Last week, a 19-year-old aspiring model named Hayden Holt filed a lawsuit against an agent named Aristeo Tengco alleging sexual harassment, sex discrimination, and violations of labor law. Since Holt's suit became public, fellow models formerly under Tengco's "care" Jessica Lee and Kayla Hill, both 17, have joined the lawsuit. They spoke to Good Morning America today about the sexual harassment they say they faced from their agent, Aristeo Tengco.
According to Holt's complaint, the sexual harassment began when she signed with Tengco's agency, Emmanuel Models New York, and moved to New York City last August. Emmanuel put her up in (and charged her for) Tengco's own Upper East Side apartment. (It is not considered unusual for an agent to live with new face models he or she represents — although as Carré Otis wrote last year in her memoir, Beauty Disrupted, it is a living arrangement that has also helped to cover up the sexual abuse of models by their agents.) Last August, on her second day in the city, Tengco allegedly touched Holt inappropriately, "rubbing her arms and legs in an unwelcome and sexual manner."
Plaintiff physically pulled away to signal her discomfort and disapproval, as she did not want to jeopardize her potential career by verbally offending Tengco. Tengo [sic] repeatedly touched Plaintiff in the same manner several times throughout the month of September, and each time Plaintiff physically rejected his advances.
Holt says that Tengco began demanding private, night-time meetings with her to discuss her "progress." She further alleges that on two occasions when Tengco groped her — one of which was witnessed by another model — she "protested strongly," and that Tengco apologized in each instance, indicating he knew what he was doing was wrong and unwelcome. She also says that a 15-year-old model who also lived in Tengco's house was also subjected to his sexual harassment. Holt eventually told her father about the abuse, and he facilitated her exit from the model apartment by telling Tengco that there was a "family emergency" back in North Carolina.
Tengco is also alleged to be witholding some $3,000 of Holt's earnings — and to have sent the Holt family a $4,000 bill for a "portfolio fee" and "coaching fee." Tengco allegedly withheld money earned by Lee and Hill, too, and wouldn't even give them money for food.
Tengco, who was born in the Philippines, is a former women's wear designer who says he founded Emmanuel in 2007. Emmanuel is a small agency (it represents America's Next Top Model alumna Claire Unabia). The company blog shows its models doing jobs for mostly second- and third-tier clients — Nolcha Fashion Week, Project Runway alumni Irina Shabayeva and Mychael Knight. His Facebook wall is littered with pictures of Tengco with industry big-shots (like designers Donna Karan and B. Michael) interspersed with quotes from Christian devotional teachings and scriptures. ("'Above all else, guard your affections. For they influence everything else in your life.' proverbs 4:23.")
Apparently, the God talk was a big selling point with the girls' parents, who found Tengco's professed faith in Jesus reassuring. "He fed me a lot of speeches about Christianity and how he was really going to help me grow in my faith," Lee told the Daily News. "He controlled everything I wore. He controlled every aspect of my life...He wanted to know what you were doing, where you were, who you were talking to every hour of the day. I felt trapped."
Lee adds, "And there was the groping. When we'd hug, it was very sexual. He'd run his hands down my back and grab my butt." Hill says that Tengco would often purposefully walk in on them while they were changing clothes, and put his hand on her upper thigh when they rode together in cabs. "He'd keep his hand there the whole entire time."
Tengco also runs a company named Genesis New York Masters School for Models, which appears to be located in the same townhouse where Tengco runs Emmanuel and has his living quarters/model apartment/alleged groping den. At Genesis, would-be models are promised instruction in "the physical, emotional, psychological, intellectual, and spiritual aspects of modeling." Basic tuition is $6,000.
Interestingly, Holt's lawsuit argues that Emmanuel was the girls' employer. In the U.S., models are typically defined as independent contractors under the law, and their agencies argue that they are merely management companies that facilitate their work. For this reason, agencies do not withhold taxes from their models' earnings (unless that model is a non-U.S. citizen). However, certain aspects of the model-agency relationship can resemble that of an employee-employer. For instance, models are typically signed to exclusive contracts with one agency in a given city, and are contractually prohibited from accepting work that doesn't come through the agency (independent contractors are generally free to work for whomever they like).
From a legal perspective, it's obvious why Holt's lawyers would want to make the case that Holt, Lee, and Hill were Tengco's employees: the level of protection from sexual harassment, wage theft, and other abuses offered to employees is much higher than that given independent contractors under the law. It will be very interesting to see how this case unfolds.
Ultimately, Holt, Lee, and Hill worked as models and lived with Tengco for periods of up to four months each. They have yet to see a dime of their earnings, but they say their most important reason for bringing the suit is to prevent Tengco harassing any more young girls. "He would just always have to have his hands on me," says Hill. "I think he's disgusting. I hate him. I want him to rot in hell."