Modeling’s glamour hides web of abuse
The fashion industry is built on glamour and allure, but many models, especially the very young, know it for something else: sexual exploitation and abuse
For adolescents blessed with willowy good looks, the fashion world offers the prospect of glamour, celebrity, and wealth. But this, for many, is what the beginning of a modeling career can actually look like:
On her first test shoot as a 15-year-old, Dasha Alexander said, a photographer held a camera in one hand and digitally penetrated her with his other — a move, he explained, that would make the pictures more “raw” and “sensual.”
When Coco Rocha refused to get naked on set as a 16-year-old, she said, the photographer replaced her with a girl who was younger and more obedient. Months later, a famous photographer simulated an orgasm as he took Rocha’s picture.
By the time Lenka Chubuklieva was 17, she said, an agent had repeatedly groped her, a photographer had thrown her on a bed and kissed her, and another photographer had masturbated in front of her and threatened to ruin her family in Ukraine if she told anyone.
“If people really understood what goes on behind the glamour of the industry, they would be mortified,” said Abbey Lee, an Australian model who, despite having been fondled on sets, describes herself as “one of the lucky ones.”
Emboldened by the #MeToo movement, more than 50 models spoke to the Globe Spotlight Team about sexual misconduct they experienced on the job, from inappropriate touching to assaults. Some are seeking to expose serial predators and those who enable them. Others are demanding new legal protections and calling for radical reform of a youth-obsessed industry they say has left them feeling exploited, treated like “meat” and “clothes hangers,” and, in the words of one model, “pimped out” by their agents.
Collectively, these models — predominantly females, although also males — made credible allegations of sexual misconduct against at least 25 photographers, agents, stylists, casting directors, and other industry professionals. In many instances, Spotlight reporters verified the accounts with third parties or examined records such as e-mails.
Some of the alleged victims were willing to talk publicly, but others spoke on condition of anonymity because they still work in fashion and fear reprisal. The Globe does not identify alleged victims of sexual misconduct without their consent.
The accused men include some of the most well-known powerbrokers in the multibillion-dollar fashion industry and were often named by multiple women — in one case, seven — for alleged sexual misconduct.
Among them: Patrick Demarchelier, who was Princess Diana’s personal photographer; David Bellemere, whose photos have appeared on the covers of Elle and Marie Claire Italy; and Greg Kadel, who has shot for mega brands like Victoria’s Secret and Vogue.
Models also identified photographers Andre Passos and Seth Sabal, who often did test shoots that models usually pay for themselves to build their portfolios, and Karl Templer, who, as one of the world’s most powerful stylists, has worked with Coach, Zara, and Tommy Hilfiger.
All of the accused men denied the allegations against them, and many complained that they can’t fully defend themselves when the Globe protects the identities of alleged victims, including by not always disclosing names, dates, and locations to them.
One photographer insisted some sexual encounters were consensual, and others said models may have misunderstood the touching and positioning that can be part of their jobs. But models say these are merely justifications for widespread abuses that have been part of the business for decades.
After Globe inquiries last week, Conde Nast, a media conglomerate that includes Vogue, Glamour, and GQ, said it has stopped working for now with Demarchelier and Kadel, and Victoria’s Secret said it has suspended its relationship with Kadel.
The fashion world, according to industry veterans, is rife with sexual misconduct for reasons built into the business. Models are usually minors when they enter the field, a highly sexualized adult world with little supervision and no job protections. Many Hollywood actresses, who helped start last fall’s #MeToo movement, at least have the option to join a union.
And the very nature of models’ work involves the marketing of seduction. At times, they are asked to dramatize sexual behavior they may not yet have experienced in real life. They regularly undress in front of colleagues and often appear scantily clad, sometimes with no clothes at all, to sell everything from watches to lingerie.
It is an industry, the models told the Spotlight Team, where the sexual and financial exploitation of teenagers is almost routine. Nearly 60 percent of models interviewed by the Globe said they had been touched inappropriately during work-related situations, the violations ranging from unwanted kissing to rape. Yet, for decades, victims of sexual misconduct in the fashion world have struggled to be heard and taken seriously.
Modeling, they say, may be work that accentuates their beauty and sensuality, but it is still work. “It’s a job, and just because you see a picture of me in underwear, that’s not an invitation to come to my bedroom,” said Chloe Hayward, a British model who said fending off propositions by photographers is common for her and many of her peers, especially early in their careers.
But models say they rarely complain, since doing so could get them labeled “difficult” and derail their professional aspirations. Still, spurred by the ongoing uprising over sexual harassment, more models are speaking out in hopes that change will finally come to their industry.
In recent weeks, model Kate Upton, famous for her appearances in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and model Miranda Vee accused Guess cofounder Paul Marciano of sexual assault, allegations that have rocked the company. He denies the accusations.
Under growing public pressure, designers and brands pledged greater protections against sexual harassment in the days leading up to New York Fashion Week, a high-profile event that ran through Friday. But the basic safeguards put into place, such as private dressing rooms so models don’t have to get naked in public, only underscore how vulnerable the models have been.
In the immediate aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein scandal last fall, Cameron Russell, a model who grew up in Cambridge, Mass., took to Instagram to protest the widespread mistreatment of models with the hashtag #myjobshouldnotincludeabuse.
Within two days, Russell had collected hundreds of accounts of sexual misconduct. Some of the alleged predators were painfully familiar to Russell: They had victimized her in the early years of her career. Russell began posting models’ accounts on her Instagram page — keeping victims anonymous and redacting the names of the accused — and asked others to share their stories.
“The last 48 hours has been devastating,” Russell wrote on Instagram at the time. “We know what is happening in fashion. We tolerate it and ignore it and excuse it every day. We all know who the perpetrators are and we continue to work with them. STOP. Advertisers and magazines, stop hiring these people. Agencies, stop sending them talent. Stop today. Do not wait until lawyers get involved. Do the right thing because the wrong thing is horrific.”
Two weeks later, Vogue and its parent company, Conde Nast, banned Terry Richardson — a prominent photographer who had been dogged in the media for years by misconduct allegations, including exposing himself to models and pressing his genitals on a model’s face — from shooting for its magazines. Richardson, who is under investigation by the New York City Police Department, has denied any wrongdoing.
“It’s interesting and frustrating that now people want to finally pay attention,” said Rocha, a Canadian model who began speaking out about Richardson’s behavior roughly a decade ago after, she says, he pretended to have an orgasm as he photographed her. There are “people at the top who no doubt have heard these stories for the last 20 years,” she added, “and haven’t done anything.”
Consider the case of photographer Patrick Demarchelier, who has maintained superstar status despite allegations that he has long preyed on young women.
Russell’s Instagram posts led one of Demarchelier’s former photo assistants to write in October to Vogue editor Anna Wintour about relentless advances by Demarchelier beginning when she was a 19-year-old intern, according to an e-mail reviewed by the Globe.
As his subordinate, she told the Globe, she eventually gave in to his sexual demands, feeling that she could not continue to reject him without endangering her position. When she did resist, she said, he would later berate her on the job.
The woman, who asked to remain anonymous, urged Wintour to prevent Demarchelier from having access to other young women.
“It hurts my heart so much to think of how many girls, many my own daughter’s age who have had to fend off or give in to his advances because I didn’t speak up at the time,” the woman wrote in another e-mail that was circulated to a modeling group. “I remember many test shoots with teenage girls where Patrick’s team of assistants (including me) was dismissed for the day only to find naked photos of the girl in the darkroom the next day.”
The Globe interviewed six other women who accused Demarchelier of unwanted sexual advances, including thrusting a model’s hands onto her genitals and grabbing another model’s breasts, as well as making vulgar propositions. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity because they fear career repercussions for speaking out against people with so much clout in the fashion world.
Four years ago, Demarchelier allegedly asked a teenage model, “Can I lick your pussy?” and indicated he could make her famous if she said yes. Shocked, the model, who detailed the exchange to the Spotlight Team, said no and left the Paris hotel where the shoot was supposed to take place.
“I wasn’t sure even if I understood his English correctly,” she recalled in an interview with the Globe, but then he repeated the question verbatim. “I said, ‘You should be ashamed, and I will never see you again.’ ”
About two years later, she said, she was sent to a New York City shoot with Demarchelier, despite having told her agents she no longer wanted to work with him. There, she said, he again posed the same crude question. The Globe corroborated her account with a subsequent agent.
“Everyone is trying to take advantage of you,” the model said. “At one point I was like, do I really have to do this to succeed? Do anything?”
Asked by the Globe about the various sexual misconduct allegations, Demarchelier said it was “impossible” that the multiple complaints against him were true. “People lie and they tell stories,” he said. “It’s ridiculous.” Demarchelier said he has “never, never, never” touched a model inappropriately. Noting that he is married, he called the accusations “pure lying” by models who “get frustrated if they don’t work.”
On Feb. 2, Demarchelier told a Spotlight reporter he still worked for Conde Nast. “I shoot for everybody,” he said. Conde Nast said that although the company decided in December to stop commissioning new work with Demarchelier, it didn’t officially notify him until recently. In a Feb. 10 statement, two days after being contacted by the Globe, Conde Nast said: “We have informed Patrick we will not be working with him for the foreseeable future.”
Photographers like Demarchelier wield enormous influence because they not only take pictures, but also often select which models will appear in magazines. As a result, models desperate to make money, or at least make a name for themselves, can become easy targets for men with connections to prestigious brands.
For some teenage models, it’s a traumatizing rite of passage to be sent alone to a photo shoot at the home or studio of an adult male photographer who pressures them to undress or perform a sex act. If I say no, they often wonder, is this the end of my modeling days?
Seth Sabal and Andre Passos are two of the photographers who models said exploited them when they were teenagers.
Three models have accused Sabal of sexual harassment during the mid-2000s. One of them, who asked to be identified only by her middle name, Teresa, said she was 17 when she was given alcohol and asked to take off her underwear as Sabal allegedly shot up her skirt.
An attorney for Sabal denied all the allegations and said, “At no point in time did he ever ask or force a model to do anything she was uncomfortable with, or certainly that was not his intention.” The attorney added: “Seth agrees and feels the industry is rampant with drugs, sex, and abuses of power, discrimination.”
In the case of Passos, former model Dasha Alexander said she was 15 when he inserted his fingers in her vagina while taking her picture about 20 years ago, saying it would give the photos “more emotion.”
Passos, who is living in Brazil, texted a response to a Globe reporter: “I have already suffered enough consequences out of this absurd story. . . . I was a victim as well as the model was a victim of her parents and agency to send her out in the world in such a tender age in the hands of an evil industry. An industry that never knew how [to] educate [these] girls, that only looked at profit and fame no matter what.”
Passos said he has never engaged in a sex act with a model involving his fingers. He also volunteered that he has faced charges of misconduct in the past: “I went to court for this and was not guilty,” he wrote.
Passos did not respond to questions asking what court he appeared in and the name of the victim, and the Globe could not locate any records. According to Alexander, she never told her parents about Passos’ alleged assault or went to court over it. So it is unclear whether his text message refers to a separate incident with a different model.
Male models said they have also been subjected to sexual misconduct by some of the industry’s top photographers, including Mario Testino and Bruce Weber. Several brands and magazines, including Conde Nast, Burberry, Michael Kors, and Stuart Weitzman, severed ties with one or both of the men after a New York Times story in January identified them as alleged sexual predators.
When model RJ King was 18, he said, he was sent by his former agency to a photographer’s Manhattan apartment to be considered for an upcoming job. There, with no one else present, the photographer casually offered him beer and drugs and then sexually assaulted him while he was changing his clothes, King said.
“When he finished,” King said, “it was the lowest I probably have ever felt.”
The incident, King said, left him wondering: “Is this what the industry is like? Is this what I’m going to continue to have to face?”
For many models, the answer is an emphatic and devastating yes.
Abuses can also occur when models are posing for major brands and magazines. One model said that during a shoot she was called a “whore” and “hooker” by a Dior executive, and a teenager who resisted going topless for German Vogue said the photographer suggested that a male model forcibly have sex with her to “loosen her up.”
Both companies denied any knowledge of these incidents and said they don’t tolerate sexual harassment.
Former Calvin Klein chief marketing officer Kim Vernon spoke generally about sexual misconduct: “I’m aware that it has happened in the industry and I believe all these recent measures to discuss and expose and correct the behavior are extremely important. . . . I don’t think brands have knowingly turned their head the other way.”
Ostensibly, modeling agents have a duty to safeguard their young clients from such situations. But many models say their professional shelf lives are so short that agents are more loyal to photographers and companies, forcing them to navigate troubling encounters on their own.
“Modeling agencies aren’t protecting these girls; they care more about the money,” said Carolyn Kramer, a former codirector of the Marilyn Agency in New York who now owns a Provincetown art gallery. “If you’ve got a $30 million exclusive Ralph Lauren worldwide contract available to you as a model agent, but you’ve heard rumors about the photographer being a scumbag, you’re taking a booking. You don’t care about the model. . . . I was complicit. I own up to it.”
Many models told the Globe that agents frequently remind them that legions of other attractive young people are available to take their places, including from overseas. About 20 of the models interviewed described highly exploitative relationships with their agents, who work for many of the top New York firms.
Some said their agents gave them drugs and alcohol, withheld earnings, coerced them into sexual relationships as teenagers, failed to inform them that photo shoots would require nudity, encouraged them to sleep with photographers to advance their careers, and sent them to sets with known predators, among other transgressions.
“Everyone knew the names of photographers making advances and using their power against young women,” said Trudi Tapscott, a former agent for Elite Model Management and DNA Model Management.
Tapscott said she used to warn models about certain men, but she now acknowledges that’s not as effective as saying to photographers: “ ‘We’re not going to work with you ever again.’ . . . What makes it better is getting that photographer out of the equation.”
Greg Kadel was one of the photographers whom Tapscott said she heard complaints about because he allegedly insisted that models pose nude or topless, and treated his shoots like a “personal playground.” Some models described far more extreme behavior.
One model said she hadn’t yet finished high school when her agent took her to a fashion party in New York City where adults gave her cocaine and alcohol — a vodka soda, her agent specified, because “that wouldn’t make me fat.”
At the end of the night, the model’s agent allegedly asked Kadel to put the stumbling teenager in a cab. Kadel did, but he jumped in the car, too, and directed the driver to a hotel. Once there, the model said, he pushed her against a wall, pulled off her clothes, and had sex with her. She spoke to her agent the next day.
“I told her what happened, and I was crying and upset,” the model recalled. “She convinced me that what happened was a good thing and hopefully my career would benefit from it.”
The agent also instructed her not to tell anyone because, she said, Kadel worked with major brands and magazines and complaining about him would hurt her chances of making it big.
Indeed, Kadel helped the teenager land gig after gig with Victoria’s Secret, all while subjecting her to ongoing harassment, she said, until she refused to work with him — a move that she says effectively ended her relationship with the lingerie empire.
The model, who asked that her name be withheld, confided in her boyfriend at the time about Kadel’s unwanted sexual advances, warned a modeling friend about Kadel’s behavior, and told a subsequent agent she was uncomfortable working with Kadel. All three corroborated her account, and the Globe reviewed e-mail exchanges between the model and Kadel, as well as topless photographs Kadel took of her when she was a minor.
Victoria’s Secret said it is conducting a “full third-party investigation of the allegations” and added: “We are a company that celebrates and serves women, so this behavior could not be more contrary to who we are.”
The model’s friend told the Spotlight Team that when she was a teenager she was accosted by Kadel, as well. After he photographed her for one of Vogue’s European editions at a private home, she said, she woke up in the middle of the night to find him lying on top of her, his tongue in her mouth, his hand holding hers.
The Globe interviewed two other models who requested anonymity and said Kadel made unwanted sexual advances, including kissing, when they were teenagers. A fifth model said Kadel asked her to do a private photo shoot and then pressured her to get nude, repeatedly asking her to take off her underwear during the hours-long session. All of the alleged incidents took place within the past dozen years.
Ernesto Qualizza, an agent for Kadel, vigorously denied the allegations. “Greg has never done that. He’s dated some girls and that’s happened. It’s all consensual between adults. He’s never used his power in any way that is unbecoming,” Qualizza said.
Kadel believes the encounters described to him by the Globe were consensual or “he misinterpreted a social situation” when he made a pass, according to Kadel’s attorney. The lawyer also said Kadel was working on a book and exhibition about photography and shot in hotels and private homes because they provided the atmosphere he was seeking.
A spokeswoman hired by Kadel provided additional comments, saying that Kadel “never sexually coerced or assaulted anyone in his life. As a creative professional for many years, Mr. Kadel has always accurately represented the intention or scope of his work and has always worked through a model’s agent and made sure that each model was fully aware and comfortable with the creative vision being pursued in any project before they signed on to participate.”
Then there’s David Bellemere, who gained international fame shooting for top fashion magazines. Madisyn Ritland was 19 years old and living in Paris when she wound up alone at his home for a photo shoot.
At the end of the session, she said, Bellemere grabbed her by the waist and stuck his tongue deep into her mouth. She dipped beneath his arms to escape his embrace, she recalled, but didn’t tell her agent at the time because, she said, he had made his own sexual advances.
Ritland said she was reluctant to continue working with Bellemere, but he was a gatekeeper for brands and magazines she aspired to be featured in. At an audition a month later, she said, he positioned her on her back on a couch, topless, then crouched on top of her with his camera, his knees clamping her ribs and his crotch hovering above her head.
“I felt like I had no choices,” Ritland said. “I didn’t feel like I had permission to have thoughts. I just felt like, OK, this is how it works.”
The Globe reviewed photos from the first test shoot and spoke with two of Ritland’s friends who corroborated her account.
Bellemere’s behavior is so well-known that two agents told the Spotlight Team they stopped sending models to shoot with him years ago. But only in the fall of 2016 did Victoria’s Secret cut ties with him. That move came after several of its highly paid contract models, known as “Angels,” complained about his inappropriate touching and kissing.
Bellemere said Victoria’s Secret never explained the decision to him. Any physical contact with models was the result of “pushing the girl to pose, directing,” he explained. “I do it to get the best picture. It’s not harassment.”
Myla Dalbesio’s uncomfortable encounter with Bellemere happened during a lingerie shoot in Paris for Lord & Taylor in 2015, as he pressed his body against hers and wagged his tongue at her to mimic oral sex, she said.
“I was really shocked,” Dalbesio recalled. “It felt really sexually charged and inappropriate.”
After the shoot, she said, Bellemere contacted her on Instagram with a photo of a naked woman with bondage marks and an accompanying message that said, “Let’s shoot private next time.” The Globe saw the message and photo and corroborated Dalbesio’s account with her fiance, in whom she confided at the time, as well as with an individual present at the Paris photo shoot.
A spokeswoman for Lord & Taylor said, “While we were not made aware of misconduct during that photo shoot, information about aspects of Mr. Bellemere’s behavior came to light recently.” The company also said it has not hired Bellemere since February 2016.
In an interview with the Globe, Bellemere said it was “surprising to hear” that models had complained about him and “there is nothing creepy” about his interactions with them on set.
“I’ve never been taking advantage [of models],” he said. “This is not true. I’ve never done anything like this in my life.”
Seasoned models say they are accustomed to the inevitable physical contact that results from working with photographers and stylists, such as having their clothing adjusted and being helped into different outfits.
But some models described experiences to the Spotlight Team that they say crossed the line of professionalism.
In interviews with the Globe, three female models who asked not to be identified accused Karl Templer, a top stylist, of yanking their breasts, touching their crotches, or aggressively pulling down their underwear without asking them during shoots.
One model described a shoot within the last several years in which Templer approached her while she was against a wall, topless.
“Karl comes up to me,” she recalled, “and gets down on his knees and yanks my underwear and my shorts down . . . really fast. I remember I’m gripping onto it with my finger and he’s still pulling.”
“He was trying to get me naked,” she said. “He was trying to pull off my clothes without my permission.”
The Globe corroborated her account with two friends and reviewed an e-mail she wrote to her agent before the shoot specifying she would not be comfortable with frontal nudity below the waist.
Templer, in a statement, said, “I deny these vague and anonymous allegations. If I’ve ever inadvertently made anyone feel uncomfortable, I’m truly sorry. Although physical interactions with models is a necessary aspect of my job as a fashion stylist, I’ve never touched anyone in an inappropriate way nor ever with any sexual intent. I’m always respectful of models, remain deeply committed to creating a safe and professional working environment and embrace the systematic changes that our industry is implementing.”
In addition, Templer’s lawyer referred the Globe to three former and current colleagues of Templer, all of whom said they have never seen him behave inappropriately and asked that their names not be published.
Numerous models said they have felt pressured to take topless or nude photos by people who could make or break careers. Declining such requests, or rebuffing sexual advances, can harm a model’s prospects.
During a shoot for a lingerie brand, model Alison Nix said, a photographer stuffed a $20 bill in her bra and asked how much he would have to pay to have sex with her. When Nix complained about his behavior, the client dropped her.
“It’s really difficult because you get punished,” Nix said. “At the end of the day, I’d rather lose clients than do things that are emotionally traumatic. But it’s a shame to have to choose between the two.”
Over the years, there have been various efforts to protect young models. New York, for example, passed a law in 2014 that classifies models under 18 as “child performers,” raising the bar for how often they can work and in what circumstances.
But industry insiders, and a report last summer from the New York State comptroller, say there is little enforcement of the law, and no similar national or international regulations. As a result, New York’s law would not have helped models like Ritland, who at age 16, while working overseas, found herself in a disturbing photo shoot for an Italian brand.
“I was a virgin, never had a boyfriend, never been kissed, and I was topless, rolling around with another male model, simulating — I have really no idea, but it was supposed to be sex,” she recalled. “Very young girls are meant to be simulating something that they have never experienced, and it’s just kind of strange to me that that’s a culture that exists.”
In December, several models testified about sexual harassment and financial exploitation before the New York City Commission on Human Rights, which is expected to release a report in March addressing their concerns.
Because models are independent contractors, they are exempt from workplace protections that cover most other employees. As a result, modeling can be tantamount to indentured servitude, with young men and women going into debt because their agencies charge them for rent, travel, copies of photos, and even the privilege of being listed on the agency’s website.
“Models are in a loophole area where they’re not protected by any of the laws carved out to help artists,” said Shivani Honwad, an attorney who works with a firm, Law on the Runway, that represents numerous models. “Modeling agencies are dictating if and when to pay models.”
Many models hope the time has come for the industry to acknowledge its deep-rooted problems and institute widespread reform. Baby steps have already begun.
In January, Conde Nast, which also publishes Vanity Fair and The New Yorker, created a new code of conduct that, among other reforms, bans drugs and alcohol from sets, prohibits work by models under 18, and says no model “should be pressured to expose themselves more than they feel comfortable.”
An official for Calvin Klein told the Globe that in coming weeks the company will roll out new policies “for safeguarding the well-being of fashion models,” such as requiring prior written consent for any photography that includes nudity or semi-nudity and creating a process for reporting misconduct.
“Policy changes alone will not change the industry’s culture or empower vulnerable individuals to come forward with complaints. We have seen codes of conduct come and go,” said Sara Ziff, founder of the nonprofit Model Alliance, which recently helped introduce a proposed bill called the Models’ Harassment Protection Act in New York. “Voluntary standards without meaningful education, proper complaint mechanisms, and independent enforcement are not going to work.”
Meanwhile, a New York organization called Model Mafia is encouraging models to create their own reforms. At a December meeting, models discussed having Uber-like reviews of photographers, writing scripts of “friendly one-liners” they could use to firmly rebuff photographers who proposition them, and creating a “buddy system” that would allow inexperienced models in uncomfortable situations to call more seasoned models for advice.
“Yes, we need high-profile perpetrators to be held accountable,” Russell, the model who started the #myjobshouldnotincludeabuse campaign, told the Globe. But what’s also needed, she said, is “recognition that many of us play a part in maintaining a work environment where abuse of power is acceptable.”
Zuzanna Krzatala, a Model Mafia member, said the fashion business needs to change “the twisted rules of the game.”
“If I quit, then someone else is going to take my job, take my space. They’re going to endure the same sort of harassment, disrespect,” Krzatala added. “It’s about changing the culture, once and for all.”
Videos produced by Emily Zendt, Globe Staff. Additional video by Bethany Mollenkof for the Boston Globe. Video project editor, Anush Elbakyan, Globe Staff.