Jean Luc Brunel ran a Miami-based modeling agency launched in part with a $1 million investment from Jeffrey Epstein. In exchange for the contribution, Brunel is alleged to have funneled young models to the now-deceased pedophile.
Brunel vanished after Epstein’s suicide, before being spotted in South America in September, according to the French outlet Le Parisien. French authorities are investigating him for rape, sexual assault and his ties to Epstein, but Brunel has denied that any misconduct arose from his relationship with the perverted financier, who hung himself in a prison cell weeks after his July 6 arrest on child sex trafficking charges.
But men like Brunel and Epstein are nothing new in the world of high fashion.
“There are solid people in the industry,” supermodel Kathy Ireland told Fox News. “There are also a lot of predators.”
The majority of female models enter the fashion industry between the ages of 13 and 16. Their age and the often unfamiliar surroundings in which they find themselves make them especially vulnerable to sexual predators like Epstein.
“Before entering the modeling world, my universe was as far as I could ride my skateboard in Santa Barbara,” said Ireland, who started working at age 16. “When I came to the city [New York], I was very naïve. I thought that all adults would be good, honest, respectable people like my mom and dad.”
She was wrong.
Ireland recalled her narrow escape from a harrowing early job. The owner of the agency she worked for scheduled her with a photographer who was said to be a good friend of the agent. Ireland quickly learned that the photographer had seedy intentions when she got in a car with him and headed to a hotel.
“This photographer had set this up so that there was one hotel room and it’s only one bed in the hotel room and I was expected to stay with him,” Ireland said.
“We were on a freeway. I was contemplating, ‘What do I do? Do I jump out of a car on the freeway?’”
Situations like this were commonplace, and according to Ireland, agents were often complicit.
“What I came to learn from other girls is they referred to them as playboys,” she said. “They’re not playboys. They’re predators.”
“It’s illegal to have sex with a child, with a minor, and that’s not consensual. There’s nothing consensual about that.”
Ireland has previously discussed an incident when she punched a photographer for getting physical with her after she refused to take off her clothes.
“I said, ‘No’ and he said, ‘You model swimsuits.’ People prey on someone’s desire to succeed and that is heartbreaking. The underbelly of the modeling industry needs to be exposed.”
“So often young girls come to me, they see the glossy retouched images and they see the covers and they want to model. It looks so fun and beautiful and glamorous and easy and they don’t see everything that goes into it.”
What I came to learn from other girls is they referred to them as playboys. They’re not playboys. They’re predators.
The life of a model can include 18-hour days without breaks, months without payment for work, living in crowded “model apartments,” and going into debt. Models coming from other countries can become beholden to their agents for necessities like visas, housing, and food.
In addition to this poor treatment, young models are often unchaperoned leaving them vulnerable to predators like Epstein. Funneling in young women from overseas can be as easy as filling out a temporary visa.
To help combat this, Model Alliance, a policy and advocacy group founded by former model Sara Ziff, pushed the passing of the Child Model Act in New York in 2013. The law affords child models the same basic rights and protections as child performers like actors, singers and dancers. Prior to the law’s passage, models under 18 years old were not protected under New York’s labor law.
Ziff, who began modeling at age 14, was surprised.
“New York is the center of the American fashion industry and the fashion industry relies very heavily on underage girls,” Ziff said.
“One of the problems that we’ve seen for many years in the industry has been agencies representing 14, 15, 16-year-old girls who are thrust into a very adult environment and are walking at New York Fashion Week and appearing in magazines and advertising campaigns and presented as adults.”
Ziff had a similar experience to Ireland when, at 14 years old, she was told to take her clothes off by a photographer.
“Being put on the spot to pose nude or semi-nude was pretty common. No advance notice or consent, and a lot of difficulty getting paid,” she said. “Even though I was represented by one of the top agencies, I routinely waited months to be paid. When I eventually left after enduring quite a lot of abuse, that agency withheld my earnings — they refused to pay me.”
Under New York State’s Child Model Act, a child model under 16 years old must be accompanied at work by a “responsible person designated by the parent or guardian.” A parent or guardian must also set up a trust account for the child and “an employer must assure that at least 15 percent of the child model’s earnings are put into that trust account.”
Even though I was represented by one of the top agencies, I routinely waited months to be paid.
These safeguards may protect young models from some of the industry’s pitfalls, but predators still lurk.
Anita Teekah, the senior director of the anti-trafficking program at Safe Horizon, counts the lack of financial transparency among many things that leave underage models vulnerable.
“Models are told they are dispensable. They are very much inhibited from airing grievances for fear of retaliation. If you’re underage, this compounds all of this,” Teekah said.
“There’s so much harmful behavior that has been deeply normalized. Once something becomes normalized, it’s hard to fight it. It doesn’t mean it’s right or legal, but because it’s normalized it’s harder to fight.”
This is the slippery slope into trafficking, according to Teekah. Young women are often unaware of their rights, which leaves them defenseless.
“This is going to sounds pessimistic, but it’s human nature to try to exploit people,” Teekah said. “It’s easier to get away with these things when you have people who are vulnerable and won’t speak out.”
Though more protections are in place for models, there is still work to be done, a fact highlighted by the Epstein scandal.
Ziff recalls meeting Epstein as a young model. She came away from the encounter unscathed but credits that to her circumstances.
“He might have recognized that I was not as vulnerable perhaps and was coming from a slightly different background from some of these other girls who he allegedly abused,” she said. “I am all too familiar with the overlap between trafficking and modeling and unfortunately it’s a very real problem that’s taken the Jeffrey Epstein case for people to even, it seems, acknowledge or be concerned about it.”
“But it’s not surprising to people who work in the industry,” Ziff continued. “Jean Luc Brunel’s behavior was well-known. I heard from other agents over the years about him so none of this is anything that’s new and unfortunately nothing yet has been done really to address it. It’s still going on.”
Fox News reached out to Brunel's former attorney Joe Titone who recently communicated with his client by phone. Titone had no comment regarding the pending allegations and says he does not know Brunel's whereabouts.
Ireland had no direct contact with Epstein, but calls him a “familiar character,” and understands how young girls could become prey to those like him.
“I can see how young girls are susceptible. Many of them have never left home before—naïve like I was, trusting,” she said. “The ugliness of it takes different forms and there’s something about seeing a person in an image. We can objectify people and dehumanize them and somehow justify that it’s okay to abuse them, to rape them, to discard them.”
Ireland, who is working on a novel about the industry called “Fashion Jungle,” acknowledges the good works done in the industry, but remains aware of its dark side.
“I feel very grateful to have survived the industry because it’s rough,” she said. “It is a jungle out there and my hope is that the young people there will survive this jungle and we’ll share their stories.”