Behind A-list catwalk shows and photo shoots lies world awash with financial abuse and sexual violence — will #MeToo change that?

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NERVOUSLY clutching her portfolio, Leanne Maskell’s heart pounded. About to walk into a hotel suite for a casting, she had just seen another model flee from the same room looking shocked and appalled.

“She warned me the guy inside was really sleazy,” says Leanne, 26. “I immediately felt anxious, but I had to go in, otherwise I’d be letting my agency down.”

Catwalk shows and photo shoots are awash with financial abuse and sexual violence
Getty Images

Catwalk shows and photo shoots are awash with financial abuse and sexual violence (Image used for illustrative purpose only)[/caption]

Inside, Leanne found herself face to face with a leering 40-something man sitting in an armchair.

“As he looked me up and down, I realised this wasn’t a proper casting – it was far more sinister,” she says. “After I dutifully showed him my modelling portfolio, the man asked me to change into swimwear and explained that he was casting for a number of foreign assignments.

“But I’d come across guys like him before, and the work he was offering wasn’t a photo shoot for a brand, or a catwalk show. He was using modelling agencies like dating – even escort – agencies to meet girls to take abroad to party in clubs and on yachts. It was paid work, but nothing to do with modelling. I knew from other girls’ experiences that the models would likely feel pressured into sleeping with the men they were hired to ‘party’ with.”

Desperate to get out of the room, Leanne claimed she’d forgotten her bikini.

Leanne Maskell, who has been a model for 13 years, says sexual violence and harassment is the 'norm' in the industry
Leanne Maskell

Leanne Maskell, who has been a model for 13 years, says sexual violence and harassment is the ‘norm’ in the industry[/caption]

“He said underwear was fine instead and my stomach lurched,” she recalls. “I stammered that I wasn’t wearing a bra. He told me to come back later with my swimwear, so I grabbed my book and left, knowing I wouldn’t return.

“I told my agency and although they agreed I didn’t have to go back, I was angry they’d sent me there, not knowing what the guy was casting for. I’d been put in an unsafe situation.”

Throughout her 13-year career, Leanne has learned all about the seedy underbelly of the modelling world.

“Sexual violence and harassment have become the norm. I’ve even heard of girls who’ve been groomed into prostitution,” says the model, who has appeared in high-end publications like British Vogue.

One model said the fashion industry 'operates within a culture that is accepting of abuse'
Getty Images

One model said the fashion industry ‘operates within a culture that is accepting of abuse’[/caption]

“I’ve had my drink spiked by a club promoter at an event and been lured to castings with men who just wanted pretty women to have sex with, which I never did. I consider myself lucky, as I know girls who’ve had much worse experiences. Thankfully, over the last couple of years models have begun to open up about this, which is slowly causing a shift in attitudes.”

According to psychologist Elle Boag from Birmingham City University, #MeToo has played a huge part in this. “This crucial feminist movement has emboldened women in many walks of life to speak out against abuse and exploitation,” she explains.

“It’s no surprise #MeToo is having a significant impact on the modelling industry, where the lives of young, vulnerable people are in the hands of powerful men. For years they allegedly endured controversial and inappropriate behaviour from photographers such as Terry Richardson, and for so long models remained silent, as actresses did with [movie mogul Harvey] Weinstein, for fear of losing their livelihood. But #MeToo has given women the power to challenge men and refuse to be victims, which is so encouraging.”

Indeed, there had been rumours about the sexually inappropriate behaviour of American photographer Terry Richardson, who had worked with the likes of Kate Moss and Bella Hadid, for nearly two decades before the industry took any action. The man himself was unashamed, saying in a 2007 interview: “It’s not who you know, it’s who you blow.”

Model Sena Cech said Terry Richardson asked her to masturbate him
Flynet

Model Sena Cech said Terry Richardson asked her to masturbate him violently during a photo shoot in 2001[/caption]

Model Sena Cech revealed in the 2009 behind-the-scenes modelling documentary Picture Me that Richardson had asked her to masturbate him violently during a shoot in 2001. Another, Liskula Cohen, said in a 2014 interview that Richardson had wanted to shoot her completely naked and pretending to perform a sex act on another man, while he was also naked.

Yet Richardson continued to get work.

That was until October 2017, less than a month after the Weinstein scandal broke, when a leaked email revealed that the publishers of Vogue, Vanity Fair and GQ were instructing staff to cease commissioning him.

Richardson, who hasn’t been arrested or charged, denied the allegations, saying all were “consenting adult women who were fully aware of the nature of the work”.

Multiple models accused photographer Patrick Demarchelier of sexual misconduct
Photoshot

Multiple models accused photographer Patrick Demarchelier of sexual misconduct[/caption]

But model exploitation wasn’t a subject about to go away quietly. The following month, British model Edie Campbell penned an open letter addressing the way young women are treated in the industry.

“We operate within a culture that is too accepting of abuse, in all of its manifestations,” she wrote. “This can be the ritual humiliation of models, belittling of assistants, power plays and screaming fits. We have come to see this as simply a part of the job.”

Meanwhile, model Cameron Russell, who has worked for Chanel, Prada and Vivienne Westwood took the step of devoting her Instagram to sharing anonymous sexual harassment stories from models under the hashtag #MyJobShouldNotIncludeAbuse in October 2017.

Sharing one of her first posts, from a model who was asked to give a photographer oral sex, Cameron commented: “As a young model I know I had a hard time listening to my intuition because industry norms around physical and sexual boundaries are so loose, and often vile. This behaviour is rampant and not OK.”

Cameron Russell is a campaigner and model
Getty Images

Cameron Russell is a campaigner and model[/caption]

Then, in February 2018, the world-renowned Spotlight investigation team of the Boston Globe newspaper published a report examining the toxicity of the industry, speaking to more than 50 models. More photographers were named, including Princess Diana’s personal snapper Patrick Demarchelier and American Greg Kadel.

While all of the accused denied the allegations against them, it was clear that models were no longer willing to put up and shut up.

For Katie*, who has been a model for the last five years, her first negative experience happened when she was just 16. “A well-known photographer was shooting me for a clothing brand and I’d brought my mum as my chaperone,” she explains.

“The shoot went well and the photographer was so polite. But just as I was leaving the studio with my mum a few feet ahead of me, he lunged forward and pressed his lips hard on my mouth. I was so shocked I didn’t know what to say – this man was at least 20 years older than me and had the nerve to do it when my mum was there.

Cameron Russell said 'As a young model I know I had a hard time listening to my intuition because industry norms around physical and sexual boundaries are so loose'
Instagram

Cameron Russell said ‘As a young model I know I had a hard time listening to my intuition because industry norms around physical and sexual boundaries are so loose’[/caption]

“Once we were in the car, I blurted out what had happened and she wanted to go back and confront him. I begged her not to as I was scared it would harm my career. In the end Mum agreed, but told me I could never work with him again.”

Over the next two years, Katie, now 21, built up many trusting relationships with photographers as her career progressed. However, that didn’t guarantee her safety.  

“Once I was doing a shoot where the photographer suggested I got covered in body paint,” she remembers.

“It meant I had to be naked, but I’d worked with him loads so felt comfortable. As the make-up artist wasn’t around, I started painting the stuff on myself. But then the photographer began to join in, spreading it all over my body, even between my legs, which made me feel really awkward. Looking back, maybe I was naive to agree to it while we were alone, but I thought I could trust him.

“I wanted to scream and tell him to stop, but I was scared he’d be angry and I didn’t want to get a reputation for being difficult.”

Discussion around exploitation in the fashion industry erupted just before the Weinstein scandal broke
AFP or licensors

Discussion around exploitation in the fashion industry erupted just before the Weinstein scandal broke[/caption]

Once Katie had done the shoot, the photographer handed her a bucket of water to wash the paint off with.

“He stood there and watched,” she says. “Then he came over and started to rub his hands over me. I just froze until I eventually grabbed a towel and got dressed as quickly as I could. It was an awful experience, but I never told anyone as I was petrified it might cost me work.”

Katie, who still works as a model and lives in west London, admits that for a long time she blamed herself for what happened. “Only by talking to other girls do I realise I was put in vulnerable positions by men who should have known better,” she says.

Worryingly, it’s not only sexual predators that models need to be aware of. Financial abuse is also rife – something Leanne experienced in her late teens.

Model Cameron Russell, who has worked for Chanel, Prada and Vivienne Westwood took the step of devoting her Instagram to sharing anonymous sexual harassment stories from model
Getty – Contributor

Model Cameron Russell, who has worked for Chanel, Prada and Vivienne Westwood took the step of devoting her Instagram to sharing anonymous sexual harassment stories from model[/caption]

“I was asked to attend a hair appointment at a top London salon as the agency wanted me to change my colour for a shoot,” she explains. “I assumed they’d pay, but my dad insisted I check. I was shocked when the agency told me the £400 bill would be deducted from my earnings. I said I would pay for it myself upfront, borrowing the money from my dad, because I didn’t want to get into debt with the agency.

“After that I always insisted any costs were agreed first, whether for a test shoot or travel to a job, rather than put ‘on account’ on my behalf.”

Leanne, who’s since worked for respected names such as ASOS and Paul Costelloe, admits it was only down to her supportive family that she was able to forge a successful modelling career.

For a lot of girls there’s a huge pressure to toe the line for fear of being dumped and having no work,” she explains.

Edie Campbell penned an open letter addressing the way young women are treated in the industry
Rex Features

Edie Campbell penned an open letter addressing the way young women are treated in the industry[/caption]

“I know many models who’ve ended up in debt buying basics like food because their earnings are swallowed up by fees. I was told about one agency that sent models to a nutritionist if they went above a size 8 and billed them £30 a day for a food delivery service until they slimmed down.”

Leanne adds that it’s also common practice for some agencies to rent poor-quality flats to models at high prices, deducting the money from their earnings. “The agency then makes a profit at the model’s expense,” she explains.

“And some agency contracts state that you can’t leave until you’re debt-free, which leaves models trapped. They can even end up being exploited by club promoters who offer to take them out for dinner and clubbing, because it’s the only way they can afford to eat.”

However, it appears that with the growing number of models speaking out, people are listening and, more importantly, taking action.

American photographer Terry Richardson had worked with the likes of Bella Hadid
Getty Images – Getty

American photographer Terry Richardson had worked with the likes of Bella Hadid[/caption]

In December 2017, the British Fashion Model Agency Association (BMFAA) and British Fashion Council launched the Models First Initiative to protect and give a voice to models, while also imposing a code of practice on agencies that signed up.

They’re not the only ones taking a stand. Last March an anonymous Instagram account posted a “blacklist” with the names of 290 agents, photographers and stylists accused of sexual harassment or assault. A few hours later, its creator took down the list after receiving death threats.

Meanwhile, apps like Finda and Ubooker have begun to appear, offering UK models and clients a booking system where they can connect directly, removing the risk of unfair agency fees. But the biggest digital game-changer, which launched in the US last year and is set to be available in the UK from 2020, is thought to be the Agent Inc app.

With close to 30,000 subscribers across America, it’s described as “the Uber of the modelling industry”. It conducts criminal and sex offender checks on all its users, plus allows subscribers to rate and share their experiences to encourage transparency.


 

Here in the UK, next month Leanne, who still works as a model, is set to publish a book about industry experiences and guidelines, called The Model Manifesto.

And, she says, her message is clear. “It’s not about deterring people from becoming models, because it can be a fantastic job,” she insists.

“But it can be very isolating for many girls, pitted against one another, and desperate to work and earn money.

“We need to empower models from the outset to know what’s right and wrong, and what their legal rights are, so they not only protect themselves, but also insist on better treatment. We deserve better.

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