In the wake of sexual allegations against photographers and stylists, Elite Model Management is encouraging its models to speak up.
In a roundtable discussion with Elite’s management and two of its models — Nina Agdal and Natane Boudreau — they discussed how they are empowering models to protect themselves in today’s climate and how to use their voices to speak up if they’re faced with harassment or other misconduct by photographers or stylists, or anyone working on the set or runway show.
“There are three parties. We have the models, we have the clients and we have the agents. And all of us have to work really hard to prevent this in the future. We all have a role,” said Josée Néron, chief operating officer of Elite, who joined last March from The Society Management and before that, Marilyn Model Agency. To remedy the situation where a model might find herself in an uncomfortable situation or faced with unwelcome sexual advances, the company is working on developing a code of conduct. “You have to educate and make sure the models agree with it,” she said.
Butterfly Cayley, executive vice president, who formerly worked at DNA Model Management, said they will be taking a poll of all their models in the coming weeks to better gauge concerns and ideas based on their individual experiences.
Once a powerhouse of supermodels, today Elite is operating on a much lower flame, managing 150 models in New York, 90 in Miami and between 60 and 70 in Los Angeles. It also has partnerships with Toronto. In 2004, Eddie and Jules Trump, who are based in Miami, acquired the bankrupt Elite Model Management, which was founded by John Casablancas in Paris in 1972. He established Elite Models in New York in 1977.
Casablancas, who died in 2013, led a playboy’s life and was accused of having sexual relations with teenage models, including a well-known affair with Stephanie Seymour, who was 16 at the time. For 30 years he shaped the careers of models who became household names such as Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, Iman, Heidi Klum and Gisele Bündchen. Casablancas stayed at Elite until 2000, leaving after a BBC exposé about drug use and exploitative behavior at modeling agencies tarnished Elite’s reputation.
Asked how the agency gets over the fact that its founder was accused of having sex with young models, Cayley replied, “There’s no way of saying it. We know our history. It doesn’t define us. How can we move on? How can we make things right? It’s giving the girls their voices and empowering them to do so.”
The company looks to revitalize its business by diversifying its portfolio of talent, offering services through public relations and social media firms, and embracing a revamped web site.
“For us it’s all about empowerment,” said Boudreau, who has been modeling since she was three years old and continues to model, act and direct films. “We’re giving them [the models] their voices back, creating social platforms on our [redesigned] web and YouTube to profile each girl.”
She said she wants the Elite models to speak on these platforms. Some 50 Elite models participated in the Women’s March in January. Elite held a roundtable discussion with about 12 girls from the agency that morning asking what needs they have, what they want put in place and what’s been missing around safety and security. As for where she and her fellow models would normally turn if there was a wrongdoing, Agdal said, “Normally mom, and then always our agents.”
Among the issues that came out of the roundtable discussion, the Elite New York managers said they take seriously allegations of inappropriate behavior toward talent, and the team has ensured models that they will address any issues with clients directly. Models and managers have created a pattern of checking in after each job, to discuss the job and experience with the clients. The managers and talent have traditionally had clear discussions of booking details and what talent can expect on a shoot (i.e., prior knowledge of nudity, semi-nudity, sexually suggestive or inflammatory/offensive situations, a decision to cut or color a models’ hair prior to the booking/casting being confirmed) and are continuing to reiterate that with their models. In addition, for decades models have been referred to as “girls” — no matter their age — throughout the industry, so at Elite New York, the models and agents are trying to change the language and tone used.
Cayley said the models have to be 16 to sign up with Elite. If they are under 18, they have to have a work permit, be legal and there needs to be a chaperone with them. On the runway, the models can be 16 years old, and they need to have a child work permit, a trust bank account and a chaperone in New York State. Rules are different in Europe. Discussing how they recruit models, Cayley said they’ll work with small, independent agencies who do scouting, as well as new technology, social media and castings. The agency does about 80 percent in print and editorial and 20 percent in runway. If models come from Europe or outside New York, Elite has a model apartment at 49th Street and Third Avenue in New York. Agdal said she lived in the model apartment when she first came to the U.S.
“I came from Denmark, and didn’t know much about the full-time modeling industry. It was fun. There was always somebody at the house. There were no drugs or alcohol or boys allowed. It was just a bunch of girls having a sleepover and going on castings. I had a good experience. Obviously some girls don’t have a good experience. It’s all about the girls you put into the house,” she said. There’s a woman who lives in the basement who watches everyone come and go. They also have a mother/daughter suite at the townhouse. About 10 to 12 girls can live there at a time.
Whether there’s a certain type of model they’re focusing on these days, Boudreau said, “Diversity. It doesn’t define us. We just love diversity.”
Does the agency represent any supermodels these days?
“She’s our biggest,” said Néron, pointing to the 25-year-old Agdal, who’s known for the appearance on the cover of Sports Illustrated’s 50th anniversary issue, as well as her Super Bowl ads for Carl’s Jr./Hardee’s and her work for Victoria’s Secret. Agdal doesn’t do runway, and focuses on print and commercials. “It’s just not my thing. My legs are too short for it. Some girls love it. I love the creative aspect. I love working with creative. I love commercials and ads,” she said.
Agdal said she has worked with the same agent for the last eight years. “He knows my ins and outs and knows when I have good days and have bad days. Also your agent is your support system and will protect you from going into something you don’t want to do. I’ve left Elite, too, and I didn’t feel comfortable at the other agency. I didn’t feel I could share my opinion if there was something I didn’t like on a shoot. Here, you tell them what you didn’t like about the day, and what didn’t work about the day, and they’ll know which direction works for the girls because we’re all individuals. It’s like a family,” she said.
In terms of where she’d like to see her career go, Agdal said, “I recently started using my voice. I spoke up about body shaming. Parents come up to me, and say they want more women to speak up about this. All the support has been incredible. Definitely inspiring people and empowering people to speak their own truth is one thing I’m very passionate about. And obviously building a career and getting a household name is important. Everybody has to pay the rent.”
The models were asked where they believe the problems lie, whether it’s on big ad shoots, or test shoots or after hours at clubs. “I think it could happen on big shoots and the go-sees in private homes. The reason people are talking about the smaller situations is because the boy or girl is in a more intimate setting. Something can be taken out of context because you’re in this private home and alone with this person. On a bigger shoot, there’s more people watching,” Agdal said.
“In my 20 years of doing it [as an older teenager and adult model], I had a 2 percent rate where there was an issue. But there was nothing where it was aggressive or taken out of context,” Boudreau said.
As for the fact that so many models posted on Cameron Russell’s Instagram about abuses they encountered in the modeling industry, Boudreau said, “She posted the first thing, and everybody else who’s been so withheld and thwarted for so many years, they’ve had so much inside of them and needed to let this voice out and be heard.”
The 41-year-old Boudreau was represented by Elite during the Nineties, when Casablancas was running the agency, and she never had any trouble with him. “I was 16 when I was there. John [Casablancas] was so kind and treated me as a daughter and he was amazing. The industry is really different today, but he was great,” she said. Boudreau walked the European and U.S. runways for 10 years. She was featured in Isaac Mizrahi’s movie, “Unzipped.” She modeled as a child, and then started again when she was 16.
Today, Boudreau, who studied acting and Shakespeare in London and performed in off-Broadway theater here, brings acting workshops to the young women at the agency. Elite is marketing her around being an educator and working with the girls and bringing out what their talents are, whether they are a chef, cartoonist, singer or graphic artist. “It’s bringing it out, if they’re 18 or 19 years old, because they start this so young. If they’re in touch with their gifts, they’ll give more to the photos,” she said.