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In many ways, modeling is a peculiar industry. A model can show up for a job fully clothed only to be asked to disrobe without warning. Colleagues may touch a model’s body during a shoot or make snide remarks about it — “lose weight” and “do something with your hair.” Models and photographers may meet in private spaces, like studios and apartments, with no observers. And drug and alcohol use during such meetings typically doesn’t raise eyebrows.
The intimate nature of the business is exactly why sexual harassment flourishes, models say. But as the national dialogue about sexual misconduct inspired by the Harvey Weinstein scandal reverberates far beyond Hollywood, models are sharing their experiences with sexual misconduct and fighting back. Their stories, and lawsuits, mean the fashion industry must address whether it has been complicit in fostering sexual abuse.
Mark Ricketson, the second model to publicly accuse star fashion photographer Bruce Weber of sexual misconduct, suggested that the fashion industry’s culture made him vulnerable to exploitation. During a news conference Tuesday at attorney Lisa Bloom’s suburban Los Angeles firm, Ricketson described meeting Weber for the first time. He said the encounter took place 13 years ago, when he was just 18, and that his manager stressed how important it was that Weber “like” him. The session began with a “breathing exercise” that ultimately left Ricketson traumatized, he alleges.
“During my appointment, I was alone with Bruce in his office,” Ricketson said. “He told me I ‘looked tense’ and proceeded to press his thumb on my forehead. He then took my hand and told me to ‘find the energy’ by guiding my hand and rubbing it on one of three places: my forehead, my chest, or my stomach. Each time the ‘energy’ in my stomach would get lower and lower until I had to navigate the remaining space left before having to touch myself.”
Bloom, who faced criticism in October for advising Weinstein and quickly dropped him as a client, said that too many years have passed for Ricketson to sue Weber. But another accuser, Jason Boyce, has filed a lawsuit against the photographer. A former model, Boyce visibly trembled as he stood with Bloom and Ricketson at the press conference. He, too, claims that the photographer guided him through a “breathing exercise” during an appointment. The meeting occurred in 2014 and ended in sexual assault, Boyce alleges in the lawsuit. He said that Weber put his fingers in his mouth, forcefully kissed him, pulled his underwear down, and made him touch both his own and Weber’s genitals.
Weber has shot everyone from Madonna to Meryl Streep, not to mention supermodels like Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss. Representatives for the 71-year-old did not respond to requests for comment about the allegations.
But Boyce isn’t just holding Weber accountable for what allegedly transpired. He’s also suing his former agent and management agency in a move designed to show that sexual abuse doesn’t occur in a vacuum. The industry creates conditions where it can thrive, Bloom asserts.
“We think agencies and agents need to take a hard look at themselves,” she said. “There has to be accountability for those who are wrongdoers. If nudity is expected in a photo shoot, that’s disclosed in advance and there are other people present. It shouldn’t be sprung on [models].”
Dr. Yvonne Thomas, a Los Angeles psychologist, expressed concern that some agencies may be dehumanizing models by failing to protect them from sexual abuse and valuing them primarily for their earning potential.
“That really adds a lot of pressure to male and female models,” she said. “It makes it harder to know what to do in those circumstances [of sexual harassment]. You certainly can feel very helpless or trapped. It’s a very, very difficult position for a person to be in. You can feel you’re at the mercy of the person who holds the power over your financial stability and potential career success.”
Thomas said models, or any victim of sexual misconduct, may develop anxiety and depression. They may also have trouble eating or sleeping. She said they often feel ashamed, even though they’re not to blame for the abuse. Ricketson and Boyce both said they’ve developed some of these symptoms, particularly depression and anxiety.
Bloom would like to see a clearinghouse established where models can report sexual misconduct and suggest reforms without fear of retaliation. Since December 1st, when she announced Boyce’s lawsuit against Weber, Bloom said many models have contacted her firm to share their experiences with sexual harassment and assault.
Specifically, Boyce and Ricketson’s stories paint an unnerving pattern of alleged predation from Weber. In fact, during the course of reporting this piece, Racked spoke with a model more than a month ago who said that he had a similar experience with Weber. The model did not want to be named.
Thomas does not have direct knowledge of Weber’s actions but views the exercise models accuse the photographer of engaging in as a red flag. She said it signals that he’s allegedly using a technique that may start off innocently enough to disarm models and then cross their boundaries.
“He [allegedly] knows what’s he’s going to do,” Thomas said. “That is predatory. Predators plan. He [allegedly] eases his way in little by little and then, boom, he’s touching the crotch and the genitals.”
The fact that models are routinely objectified, often viewed as mere set dressing, probably exacerbates problems like sexual harassment. In general, predators have less compunction about violating the rights of people they don’t view as fully human, Thomas suggested.
“If models are only being seen as pretty objects instead of men or women with feelings, it is more easy to treat them like a trinket to be played with, rather than a human with real emotions,” she said. “It probably is easier to almost put them in a category of being an inanimate object, a pretty object. It’s also easier for predators to prey on them, if they have that inclination, and not feel as bad about it.”
The unnamed model not only pointed to some photographers as the problem but also to modeling agencies for encouraging models to revere celebrity lensmen as “gods.” Additionally, he said agencies often lure young models, many from small towns, into the industry by promising them a fantasy.
“They’re thrown into these situations where they have to do something [sexual], and they don’t want to be sent back to where they come from,” he said. “I’ve met guys [models] who are 16 or 17 years old, and I felt really concerned.”
As an eight-year industry veteran, the model said he now tries to act as a big brother to budding male models. However, it may take concrete steps, like industry-wide reforms and perhaps even legislation to defend models from sexual misconduct. This fall, there has been movement outside the industry to protect models, with New York assemblywoman Nily Rozic introducing the Models’ Harassment Protection Act in October. The bill aims to make it illegal for management companies to expose models to harassment that’s sexual in nature or based on age, race, sexual orientation, and other factors. Last year, California assemblyman Marc Levine introduced legislation that would have imposed health standards on the modeling industry to curb eating disorders in models, but the bill stalled. And in 2013, the state of New York passed legislation that restricts the number of hours underage models can work, as well as other protections.
Models are also speaking out about their experiences with sexual harassment on social media. When the news of Boyce’s lawsuit broke, it “caught fire on Instagram,” Bloom said. “People started reaching out from all over the country.” A similar phenomenon occurred in October when model Cameron Russell urged fellow models to share their experiences with sexual misconduct on Instagram. They did — by the dozens.
Russell likely took inspiration from the many women who made sexual misconduct allegations against Weinstein. Since Bloom apologized for representing the movie mogul, the attorney has not only advocated for models who say they’ve been sexually abused, but is also advocating for a client accusing politician John Conyers of sexual misconduct. (Conyers just retired after a series of such reports.)
But Bloom’s Tuesday press conference stands out because it featured male models, while the #MeToo movement has largely focused on women. After the Weinstein allegations, Condé Nast International parted ways with Terry Richardson, the controversial photographer who’s faced sexual harassment claims from female models for years. Increasingly men, both in and outside fashion, are coming forward as victims of sexual harassment and assault.
Model-turned-actor Kevin Sorbo, best known for his stint on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, said during an October podcast that designer Gianni Versace ran his hand up his leg and sexually propositioned him. Versace, gunned down by serial killer Andrew Cunanan in 1997, cannot defend himself against Sorbo’s claims. In addition, a male model has accused George Takei of groping him. Takei has denied the claims. Terry Crews, Eddie Huang, and Anthony Edwards have discussed their experiences with sexual harassment or molestation, and a number of men have accused actor Kevin Spacey of wrongdoing.
Although men have started speaking out about abuse, Reid Rohling, 23, said sexual harassment can be hard for male models to discuss. He has appeared in ads for Calvin Klein and walked in runway shows for Gucci.
“I think there’s shame because, in most of the cases, it’s been another male who’s been the aggressor, and most of these male models are straight and not wanting to seem gay,” Rohling said. “Also, I think men [models] in the fashion industry don’t have as large of a voice... They’re sort of dispensable. They’re sort of accessories.”
Rohling said male model friends have told him about behavior from photographers that crossed the line. One photographer aggressively lunged at a friend during a shoot, and another told a friend to “go into a corner and spin his dick around to make it look bigger,” Rohling said. “I don’t think it’s okay to say that.”
Rohling said he’s not afraid to speak out when photographers draw the line. Still, he’s found himself in situations that have made him squirm, such as doing a shoot in the bedroom of a photographer who smoked marijuana the entire time.
“It was really inappropriate,” he said. “His whole bedroom was filled with polaroids of naked boys, models, he had shot.”
Another photographer told him, “I have a foot fetish; you need to trim your toenails,” according to Rohling. Even suggestive comments, with no overt sexual abuse, can be damaging, Thomas said.
Rohling instantly feels reassured when shoots take place in a studio with a team of people — photographers, stylists, and assistants — rather than just one person in a private residence, he said. His concerns echo Bloom’s assertion that photo shoots should not be conducted without onlookers present.
Even when shoots have involved multiple people, Rohling said he’s witnessed some disquieting behavior. He recalled showing up for a shoot where a photographer demanded that he and another male model disrobe. When Rohling said that his agency had never informed him the shoot would require nudity, the photographer insisted that he and the other model remove their clothes and suggested that he could disrobe as well to make them feel comfortable. Rohling and the other model refused.
Logan Jackson, creative director of You Do You, a nonprofit that highlights people of all ages, genders, sizes, abilities, and ethnic backgrounds in fashion, wants models to know their rights. He modeled from 2012 to 2015 and has generally felt respected in the fashion world but said he’s definitely heard of models being preyed upon by photographers and others. He believes that agencies play a key role in the types of experiences models have.
“I believe a lot of models get bamboozled into doing things they didn’t sign up for because they believe their agency is always looking out for them, and a lot of the time that’s not the case,” he said. “And this is not to blame inappropriate conduct solely on the agency: It is a trickle-down effect. The agency either wants to get the model jobs or popularity, and negligence ensues. A magazine might be working with a photographer known to be predatory, but a ‘big opportunity’ for a model can overshadow the negative aspects.”
He said the industry must recognize that simply because people are well-known doesn’t mean they can’t be sex offenders. He argued that there are always alternatives to working with predators. But some models feel they have no recourse. Boyce, for example, said he left the industry after his alleged encounter with Weber. Bloom contends that he’s not an anomaly.
“In the course of investigating this case, I have spoken to many models who were terrified to speak out about abusive behavior, even sexual assaults, because they believed their careers would be ruined if they did,” she said. “Others have told me that they left the business because they could no longer put up with the exploitation. Some have said they thought being harassed and groped was just part of the business.”
Jackson urges models not to do anything that makes them feel violated to advance their careers and said they should report bad behavior to their agency. If agencies don’t protect them, models can report them to their state labor department or the sex crimes unit of their local police department, he said.
“You can also check the Better Business Bureau for an agency’s reliability rating before signing a contract,” Jackson suggested. “If you are representing yourself, be very cautious; know your personal limits and stay in the know of those who already have a bad reputation.”
He said that contracts should spell out the model’s individual boundaries, and if agencies support models, it will likely have an industry-wide domino effect. Priority may shift away from appeasing star photographers and luminaries to considering a model’s well-being.
“The focus should be on making good work,” Jackson said, “not on a headline-grabbing name.”
[Update 1/4/2018: Bruce Weber denied these allegations on Instagram on January 3rd, 2018]