You’ll be hard pressed to find someone who hasn’t at least once daydreamed about life as a model. Models jet between big cities and exotic locales, and wear beautiful and expensive clothes. They look drop-dead gorgeous, attend high-profile parties, and date Leonardo DiCaprio. The main job requirements are “tall” and “beautiful”. To most people, it sounds like the easiest and most luxurious job in the world.
The reality of the fashion industry is a lot darker than that.
According to a survey done by the Model Alliance, the majority of female models begin work before they turn 16. In an industry so concentrated on youth, beauty, and the female body, things can get questionable real fast. A common issue with models is being forced to change clothes in front of dozens of nosy photographers—when you have photographers taking invasive photos of underaged models in various states of undress, lines get crossed. That exact thing happened to supermodel Coco Rocha, who was only 15 years old at the time. She said, “We felt powerless to say anything. We could be sent home, lose the job, and be forced to pay for our flights.”
Cara Delevingne, who just retired as a fashion model, said that modeling made her “feel a bit hollow”, saying, “[We’re talking about] young girls. You start when you are really young … you get subjected to… not great stuff.” She also acknowledged that some male photographers enter the business solely for the young girls.
In 1985, at the age of 17, model Carré Otis was raped by her then-35-year-old manager and the now-head of Elite Paris, Gérald Marie. He married supermodel Linda Evangelista two years later. Another young model, Karen Mulder, accused Marie of raping her. Mulder—written off by her own father as a drug addict—was forcibly hospitalized (which was paid for by Marie) and heavily sedated. She recanted all of the accusations she had made (that she had been raped by men at Elite, politicians, police officers, her father, and a family friend at various points in her life), only to attempt suicide after her release. In addition, Marie would also be caught trying to pay a 15-year-old model for sex, and bragging about how many Elite Model Look competitors (who are typically 14-18 years old) he would have sex with that year. Despite how massively suspicious that sounds, there was never an investigation launched, and Mulder and Otis never received justice.
The stories go on and on. A male model named Benjamine Bowers sued Abercrombie & Fitch and his modeling agent Brian Hilburn after Bowers was told by a photographer that he should masturbate so the photographer could capture his facial expression immediately after orgasm; once Bowers obeyed, Hilburn exposed himself and began to make inappropriate sexual comments. Last August, photographer Shaun Colclough was sentenced to 7 years after he was discovered to have sexually harassed and assaulted multiple female models. Modeling agent Norwayne Anderson was charged with five counts of sexual assault and two of sexual exploitation, some involving underaged male models.
Terry Richardson is one of the most high-profile photographers in the industry. You’ve probably seen the viral video he filmed of model Kate Upton doing the “Cat Daddy” dance, or the photos of famous models and celebrities on a white backdrop often donning the stereotypical nerd glasses he wears as part of his “Lovely Bones killer” ensemble. Richardson has had an impressive clientele working with him, but it’s his behaviour with the young and inexperienced ones that says the most about him.
Multiple models who have worked with him specifically mention the tone he uses when trying to coax them into acts they would be uncomfortable with: a then-19-year-old Jamie Peck described it as “that psychotically upbeat way that temporarily convinces so many girls that what’s fun for Uncle Terry is fun for them.” Model Charlotte Waters had similar sentiments: “He and his assistant were both complimenting [me] a lot, which was a little different from what I had experienced before. During the other shoots people would say nice things now and then, but looking back it was obviously Richardson’s effort to make this little 19-year-old girl feel like she is this amazing, special person … things were starting to go in a direction that wasn’t good, but for some reason I still had a lot of trust in whatever he told me to do, so I just did it.”
So why has this gone on for so long without intervention?
Model Nikia Phoenix said to HuffPost Live, “A lot of models feel like they don’t have a voice, like they don’t want to be the whistleblower in the situation because it may cost them jobs in the future.” With the majority of working models being children or adults struggling to pay rent on a salary just above the poverty level, it’s no wonder they would prefer to keep quiet over anything suspicious. Model Dunja Knezevic echoes Phoenix: “It is a sensitive subject. Nobody wants to speak about it. The girls want to work, and they don’t want to get blacklisted.”
Phoenix says that people like Richardson are commonplace and well-known among fashion models. “We talk amongst ourselves,” she says. “We tell our agents, ‘Yes, working with this person may make my career, but do I really want to subject myself to a possible sexual predator?'” The sad reality is that many girls do end up working with these people, and it results in anything ranging from invasion of privacy to full-blown sexual abuse. In 2014, Charlotte Waters published an anonymous post on Reddit, sharing details about an encounter she’d had with Richardson back in 2009 that ended up escalating without her consent. She described Richardson exposing his genitals, kissing her aggressively, and a host of other lewd acts that ended in him ejaculating on her face.
Waters was only 19 years old at the time. Terry Richardson was in his mid-forties.
In an interview with Vocativ, Waters said that she had spoken with a detective who told her the situation with Richardson couldn’t be classified as a crime because she hadn’t said no. Yet, enough models for a major fashion show have spoken up about industry figures like him. It’s comparable to the dozens of women who spoke up about Bill Cosby and were ignored: multiple high-profile models have come out with the truth, but it’s not enough to keep him from landing clients like Gwyneth Paltrow, Samuel L. Jackson, and President Barack Obama.
Model Rie Rasmussen was one of the very first to come forward and tell the truth about Richardson, and she has been beautifully vocal about his actions. After he used a photo of her in his book Terryworld, she confronted him at a party, telling him that what he did was “completely degrading to women. I hope you know you only fuck girls because you have a camera, lots of fashion contacts, and get your pictures in Vogue.” According to Rasmussen, he left the party and contacted her modeling agency to complain. “He takes girls who are young, manipulates them to take their clothes off, and takes pictures of them they will be ashamed of,” she said. “They are too afraid to say no because their agency booked them on the job, and are too young to stand up for themselves.”
Richardson and his representatives are notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to journalists and news organizations contacting them regarding the allegations, and it’s incredibly telling. He spoke to the Guardian back in 2004, feigning innocence. “I don’t like to exploit anybody,” he said. “That’s not my bag. Everyone has fun on my shoots.”
“My rule is that I’d never ask anyone to do anything I wouldn’t do myself,” he said, leaving out the fact that he has no problem getting naked and engaging in sexual acts on camera himself. “At first, I’d want to do a few nude shots, so I’d take off my clothes too. I’d even give the camera to the model and get her to shoot me for awhile. It’s about creating a vibe, getting people relaxed and excited.” The Guardian describes him as saying the next part with ‘his goofy, adolescent grin’: “When that happens, you can do anything.”
You may recognize that as unbelievably creepy and manipulative.
Considering the young ages of the models he took advantage of (and yes, Terry, exploited), it’s easy to see why they would go along with his suspicious ideas. They’re trying to make it in the industry, and despite everything he’s done, Richardson is still a frighteningly powerful figure. He’s photographed plenty of celebrities, so it’s hard to believe he’s anything but a good guy. Yet he goes as far as to ask young models if he can make tea with their used tampons.
Richardson’s handful of hare-brained defenders have often used the excuse that his work is simply too hardcore for the brainless masses to make sense of (one article about him is titled “It’s Terry’s World, and You’re Just Afraid of It”). Gavin McInnes, the co-founder of Vice, once said that Richardson’s work was only criticized by “first-year feminist types”. But there’s a point when “edgy” and “controversial” make way for “unethical” and “inexcusable”, and he’s long since reached it. Richardson told the Guardian, “I don’t think I’m a sex addict, but I do have issues. Maybe it’s the psychological thing that I was a shy kid, and now I’m this powerful guy with his boner, dominating all these girls.” Terry Richardson is the fashion industry’s top guy, and his motivation is dominating naive and often teenaged girls… because he’s no longer in their vulnerable position, and instead in a place of power. Spoken like a true predator, Terry.
So what can be done about it?
“The more we talk, the better it gets,” Rocha says. “It’s important that big brands and corporations make a concerted effort to not allow sexual harassment on shoots. 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?” She also asks companies to think about why they need 14-year-old models to wear clothes marketed to grown women.
Rocha is optimistic about the future of the fashion industry. Companies like Target, H&M, Aldo, Vogue, and W have cut all ties with Richardson; many models have joined Rocha in publicly declaring that they will not work with him.
One of the main concerns of models and critics of the industry is that models working in the United States are considered “independent contractors”: they’re not protected by a system of workplace laws. This means there’s no policy of informed consent when it comes to models doing nude or partially nude shoots. In Charlotte Waters’ case, it could have prevented her from becoming what she called Richardson’s “sex puppet”, or it could have gotten him arrested. In an industry where the most in-demand models are vulnerable minors who have often fled by themselves from eastern European countries and struggle to speak English, it could hold a lot of power.
The Model Alliance is also fighting to protect young models. Founded by model-turned-documentarian Sara Ziff, with an advisory board boasting people like Carré Otis and actress Milla Jovovich, they’re working to educate models about labor abuse and improve working conditions for them. And it’s working: on November 30th, 2013, child models living or working in the state of New York became protected as child performers, giving them much more protection than before.
When I was younger, my mom and I used to joke that I could become a model and fund luxurious travels around the world for the two of us. At the time, I had no idea what the industry was truly like. It’s incredibly frightening to think that while I was fantasizing about paying for exotic trips with money from fashion gigs, kids my age were actually going out and becoming employed by agencies, and then being manipulated and abused by the adults around them. It’s a culture that consumes young girls and simultaneously reveres their beauty like expendable dolls.
The fashion industry used to be glorious. It was dominated by curvy-bodied women who were confident enough to tell off any perverted photographers, and paid sufficiently because they were old enough to know better. Now, it’s filled with stick-thin young children, often girls drawn from other countries with the promise of fame, who are being underpaid and underprotected and told they should be grateful. I’d love to believe in Coco Rocha’s hopeful future, but first we need some effort from the actual figures in the industry.
It’s time to stop dismissing models as vapid, and start protecting them. It’s easy to subscribe to the idea of Linda Evangelista’s models who don’t get out of bed for less than $10,000 a day, but it’s a dark industry that traps and abuses impressionable children in the name of “art”. The healthy models in their 30’s are one in a million compared to the 14-20 year olds who struggle to pay rent while working multiple jobs and hoping that their next modeling gig doesn’t involve a middle-aged man who wants to have sex with them.