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Gerald Marie of the Elite model agency poses with models during a fashion show as part of Paris Fashion Week on March 14, 1996. A new documentary focuses on Elite and four agents working or linked to it. Photo: Corbis Via Getty Images

Fashion models talk of sexual abuse as teenage girls in Scouting for Girls: Fashion’s Darkest Secret

  • Models like Carré Otis tell their stories of the industry in the 1980s and ’90s when many were desperate to become the next Linda Evangelista or Naomi Campbell
  • One model at the time says things were even harder for young Asian models, who had ‘a really difficult time at the hands of certain men’

I had to watch Scouting for Girls: Fashion’s Darkest Secret through my fingers.

This three-part documentary available on YouTube analyses the exploitation and sexual abuse of underage models by the very people charged with keeping them safe.

It’s difficult watching, particularly for anyone who has worked in fashion.

The documentary focuses on four model agents: John Casablancas, Gérald Marie, Jean-Luc Brunel and Claude Haddad, all of whom worked for or were linked to Elite, the international model agency that rose to prominence in the late 1980s and 1990s.

Marie and his then wife, supermodel Linda Evangelista, at the Plaza Hotel in New York in 1991. Photo: Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images
This was an era when models were more famous than actresses, when Naomi, Linda, Christy, Kate and Cindy were known by their first names alone.

They ruled not only the catwalks but newspaper front pages and magazine covers, and dated the most eligible men in the world.

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Understandably, teenage girls were desperate to follow in their wake – and those with potential signed with Elite when they were as young as 13.

The show begins with footage from Elite’s Look of the Year competition – an event that, in retrospect, looks terrifyingly sexist and dated, but which at the time saw respected men in their 40s (surprise surprise, Donald Trump was among them) admiring frighteningly young girls as they paraded around in swimwear.

Casablancas, who ran the event and was regularly invited on television to discuss the competition, jokes with male presenters that he has the best job in the world.

John Casablancas (left) and Donald Trump at the launch of Elite’s “Look of the Year” competition in 1991. Photo: Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images

To the contestants – almost all of whom are teenagers – he says, “We’ll be observing your behaviour and seeing how much you want to succeed.”

What is terrifying to note is that this was New York in 1992, not a backwater in 1950.

“The contest became a fishing hole, a place where they singled out girls who were vulnerable and might be sexually available,” says Marie Anderson, a former Elite employee.

One of the saddest stories in the documentary is told by model Carré Otis, 53.

(From left) Carre Otis, Navia Nguyen and Tatjana and Eva Herzigova at a party in 1995. Photo: FilmMagic

Otis talks about being sent to Paris alone at the age of 17 and told she could stay with Marie, who ran Elite’s European operations from the mid-’80s.

Arriving at the beautiful gilt-edged apartment, she was thrilled to see the door opened by Linda Evangelista, one of the most famous women in the world in the ’90s and married to Marie. Her career, she believed, was finally on the right track.

Within weeks, she claims, whenever Evangelista was away, Marie would rape her.

“I felt I had to or I’d lose my job,” she remembers, her eyes filling with tears at the memory.

We all just accepted men putting their hands up our skirts and forcing us to do things we didn’t want to do in the name of having fun
A model from the ’80s and ’90s, speaking anonymously

Agents allegedly either targeted teenage models with difficult family relationships or launched a charm offensive on the parents, promising them that their teenage daughters would be looked after by chaperones and were about to go on the adventure of their lives.

Then they would be sent to Paris or Milan and the abuse could begin.

“They’d pit models against each other, not wanting them to be friends,” says one of the models, thereby making it much easier to control them.

Otis (right) at the “Carre Otis at Tunnel – 1994 at Tunnel” event in New York in 1994. Photo: WireImage

Another form of control came from billing them for every flight, taxi, drink, meal and photograph the agency paid for on their behalf, according to the documentary. This put them in debt to the agency for decades, not least since Elite took 20 per cent of their earnings.

Today, we would call this grooming, but in the ’90s we had no such term. These young women had no recourse and no way of being believed in the face of a vast and powerful industry. Some of them stayed, some of them escaped and others took their own lives.

“It felt entirely unregulated,” says a model I spoke to from that period who asked not to be named.

“We all just accepted men putting their hands up our skirts and forcing us to do things we didn’t want to do in the name of having fun.

“I was lucky that I was 20 when I started modelling so was slightly tougher than the girls who began 14 or 15, but I still remember a few very frightening experiences.”

Marie (centre left) and Casablancas (centre right) with participants at Elite’s Look of the Year competition in 1998. Photo: Philippe Giraud

She tells me of one photographer who cornered her in a lift (today the incident could easily be described as assault) but that when she complained to her agency, they told her off, explaining that he was well respected in the industry and that she would lose work if she became known as a gossip.

For young Asian models, it was even more difficult. With the fashion capitals then all in Europe or America, they were a very long way from home and unlikely to be proficient in French or Italian.

“I remember young girls from Korea and Japan having a really difficult time at the hands of certain men,” remembers the same model.

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“I felt so sorry for them as this world was even more alien for them as it was for me.”

Thirty years on from many of these events, it’s open to debate how commonplace the abuse of young girls in fashion is today.

The #MeToo movement has certainly helped, and women have learned that even when a man is as powerful as Harvey Weinstein, if enough of them speak up, these predators will eventually be convicted.

And models, as this documentary shows, have had enough of being silent.