Scouting for Girls: Fashion’s Darkest Secret review – terrible stories of sexual abuse in the modeling industry | Television
Jthis is a scene from the 1990 movie Awakenings, about Dr Oliver Sacks’ investigations into the sleeping sickness epidemic in which Robin Williams – who plays a character based on Sacks – muses on the evidence. “You would think,” he says, “at some point, all of this something atypical would amount to something typical.”
I hear a version of this in my mind every time I see another documentary about predatory men and their (almost invariably) abuse of women and children, hidden in plain sight as they go about their business devastating with impunity, often for decades. Michael Jackson, R Kelly, Jimmy Savile, various rock legends, Jeffrey Epstein and Harvey Weinstein are some of the newest, but the list could grow and will no doubt be added in the future.
The latest addition to the increasingly crowded field is Scouting for Girls: Fashion’s Darkest Secret (Sky Documentaries). This three-part documentary (made by Wonderhood Studios and the Guardian, drawing on Lucy Osborne’s investigation) reveals the rampant sexual abuse of girls – and when it comes to 13, 14, 15, there’s no no other word – and young women who are launched into modeling careers by people supposedly in charge of their well-being.
It revolves around four agents in particular; John Casablancas, Gérald Marie, Jean-Luc Brunel and Claude Haddad who essentially controlled the modeling industry in the 80s and 90s – its most glamorous public era, the heyday of supermodeling. The promise, the appeal to young women around the world was intoxicating. The reality was quite different. Gérald Marie is the only one of the four still alive, and he categorically denies all the allegations.
Scouting respects the format and grammar that we expect from such presentations. Victims of historic predator abuse tell their stories. Here, former models Carré Otis, Shawna Lee, Jill Dodd and others testify to their experiences at the hands of these men (whose allegations those who are still living deny). The women essentially tell the same stories, which are as old as time itself. Alone and isolated in foreign lands, desperate for work, dependent on agencies for contacts, accommodation and money, they are grateful when the boss is interested. A caring conversation, a shoulder to cry on, a bit of support given slowly evolves into a suggestion to stay in an apartment late at night. And then comes the flip. “Suddenly he was on top of me” is a common refrain. The word “devastated” comes up often. The men rape and then fall asleep while the children/women cry in silence or are terrified next to them until dawn.
Dodd also recalls finding out that it was common for agencies to “pitch” models to wealthy men — who picked them from books — for a hefty fee. These days we have a term for that: human trafficking. We also have words like ‘grooming’, ‘conditioning’, ‘coercive control’ and so on, to name other experiences, though it’s hard to say how vulnerable this makes people in a world where rape convictions are so low that they are effectively non-existent.
At the time, Carré et al believed that these terrible things had only happened to them and that they had caused them themselves. The failure of CBS (on 60 Minutes in 1988) and BBC (by Donal MacIntyre in 1999) talks to bring about a settling of scores did not help them come to terms with their experiences.
Osborne’s investigation helped bring together scattered victims. They are now gathering in numbers and helping with a criminal investigation in France which they hope will at least see Marie brought to justice.
It’s hard to see things changing – or certainly not as quickly or as drastically as needed. This is a sober account of the failures of another industry. What a terrible world.