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Karen Elson Talks the Ugly Side of Modeling

The auburn-haired supermodel and newly elected Model Alliance board member wants to see change happen

Karen Elson wants the modeling industry to change. “I’d like it to not be this archaic, woman-hating industry anymore,” she said. The 39-year-old English model has just been elected to the board of directors of the Model Alliance, the nonprofit that fights for fair working conditions for models. In honor of her appointment, Elson, Model Alliance founder Sara Ziff, casting director James Scully, and a mix of fashion insiders gathered at designer Rachel Comey’s Crosby Street store in SoHo last night for an open discussion about the modeling industry.

Elson’s first priority is accountability. “There’s been this huge wave of silence in the fashion business,” she said. “In the 20 years I’ve been a model, I’ve witnessed a lot of negative things. They never get talked about; they just get brushed under the carpet. No one is formally held accountable, and it’s never been independently dealt with. For me, personally, I think it’s high time it was.”

Call it the Harvey Weinstein effect—since October, the Model Alliance, of which Chromat’s Becca McCharen-TranScully, and models Kenza Fourati and Madisyn Ritland are all members, has received “more complaints involving sexual harassment and abuse than we really know what to do with,” said Ziff, who formed the organization in 2012. 

Since October, when the disgraced American film producer was accused of sexually harassing, abusing, and/or raping more than 50 women over the course of his career, there’s been a reckoning of sorts. Famed fashion photographers Terry Richardson, Mario Testino, and Bruce Weber have all been banned from Condé Nast and dropped from ad jobs after similar allegations from models surfaced. What’s more, the publishing giant unveiled a new code of conduct for photo shoots, requiring models to be at least 18 years old (if they’re under, they need a chaperone), no alcohol or drugs on set, and prior consent from models if nudity is involved. Cameron Russell posted messages from anonymous models who had their own tales of abuse, with big-name faces like Edie CampbellLily Aldridge, and, yes, Elson following suit.

For the past six years, the Model Alliance has been instrumental in enforcing changes within the industry, proposing legislation (like the Models’ Harassment Protection Act, which closes potentially dangerous loopholes that exclude models from employment protections), conducting industry-wide studies, introducing a model support line, providing free legal advice, and enforcing certain guidelines on and off set to protect models (an example: requiring private changing areas to be available backstage during fashion shows). “We need meaningful and lasting change,” Ziff said. “Legislation, while important, is not the only way to tackle this. Voluntary standards, codes of conduct, and industry guidelines are nice first steps, but unless people can report their concerns without fear of retaliation, and if there’s no due process to investigate complaints, we’re not going to change the culture.” 

Elson said abuse can come in many different forms, ranging from how “flippantly models’ bodies and images are treated” to a model walking onto set and not knowing the situation she’s getting into. “One of the best career moves I ever made was to shave my eyebrows off and do this incredible zany, brilliant haircut,” she said. “It was career-defining and I’m proud of it, but only because I knew about it beforehand and was excited about it.” Elson said that it’s “surprising” how many times a model is unaware she’s receiving a severe image change. “They don’t speak up because they’re intimidated and feel they have to please the client. Their voices become small.”

Elson said that it wasn’t until she got “big” that the abuse stopped—an advantage models associated with top agencies (Elson is with IMG) have over, say, a new model entering the business at 15 or 16 years old. “At the end of the day, you just want to go on set and feel like you’re human, that you’re not a prop, that you have feelings and emotions and choices that need to be respected,” she said. “It’s simple.” Still, she added, no model is immune to poor treatment, especially if her agency is attached to a client in some capacity, hence the need for an “independent force keeping everyone accountable.” 

“You’d be very, very surprised—even more so than you think—at how many well-known models have experienced abuse,” added Scully.

Speaking of Scully, Elson said the prominent casting director and advocate for model reform “really lifted the lid on what we all knew” through his groundbreaking Business of Fashion talk in 2016. “We were all thinking, Oh my god, finally someone is talking about this.” Since he spoke candidly about the modeling industry’s problem with bullying, discrimination, and racism, Scully has been something of a whistleblower, publicly calling out other well-known casting directors and brands (Lanvin and Balenciaga, for starters) for unethical treatment of models. “I saw a lot of people rushing to discredit what James was saying,” said Elson. “That happens when someone stands up and owns their truth—there’s a collective fear that sweeps the business.” 

While Elson is optimistic about change within the industry, as a mother, she said she couldn’t bring herself to allow her daughter to enter the world she’s been a part of since Steven Meisel shot her for the cover of Italian Vogue in 1997. “I’m scared that she might be put in a situation where she’s sexually exploited or where she’s told that her beautiful body is not beautiful—things that no woman needs to experience,” she said. “We need to create an environment where your mental health is equally important as how you look. Otherwise, you’re breaking someone’s spirit.” 

If you’ve experienced sexual assault or harassment, you can find support by calling the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE or visit http://online.rainn.org

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