– By Khahlil Louisy
Last Friday, news broke that one of the fashion industry’s most revered photographers, Bruce Weber, was being sued by a relatively unheard of male model, named Jason Boyce, who accused him of sexual harassment. His suit also names his former agency, Soul Artist Management, and the agency’s owner, Jason Kanner, according to a report published by the New York Post. In the immediate few hours following, the story would spread like wild fire on the internet, with several media outlets reporting on it. Phone calls, text messages, and emails also started pouring in from friends, colleagues, and models I had worked with. No one, however, was shocked by the accusations leveled against Bruce Weber and Mr. Kanner, indicating that most people working in the fashion industry were aware of such activities taking place.
Three weeks ago, I received a phone call from a photographer, who claimed to have information on what he felt was inappropriate behavior, by models he had worked with from one particular agency. While I was familiar with the photographer’s work, we had only briefly met once before, at an after-party during New York Fashion Week this past September. When I asked why he thought it best to contact me with the information he had, he replied that he had read my piece on the state of the male modeling business, and thought it would be something I would be interested in covering, particularly because what he had to share, involved the agency he believed was known for operating as an escort service and was referenced in the piece. My curiosity piqued.
I delved into the business of fashion about three years ago and in that relatively short time, I have had the pleasure of working with an extensive list of creative powerhouses and talents, including editors, stylists, photographers, art directors, and models, among many others. Over the course of that time and as relationships became more established, I became privy to things that were going on in the industry. Rumors like which agents were sleeping with which models, which stylists were overly helpful in dressing the models, which photographers were thought of as sleazy and predatory, and the more alarming rumors, like agencies who pimped their models, setting them up on dates with wealthy and usually much older men. As it turns out, this behavior goes both ways, and rumors of models who were eager to offer sexual favors in order to book jobs, also made the rounds.
One photographer I spoke to over the weekend, admitted to having engaged in sexual activities with models whom he was photographing, before quickly adding that it was consensual and that he wouldn’t work with anyone underage, sensing my next question. He then recounted a situation where a model arrived at his studio for a photo shoot, took his clothes off, and proceeded to masturbate. “Just like that?” I asked, bewildered. “Just like that.” was his response. What he revealed next, would catch me completely off guard. The model, he said, then requested money from him. Such a move where a model would show up to his studio and be overly sexual or try to engage in sexual activity with him, had occurred multiple times by different models, but always from the same agency, leaving him to question what the development process was like over there.
Another photographer said that he has had instances where agents who know that he is gay, sent him nude pictures of their models, or just images of a model’s penis, in an effort to get him excited and hoping it would lead to booking.
Working models I spoke to shared stories of being on the sets of photo shoots or at a go-sees, where either the photographer or stylist tried to sleep with them, or were overly touchy when helping them get dressed. When asked why they didn’t report those incidents to their agencies, the responses were always the same. According to the models, the agencies are usually aware of which photographers or stylists are predators, but continue working with them because of how much power they wield in the industry. A photographer who photographs multiple advertising campaigns for big-name brands has the power to make a model’s career. It also means that he is a source of revenue for the agency and as such, agents might be hesitant to accuse or approach that photographer about indecent behavior, fearing that the relationship could be damaged.
One model recounted his first experience in New York City, then 17 years old, and sent on his first go-see arranged for him by his agency. According to the model, everything went smoothly and he eventually booked the job. The day of his shoot however, did not go as expected. His agent had communicated that the shoot would be for a fall fashion editorial, even showing him reference images that the photographer had sent over. On the set, however, the stylist was overly touchy, sticking his hands down the model’s pants to tuck the shirt in. A job, he says, he could have done himself. As the photo shoot proceeded, the stylist continued touching him inappropriately and at one point, even pretended to accidentally touch his penis. He was both in shock and conflicted, knowing that kind of behavior wasn’t professional and yet, having seen the previous work of the stylist and the caliber of models with whom he had worked, thought that maybe it was indeed normal. The model stated that he also really needed the images from the editorial shoot to add to his portfolio, in the hopes of booking advertising campaigns. After all, he was already in debt to his agency, who was footing the bill for his stay in New York and he needed to make money.
Another model also recounted an instance when he was new to New York and on the set of a shoot with a photographer, where he was only wearing underwear. The photographer, he said, kept demanding increasingly suggestive poses from him and would even position him the way he wanted. At one point, the photographer began arranging his penis inside of the underwear, stroking it in the process, to get him semi erect. The whole experience, he said, felt very uncomfortable, but he allowed it because that same photographer had worked with multiple brands on their advertising campaigns, but also because his agent had stressed how important it was to work with that photographer.
These stories aren’t isolated incidents. As it turns out, many male models have those experiences, but do not come out with their stories, fearing that their careers could suffer. Most of the male models I spoke to believe that they are on the very bottom rung of the fashion ladder and do not have the same level of support that their female counterparts enjoy. Male models often have to work much harder to earn sufficient money to make a decent living. Many have to take on additional jobs to supplement their incomes. Further, the fashion industry, particularly on the image making side, is dominated by gay men, many of who understand the power that they possess over the careers of the models, and are not afraid to use it to get what they want.
Several models said that unless they are willing to participate in the activities of these older gay men, it’s not likely that they will make it very far in the industry. “You have to be part of the gang.” one model said. They also talked about wild summer parties both in and out of the city, with agents and so-called friends of the agents. “You have to do these things to please both the agents and their friends, because they’re the ones who hold the power.” Another model added, before continuing “these men are always trying to get male models in as little clothing as possible, solely for their enjoyment. For them, it’s always about the dick.”
Feature image by Sinem Yazici