (both France and Italy already have laws in place aimed at preventing the use of underweight models).

In the UK a new body, the British Fashion Model Agents Association (BFMAA), has been set up by agencies including Premier, Select and Storm, with the industry’s main trade group, the British Fashion Council (BFC). A committee of members of the media, designers, photographers, stylists, agencies and models is drawing up a charter to ‘protect and give a voice to models’, which will be unveiled at London Fashion Week. The BFMAA has also set up a confidential helpline to give advice to models.

Others are already adopting their own measures to protect models. In September, Paris-based conglomerates LVMH and Kering — responsible for major luxury brands including Dior, Fendi, Gucci and Alexander McQueen — created a new ‘model charter’. Along with requirements that models under 18 be chaperoned, it specified that in cases of nudity or semi-nudity, models never be alone without their consent with ‘a person linked to the production or a photographer’ and that brands provide a changing area during shoots and shows. Condé Nast has also revealed a new code of conduct including a ban on models under 18 and the prohibition of alcohol on set. Nudity or ‘sexually suggestive poses’ must be agreed in advance.

Welcome though these efforts are, many argue a more fundamental realignment of power is needed. Fashion commentator Caryn Franklin — repeatedly outspoken about Terry Richardson — believes better unionisation would help. The entertainment industry union Equity has run a models division in the UK since 2009, costing from £10 per month, but the number of members remains small at around 1,600, only a third of whom are thought to model full-time. Franklin would like to see an ‘immediate link between agencies and the unions’, with agents covering membership cost.

There are also calls for an independent, international regulatory body. ‘Self-regulation by high-status creatives who are invested only in profits and profile outcomes is not effective,’ says Franklin. Sara Ziff, the American model and founder of advocacy group the Model Alliance, has put forward a ‘Proposal for Sexual Respect in the Fashion, Entertainment and Media Industries’, incorporating public commitments from industry groups, regular industry audits and a complaints procedure.

None of this will be easy. It is very likely other big names will be tarnished. But as more tales of abuse become public the clamour for change has, and will, become greater. Several top models have spoken out about the problems in their industry, including Karen Elson, who says a model scout once tried to coerce her into having sex with him in a club in Paris, and Ashley Graham, who revealed that a photographer’s assistant exposed himself to her when she was 17. Whatever challenges it presents, and whatever solutions are found, one thing is for sure: the issue of models’ rights is not going away. As Lisa Bloom, the lawyer representing Boyce in his legal action against Weber, puts it: ‘Turning a blind eye is no longer acceptable.’

Illustrations by Michelle Thompson