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The first time I met Bruce Weber was eight years ago. I still remember the initial exchange so vividly. I checked my email and there it was: the original casting from my agent at the time, labeled “by photographer’s special request.”
I’d heard Weber called a “god” in the industry, a man who could make or break my career. I was a 23-year-old model, with a rough idea of who I was and what I was willing and unwilling to tolerate. I’d met and worked with other famous photographers before, but no one described as a “god.” The pressure was on from the start.
When I first spoke up about my experience with Bruce Weber and sexual harassment in the modeling industry, I chose to remain anonymous. I was scared — I’m still a working model, and until I could support myself as a writer and artist, I wasn’t willing to risk losing my main source of income. And honestly, I was a victim of the pressure around what it means to be a man in today’s society. To have another man abuse his power and take advantage of you can feel like one of the most emasculating and stigmatizing experiences that a young man can have.
But when I saw Weber’s Instagram post denying the accusations brought against him by other male models, I knew it was time to speak out, leaning into the fear instead of running away from it. And I believe myself, and my fellow male models, would not have had the courage to come forward had it not been for the female heroes who started this movement.
The casting took place at Weber’s studio, Little Bear, located in Tribeca. The entire space felt like a shrine to the man and his work, laid out like an old, rustic factory, assistants — mostly all young, attractive men — quietly moving about, carrying giant prints of Weber’s work. I’m an artist myself and thought it would be nice to bring Weber a piece of my own work — a print I had done during my BFA at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.
Another 15 or so minutes went by before the woman who’d greeted me came back and told me Bruce was ready to see me. She walked me over to a large vintage freight elevator and told me he would be waiting for me at the top. This whole “god” description, partnered with a literal physical ascension to meet the man, caused warning bells to ring in my head.
Up went the elevator, opening into a beautiful space with vintage furniture and more of Weber’s work, featuring much more nudity that what I had seen on the floor below. He was seated on a couch, slowly got up, and walked over to greet me. He’s what I imagine Santa Claus would look like dressed for a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert. He had a kind face. I offered him the print I had brought for him. He thanked me and put it aside as he walked back over to living room-like set up of chairs and couches facing one another. He offered me a seat and then sat down across from me. There were some pleasantries — where are you from, how long have been modeling, etc. — that probably lasted only a few minutes.
Weber then leaned forward and told me he wanted to do a breathing exercise with me. Our knees were almost touching as he began to describe what was about to happen. He explained that energy was going to build between us, a gauge that would be used to determine if we could work together or not.
I remember him asking me if I felt it, the energy. I nervously laughed, unsure of what to do or say. He then took my hand from my lap and held it out in front of me, and did the same with his own. He placed his hand under mine and told me that I was going to move his hand around until the energy came to a climax. He began to move his hand in a circle, as I tried to follow. At the “climax,” I would then bring his hand to my body where I felt the energy most.
Spiral spiral spiral goes the hand… then, very suddenly, he began to bring it toward me, directly down to my crotch. Instinctively, my hand forced his hand up so it landed somewhere on my lower abdomen, an inch or so above the waistband of my jeans, the fingers of his hand seeking the skin underneath my shirt.
I forcibly held his hand in place as he tried to slide it down my belly. I could feel him using his strength and used my own to resist him. He looked at me very intensely, and when it became clear that I wasn’t going to let him move his hand any further down my body, he said something about my “potential,” thanked me for my time, stood up, and guided me to the elevator.
I left feeling very confused and continued to replay the experience over and over in my head for years, up until the next time I met him, three years later. During this second experience, I had a different agency and there were several other models around. Weber walked through the casting not long after I arrived and said hello to me. His kind eyes and smile didn’t change the uneasy feeling in my gut, like I was being tested again, this time without the hands, just the space between us too close for comfort. I quickly turned my eyes away from him.
Weber then turned to a model who was immersed in his phone, and asked him to follow him into a private room. I didn’t see either of them for the rest of the casting.
Again, I left confused, this time wondering if by simply averting my eyes from his, I had blown an opportunity to work with him in the future. Both experiences played over in my mind for years; I contemplated whether or not my career would have been more “successful” had I allowed this man to “control the energy” between us.
I don’t feel broken from my experience, despite how much time and energy I spent wondering “what if.” And I know that I am one of the lucky ones. Male models are an expendable cog in the hyper-judgmental wheel that is the fashion industry. We are paid far less than female models, which creates a heavier sense of desperation to “make it.”
I often think about young guys, 15, 16, 17 years old, coming to New York City for the first time, being thrown into situations with promises of fame and glory. It’s our job to be judged — on our bodies, our sexuality, and how likable we are. This can be a challenge for anyone, especially those dealing with self-esteem issues, which have plagued me and, I believe, anyone working toward society’s idea of perfection.
There has always been a gray line between what is acceptable and what is not, and many of these young men have no idea how to navigate that line until they are thrown, often literally naked and afraid, into the lion’s den. From my experience, the more famous a photographer is, the more power he is given — by agents, by media, by anyone within the industry and beyond. This cycle has been perpetuated for far too long, beginning at the top of the ladder, with white men of power covering each others’ tracks, continuing to believe they are untouchable.
Where there is power, there will be an abuse of power. The female heroes of our world have given us the lens, and they’re forcing us to focus it on the dirt that has been hiding in plain sight, right underneath our noses. The courage of these heroines sparked the fire that only burns brighter and brighter as each new voice comes forward, striving to create a world where every human can feel safe, respected, and seen.
[Ed. note: Racked reached out to Bruce Weber regarding this piece, who provided the following response: “I deny these claims made by Mr. Hurley.”]