Given most fashion models start working in their mid-teens, Terry Richardson's alleged habit of sexually harassing the women he works with got me wondering what, if anything, is being done to protect high fashion's youngest and potentially most vulnerable workers.
Richardson has come under fire for his on-set behavior, described thusly by the Danish model Rie Rasmussen, who once worked with Richardson on a Gucci campaign: "He takes girls who are young, manipulates them to take their clothes off and takes pictures of them they will be ashamed of. They are too afraid to say no because their agency booked them on the job and are too young to stand up for themselves."
And by sometime model Jamie Peck, who said that Richardson stripped naked during a shoot without asking her permission, and eventually "maneuvered" her over to a couch in his home/studio, where he "strongly suggested I touch his terrifying penis." When he ejaculated, one of his assistants gave Peck a towel.
And by a woman whose stylist friend stopped working with Richardson. "She quit because of having to watch him sexually harrassing/abusing two (naked) teenage Eastern European models who didn't speak English — she didn't speak up and was so ashamed I don't think she did anymore styling for quite a while afterwards."
And by a model who said during her shoot with Richardson, "He had me go down on him and took pictures of him coming on my face, which I had never done before, and when I went to the bathroom to clean up I could hear him and an assistant joking about it which is when I decided to never tell anyone."
Richardson has denied the allegations of misconduct. But based on these and other interviews with sources close to Richardson, including agency employees, magazine staffers, stylists, and models, a portrait of the photographer's tactics for getting young women to submit to his advances is emerging. And it is not pretty.
Said one source familiar with the environment in Richardson's downtown New York studio, where Richardson, studio manager Seth Goldfarb, and first assistant David Swanson run the show, "The way those guys talk, women are whores and sluts, whores and sluts." Richardson is smart enough to police his behavior when circumstances dictate restraint. "The truly inappropriate stuff only happens when Terry shoots in his home studio, or on location," says this insider. "When he shoots at Milk or Industria" — two large professional studios in New York — "there are too many outsiders with prying eyes."
And Richardson would never "strongly suggest" that one of the celebrities he shoots ought to get him off. "He never, never, ever acts like this in front of any celebrity, from A-list to Z-list, even the craziest, most drugged up, want-to-please Terry types." Celebrities come surrounded by handlers and friends and publicists, and celebrities have both the power and the means to seek redress should anything happen to them on set.
This reality echoes in a strange way the sentiments of Marc Jacobs, who discussed Richardson earlier this week at an event in New York. Jacobs, who has shot with Richardson several times, said he always felt free to refuse when one of his ideas for a shot was too extreme. "I've worked with Terry and Terry has asked me to do some crazy things," said the designer. "I know that those pictures will exist if I do them. But I'm a big boy and I can say no."
With models — especially young, un-agented models, like Peck, or those Richardson solicits via his website — it's a different story. "His M.O. is to suddenly get his dick out during the shoot," says an industry insider — just as Peck and the other models described. Richardson does this so frequently, this source compares it to a rehearsed drama: "It's like you're at the part in the play where that character comes out." And Richardson proceeds from nudity, to touching himself, to touching the model, to asking the model to touch him — all more on the assumption of his subject's consent than her actual, asked and obtained, permission.
All of which begs the question, who is in the business of protecting models from whatever predators exist within the industry? Theoretically, this would be the agency to which the model pays, in New York, a 20% share of her earnings, in exchange for management and support. I invited a variety of contacts at top New York agencies to speak to me about their respective policies and practices for keeping their models — particularly their underaged models — safe at work. I received mostly email silence and unreturned phonecalls.
Two former agency employees told me, on condition of anonymity, that the agencies they had worked for, in the words of one, "didn't send [Richardson] the young girls, knowing full well his predatory behavior." But other sources at those same agencies denied any such de facto policy, and I'm personally aware of several models who were well under 18 — one was just 14 — and represented by agencies like Next and IMG, who were sent on castings and jobs with Richardson. (Richardson's most recent work featuring models under the age of 18 is his fall, 2009, Lacoste campaign, which featured the minors Karlie Kloss and Heidi Rock, who were then 16, and Selina Khan. Richardson also shot an editorial with Kloss for the November, 2008, issue of British Vogue; Kloss turned 16 in August of 2008.) Marc Jacobs, speaking at the same event, had some suggestions for keeping models safe in the industry himself: "If a girl is underage, maybe the girl's agent or chaperone should be present on the shoot. That's the hard part. Who's to blame or who's to watch?"
None of the former and current agency employees I talked to said that their companies had policies on sexual harassment for their models, because models are independent contractors. Modeling isn't the kind of job where you can report unlawful conduct to H.R.
Which isn't to say that no agent is sympathetic to models' vulnerability on that score. "What I heard from you is shocking to me," said one agency source I reached by phone. "We are incredibly strict with the work that we do with our girls who are under 18."
"I think there's a lot of adults that don't take enough responsibility in our business, and that's not limited to one person, unfortunately," he explained. "When you reach a certain age, you really need to take responsibility for the minors you are working with. And sometimes that goes out the window, in fashion. I'm not sure why."
He said that his agency had received no complaints about Richardson's behavior from any of its models — which is entirely possible, given that none of the models I've known who ever warned me of their bad experiences with Richardson ever, to my knowledge, told their agencies. Sexual harassment is a difficult topic to address even under the best of circumstances, and Terry Richardson just happens to be a fantastically powerful figure in the fashion world, with frequent editorial credits in Vogue, Vogue Paris, and Harper's Bazaar, commercial clients including H&M and Lacoste, and a thriving art photography business.
No matter, says this source: If he ever heard a complaint like Peck's from a model, "We would deal with it directly with the client, right away. There's nobody who's too big. It's an issue of human decency."
So perhaps part of the answer is that models should tell their agencies if something as untoward as being propositioned happens to them while they're working. But the fact that they mostly don't indicates that it's not entirely that simple. The fashion industry has yet to demonstrate that it is capable of sidelining predatory individuals like Richardson — and the hesitancy of models to speak up has to be due in part to that fact, which reinforces the perception that any complaint would be futile. Agencies may simply not be equal to the task of protecting their models from sexual harassment on the job. And that's a troubling thought indeed.
As always, if you have any insight into this subject, or an account of Richardson — or any other fashion photographer's — behavior of your own, please consider e-mailing me.