Why Did the Modeling Industry Not Protect Its Teen Models After ‘Bombshell’ Expose of Sexual Abuse?
Wanted: Looking for beautiful American teenagers seeking an exciting, well-paid career as a model in Paris. Must be willing to grant sexual favors in exchange for work.
This wasn’t a real ad for the French modeling agency Karin Models, but for many women who passed through its doors, it might as well have been.
More than 30 years before arrest of financier Jeffrey Epstein for alleged sex trafficking of dozens of minors, Karin Models founder Jean Luc Brunel was accused of everything from groping to drugging and raping teenage models at his agency. Brunel went on to develop a close relationship with Epstein, for whose “pipeline” Brunel was an alleged procurer of young and underage girls, according to a recent story in the Washington Post.
In a 1988 expose aired on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” young American models came forward to accuse two leading Paris model agency heads, including Brunel, of sexual harassment and abuse. They also reported that Brunel pressured them to attend dinner parties with his wealthy male friends and to have sex with them — charges later echoed in the book Model and in court documents.
But Brunel, who has repeatedly denied the charges, is dogged by allegations that he continued to harass, drug, and rape young models over the years as well as sending young and underage models to Epstein, according to a recent story in the Washington Post. He received a guarantee for a million dollar line of credit from Epstein, which he used to open a new model agency called MC2 Model Management in Miami, according to New York Magazine. Alleged Epstein victim Virginia Roberts Giuffre — who has charged in court documents that Epstein pressured her to have sex with Brunel as a teen — quotes Epstein as saying he had slept with “over 1,000 of Brunel’s girls and that Brunel once flew three French 12-year-olds to him as a “birthday present.”
In the wake of the 66-year-old Epstein’s apparent suicide in prison on August 10 after his arrest on charges of sex trafficking, the mounting lawsuits against his estate and a renewed interest in Brunel mean that some of the wealthy agent’s alleged victims may finally have their day in court. But one question for the modeling industry is, why did the 60 Minutes revelations not force the model industry to protect its vulnerable young workforce?
“The program hit the modeling industry like a bomb . . . but the industry has a short attention span,’ Craig Pyes, an off-air investigative producer for the piece and a former colleague of mine at the Center for Investigative Reporting, told the Post.
Discussing the 60 Minutes expose with me from his home in southern California, Pyes noted that after the CBS show, which was produced by Anne de Boismilon, “I do think young girls were afforded a much better measure of protection, at least for a while. My personal target was to shed light on the grimy practices that allowed these girls to be exploited financially and sometimes sexually. But these activities can’t go on, as [U.S. model agency founder] John Casablancas said, without ‘a vast conspiracy of silence, greed, and fear’ on the part of the industry.’”
“Now what feeds that industry?” Pyes asked rhetorically. “Mostly young teens. It was for their consumption, for their parents, and to put the agency owners on notice.” However, he added, “no action was taken by the model industry, other than rearranging alliances.”
No major investigation followed the 60 Minutes piece, and there were no apparent legal repercussions. Pyes noted there was a mindset at the time — even among many women — that the story was not that significant.
Pyes had grown up during the second wave of feminism, he says, which helped him “let go of all his preconceptions” while he was in Paris and other cities investigating the abuses of the modeling agency and interviewing former Brunel employees. He identified and located models who had been abused, sometimes meeting up to talk with them in model hangouts such as Les Bains Douches. (In the current environment, Pyes says, “I’m not sure I’d do that now — it’s too easy to get set up”).
After seeing the 60 Minutes story, Pyes was gratified with the way it had come out. However, he says that even among his female friends, there was not solidarity over the sexual abuse the high-school-age girls had suffered.
“When I got back to Berkeley after doing the program, my female friends — all feminists — were pretty hostile, saying that it was a waste of time because these girls are letting themselves be used to objectify women,’ he said. “I responded, ‘Look, they’re high school girls from the hinterlands, and they’re just trying to make a career, capitalizing on temporal beauty.’”
At the time the story was aired, Pyes recalls, one well-known 60 Minutes producer even “accused me of ‘Geraldo-Riverizing’ the program. I’m sure he has conveniently forgotten that statement. I’m sure that he and the feminists would now recognize [the teenage models] as victims of a predatory, unregulated system” — something he feel is partly due to the advent of the #MeToo movement.
Since the late Epstein’s arrest for sex trafficking, Pyes, now a private investigator, has worked with several American publications to investigate the Epstein-Brunel connection and has given multiple interviews to French TV and radio networks. “The issue, he said, “is denouncing and bringing to justice a group of sexual predators.”
For some of the young women Pyes interviewed, justice is long overdue. Courtney Powell, who came forward at age 19 to talk about alleged abuse at Brunel’s agency on 60 Minutes, arrived in Paris — like many recruited by talent scouts and local modeling agencies — from a small rural town. Nothing in Powell’s background in tiny Stonesboro, Pennsylvania, had prepared her for what she encountered at Brunel’s so-called dinner parties.
“It’s a meat market,” she told CBS’s Diane Sawyer on the show. “You are there for the purpose of going to bed with someone.” If a model refused, she didn’t get work, said Powell, who added her modeling career had ended because she refused to have sex with Brunel. Another model, who was photographed in shadow, told Sawyer that Brunel had pushed cocaine on her and dropped a hallucinogen in her drink; another model who asked to be disguised said Brunel had drugged and raped her.
Powell, now 50 with two daughters, told the Post, ‘“It completely boggles my mind how it’s possible that [Brunel] could be caught on the radar . . . and then nothing would come of it.”
The Post also cited a sworn statement by Brunel’s former bookkeeper Marita Vasquez, fired in 2006 for allegedly embezzling from the agency, that declared Brunel would bring girls as young as 14 to Epstein’s parties and that Epstein paid visas and kept models rent-free in New York City. (The relationship finaly soured, however; Brunel sued Epstein in 2015, charging that he had harmed his agency’s reputation.)
Tragically, the modeling industry’s failure to create safeguards for teen models after the 60 Minutes revelations left new aspiring models in danger. Two teen models at his agency who had never heard of the 60 Minutes investigation told the Post they had been pressured to take drugs and have sex with Brunel. In 1991, model Thysia Huisman, 18, fled for a Paris train station in horror after she was allegedly drugged and raped by Brunel.
“The whole fashion industry was more than willing to work with him, and he’s been entangled in scandals for decades,” said Huisman, now 46. “I hope he has some kind of sentence, that he’s punished for what he did to a lot of girls.”
However, Brunel, 72, who French police are seeking for “urgent” questioning, vanished after the late Epstein’s arrest for sex trafficking. MC2 says that he is no longer actively involved with the modeling agency, and all his social media has been erased. According to a September 2 story in the New York Post, he was last seen before Epstein’s arrest scouting for models in Brazil.
As for reforms, there is still no federal law in the United States that protect young models or prohibits model agents from working with girls younger than 16. In 2013 the state of New York passed a law largely drafted and championed by the Model Alliance, an organization advocating fair treatment, equal opportunity and sustainable practices in the fashion industry, which gave young models the same rights as child performers. Among other things, this means underage models have to have work permits and a trust set up in their name. The Council of Fashion Designers of America has also recommended — but not required — that agents not work with models under 16.