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The Casting Couch: How Big a Role Does it Play in the Modeling World?

Sexual Harassment—Just Part of the Job for Models?

With the Harvey Weinstein scandal blowing Hollywood’s cover on sexual abuse, insiders in acting’s sister industry of modeling are laying bare the all-too-common violations against models’ bodies and dignity. Top model Edie Campbell wrote an Open Letter on Model Abuse in WWD, stating: “…We operate within a culture that is too accepting of abuse, in all of its manifestations. This can be the ritual humiliation of models, belittling of assistants, power plays and screaming fits.” She highlights that part of the problem is that “there is no line between the personal and the professional. Work, to me, does not look like work: I undress in front of the people I work with, I travel with these people, I get drunk with them, they ask me who I’m shagging, we tell stories, we giggle, we gossip and we become part of ‘the gang.’ It’s a school trip for all ages. When an industry becomes as informal as this, it becomes harder to define what is appropriate behavior for the workplace.”

model Edie Campbell

Edie Campbell

It’s true. The line in the modeling world is blurrier than in perhaps any other (legal) industry on the planet. Part of a model’s job is often to look and act sexy. I knew many models who carried that behavior beyond the runway and set to their everyday demeanor. In some cases, it makes good business sense. If a client is going to book you to model bikinis or haute couture and look alluring, oozing sex appeal at the casting may help seal the deal. If you are on a trip and hoping to be booked again, keeping up the Marilyn Monroe act 24/7 could help. Photographers and clients might interpret this behavior as a personal invitation to explore the bod beneath the bikini; sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t.  (Edie Campbell’s choice of top—or lack thereof—in the photo at the LOVE x Miu Miu London Fashion Week Party, embedded in the link above, begs the question: when does provocative fashion cross the line to offering up your body on a platter. Or am I old-fashioned?)

Model Edie Campbell

Edie Campbell

Plenty of models play the required role while posing and revert to girl-next-door normalcy as soon as they step off set. This, along with maturity, self-esteem, and limits on what you’ll do to succeed, lessens the chance of harassment. However, almost every model—male and female—has a story of an agent or photographer who tried to wield power to get in their pants.

Here’s mine (an excerpt from my modeling memoir):

“Jill! Welcome. I’m Willy,” said a fifty-something man with an Israeli accent. He wore a cheap suit and strong cologne and met my gaze at eye-level. He was no John Casablancas. No doubt he hoped the airy loft space and power to scrawl a New York agency logo across young girls’ images could make him a Casanova, even if nature hadn’t been so generous in the looks department.

“It turns out the model apartment in Battery Park City is full,” said Willy, after Victoria explained that I could relax today while she made comp cards and a copy of my book for the agency. “You can stay at my apartment.”

Oh, boy, here we go again.

I had the suitcases with me that I had lugged on a bus from the airport. Willy offered to have his driver take me up to the east 80s, where he had a bland one-bedroom apartment. It was a step up from Andrea’s in Milan, but clearly Willy was sitting on a worn mushroom-colored couch, not a fortune.

I sat on that sofa for much of the afternoon, paralyzed by the view from the seventeenth floor of the bustling city below. There is nothing lonelier than being alone among Manhattan’s six million residents.

Jill Johnson-modeling NYC

A collage from my early modeling years in NYC. Stay tuned for my next blog post, when I’ll reveal the more revealing shots I cropped out!

A crammed schedule of  nine castings paid off the following day. At 6 PM I made my third and last pay-phone check-in call to the agency. “You’re booked for Bella tomorrow,” Vicky told me. “Be at the Granata studio at 10:30 AM, clean/clean. You’re shooting in Long Island, so it will be a long day. The rate is $125. Hold on, Willy wants to talk to you…”

“Jill, congratulations—a booking already! Sorry I have not been a good host,” said Willy. “A car will pick you up at 9:20 tonight and take you to Bice. We will have dinner with some friends of mine and celebrate.”

I had been enjoying my space at Willy’s and pondered arguing for beauty sleep over dinner. I better not. His agency had me working on day two. I owed him.

A non-model couple joined us for dinner. Willy sat too close to me and clearly meant for me to be his date. He smoked and drank too much, while I sipped my wine so as not to risk a hangover. “Come on, Jill, I will order another bottle, the best they have! Drink up,” Billy urged, as he swished the last of his wine in his glass and downed it with a cheeky grin. He was trying to channel Johnny Casablancas, and it just didn’t work. He was neither charming nor attractive.

“I have to work tomorrow, remember Willy,” I reminded him. “I’m a very responsible model, you know.”

“Ah, well, a responsible model must take care of her agent,” he said, winking.

I started feeling uneasy. I had to go back to this man’s apartment. I thought about my trip to visit New York agencies as a high school senior. Maybe I was lucky they said no then. I recalled a senior at my high school who spent two months living at the Ford’s brownstone before she fled back to Rochester, homesick. Maybe I had a few wrinkles now, but I had wisdom too. I could handle this. I scanned Willy’s arms to assess how strong he was. What if he tried to force… I chased the image of Hilde in Paris from my mind.

By the time we left Bice, Willy was slurring and trying to put his arm around me. I was sober and able to evade him and make light of this little game. Willy laughed along until we stepped into the elevator at his building and the doors closed. His face got serious and he looked at me like a cat might at a mouse when the playful batting game concludes and he goes in for the kill.

He cornered me and put his face to mine, so that the red wine on his breath flowed freely into my assaulted nostrils. “Willy,” I said, “I’m going to bed, you know. I have to get up early.” I pretended to be calm and nonplussed, to not appear like the mouse beneath a clawed paw. The elevator doors opened and I ducked under Billy’s arm to exit this trap and make my way toward the next.

Willy fiddled with his keys and, after three tries, got the right key in the lock. I thought about turning back to the elevator and escaping, but where would I go? No, it would be OK. We were two grown adults, I could handle the situation.

The ensuing proposition was hard to forget. As Willy swayed me toward his bedroom, he slurred, “Come on, thish’ll be really fasht.”

I might have laughed at his pathetic come-on line, if it weren’t for how scared I felt, with no place to go but his sofabed. Or his bed—the direction I guessed would lead to more bookings.

I didn’t want success badly enough to sleep with the boss, a trade-off many supermodels have made, with coercion sometimes playing a role. Thankfully, Willy left me alone, but as I lay awake into the night, anticipating my early dawn alarm, I decided I needed a different living arrangement. 

When I moved to my friend Leslie’s place, I worried about Nicole, the fourteen-year-old Canadian who had been sharing my sofa bed at Willy’s. Nicole had a full decade less life experience than I had but a full C cup—a dangerous combination. Anyone that young should not be in New York alone.

Stay tuned for a post on nudity. Do models often have to strip down in front of male models and production people? Are models expected to shoot topless? I’ll answer those questions (hint: one response is “yes” and one is “no”) and more.

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