Fashion's guilty secret
PUBLISHED: 17:00 19 November 2017
The world of style is among many industries coming to terms with allegations of sexual misconduct. But, as SUNA ERDEM and DUNJA KNEZEVIC report, it is not just female models who have fallen victim to abuse
“He’s a very naughty man! Very handsy,” says Adam, a former male model who has worked for brands including G-Star and Hackett. We are discussing a European stylist who liked to touch him up during fashion shoots. “When it gets too much, I tell him to f*** off.”
Adam, who is not gay and who is not called Adam, confirms that the stylist’s roaming hands were unwelcome, but everyone tolerated him. We suggest he is being pretty casual about something women would call sexual harassment. “I suppose it sounds odd. As a model you become desensitised about your body,” he pauses. “But – and I suppose I’m backtracking here – it’s wrong, what he’s doing, isn’t it?”
We met Adam before Harvey Weinstein hit the headlines and sparked an avalanche of sexual harassment revelations that has engulfed the arts, politics and – no surprise here – fashion. We were struck by the conversation because even though he volunteered a string of unsavoury anecdotes, including a strange man rearranging his ‘holy parts’, he thought this was normal.
Since the Weinstein story broke, and male accusers also began to emerge – notably against Kevin Spacey – you would think that male models would be joining the fray. Catwalks have long been prowled by stick-thin girls, but thanks to a dramatic growth in metrosexual grooming and fashion, male modelling is booming. They must have tales to tell.
“We’ve seen more young men coming to us for help since Weinstein. There’s more awareness,” explains Susan Scafidi, academic director of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University in New York. “They usually want advice about escaping contracts so they don’t have to work with creepy agents, stylists or photographers. But there’s no way they’ll talk openly. They’re even terrified they’ll be spotted entering our building. Even their families don’t know. They’re ashamed.” It’s notable that, although Cameron Russell’s #MeToo campaign against harassment attracted numerous messages from models, very few were men, and always on condition of anonymity. Some don’t wish to blur what they see as the main issue – exposing dangerous instances of male on female harassment, including rape.
This is all very gentlemanly, but it means that an insidious, overlooked issue remains underground. “The harassment of male models underrecognised,” says Scafidi. “I’d really like to see men using the same hashtag and being comfortable in their masculinity in viewing that predators attack men as well as women.”
Male models have always evoked the ultimate masculine ideal and many think it’s “weak” to be seen as victims – especially straight models harassed by gay men. Others think to complain might seem homophobic. Yet in recent years some were slowly speaking out and the glimpse afforded into the dark soul of their world has been alarming.
In June, American ex-model Travis Bryant recorded a YouTube video explaining why he quit. One reason was harassment. Once, a leading designer lured him into his room and tried to force him into bed. After Bryant refused, the designer cancelled a string of top level, career-changing bookings. Bryant claims his agents angrily said he should have slept with him.
German model Mario Adrian explained that when he was younger he allowed photographers to oil and touch him in a distressing way because he so wanted to please the men he saw as the gateway to his career. He was offered a magazine cover in return for oral sex.
One model told Russell that a well-known photographer masturbated him. “People think because you are a guy you can control this stuff”.
We spoke to Edward Siddons, who modelled while studying at Oxford and detailed his experience in an expose for Newsweek magazine, memorably describing having his buttocks slapped – like livestock at auction. Siddons said one cult designer regularly “sent pictures of his c***” to models.
“Men like that are all over the industry. They have this sense of impunity, this untouchable arrogance,” Siddons continued. “It’s so hard to prove – you get character assassinated. I know people who’ve been sexually assaulted by older men in fashion. Models are dispensable – if one goes you can get 10 more but designers and photographers are not so easily replaceable. Men are very ill equipped about sexual harassment and assault. Finding an organisation to speak up for men – it’s the holy grail. I don’t know where I’d go if I’d been raped and sexually assaulted.”
Canadian model Rachel Blais, who worked on the campaigning Girl Model documentary compares the situation to the BBC in the 1970s: “Think of Jimmy Savile. There are many creepy photographers out there,” she told us over Skype from her home in Germany. “We know about the oversexualisation of female models. But every male model has this experience.”
We meet up in a southwest London café with a model, let’s call him Zac, who worked for 12 years for top brands. His conversation is peppered with unpleasant tales. One photographer described a shot as good for his “w*** bank”. “He was going to masturbate with my photo. How is that acceptable?”
Zac stands up to demonstrate what happened on another shoot. “The stylist suddenly sunk his hand in here, and…” he mimes giving his genitals a good squeeze. Once, a marketing manager at a big brand tried to send him home for refusing to sleep with him. Zac wasn’t booked for the label again.
So why doesn’t anyone call them out? “The locomotive is out of control and no one has the presence of mind or the tools to stop it. It’s institutional. In such a grossly unregulated industry where do you begin?” says Zac. Siddons cites a Kafkaesque fashion bureaucracy that means the photographer you want to grass up could also be a booker and gatekeeper of your career.
Those who do, get little result. One model sent us a statement he gave to police after a stylist relentlessly harassed him. The complaint was not pursued.
Rarely, cases come to court. Last year a Toronto court convicted agent Norwayne Anderson for molesting three male models – two under age. Nearly 15 years after Anderson assaulted him, one testified that he was still “messed up” and in therapy. In one high-profile case, Benjamine Bowers sued Abercrombie & Fitch after allegedly being made to masturbate for a photographer who then exposed his own penis. Nicholas Hamman-Howe sued US TV personality Nole Marin – famous for discovering today’s top male model, Sean O’Pry – for persistent assault.
There’s no record of a resolution in either case. Hamman-Howe’s lawyer, Martha McBreyer, won’t discuss the suit, but lets rip about sectors such as fashion: “Certain industries think sexual harassment laws don’t apply to them. In modelling you’re in unusual conditions – alone in a room to get photographed with another person and basically not wearing clothes. That’s how the predators prey on young people.”
We put this to an older model who’s walked for everyone from Prada to Versace: “It wasn’t like this. We were streetwise, stroppy. There weren’t many men so we had a lot of power.”
He wonders how strong-minded a model can be, given growing competition and a recent tendency to cast not at Top Shop but the school gate. “Teens just aren’t equipped.”
A ban on under 18s, better contracts and a behaviour code are key. But unless the widespread nature of the problem is acknowledged and the power balance changes, how can modelling move away from the oversexual atmosphere that dominates at present?
“Maybe it’s the frivolity of it all,” concludes Siddons. “It’s seen as clothes and jewels and bags and not about a model’s life, unemployment, insecurity, wellbeing. Models are plentiful and dispensable. More men are being harassed because the male industry is getting bigger. It’s actually getting worse”
Suna Erdem is a freelance writer who has written about fashion for Sunday Times Style, Women’s Wear Daily and Reuters; Dunja Knezevic is a writer and model and founder and ex chair of the models’ union at Equity