How Should Clients React to Sexual Coercion Allegations Against Terry Richardson?
Now that another model has come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct against photographer Terry Richardson, his clients face a difficult question: What ethical obligations, if any, do they have to take a stand?
Over the past several years, reports have periodically flared up that Richardson has manipulated some models to engage with him in unwanted sexual contact during photo shoots at his studio. The models have described the incidents as casting couch situations that occurred when they were students or aspiring models, not established models working on set for ad campaigns or editorial shoots.
The allegations surfaced again in recent weeks after former model Charlotte Waters published a graphic account of a shoot with Richardson that spiraled out of her control. “I was completely a sex puppet,” she recounted anonymously in a post on a Reddit thread. The post has since been removed, but after her story was widely circulated, Waters identified herself as the author.
She has spoken to New York City police, according to Styleite.com, but she reportedly never said “no” to Richardson’s advances, and she isn’t pressing any charges.
In the hot seat of bad publicity once again, Richardson issued an angry denial to all the allegations in a letter to the Huffington Post, calling them “hate filled, libelous tales.” In the letter, he painted himself as the victim of a “witch hunt.”
Richardson says in the letter, “I collaborated with consenting adult women who were fully aware of the nature of the work.” Overlooking the disparity in power between himself and the models, he adds, “I have never used an offer of work or a threat of rebuke to coerce someone into something that they did not want to do.”
For the past 20 years, Richardson, well known for his graphic images, has exhibited and widely published photographs of young women posing in sexually explicit ways, frequently with Richardson himself. Defenders, among them a number of creative directors and celebrities, have praised Richardson for being fun to work with, and for challenging taboos and celebrating the joy of sex. (He was the subject of a mostly flattering New York Times profile in 2012.)
But critics say his work crosses the line into pornography. (Judge for yourself. Warning: NSFW)
One of the first models to speak up against Richardson was Rie Rasmussen, who confronted Richardson in 2010 for degrading women and young girls with his work. She did not accuse him of manipulating her into sex, but told the New York Post that Richardson “manipulates [models who are young] to take their clothes off and takes pictures of them they will be ashamed of. They are too afraid to say no because their agency booked them on the job and are too young to stand up for themselves.” Another high-profile model, Coco Rocha, told Fashion magazine in 2010 that Richardson had made her uncomfortable and that she wouldn’t work with him again.
Around the same time, an art student named Jamie Peck came forward with a lurid account on TheGloss.com of how Richardson manipulated her to engage in sex while she had posed for him at the age of 19. “Of all the fine folks I’ve frolicked au naturel for, he’s the only one who’s left me feeling like I needed to take two showers,” Peck wrote in her widely quoted account. She chalked the experience up to her own youth and vanity, and was more disgusted than angry at Richardson’s behavior.
Jezebel.com followed up those reports with a story full of allegations of Richardson’s predatory behavior from models, modeling agents, magazine editors and others in the fashion industry. But all spoke out anonymously, for fear of losing their jobs or being blacklisted in the industry, according to Jezebel.
The allegations flared up again last fall. In October, a petition appeared on Change.org calling on Richardson’s clients to quit hiring him. The petition met with some backlash from Richardson’s defenders, and organizers so far have just over 31,000 signatures toward their goal of 50,000.
In late February, models Sarah Ziff and Alise Shoemaker brought up the lingering sexual misconduct allegations against him on a segment of HuffPost Live. Ziff said she wouldn’t work with Richardson, and that he “will ask you to take your clothes off at the casting, and in some cases, give him sexual favors.”
A week or so later, in early March, Charlotte Waters came forward with her story about working with Richardson. That prompted fashion web site Styleite.com to publish a timeline of models’ lurid complaints about Richardson. Jezebel.com published a report titled “Who Supports and Funds Terry Richardson?” which listed his magazine clients since 2010, when allegations against him first started to surface.
The strongly worded denial of wrongdoing he submitted to the Huffington Post suggests that Richardson is worried about the effects of the bad publicity on his business.
His PR agency, 42 West, also contacted PDN upon learning this story was in the works. They declined to answer questions about how the persistent allegations against Richardson are affecting his business, however.
So far, one of the only clients that has betrayed any concern about Richardson’s alleged behavior is H&M, for whom he’s shot ad campaigns in the past. Last October, after a Twitter user brought the allegations about Richardson to H&M’s attention, the company tweeted, “If these accusations are true, it’s totally unacceptable to us.”
H&M told PDN last week that they “[do] not hold any current or planned campaigns with Terry Richardson.” But the company declined to say if the relationships has been affected by the publicity, or whether they’ve ruled out working with Richardson in the future.
Other clients aren’t talking at all.
GQ and Harper’s Bazaar, which are two of Richardson’s regular (and most frequent) editorial clients, according to the Jezebel list, didn’t respond to numerous phone calls and e-mails for comment. The Wall Street Journal magazine, which has hired Richardson for several celebrity shoots in recent months, said through spokesperson Arianna Imperato, “We’re going to decline to comment.”
Modeling agencies are also silent. Requests for comment from Wilhelmina, Next, and Muse went unanswered.
That’s not surprising, considering that money talks in the fashion industry, and Richardson’s work drives business for both magazines and brands. But for a client to defend him openly might be perceived as condoning his allegedly creepy behavior toward women. And to disavow him publicly when he hasn’t been charged with anything, or sued by anyone–let alone held liable for wrongdoing–is likely to draw a backlash from Richardson’s fans and defenders. It could also expose clients to legal claims by Richardson, if he feels sufficiently injured.
For want of courage to take a public stand, about all clients can do is weigh in through their actions–and either hire him, or not. Over the next year or two, credit lines will do the talking. How much Richardson is working, and for whom, will send a message to the industry about which clients give credence to Richardson and continue to support him, and which give credence to the allegations and care enough to stand up for models.