Models accuse photographers of misconduct
Men say choice was comply or lose career; lawyers deny accounts
For a fashion model, success is the ability to incite desire. The job requirements often include nudity and feigning seduction; provocation is a lever for sales. In the industry, boundaries between the acceptable and the unacceptable treatment of models have been etched in shades of gray.
This has allowed prominent photographers to cross the line with impunity for decades, sexually exploiting models and assistants. The experience, once seen as the price models had to pay for their careers, is now being called something else: abuse of power and sexual harassment.
Fifteen current and former male models who worked with Bruce Weber, whose racy advertisements for companies like Calvin Klein and Abercrombie & Fitch helped turn him into one of the foremost commercial and fine art photographers, have described to
a consistent pattern of what they said was unnecessary nudity and coercive sexual behavior, often during photo shoots.
The men recalled, with remarkable consistency, private sessions with Weber in which he asked them to undress and led them through breathing and “energy” exercises. Models were asked to breathe and to touch both themselves and Weber, moving their hands wherever they felt their “energy.” Often, Weber guided their hands with his own.
In accounts going back to the mid-1990s, 13 male assistants and models who have worked with the photographer Mario Testino, a favorite of the English royal family and told that he subjected them to sexual advances that in some cases included groping and masturbation.
Representatives for both photographers said they were dismayed and surprised by the allegations.
“I’m completely shocked and saddened by the outrageous claims being made against me, which I absolutely deny,” Weber said in a statement from his lawyer.
Lavely & Singer, a law firm that represents Testino, challenged the character and credibility of people who complained of harassment, and wrote that it had spoken to several former employees who were “shocked by the allegations” and that those employees “could not confirm any of the claims.”
Those who said they were on the receiving end of unwanted attention felt the choice was clear: acquiesce and be rewarded with lucrative ad campaign work, or reject the approach and risk hobbling, or destroying, a career. Many said they still would not speak publicly.
“If you wanted to work with Mario, you needed to do a nude shoot at the Chateau Marmont,” said Jason Fedele, who appeared in Gucci campaigns in the ’90s. “All the agents knew that this was the thing to excel or advance your career.”
The nude work bothered him less than what he believed were sexual come-ons, Fedele said. “He was a sexual predator,” said Ryan Locke, who succeeded Fedele with Gucci.
Hugo Tillman was not long out of Occidental College when he started freelancing as a photo assistant for Testino in 1996. Testino took him and his mother to lunch and told them he wanted to mentor him. “I really liked him — I really looked up to him,” Tillman said.
He moved to Paris and began working full time as Testino’s fourth assistant and was soon promoted to third. “It seemed like what Robert Altman would show, a fantasy of fashion.” But, he said, “I was often made to feel uncomfortable on shoots, asked to massage Mario in front of other assistants, models and fashion editors.”
One night after a dinner, Tillman said the photographer grabbed him on the street and tried to kiss him. A few weeks later, while on a business trip, Tillman met Testino in his hotel room. Testino demanded that the assistant roll him a joint, then threw him down on a bed, climbed on top of him and pinned down his arms, Tillman said. Testino’s brother came into the room and made the photographer get off Tillman.
Lawyers for Testino said Testino’s brother “is adamant that no such incident ever took place.” Tillman’s former girlfriend confirmed in an interview that he relayed this story to her at the time. He also submitted testimony regarding the experience to the New York City Commission on Human Rights in December.
“I was scared,” he said of the hotel room experience. “I didn’t know what was going to happen.” Tillman quit the next weekend and is now a fine art photographer.
Even those who worked for Testino without experiencing the most direct harassment were affected. “I saw him with his hands down people’s pants at least 10 times,” said Thomas Hargreave, a shoot producer who worked frequently with Testino between 2008 and 2016. “Mario behaved often as if it was all a big joke. But it wasn’t funny. And the guys being placed in these situations wouldn’t know how to react. They would look at me, like, ‘What’s going on? How do I deal with this?’ It was terrible.”
Lavely & Singer, the law firm that represents Testino, said in a letter in response to these accounts that the individuals who spoke with
“cannot be considered reliable sources.”
As Calvin Klein, who created a hypersexual image for his brand with the help of Weber, recently told “I picked the images the same way I always did: what got my heart racing.” Whatever it takes to get that shot has been acceptable.
Models say Weber was given to private audiences with young men, on long walks during lunch breaks and private visits in his room.
“It’s presented as an option, but it isn’t really,” Erin Williams, a female model on two of Weber’s campaigns for Abercrombie & Fitch, said of working nude. In testimony to the New York City Commission on Human Rights, she wrote: “The models that didn’t go nude were always cut on Day 2, and those who did would stay for additional shoot days. The boys who would socialize with Bruce after the shoots, alone in his hotel room, would get booked for longer with the carrot of a major campaign being dangled in front of them.”