Karen Elson Talks Personal Experience With Harassment in the Fashion Industry

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The supermodel opens up to THR about how the industry can improve: "There needs to be a protocol for when the model says, 'I don’t want to get naked.' It shouldn’t be, 'Oh, come on.' It should be, 'I respect your decision.' "

Ripples from the allegations against Harvey Weinstein are being felt not just across Hollywood, but across the fashion industry as well, as models and insiders alike are speaking up to report abuses of power in the form of sexual harassment and assault.

Model Cameron Russell has used her social media platform to anonymously share the accounts of more than 45 models, and Model Alliance has come forward as a safe place for models to share and report their experiences. Supermodel Christy Turlington, too, has spoken about the prevalence of harassment in the industry, describing "the industry surrounded by predators who thrive on the constant rejection and loneliness so many of us have experienced at some point in our careers."

In the past two weeks, Karen Elson has also spoken up on Instagram about the ways that the industry can change to create a safer environment for those in powerless positions. In addition to her career as a runway model — where she walked for Versace, Tom Ford, Jason Wu and others — and as an editorial model who has graced multiple covers of Vogue, Elson is also a musician and therefore is privy to the inner workings of multiple aspects of the entertainment industry.

During a chat with The Hollywood Reporter on Thursday, Elson elaborated on the particular ways the industry can improve, as well as on her own experiences with harassment.

THR: Why is this issue important to you? Why use your platform to talk about it?

Elson: From being a model — and being in entertainment in many different forms for almost 25 years — I have a lot of experience being on set and having people, particularly when I was younger, take advantage of me by saying something sexually suggestive that was really unwelcomed or making me feel uncomfortable.

The revelation for a lot of women is that harassment isn’t exclusive to one career or another. It’s rampant. But being a model, specifically, even as a musician, I see it all. At this point in my life, I’m 38 years old, and I’m much more capable to stand up and draw a line of what is acceptable and what isn’t.

What I really appreciate about what Cameron Russell and what Model Alliance is doing is that they’re lifting the lid off of it completely. It’s out on the table. It’s out in the open. That’s the only way for these things to change is by unmasking the problem — and it’s a very serious problem.

I worry about these young girls at 15, 16, even 17 and 18 years old, coming into the fashion business, be it as models or as stylists or assistants or interns, walking into a predatory environment. The fashion industry is, a lot of the time, run by women, and we do have each others’ back, but, like in all businesses, there are bad seeds. And as we’ve seen, power corrupts; it can make women and girls feel intimidated and not able to speak their voice. The only way change is going to happen is by being vocal and sharing stories and allowing these girls and women to have a platform where they can say something’s wrong.

Reading through some of Russell’s posts, it seemed like one pattern was that the models were being told, “Oh, this is for the shoot,” or “This is just part of the creative process.”

Right. It’s happened to me plenty of times! One of my very first shoots, when I was probably 16, I was asked to do nudes, and I did them, but I felt really uncomfortable — I felt uncomfortable with the photographer, and I didn’t feel safe. Again, it was at a time when it was just expected. There have been a number of times when I’ve been on set and I have done nudes, and I felt very confident. There are certain photographers I’ve worked with where I’ve felt incredibly safe, and I knew it was going to be a beautiful image, but there’s time where I haven’t! There’s been times where the set isn’t even closed, where anyone can just walk in, and there you are naked! It’s really just time to remind people — even the people who may not think these things are a problem — to wake up and understand that there have to be boundaries, there has to be a line.

And if a girl says she has been sexually harassed, agents need to listen, and they need to blacklist the person. The problem with modeling is that it’s really unregulated. We don’t have a union, so this is where the Model Alliance comes in because they’re trying to keep things accountable and do things legally to change the way the fashion industry operates and the way the modeling industry operates.

You can tell your agent, "Hey, I felt really uncomfortable, the photographer was hitting on me, something inappropriate happened on set." And I have great agents; they would freak out, they would have my back, but not everybody is like that. The top agencies might have the appropriate response, but there are hundreds of other agencies that might not give a damn.

Sadly, you put young girls in any environment, and unfortunately it will attract a sprinkling of predators. I’ve had plenty of experiences myself, even just not having a chaperone and walking around the streets of Paris and being followed by men or just getting naked backstage.

My biggest issue with fashion shows when I was doing them was that you would get naked in a room, and yes, they kick some photographers out, but there were still other people there. And as soon as the fashion show was over, people would come rushing back in, and there were 30 girls getting changed. Your privacy is not respected!

Another revealing component of Russell’s Instagram posts was that it wasn’t just women coming forward, but also many male models.

Yes! Harassment can happen to any gender! It just can; I’ve fully seen male models and female models be harassed. And it goes across the board — there’s not just sexual harassment, but body shaming. The harassment takes many different forms.

I do want to say that there are good people in the fashion industry as well; I work with really incredible people. I think having some kind of accountability, doing something that creates legislation or the fashion industry coming together and issuing a mandate of accountability, I think it will only benefit and keep fashion what it is: a creative industry.

I probably should keep my mouth shut because I don’t want to say anything without anybody’s permission, but this is a very big problem. I would venture to guess that if people felt okay with coming forward, a lot more women would be coming forward in the fashion industry. Cameron’s platform, because it was anonymous, I think made people feel really comfortable. But my thing is, how about we all just really come clean.

Do you think that, in order to hold abusers accountable, people shouldn't come forward anonymously?

I think there’s still shame attached to it, and this is the unfortunate thing. I applaud Cameron for what she’s doing, and I applaud people who don’t necessarily want to publicly share their story because that’s on their time. But on the counter … I’m sure a lot of people are afraid to speak their mind because they’re afraid of the consequences, which is a real tragedy because that’s ultimately how real change will happen, is by people speaking their truth.

But a lot of sexual predators are probably quivering right now — for good reason — because it’s coming. I hope this isn’t something that comes and goes, a flash in the pan so to speak, and we’ll stop talking about it because this is a necessary dialogue.

Would you encourage those who are comfortable to name their abusers?

If they’re comfortable, yes, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say they should because that is a very personal thing. People have post-traumatic stress, people have their own views on how they want to share these things. Personally, I have the utmost respect for any woman just saying, “Me Too.”

Even personally, I am on the fence about my own experiences. Because it is, admittedly, a very long time ago, and I know the facts of what happened, but it is still an emotional thing. And there is a moment of pause where I think, "Do I want to share this? Do I want to be in that position of vulnerability again?"

I think for me, personally, the “Me Too” is really powerful. I would never want to pressure any woman to say or do anything, but I think being an advocate and standing up and saying “Yeah, I know what that feels like, how can we help?” is important. My overall experience in fashion is that it’s a really supportive community, and I think that if we all band together, we can make the industry a lot safer.

From my experience, once I reached high fashion, once I reached success, I never really experienced harassment again. The harassment was before I got success.

I do think there should be some kind of system in place where every girl walks on set knowing what is expected of her. If you’re going to do a nude, let it be approved by the model beforehand. If there’s going to be lingerie, let it be approved by the model beforehand. If there’s going to be any kind of intimacy, even if there’s going to be a male model and you’re supposed to be close with him, hold everyone accountable. Agents should yank models off set instantly if something is off.

Oftentimes, people just say, “Oh that’s just the way he is,” or “That’s just the way it is,” and it shouldn’t be! I remember being in a fashion show years ago, maybe six years ago, and there was a young, 16-year-old model whose T-shirt was super see-through. And when she walked her boob was exposed, and she felt really uncomfortable. She was shaking, and I remember grabbing the fashion editor and saying, “You need to fix that, she’s a kid, and she’s not comfortable.” And they did, but I got an eye roll. And it was a woman, as well. It’s common decency, these things, and it’s amazing how thin the line is between a model being a product — because often we just are — versus being an actual person and being respected as such.

These frequent check-ins, asking, "Are you OK and are you comfortable," it really is very simple, instead of an agent just saying, "You have to just do this." I’m lucky, I’ve had longevity. But a lot of girls are just around for a season or two and are treated like commodities, and that’s where the line gets blurred for people. And that’s why sexual predators can enter the space, as well, because girls will feel powerless to fight back.

It sounds like more and more women are going to continue coming forward, so hopefully things can change.

It opened the lid. Georgina Chapman is my friend. I’ve modeled Marchesa, and I adore her. She’s someone I care about, and I have nothing but the world of empathy for all the things she is likely going through right now. She is a victim also.

But I think that this has massively opened up how it is a universal problem. I think there should be education. In addition to advocating this, agencies should be giving a seminar or classes or a course for all new models or models in general about personal safety, boundaries, what’s acceptable and what’s not — that would be really beneficial across the industry. There needs to be a protocol for when the model says, “I don’t want to get naked.” It shouldn’t be, “Oh, come on.” It should be, “I respect your decision.”

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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