News that NY-based fashion designer Elie Tahari has been accused of sexual harassment has put the spotlight back on the seedy and dangerous reality of the modelling industry. Sydney based model, Marcy Castelgrande, claims that she was fired in 2011 by the designer just two hours after she complained to the Human Resources division that CEO, Mr. Tahari, had “unlawfully and inappropriately touched her in the area of her private parts while she was modelling a skirt before a public crowd of at least 10 people”. According to the lawsuit, Tahari then announced to the team, “She needs to leave. I can’t work with her. She is too sensitive. I’ve had lawsuits in the past and cannot deal with another one”.
Sadly, the story is all too familiar. There’s a common misconception that the life of a model is one long glamorous party with trips to exotic islands on private jets and champagne on ice. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. According to Model Alliance, a not-for-profit labour organisation for fashion models in New York, most models begin working between the ages of 13 and 16, with 76.5 percent being exposed to drugs and alcohol on the job and 68.3 percent suffering from depression and/or anxiety. The modelling business is, for the most part, unregulated and sexual abuse is widespread. Back in 2009 fashion designer Anand Jon Alexander, who dressed Paris Hilton and appeared on America’s Top Model, was sentenced to 59 years in prison, having been found guilty of 16 counts, including sexual battery and performing lewd acts on a child. Alexander had, for over a decade, been raping young girls that he employed to model his designs. In August 2014 a London-based photographer, Shaun Colclough, was sentenced to seven years on two counts of sexually assaulting aspiring models.
Two award-winning documentaries have forced the media spotlight on the unglamorous underside of the modelling world in recent years, putting pressure on both the industry and lawmakers. Girl Model, directed by the talented Ashley Sabin and David Redmon, followed a 13-year-old Siberian girl’s foray into the murky world of modelling. The child is sent alone to Japan without a chaperone and with promises of fame and fortune. Instead, she is left to starve, receives no work and is ultimately sent home with $2000 worth of debt to her already impoverished family. The film highlights the physical, emotional and sexual abuse suffered by young models and the desperate need for regulation in the industry. In 2010 former model Sara Ziff’s documentary ‘Picture Me’ highlighted the systematic sexual harassment of models, many of whom are under sixteen years old. Ziff talked about how on her third casting call, at age 14, a photographer asked her to take her bra off. “I was just eager to be liked and get the job. I didn’t know any better,” she said. “Vulnerable girls are being put into a potentially predatory environment. What’s in the modeling agency’s interest is not always best for the girl, and if she’s in a compromising situation, she doesn’t necessarily have anyone to turn to.”
Unfortunately, while these documentaries have raised awareness, the latest accusations against Elie Tahari suggest there is still a lot more to be done to protect models. Many brands including Saint Laurent and Valentino continue to work with fashion photographer Terry Richardson. Richardson, known for his overtly sexual imagery, has been accused multiple times of sexual exploitation of young models. In March 2010 he was accused by Danish model and filmmaker Rie Rasmussen of sexual exploitation. She was upset at Richardson’s use of her picture in his ‘Terryworld’ book alongside shots of half-naked young girls depicted as performing sex acts. Rasmussen commented, “He takes girls who are young, manipulates them to take their clothes off and takes pictures of them they will be ashamed of. They are too afraid to say no because their agency booked them on the job and are too young to stand up for themselves.” Model Jamie Peck has also spoken out stating, “Of all the fine folks I’ve frolicked au naturel for, he’s the only one who’s left me feeling like I needed to take two showers.” Jenna Sauers, a model and co-founder of The Model Alliance, has also stated that she has heard several complaints about the photographer’s behaviour, “I have heard from a lot of models that he has worked with that all say his M.O. is the same. You suddenly get naked and then he touches you and he goes further and further. But you’re surrounded by his assistants and they are validating his actions.”
An online petition to effectively remove him from the fashion industry gained thousands of signatures in October 2013. The petition called on brands including Vogue, H&M, Tom Ford and Mango to stop using Richardson, the world’s highest paid fashion photographer, until the numerous allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation were investigated. While many of these brands have not used Richardson since, the photographer is still being hired for high profile campaigns. Gisele Bunchen covers this month’s issue of W Korea shot by Terry. Why the world’s highest paid and most high profile model agreed to work with him beggars belief.
Because the fashion industry is viewed as frivolous and models considered ‘lucky’ to hold these much-coveted jobs, their complaints are often dismissed and subjected to ridicule. We need to remember that behind the glamorous facade, models are human beings and are often little older than children. Sexual harassment is never acceptable and these women deserve to be protected from the abusive predators lurking within the industry.