When I first saw Jeffrey Esptein’s mugshot, I recognized him instantly. It was several years ago, when he was first accused of sex trafficking. Early in my working life as a young model, I was on location in Florida for a photo shoot with an older, Eastern European model, who was eager for me to meet her friend, Jeffrey. We visited a residence, presumably his Palm Beach estate, during the day and I chatted with him as he sat beside me facing a swimming pool. He was personable, casually dressed, and asked me about myself. When I told him that I grew up in New York City and attended Dalton, the elite private high school on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, he seemed surprised. He had taught math there. What did my family do, he asked?
Nothing untoward happened. In hindsight, I wonder if this was because of Epstein’s awareness of my background. As the child of a professor and an attorney, I had a support network of family and friends in New York. I was relatively privileged compared to many of my peers who entered the modeling world from working class backgrounds and less prosperous countries such as Brazil and the nations of Eastern Europe. In 2015, alleged Epstein victim Virginia Giuffre said in court filings that Epstein, MC2 modeling agency founder Jean Luc Brunel, and their associates “deliberately engaged in a pattern of racketeering that involved luring minor children through MC2, mostly girls under the age of 17, to engage in sexual play for money.” Elisabetta Tai, an Italian model whose agent sent her to meet Epstein at his Manhattan residence for a casting for Victoria’s Secret, alleges that Epstein propositioned her for a nude massage. Brunel was also once a partner at Next, my then-modeling agency. It’s sickening to think that I might have been spared because of Epstein’s calculations about who was fair game and who wasn’t.
And, yet, during this period of my life, I had my fair share of bad experiences. There were various times during my modeling career when predators lured me into dangerous situations that weren’t what they appeared at first. Indeed, the list of prominent men and their enablers who have been exposed for their predatory behavior during the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements reads like a who’s who of people I encountered as a young model. This isn’t a coincidence.
Ten years ago, I produced a documentary that chronicled my and other models’ experiences of working in the fashion industry. In the film, my former roommate, a model at my then-agency, shared a disturbing story about her agent. This agent sent her to a casting, where she was coerced to pose nude and engage in a sex act with a famous photographer, who she later named: Terry Richardson. After the film’s release, numerous models came forward with similar allegations against him. But it wasn’t until 2017, when publicity surrounding the Harvey Weinstein allegations brought added pressure, that publishing companies and fashion brands announced they had severed ties with him.
As a young model, I never felt I could report my concerns to my agency. It seemed likely they knew they were encouraging models into compromising, even dangerous situations. They were more careful with top-earning supermodels but it usually seemed the agency’s allegiance was to the clients, not the models whose interests they were supposed to represent. They intentionally blurred the line between business and personal relationships, and there was always pressure to be upbeat and compliant. In my over 20 years in the business, an agency has never informed me of my rights or warned me of potential dangers. Generally models in the U.S. work as independent contractors who lack adequate legal protections and there is no HR department to which they can turn. For example, when my former roommate reported Richardson to our then-agency and refused to work with him, she was the one who was reprimanded. (Other models who have complained about being sexually assaulted at work have been reprimanded and even dropped by their agencies, too.) Later, when I switched agencies and raised my concerns about Richardson with an agency president, he suggested I was being uptight and shrugged, saying, “That’s just Terry.”
Working as a model in an almost entirely unregulated industry led me to establish the Model Alliance, a nonprofit research and advocacy organization for people working in the fashion industry. In 2012, the Model Alliance established a grievance reporting and advice service. Since its inception, this hotline receives dozens of inquiries weekly from models about issues ranging from agency debt and sexual and emotional abuse to potential scams and trafficking schemes. At the height of the #MeToo movement, the Model Alliance received a 4,000% increase in complaints from models about sexual harassment and assault on the job. Last year, we introduced the RESPECT Program, which aims to formalize this grievance mechanism, establish an independent monitor to investigate complaints, and provide education and training that works toward prevention. RESPECT has the support of over 200 models, including Karen Elson, Doutzen Kroes, and Gisele Bündchen. Now, we need the support of agencies, publishing companies, and fashion brands who want to do better by the talent who they purport to protect.
The public reckoning and cultural shift that has emerged from the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements is encouraging. But I fear that the focus on condemning predatory individuals, rather than the systems that enable them is shortsighted. We cannot seem shocked about reports of sex trafficking under the guise of modeling work given the imbalance of power and lack of protections that have plagued the industry for far too long.