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Karen Elson Talks Personal Experience with Harassment in the Fashion Industry



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, noting that “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.”

Christy Turlington Burns Speaks Out on Sexual Harassment in the Fashion Industry

In the past two weeks, Karen Elson has also spoken up on Instagram about the ways in which both can change to make 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, she is a musician and therefore 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.

Model Cameron Russell Is Sharing Anonymous Stories of Sexual Harassment in Fashion Industry

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 Cameron’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.

Model Alliance Calls on Fashion Industry to Have Zero Tolerance for Harassment

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!

Getty Images
Karen Elson on the runway at the Bottega Veneta spring 2017 show.

Another revealing component of Cameron’s Instagrams were 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.


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Mr. McGregor, how would you describe your unique style of choreography?

I see beauty in things that are dysfunctional rather than just pure line and shape. The aspiration of classical ballet has often been about a kind of grace and effortlessness and lyricism in the body, an instrument that’s in fantastic motion. I think that’s really beautiful and really interesting, but I also think there’s a whole other range of physical potential that a human body can do. So, I’m interested in that side of it. I’m interested in bodies misbehaving.

Where do you think that comes from?

I’ve always had a very long body, so I’ve been able to do things differently. I was doing body-popping and a lot of club stuff when I was around 18, when rave culture came around. That kind of permeates the way in which you see people move. I’ve not been in a classical ballet school — where you’ve seen bodies move in a particular way — since the age of eight.

“Everybody carries their own physical history, so it doesn’t matter if you’ve trained in hip-hop or body-popping or classical ballet. It’s all the same, really.”

You never had any traditional ballet training?

No! And that’s why it was so strange that I would get these really amazing jobs at places like The Royal Ballet, where I was the first resident choreographer who had never trained in a royal ballet. But I don’t think any of that matters. Being a choreographer is about the biomechanics and signature of the body. Everybody carries their own physical history, so it doesn’t matter if you’ve trained in hip-hop or body-popping or classical ballet. It’s all the same, really.

Did you go back to school to gain the technical knowledge necessary to talk to professional dancers?

Kind of. I did a degree in choreography and semiotics, as well as contemporary dance training, but I got my practice in ballet through actually doing it, right? So the first time you ever work with somebody on pointe shoes, you ask them, “What can you do?” I had no idea what you can do! But less important than knowing how the pointe shoe works is to have good dancers in the room who, when you say, “Can you do that?” they can go, “Oh no, but I can do this.”

Your approach to teaching choreography seems to rely more on collaboration than authority.

It’s a dialogue. I try to work with the best people possible and suck out their brilliance as much as possible. The job of a choreographer is to find what’s personal to them. When I worked with Thom Yorke, for example, I found out that he’s an amazing dancer. Full stop. He doesn’t really need a choreographer.

So you based the choreography around his natural movement?

Right and I think it should be like that for everyone! The “Lotus Flower” video is choreographed but it comes from him, so he feels he owns it already. He’s giving it to me, and I’m just helping him form it in a different way. When you’ve got somebody so extraordinary, it’s exciting for a choreographer; it’s effortless. Sometimes technique gets in the way of letting dancers be curious and open and try new things. Their idea of physical beauty gets in the way of them exploring. For me, there’s no point in being an artist now and just repeating things that happened in the past.

Source: The Talk

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Mr. Scheeren, what experiences would you say changed your understanding of the world?

I think when you grow up in Europe, almost no matter where, you have a very sheltered idea of how things are. So going backpacking through China 25 years ago really confronted me with a reality that was unimaginable. Simply the amount of people around you, a completely different definition of personal space, of how things would work, of how people live… The main reason to go was that I knew nothing about the world, and China seemed the most impenetrable. Somehow that trip was a discovery of a reality that I had no idea about before. It was quite a transformative moment for me because it liberated me.

Liberated you from what?

It showed me that things could be dramatically different but maybe equally valid or equally interesting. For instance, I think that the power in China was not in holding on to its past in the way that other developed nations do, it was in the complete focus on the future. There was very little sentimental baggage. It was simply a search for how to progress. That experience was very raw, you could feel this incredible energy somehow in that country. People were hungry for things to happen, people were interested in what the future could be.

“That strong sense of courageousness was a very exciting context for an architect to engage with.”

Ma Yansong says architects should involve the public more when envisioning the future of urban planning.

Well, that strong sense of courageousness, that strong sense of demand, or exploration, was a very exciting context for an architect to engage with. It wasn’t just about how could we stick to what we already know but how can we rethink things for which there are no particular models. For example, in China, someone came to us and said, “We want to build a bookshop that is 100,000 square-meters large.” And you go, “What do you mean? Not even a public library is that size!” But then you visit an existing bookstore in Seoul that is half that size and it’s completely full of people. You see that energy and that density and you think, “Of course you can double it!” But at first it sounds like a completely implausible idea.

But bigger doesn’t always mean better…

True. What is important is to not simply succumb to the generic production of quantity and built mass, but to really ask how could we develop models out of this inevitable density, that are much more valuable towards us as human beings — towards a question of how we want to live, what is the quality of our life, and how do we want to exist in a city that grows extensively. I think we’ve been quite successful in finding clients that were ultimately willing to engage in these dialogues to see how we can break the mold, how we can, in a very literal way, open the skyscraper up to the life of people.

Like with your Interlace apartment complex in Singapore?

Exactly, the Interlace was a redefinition of a building as something that was no longer just an object, but a connective tissue that would form a huge community. The way the building blocks are stacked up forms huge gardens and courtyards, so it was about defining the space to live in that would allow you an incredible degree of freedom to decide for yourself. I think that’s what ultimately makes for an incredible quality of life in that place. Another example is the Sky Forest project in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. For that, we imagined the nature that you could soak up in the middle of a very dense, emerging part of the city.

Have you ever been surprised by how people inhabited your buildings?

In a way, that’s the best thing that can happen, when people are inspired enough to make their own story out of it. It’s not that they have to live your story — I think that would be a rather oppressive scenario. Architecture should never be too prescriptive in terms of telling you what to do. I think it’s actually brilliant when people find ways to reinterpret the spaces we create. For example, by complete coincidence, I found on the Internet a girl living at the Interlace who had posted a series of “My Life at the Interlace” videos, where she rollerblades throughout the complex — that was really a great moment. We couldn’t have scripted anything as good as that.

Source: The Talk

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Mr. Oyelowo, how do you approach playing a historical character?

It’s a very tricky thing because of course you have to be evocative of who they were, how they moved, how they spoke. You have to make people relax and say, “Okay, he feels like him enough that I can just go on this journey with this character.” But if it becomes an imitation, if it’s about mimicry, if all people were saying is, “Oh, yeah, he really got the voice,” you’re dead! That’s the worst compliment you can pay.

Really, why?

Because when you go to see a movie, there is a spiritual exchange between the audience and what you’re watching. There is something metaphysical going on, where through the eyes, through what that person is exuding, you go, “I understand who they are. I have a sense of what they’re feeling when they’re not even talking.” There is an embodiment that is total so that you forget all of that. People shouldn’t be looking at the mechanics of what you did.

What should they be looking at?

How you did it emotionally. I believe that we go to the movies to see ourselves. “How would I react?” If all you’re seeing is a superhuman human being who had answers for everything, then you’re just watching in awe and it’s just like, “Okay, wow, he’s him and I’m me.” So I think it’s important that we can see ourselves on screen and I think that also means that we’re looking for the greatness in ourselves.

Is it important for your work to inspire people to be better?

It is important to me! I want to do films that hopefully inspire people to be the best version of themselves. If you look at the films I do, all of them, in some way… the remit I set myself is, “How does this enrich people’s lives?” You know, what’s meaningful? I want films that, when my kids see them, they understand why daddy did those films. They understand how it correlates with the way I’m trying to raise them.

Did you gain that perspective when you became a father?

Being a father teaches you very quickly that you are not the center of your own universe. That’s one of the gifts of having to wipe poop! (Laughs) Other people’s poop… Four times, with four children! I’ll be on a plane tomorrow back to my kids, lock my door, and it’ll all be about poop again! (Laughs) That’s the life I lead.

I’m sure that makes it easier to focus on the important things in life.

The fact of the matter is that every actor’s career has highs and lows. When success as an actor comes early, it’s very easy to believe the hype. But to me, it’s about how consistently you do the work – whether it’s celebrated or it’s not. I’ve been in movies with huge movie stars who have been crucified when there are failures and who have been adulated when there are successes.

In the last few years you’ve been in The HelpLincolnThe Butler, and most recently you portrayed Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma. Why is it so important for you to make films about African-American history?

We need those films. Up until recently, films that deal with civil rights and racial unrest have mostly been told through white characters, through white protagonists. Malcolm X is probably the only film I can think of where you have an indisputable black American leader as the focus of the film. What you’ve tended to have is Mississippi Burning or you have Glory or you have these films that are all through white protagonists. Great films – but a different point of view. You can’t have a film about Dr. King and it be all about Lyndon Johnson in my opinion.

Why do you think there are so many films about African Americans coming out of Hollywood lately?

I think it’s synonymous with Barack Obama’s presidency. I think having a black president means that for a lot of white people there is an opportunity to not just focus on what’s negative about the past, but we have clear indications of progress, so it becomes easier to go: “How did we get here, historically? How have we got to the point where we have a black president?” All these films, they were just not getting made before his presidency. I actually saw President Obama about two weeks ago when we took Selma to the White House, and I thanked him for my career.

What was his reaction?

He went, “Ah, I don’t know about that.” But I told him, “Trust me. I can track when these films came my way!” I can chart it because it’s synonymous with when I moved to L.A. I’ve been in five of those movies! So I think that’s what it is.

And last year 12 Years a Slave even won the Oscar for Best Picture.

But a film about a slave is different than a film about a leader. Black people have been celebrated as slaves and butlers… The very first black person to win an Oscar was for playing a maid in Gone With The Wind, Hattie McDaniel. So, you know, that’s not an issue. We’ve been celebrated as subservient people forever. Great! Fabulous! As leaders? No, not so much. Barely ever.

To quote Dr. King, do you believe that the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice in the end?

I think it does – if love is where you’re operating from. I think if you have anger and bitterness in your heart, and you just decide to lash out against it, all you do is you feed prejudice because prejudice exists on the basis that you are lesser than. If you prove that you are lesser than, you are only going to perpetuate that myth. I think there is a reason why the phrase is moral because to be moral is to absolutely embrace the fact that there is a right and there is a wrong. So the only way it bends towards justice is to be part of the solution as opposed to being part of the problem.

Source: The Talk

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