Published March 25, 2010
Lisa Alexander was a teenager from Nazareth, Pa., when she won a contract with Elite Model Management. She modeled for a summer, but after she received a scholarship to Lehigh College, Elite canceled her contract. “They didn’t want models with brains,” Alexander told Fox411.
Alexander said she gave modeling another shot in Los Angeles after she graduated. “I did a lot of swimsuit and lingerie modeling and I had guys that would try to grab a feel and guys who asked for [sexual favors].
"I was on a casting call for a film and I was pretty much attacked and thrown down on a couch,” she told Fox411. “My acting coach actually told me ‘if you don’t learn to give the best b------ in town, you’re never going to make it as a model.’"
Indeed, according to Alexander and several other models who spoke to Fox411, the fashion industry is a minefield of sexual harassment for young models. And sometimes, it’s the model’s supposed best friend, her photographer, who can be the worst offender of all.
One of them is purported to be celebrity fashion photographer Terry Richardson, who has shot stars including Britney Spears, Jessica Alba, and Lindsay Lohan, and who counts as friends the editors of several of the world’s top fashion magazines. Richardson, 45, was accused earlier this month of making improper sexual overtures during some of his shoots with young models.
He addressed the allegations with a statement on his blog over the weekend and removed several explicit nude photographs from his professional web site.
"I just want to take a moment to say I’m really hurt by the recent and false allegations of insensitivity and misconduct," Richardson's statement read. "I feel fortunate to work with so many extraordinary people each and every day. I’ve always been considerate and respectful of the people I photograph and I view what I do as a real collaboration between myself and the people in front of the camera."
But a model who says Richardson made inappropriate sexual advances to her during a nude photo shoot told Fox411 that she remains unimpressed.
“If he was totally confident in the morality of what he's doing, would he have removed certain images from his site?” asked Jamie Peck, a model-turned-writer who once posed for Richardson. “It’s a calculated attempt at damage control.”
Peck was 19 years old and not a professional model when she went on a shoot with Richardson six years ago. She said she had no idea what to expect from the photographer, who shoots for Vogue and Harpers Bazaar and commercial clients Jimmy Choo, Sisley and Gucci.
“I went over there the first time and it was pretty normal and I posed nude for him, no big deal," said Peck, now 25. "The second time he felt like I was a little more comfortable and he asked me to do some gross stuff. Like he wanted to play with my tampon, and then he convinced me to touch his penis, and I did, and I really still am not sure why I agreed to do that. Part of it was everybody in the room was so stoked, like it was the most natural thing in the world."
Following Peck's and other models' allegations, Jenna Sauers, a model-turned-blogger for the women’s Web site Jezebel.com, called on other models to come forward with their experiences with Richardson. She told Fox411 she received numerous, if mostly anonymous, accounts of the photographer’s behavior.
“I have heard from a lot of models that he has worked with that all say his M.O. is the same," Sauers said. "You suddenly get naked and then he touches you and he goes further and further. But you’re surrounded by his assistants and they are validating his actions.
“There are agencies that claim they don't send girls under 18 to go on castings with Terry Richardson. I don't know if that goes far enough, because the argument is made in fashion that everybody knows what Terry does, and you should be prepared to deal with it if you work with him. But I'm not sure all the models know.”
Richardson’s camp told Fox411 it had no comment about any of the allegations. Elite also had no comment regarding Alexander's assertions that it does not want "women with brains."
Indeed many young women (the average age of a fashion model is 16) feel they have to do what a photographer says to get ahead in the industry.
“There are girls who will go out there and do anything -- and believe me, they will be asked to do just about anything,” modeling coach Julie Eaton of the International Performing Arts Academy in Los Angeles told Fox411. “I tell my girls to look for the red flags. If it says you must be over 18, that’s a red flag, because why should you have to be legal to have a photograph taken?
"You should always take someone with you, a parent, a friend or a boyfriend, and you should never go to a photographer’s apartment or home. I tell them not to drink anything that isn’t properly sealed, because the reality is that a lot of girls on these photo shoots can be drugged.”
Even after her scary experiences, Alexander said, she wasn’t about to give up on her modeling dream. Instead of quitting or complying with the sexual requests made of her, she became her own producer/agent. Now in her "fabulous forties" and running the green building site Live Better Live Green, she tells girls trying to break into the industry to take control of their careers from the outset.
“I often advise young girls to first get their college degree before they go to model, “Alexander says. “It makes them stronger and brighter.”