A little more than ten years ago, Marie Anderson Boyd witnessed a prequel to the underage-model scandal that has destabilized Elite, the world's largest modeling agency. Elite's elite -- employees from around the world -- were meeting on the island of Ibiza, where the agency's owners, Alain Kittler, Gérald Marie, and John Casablancas, all had summer homes. Boyd was sunbathing behind a stone wall when her idyll was interrupted by a loud argument. Lisa Herzog and Trudi Tapscott, two of the agency's top female executives, were angrily pleading with Casablancas and Marie to stop sleeping with underage models -- and they were having none of it.
"We are men," snapped Marie. "We have our needs."
"C'mon, Trudi, Lisa, relax," chimed in an unruffled Casablancas, a renowned Casanova.
"Go screw yourselves," the less polished Marie concluded. "Run your own life."
Needless to say, the women lost the argument. And Anderson Boyd soon decided she'd had enough of Elite, and quit her job.
In the past eight weeks, it's likely Gérald Marie has wished he'd listened. In late November, he was the centerpiece of a BBC exposé that's rocked the modeling business. Marie was surreptitiously filmed making plans to seduce very young models and venting his frustration when those plans didn't work out. Other footage showed a drug sale to a teenager by a Marilyn-agency staff member, the pimping of models in Milan, and the expression of racist views by another Elite executive, Xavier Moreau. A piece in this month's Talk magazine, harshly critical of the British documentary's underhanded reporting techniques, presented Marie as a martyr and victim -- but didn't do much to launder his reputation.
Though personally not implicated by the BBC documentary, John Casablancas knows its landscape intimately. In the eighties, he was at once the public face of Elite and another notorious admirer of young models. This magazine regularly covered his exploits, and in 1995, I wrote a book, Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, that featured portraits of Casablancas and Marie that weren't very pretty. Casablancas threatened a lawsuit to stop it, and attacked me at every turn when he couldn't.
But now Casablancas has had a startling change of heart -- silence is no longer an option. Despite the flaws of the BBC film, which is at best disingenuous, if not dishonest, he acknowledges that it hits home. Sitting in his office near Gramercy Park, which is decorated in raw wood, brown leather, and southwestern textiles, Casablancas doesn't deny that he's slept with teenage models but insists, as he always has, that he's never knowingly made love to a girl under age 16.
Casablancas says that on Ibiza that day, he had sided with Marie so his partner wouldn't feel ganged up on. "Gérald responded very violently," Casablancas says. "And I think he was right; he felt he wasn't doing anything particularly shocking; he wasn't forcing anyone into anything. It was Europeans saying to Americans, 'Don't be so Puritan.'
"To the Europeans, the episode in the BBC tape with the booker and drugs was shocking. For Americans, it's always young girls and sex, which is what they like to hear about."
But however dismissive Casablancas may be about Puritanical America, he's aware, finally, that the business he built and personifies is in some danger. So, on December 3, he faxed his competitors, proposing a code of ethics for the modeling trade. The code would ban models from working regularly until age 16; ban international travel without parental chaperones until age 17; institute a listing system for agencies that "are known for lenient attitudes towards drugs, drinking, and sexual promiscuity." It would mandate the immediate termination of any agency employees who have sex with underage models or are involved in the use or sale of drugs, and the immediate assignment of models with drug problems to rehab programs. Enforcing it would be an agreement among agencies not to take on models who'd rather switch managers than fight their addictions.
"I find that repulsive, and I've done it," Casablancas admits. "If you don't, someone else will."
Casablancas also suggests the industry institute a blacklist of clients who are known to use or promote drugs, and ban models under 17 from appearing nude in photography or on fashion runways. While the fax included a number of mea culpas -- references to "improper statements" made by Moreau and Marie on the BBC show and to "everybody's past failure, including ours" -- it also took sarcastic digs at Elite's competition. "We all know," he wrote, "none of your managers, directors, bookers, models, clients, etc., ever indulge in the use of any drugs, ever take young models to the nightclubs where drugs are easily available," and went on to pointedly mention "private screenings in your offices of the BBC program."
A competing agent confirms that competitors are circulating copies of the BBC tape. And though that agent thinks that "morals have changed, the business has changed, people are disgusted," he admits that competitors initially hooted down Casablancas's reform proposals.
"John was as bad as Gérald," the agent says, "but he had a more elegant manner, and it was a different time. Of course he's right, but who is John to send a letter like that? Clean your closet before you try to clean everyone else's."
Casablancas responds with more sarcasm: "I smile when I see my 'judges' at the association." Casablancas names four actively heterosexual model managers. "I look at this and say, 'Give me a break.' "
Elite's internal politics, while somewhat less fractious than the company's relations with competitors, are just as complex. After the documentary aired, Marie and Moreau supposedly resigned from their positions. But I'd heard that, in fact, Marie (who still owns part of the company) continued to run Elite Europe from his Paris apartment.
"More or less right," admits Casablancas, who was a bitter professional rival of Marie's before they became partners. "Like him or not like him -- and I've never been a friend of Gérald, we don't frequent the same people, we don't have the same lifestyle -- professionally, he is excellent."