June 14, 2024


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Fashion Models Face Sexual Abuse, Financial Exploitation, Unsafe Sets

Fashion Models Face Sexual Abuse, Financial Exploitation, Unsafe Sets

Esmeralda Seay-Reynolds had just turned 15 years old when she was scouted by Click Model Management in New York. But the agency told the 5-foot-11, 130-pound hopeful that she wasn’t right because she looked “too mature,” code in fashion for a teen girl deemed “too heavy” because she has already developed curves. So she dropped 20 pounds and immediately signed with NEXT, an even bigger agency. Her ascent was swift, with the Pennsylvania native landing in the pages of Vogue and shooting campaigns for top couture brands like Chanel.

But the red flags emerged just as quickly. At 16, she was booked on a shoot with a photographer who had been publicly accused of sexual coercion. That same year, one of her representatives offered her some dangerous advice on how to stay catwalk thin. “I remember my agent saying, ‘Cotton balls are organic, so it’s fine if you just swallow them to make yourself feel full,’” she says. Around that time, Seay-Reynolds was runway ready and made the Fashion Week cut for Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Saint Laurent, Fendi and Marc Jacobs in New York, Paris and Milan. At her first-ever show, the backstage bathroom scene was troubling. “On either side of me were size zero girls puking their guts up,” she recalls. There was also a financial shocker. She says she received just $130 for the six weeks of grueling work. “I don’t know if that is how much I should have made or if my agency just took that money. I have no idea because they don’t give you receipts,” she explains. 

But all that paled in comparison to a spur-of-the-moment two-day shoot in Reykjavík in 2014 – an editorial job that her NEXT agents hyped, calling the vision ethereal and Lord of the Rings-esque. “We pull up to a glacier above freezing, ice-covered waters. And [the photographer] parks the car, and he’s like, ‘Climb!’” She and another model spent the next 30 minutes ascending a glacier in heels and gauzy slip dresses in a hailstorm, while the photographer and his assistant wore fur-lined parkas. “He made us change up there. We had to get naked. His assistant grabbed my arm when I [protested] and was like, ‘You’re not leaving. You will take too much time,’” she recalls. “The photographer even asked us to jump over a crevice on top of the glacier, which plunged at least 20 feet. Luckily, the stylist on the shoot was like, ‘That’s not happening. She will die.’” 

The second day managed to be even worse. More cold, storms and laying on frozen lava beds in the snow. The photographer then led the small group to the country’s famed hot springs. “If you step on one, it will melt your flesh off. So, you have to stay on this marked path for safety. But he says, ‘Get off the path. And watch your footing,’” Seay-Reynolds remembers. “You’re told to do it, and you do it. And he is the adult, he is in charge.” Terrified, she sat in silence as they drove on to another extreme locale, pulling up beside a massive hole in the ground with a “Danger. Do Not Enter” sign. The photographer removed the sign, and they marched down into a cave, with stalactites covering the ceiling and stalagmites stretching across the floor. The photographer directed the two models to climb over to a desired spot. “Ice that will rip right through you if you slip,” she says. “There was no help, no medic. If you don’t do what they say, they will blacklist you. And that not only will eff up your future career, but everything that you’ve done and suffered up until that point will mean nothing.” 

When she returned to the U.S., she complained about the photographer to one of her agents and was dismissed with a casual, “‘Yeah, he’s known for this.’”  One of the resulting photos graced the cover of a fashion magazine, with other images featured inside its pages. Variety has viewed the photos. They are exactly as described. Seay-Reynolds was 17 at the time. She says she was never paid for the 18-hour days of work amid highly unsafe conditions. 

Esmeralda Seay-Reynolds
David Noles

When asked to comment, NEXT co-founder Joel Wilkenfeld says, “When we send models to photo shoots, we vet the people, and we hope that that model would call us if they were exposed to conditions such as this. The unfortunate part is we’re not on every shoot.” As for the cotton ball incident, Wilkenfeld adds, “If a model would have brought that to our attention, that agent would have been fired right there on the spot.” The photographer and the shoot’s producer pushed back on Seay-Reynolds’ claims and said conditions were safe. The photographer shifted some of the blame for the situation on NEXT, adding: “At the end of our shoot it was made known to me that she was refusing to eat anything. We immediately called her agency NEXT Models to express our concern she might be dealing with … an eating disorder … I was upset that her agency would have sent a model who had such concerns on any shoot, not to mention a destination project.” 

Seay-Reynolds’ story is not uncommon. Variety spoke to more than a dozen models and people familiar with the inner machinations of the industry, several of whom say they were exploited financially and sexually while working. Though models fuel the $2.5 trillion fashion industry, they struggle to survive in its epicenter, New York. Unlike Hollywood talent agencies, which are licensed, regulated and place a 10 percent cap on commissions, modeling firms like NEXT and Wilhelmina are considered management companies and enjoy a unique carveout when it comes to the state’s labor laws. Among the industry’s most egregious practices, agencies typically wield “power of attorney” over their models and can legally accept payments on their behalf and deduct expenses like wildly inflated rent for substandard housing with zero obligation to detail their accounting. Even worse, the top agencies, which are said to scour refugee camps and eating disorder clinics in the quest for fresh faces, employ multi-year, auto-renewing contracts whether or not they book their models any jobs. As a result, even models who work regularly find themselves in debt to their agencies, leaving them vulnerable to predators like Harvey Weinstein and Jeffrey Epstein, who were both deeply entwined in this world. (Weinstein is a convicted rapist, while the late Epstein served 13 months in prison for soliciting sex from a 14-year-old girl.) 

“The modeling industry really does in some cases rise to the level of trafficking — labor trafficking and sex trafficking,” says former model Sara Ziff, who founded the Model Alliance in 2012 to promote fair treatment for those who serve as the face of the industry. “This lack of transparency, the power imbalance, the vulnerability of these mostly young, immigrant women, it’s a recipe for exploitation. In the early stages of doing this work, I refrained from using the language of trafficking because it felt too extreme. But that’s what it is.” 

After a decade of advocacy, Ziff is on the precipice of ushering in meaningful change in the dysfunctional industry. On June 8, the New York Senate passed the Fashion Workers Act, which would close the legal loophole that allows management companies to escape accountability. The bill would establish a fiduciary duty for agencies to act in the best interests of their models, provide them with copies of contracts and protect their health and safety by establishing a zero-tolerance policy for abuse. The Assembly didn’t vote on the bill before the legislative session ended on June 9. But given the bill’s bipartisan support and celebrity backers like Beverly Johnson and Helena Christensen, Ziff remains hopeful that it will pass when the Assembly is expected to return later this month. So far, Hollywood’s three major talent agencies – WME, CAA and UTA – have stayed on the sidelines, neither supporting nor fighting the bill despite all having modeling divisions, WME’s IMG being the biggest. Ziff says she has met with IMG agents, who provided helpful feedback that was included in the final version of the bill, as well CAA reps. UTA, which represents Gisele Bündchen, didn’t engage. 

“I would love for [WME, CAA and UTA] to support the bill,” she says.  

Still, the bill continues to face major industry pushback elsewhere. NEXT co-founder Faith Kates, who once counted Epstein cohort Jean-Luc Brunel as among the agency’s key investors, started the Coalition for Fairness in Fashion and hired the powerful Albany lobbying firm Bolton-St. John to fight the bill. (Brunel, who died last year in a Paris prison while facing charges that he raped minors, was the subject of a “60 Minutes” investigation back in 1988 in which models claimed they were routinely drugged and raped.) 

Sara Ziff
Reed Young

Model Kenny Sale notes that some of the parties coming out against the bill are “the people who ignored the Jeffrey Epstein [accusations],” referring to a report that Epstein frequently visited the NEXT offices in New York and donated to Kates’ charities. “They took [Brunel’s] money, and those are the same people advocating against this bill.” (Says Wilkenfeld: “I didn’t know Jeffrey Epstein. I never had anything to do with Jeffrey Epstein. And I never saw [Brunel] inappropriate with anybody.” Kates did not respond to a request for comment for this article. But in 2019, Kates’ attorney denied that his client had any business or financial relationship with Epstein and added that she had seen him “once or twice a year” over the previous decade.) At the dawn of the #MeToo era and the modeling industry came under scrutiny, Kates downplayed any problems at her agency. “I think NEXT is pretty powerful and the girls don’t get hit [on] that much anymore. I think the ones that do are the ones that don’t have great representation. We have a voice,” she told Women’s Wear Daily in 2017. “If you think ever that somebody’s bothering you on the set, you call us and somebody will be there in 15 minutes.” 

Sale says the commonplace use of suffocating contracts creates an unhealthy power dynamic that leaves models open to other abuses, which he experienced firsthand. In 2015, he says he was sexually assaulted by photographer Mario Testino. (The high-profile photographer has denied any wrongdoing despite being accused by at least 18 men of sexual misconduct.) Sale told his agent at Click about Testino being aggressive and was met with derision. “[The agent] said, ‘Maybe if you’d gotten on your knees you could have gotten some better photos in your portfolio.’” (An attorney for Click denied the claim.) 

Though Hollywood has made significant efforts to clean up its act following its #MeToo reckoning in 2017, the modeling industry has been slow to effect change even as the two worlds overlap, with success in modeling often serving as a gateway to acting. (Think Brad Pitt, Channing Tatum and Charlize Theron, who all started as models.) But there are major differences between the two industries, namely that actors are unionized via SAG-AFTRA and have on-set safety protocols. Ironically, the modeling world’s feeder status to Hollywood creates a climate ripe for abuse. Many of Hollywood’s power players brought down by sexual misconduct accusations — including Weinstein, Bill Cosby and Brett Ratner — allegedly preyed on models hoping to make the transition. Weinstein lured models by dangling opportunities to appear on his long-running reality hit series “Project Runway” or access to his fashion designer wife at the time, Georgina Chapman. 

Ambra Gutierrez was one such model hoping to break into acting. She was 22 years old and barely spoke English when she arrived in New York from her native Italy. One day in 2015, her modeling agent emailed her to let her know that he had booked her a “routine casting” at the Weinstein Co. (She declines to say which agency.) “I walked through the office and basically got assaulted within three, four minutes that I was in there,” she says. (Her story eventually became the foundation of Ronan Farrow’s Weinstein expose in The New Yorker. Weinstein denied ever engaging in any nonconsensual sexual conduct). Gutierrez notes that models like herself find themselves immediately behind the eight ball when they start out in the business.  

“The agency is setting them up in the modeling apartment. They pay their flights. They don’t ever disclose how much they cost. They pay for your visa,” she explains. “So you arrived and you’re like $15,000 in debt. And they remove this money every time you get a job. How would you be able to survive?” 

Speaking up about abuse is often frowned upon. Gutierrez believes she was blacklisted by Victoria’s Secret, a brand for which she modeled, after her Weinstein allegations came to light, calling the company “hypocritical” for claiming to be a brand that empowers women while severing its relationship with her. (Victoria’s Secret declined comment.) Likewise, Sale says he was dropped by Click when he told his story to the New York Times in 2018. (Click denied that Sale was ever dropped by the agency. In an added twist, the Click agent who made the decision to cut ties with Sale was the same agent who initially scouted Seay-Reynolds.) Ziff says some models who stood with the Alliance at the beginning of Fashion Workers Act campaign have dropped out because their agencies told them to stop associating with the advocacy group. 

Another Weinstein accuser, Kaja Sokola, says this culture of favors and retaliation allows men like the notorious producer to flourish. In September 2002, she was a 16-year-old model newly arrived in New York from her native Poland when she attended an event curated by her agency, NEXT. It was there that she met Weinstein. Three days later, the film mogul sexually assaulted her, she claims.  

“Modeling agencies are sometimes like pimps for rich people,” she says. 

Chris Brenner, who managed supermodel Milla Jovovich’s career for decades and now represents her daughter Ever, worked as an agent at NEXT from 1993-99 and saw the industry’s problems up close. 

“I didn’t like these auto-renewing contracts,” he says. “A lot of these young people sign contracts without showing them to their parents because they’re only 18, 19 and they think that they’re doing something right, but then they’re stuck. It seems like [the agencies] want to hold people to things in perpetuity. I didn’t know what the word ‘perpetuity’ meant before I worked at NEXT.” 

Brenner also became concerned about the presence of grown men milling about during fashion shows. “Harvey became a fixture,” he adds. “Donald Trump certainly was. I would see Donald Trump backstage at [Fashion Week home] Bryant Park, and I’m like, ‘Why is he standing there when there’s a 13-year-old changing? This is weird.’ NEXT, along with a lot of agencies, would get invitations for fashion parties that they would invite certain girls to, with the hope that you’re going to catch the eye of a client that would want to know more about you and call the agency the following day. The industry still operates like that.”

He finally decided to leave NEXT and start his own management company after witnessing a model being financially exploited. 

“I remember a young woman who had a kid at home telling me that she booked a job, left home for two days to shoot the job, and then NEXT advanced her [her pay]. But instead of taking the 20 percent commission, they took an extra 5% for advancing it before the client [paid],” he recalls. “And then two months later, she went and did another job and was gone away from her kid for two days. And then a couple of months later, when she came in to get paid, she had a negative balance. And she was like, ‘How can that be?’ They said, ‘Remember the job that we advanced you on? Well, that client never paid. So, we had to reimburse ourselves that payment through the next job you did.’” 

Brenner was disgusted. He adds: “I thought, ‘You’re telling me that this young mother had a mouth to feed, is taking herself away from home for days and came back with a negative balance. Where is your responsibility as an agency to guarantee that the clients that you’re bringing her to work with are legitimate?’” 

As the Fashion Workers Act makes its way through Albany’s legislative branches, a number of lawsuits also are moving through the courts that either directly target the agencies or those who exploited their vulnerabilities. In April, Ziff used New York’s Adult Survivors Act lookback window to file a lawsuit against former Miramax/Disney executive and Weinstein pal Fabrizio Lombardo. The New York native was scouted at 14 and signed with NEXT as a high school student en route to becoming a face for such designers as Tommy Hilfiger and Stella McCartney. Ziff, who graduated from Columbia and received her master’s degree from Harvard, accused Lombardo of raping her when she was a teen. The alleged incident in 2001 followed a private screening of the film “Black Hawk Down” at Miramax’s offices. At the time, Wilkenfeld told Ziff that Lombardo was a friend of his and an influential film producer, according to the suit, which names Disney as a defendant. (Wilkenfeld says, “Fabrizio I knew. Very nice guy. Never heard anything bad about him in any which way.”) 

“It’s clear as day to me that financial exploitation in the industry leads to sexual exploitation,” says Ziff. “The fact that we are not treated as professionals creates a breeding ground for abuse. The foundation is rotten. So, it’s no wonder that when you have teenage girls who are working off debt to their agents are being sent to meet with businessmen under the guise of ‘a professional opportunity.’ The power imbalance is obvious. The abuse that goes on that I experienced, that my peers experienced was because modeling agencies have been allowed to act without any accountability.” 

Sokola also used a similar lookback window under New York’s Child Victims Act to sue Weinstein and Disney in 2019. (Weinstein’s attorney says his client “categorically and emphatically” denies Sokola’s allegations.) And a long-simmering class action suit filed against NEXT and Wilhelmina in 2013 is now in the discovery phrase. That suit claims that agencies took advantage of their young charges, stuffed them into apartments and deducted expenses from their pay that included rents that far exceeded market value. (Wilhelmina did not respond to a request for comment.)

“The worst thing that happened to me has been the way I was ripped off without any oversight. And it’s not a good feeling,” says Alex Shanklin, a former J. Crew model and Wilhelmina client who is the suit’s lead plaintiff. “As a model or any worker, you should have the right to know the terms of any agreement that’s being negotiated. We sign over power of attorney to agencies under the current system. That would be a huge thing if that’s eliminated. Many of us start at a young age, and we shouldn’t allow someone to have that much control over us.” 

On May 23, Ziff and a group of models held a press conference in the capital in Albany. Carrying signs that read “Jean-Luc Brunel was an investor in NEXT Models” and “New York Fashion Week Generates $600M/Yr in Income but We Get Paid in Clothes,” the women and men one-by-one shared their horror stories about the seemingly glamorous industry. Mari Malek, a model from South Sudan, likened the trauma she faced in the industry to what she endured as a refugee. “I was disrespected, verbally abused, sexually harassed, underpaid and never paid for some of my work and went to more dinner and events than castings as an eye candy,” Malek said. The 12-year veteran of the industry who has modeled for Prada also faced racism, recounting how she arrived at a casting only to find a sign on the door that read, “No Black Girls Unless Requested.” She added, “I was told, ‘Just shut up and model.’” 

Other marginalized communities are faring no better. Rozi Levine, who self-describes as “gender fluid” and uses they/them pronouns, began modeling at 19 during the Covid pandemic. Levine’s face was plastered on displays in Ultas and Sephoras around the world but they say they earned only about $2,000 for the job while being represented by Undefined Models. Levine, who was on hand in Albany for the press conference, was also frequently misgendered. “They would only put me out for bookings for like ‘strong masculine man,’ which I think is hilarious because I am scrawny and feminine and androgynous.”

(“Rozi holds a special place as our very first model since our agency’s inception in 2021,” says Undefined founder Jhoan Tobar. “At Undefined, representing our models’ identities is deeply ingrained in our culture and is personally significant to me as a member of the queer community. We ensure our staff receives comprehensive training in diversity, inclusion, and gender identity. There may be instances where a model grants us permission to submit them for projects that may not directly align with their identity. This strategy allows us to introduce our models to clients who may need guidance in appreciating the beauty of genderless and gender non-conforming marketing.”)

The final blow came right after Levine’s first Fashion Week. “A designer invited me to their apartment, and I was like, ‘Cool. Like, there’s gonna be a bunch of people I can network with,’” Levine recounts. But they were alone. “I was 20. I cannot legally drink. And they were pouring me drink after drink after drink. I had no way to tell how much I was drinking or experience with this. I completely blacked out and woke up in their bedroom completely naked. I was like, ‘What the hell?’” Levine partially blames the system for landing in a situation with no ability to consent. “It’s just a fact that models are disposable to agencies, designers, photographers, brands,” adds Levine, who left the industry not long after. “It’s just a whole trafficking culture.” 

As the global economy worsens, the level of desperation is at an all-time high, with recruitment taking place at some shocking locales. Seay-Reynolds, who says she once dropped to 80 pounds amid pressure to stay skinny, notes that agencies are not above scouting for teen talent at anorexia and bulimia clinics, as reportedly happened at Stockholm Center for Eating Disorders. Ziff says even war zones are fair game for recruitment.  

“Models are now being scouted from refugee camps by agencies in this new era of trying to promote diversity,” says Ziff, who continues to field a steady stream of complaints via the Model Alliance support line she set up years ago. “They’re actually preying on girls in refugee camps, and then allowing them to come live in the model apartment, rack up debt and then return them to the refugee camp.”  

Staying put in an agency-provided apartment is a different kind of horror movie. Seay-Reynolds describes a typical New York version. “There were like eight girls living in this in this tiny space, and there was a scale that you had to step on to get into the kitchen. The only thing that’s ever in the fridge is Diet Coke.” Ziff adds that the agencies are raking in money as a quasi-landlord. She says agencies typically house eight girls in a two-bedroom apartment with four bunk beds and charge each model $2,000 per month, while the market rate for the entire apartment would run approximately $2,200 per month. 

Nevertheless, Ziff is feeling optimistic about the industry’s future and emboldened by previous victories. (The Alliance helped pass the Child Model Act in 2013, which provides some minimum safeguards for underage models.) But perhaps the biggest challenge is the very perception of models, who rarely engender sympathy from the masses.  

“No one cares about model problems because they sound like pretty people problems,” says Seay-Reynolds. “They think modeling is Kendall Jenner being paid $10 million for an Instagram selfie. But the reality is the rest of us are living in ‘The Hunger Games’ literally. Pun unintended.”