“It was degrading”: Terry Richardson and the nasty sexual harassment loophole

From sexual demands to being made to strip, models and others detail true horrors -- and how jerks get away with it

Published July 9, 2014 11:45AM (EDT)

Terry Richardson        (AP/Charles Sykes)
Terry Richardson (AP/Charles Sykes)

About a dozen years ago, says model Sara Ziff, she showed up to Terry Richardson’s apartment for what she’d been told was a casting for a mainstream fashion magazine. Without warning, he asked her to pose topless.

“I felt pressure to comply,” Ziff told me in a May email, “because my agent had told me to make a good impression because he was an important photographer who shot for all the major magazines and brands.”

According to Ziff, the shoot that made her decide she’d never again work with Richardson came about four years later, in Paris, for an ad campaign. “While he was photographing me, he started cursing at me,” Ziff told me by phone interview, “It was degrading and made me freeze up, like the first time when I had a casting with him.” At that point, Ziff alleges, Richardson said, “OK, I think we’re done.”

She didn’t complain about those incidents to Richardson, or to her agency, or to anyone else involved in the shoot, said Ziff, “in part because it seemed like his behavior was accepted.”

Ziff, a former face of Tommy Hilfiger and Banana Republic, today directs the Model Alliance, a nonprofit she founded two years ago to tackle abuses and try to transform the industry. Among the obstacles, she told me earlier this year, is that “Part of a model’s job is to make the work invisible.” And if customers and companies don’t fully recognize modeling as actual work, arguably neither does U.S. law.

By law, Ziff isn’t an employee of the agents or photographers or retailers or designers or magazines she helps make money. Rather, she was and is an independent contractor, one in a growing army of workers across a wide swath of industries who get bossed around plenty, but on paper are all “working for themselves.” That casts them largely beyond the reach of our creaky, craven corpus of employment laws, including Civil Rights Act protection against sexual harassment.

* * *

Asked in May about Ziff’s account, some of which was also reported last month in New York magazine, a spokesperson for Terry Richardson emailed, “All these claims about things that supposedly happened a decade ago are along the same lines of the recent fake Facebook message that detractors of Terry were so quick to cite as ‘evidence’ of his bad character. The fact is, like the Facebook message, which was proven to be a complete fabrication, these stories are spread by people with an ax to grind and an agenda to push.” Asked in response whether Richardson was specifically denying any aspect of Ziff’s account, the spokesperson declined further comment. (New York reported that Richardson claims the shoot when Ziff was around 19 “was billed in advance as a semi-nude casting …”)

Ziff’s allegations are the latest in a series that’s brought notoriety – but not isolation – for Richardson, the celebrity photographer who’s worked with Lady Gaga, Barack Obama and Oprah. “Before I could say ‘whoa, whoa, whoa!’ dude was wearing only tattoos and waggling the biggest dick I’d ever seen dangerously close to my unclothed person …” Jamie Peck wrote in 2010. “He told me to perform oral sex on him,” Charlotte Waters said in March.

Asked in May about past allegations including Peck’s and Waters’, Richardson’s spokesperson declined comment except to refer Salon to a March statement in which Richardson said his work has “explored the beauty, rawness, and humor that sexuality entails”; decried “hate-filled and libelous tales” and “an emotionally-charged witch hunt”; and declared, “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.” (Peck and Waters told Salon they stand by their allegations.)

In 2012, while saying, “We like him,” actor Chloë Sevigny told the New York Times his method may be “manipulative. But when you are with him, you don’t feel it.” Young models, said Sevigny, “walk out of there and cry, ‘What did I do?’”

The larger issue, argues Ziff, is “a systemic problem in the industry of sexual abuse of models.”

“Most people in the industry are professional,” said Ziff, “but most models that I’ve spoken with have at some point in their careers experienced some form of sexual harassment or abuse on the job,” be it a surprise push to pose naked, or “explicit sexual demands” for some “quid pro quo.” When we spoke in May, she told me she’d recently asked a model she was working with on a shoot if she’d ever experienced harassment. The woman said she’d been told to take off her underwear – not because the ultimate product would be a naked picture, but rather as a step “to get in the mood.”

“I think every model has encountered a sleazy cliché photographer,” model-turned actor and Model Alliance activist Anne-Sofie Bergstedt told me. “That happened a lot …” said Bergstedt, “seeing photographers take advantage of all of us, and trying to get us to do more than what our agency prepared us for.” The issue, she argued, is an imbalance in power: “It’s all up to what they want, whenever you enter their studio for a casting, or else you could lose your job.”

And models aren’t the only ones.

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“It can be a beautiful job,” says a driver who hauls freight to and from a major port, because she gets to “ride by the river every morning, and see the river and feel the cool breeze.” But “the worst part would be the fact that as the misclassified, we have sexual harassment.”

How often? “You could basically just say on a daily basis,” she told me, then added, “You’re in an industry that’s supposed to be for men.”

The trucker, who asked that her name and region be withheld due to fear of retaliation, first recounted unwanted advances from fellow drivers: whistling, horn honks, “invitations.” Early on, she said, “they would come jump on the side of the truck … You have to make up things, like, ‘My husband drives a truck and he’s two trucks up from you.’”

Now that she’s been on the job several years, she said, her fellow drivers have backed off; she takes more abuse from the clerical and longshore workers at the port. “They might say, like, ‘Your chest looks like two big bubbles,’” she said, “so some of us … we wear long shirts and pants that are baggy.” The trucker said she kept the catcalls and comments a secret from her boyfriend, because if he knew he’d show up at the port to take on the offenders himself.

Once, she told me, a friend and fellow driver got in trouble after pulling a knife on a port employee who “just kept on it, kept on it, kept on it.” “She kept on asking him to stop, stop, stop,” she said. “And eventually, she just got fed up with it.”

“It bothers you,” she added, but “we try to laugh it off and keep it moving … We’ve got no one to turn to, because of the way that they’ve got the system … Who do we turn to and ask them to stop it?”

Four decades ago, the law looked at most port truckers as employees, with all the attendant promises of protection. That includes – at least on paper – protection from what the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission calls “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature” that “explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.” And it includes protection – or at least the promise of it – for workers who push back against such harassment.

That promise to employees – that putting up with harassment won’t be the cost of keeping your job – is often broken. But for port truckers, and others pushed out of the ranks of U.S. “employees,” that promise doesn’t even exist.

Starting under Jimmy Carter, the port trucking industry was deregulated and restructured; today the Teamsters union contends that 80 percent of port truckers are among the misclassified: workers who even under current law should still be employees, but are counted by their bosses as independent contractors. “They tell you what to do, they tell you where to go … they tell you how long you’re going to be there,…” argued the driver who’d described being harassed. “You get told how much you’re going to get paid … Honestly, we’re an employee when it suits them, and then we’re an independent contractor when it suits them.”

* * *

We don’t know just how many U.S. workers today are classified as independent contractors, or just how many ostensibly non-employment arrangements would stand up as such under scrutiny. (The federal Department of Labor, which commissioned a 2000 study suggesting that between 10 and 30 percent of employers misclassify employees, is reportedly working on a new one.) But progressives point to a range of industries in which contracting has become increasingly prevalent.  The National Employment Law Project’s Catherine Ruckelshaus ticks off a series: janitorial; home healthcare; drywall; restaurants. “They’re not really running their own, independent, economically self-sufficient business,” argued Ruckelshaus; in some cases, “it’s just one worker,” cleaning “a floor, or a restaurant, or a building. But they’re being called independent contractors.”

Along with substantial payroll savings, that frees companies from employment laws that set a floor for working conditions, as well as labor laws that promise the chance to bargain collectively for better ones. “You have to have complained to a supervisor or someone else on the job site before you can bring a claim for sex harassment,” noted Ruckelshaus. “So if their employment status is uncertain, or they’ve been told they’re not an employee, then they’re not going to …” And while misclassification is by definition illegal, the ratio of Department of Labor inspectors to work sites has plummeted since the New Deal era. “Because we rely on workers to come forward and complain, they are often scared of retaliation, and in the case of independent contractors, that often means blacklisting …” Ruckelshaus told me. “So they often don’t complain, because they would rather get another job.”

“As an independent contractor, either I accept the work and accept that there might be a possibility of sexual harassment, or I don’t and I worry about not possibly finding enough work,” said Calista Michel, a New York- and Toronto-based copy editor. In New York, she told me, a supposed potential client emailed asking to meet her and her sole co-worker (also female) in an office; when she told him they could meet in public at a coffee shop, “he emailed us back saying that we were streetwalkers and whores” for not having an office – a response she said both reeked of sexism and suggested questionable motives for seeking that private meeting in the first place.

In Canada (where independent contractors are also afforded lesser protection), Michel recounted putting up with months of harassment in weekly coffee shop meetings with a client whose manuscript she was editing. “He would sort of move his chair as close to me as possible, to the point where he would actually be touching me,” Michel told me. She said wearing a fake engagement ring, and asking repeatedly for personal space didn’t deter the client. “I would go to every single meeting … dreading it, because I wouldn’t know what would happen,” she told me. Once when she showed up two minutes late, she said, he met her at the door and “walked me to the table like I was a petulant child. And the entire Starbucks looked at us like something weird was going on.”

“The silence of the law normalizes the exploitative conditions,” argues Bhairavi Desai, who founded and directs the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. “From women drivers,” she told me, “you know, it’s something you hear about quite a bit.” Desai described female taxi drivers wearing hats or covering as much of their bodies as possible, in hopes the passenger would assume the driver was a man.

“Sexual harassment that occurs on the job but outside an employer-employee relationship, simply falls through the cracks in the law,” emailed Fordham Fashion Law Institute director Susan Scafidi, a Model Alliance board member.  Sexual harassment lawyers told me they’re regularly faced with claims that their clients aren’t employees and therefore aren’t eligible to sue. “We deal with this a lot,” said attorney Brian Spitz, though he noted that depending on the nature of the abuse, some workers could instead file civil suits alleging assault and battery.

* * *

“The price of freedom is protecting yourself against the lechery, bigotry and general idiocies of clients …” attorney/author Wendy Kaminer wrote in a 2010 defense of independent contractors’ exclusion for harassment protections. While contracted work may come with less protection, Kaminer contended, it brings greater freedom to tell a bad boss to shove it: “The employer’s moral as well as legal obligation to an employee is much stronger than his obligation to a contractor or consultant who is genuinely independent of him and free to take her business elsewhere. If she hasn’t cultivated business elsewhere, that’s her problem and maybe her fault.”

But Ziff argues such arguments have it wrong – or even backward. “When you’re working paycheck to paycheck, job to job, as an independent contractor,” she told me, “there is that much more pressure to go along with inappropriate demands.” Lacking steady work, and at risk of being blacklisted, Ziff argued, she and her co-workers are every bit as vulnerable as the “employees” covered under the law.

What, then, can they do about it?

“It’s all in changing the laws back,” argued the truck driver I spoke with. Port truckers backed by the Teamsters have waged a multi-front fight in recent years to drag more of the industry back under the coverage of labor and employment law -- agitating for stepped-up federal enforcement of existing laws while pushing states to change their standards for finding workers are misclassified. Five congressional Democrats in May introduced the latest version of a bill expanding the penalties for misclassification. The New York Taxi Workers Alliance is pushing for mandatory stickers in cabs warning against abuse or assault of drivers. (New York state and New York City, respectively, have also passed bills extending sexual harassment protection to otherwise excluded domestic workers and interns.) And the Model Alliance – like the NYTWA, part of a new array of “alt-labor” groups organizing workers excluded from labor law -- has for months been talking with U.S. Rep. Grace Meng about federal reform to address at least a small slice of contractors’ exclusion from sexual harassment protection.

“Just because someone works in an industry that relies on independent contractors doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have legal protection from sexual harassment,” argues Meng. The congresswoman told me in May that her office was so far “just analyzing a bunch of potential ways we could address this, via legislation or other ways,” but planned to put forward something that would at least address harassment of models who are minors. Meng noted she’d supported New York state’s 2013 bill shifting authority over teenage models from its Education Department to its Labor Department, which the Model Alliance expects will facilitate improved oversight.

Ziff, who led the charge for that New York state law, ticks off a range of other reforms she believes could make a difference: from requiring that child performers’ contracts make their agencies legally responsible to prevent harassment or hostile work environments, to requiring “informed consent” safeguards for nude modeling.

The issues overlap: Ziff says she was 14 the first time she was asked to take off her top during a modeling shoot. (That shoot wasn’t with Terry Richardson.) “I know it might sound strange, but I didn’t know that I could say no,” the Model Alliance founder told me. “And I knew that it didn’t feel right, but I just wanted to be liked, and I was surrounded by adults in positions of authority, who I assumed I had to listen to.”

“People can sometimes push you to do more than you feel comfortable doing,” says Ziff, “and when you’re put on the spot, and you don’t have the opportunity to turn down requests like that in advance,” the situation then “can spiral off” into “more explicit demands.”

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So even as sexual harassment law’s exclusion of “independent contractors” is exacerbated by a shifting economy, efforts to undo that exclusion remain limited, incipient or both.

In the meantime, the Model Alliance maintains a “discrete reporting service” available to models who’ve been harassed, connecting them, depending on their rights and their will, with pro bono legal counsel, reporters or police.But for the most part,” Ziff told me, “we basically just have a database of people who have come forward and voiced their concerns, and then we can see patterns.” There’s a cycle, she argued, of “people not talking about the abuse, and the abuse then continues.” She noted models are understandably reluctant to go public when it means their Google results, “for the rest of their life,” will be “stories of rape and assault.”

Still, some workers the law left out are pushing back through a range of avenues. Former Buffalo Jills cheerleaders have filed a lawsuit arguing their boss wrongly branded them independent contractors and -- along with stealing their wages -- subjected them to sexual harassment and a “jiggle test.” At the end of April, truckers disrupted the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach with a 48-hour strike against logistics companies that call them contractors, efforts the Teamsters hope will not only force the issue with politicians, but directly compel companies to reclassify their workers as employees.

Two months after Ziff announced she wouldn’t work with Richardson again, and one month after Charlotte Allen took her allegations against Richardson public, Vogue and Target each told reporters they have “no plans to work with him in the future”; activists have urged other brands and magazines to cut their own ties to the infamous photographer. (A spokesperson for Vogue declined Salon’s request to elaborate on that statement; a spokesperson for Target said the company “won’t provide any comment or commentary on any accusations.” A spokesperson for Richardson did not provide comment on the Vogue or Target statements.)

Such efforts echo those of other workers, failed by the law, who’ve taken up collective action to raise standards, from McDonald’s workers who walked off the job alleging unsafe heat conditions, to farmworkers who mounted a four-year Taco Bell boycott demanding a Code of Conduct. (McDonald’s and Taco Bell did not provide comment in response to inquiries on those incidents.)

“We’re working in an industry that is perceived as frivolous, and so our concerns are not taken seriously,” argues Ziff. “But we’re still doing a job, and we should be treated fairly, just like anyone else who works for a living. So we shouldn’t have to endure sexual abuse.”

By Josh Eidelson

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