PARIS: After keeping silent for years, more than a dozen women hope their harrowing testimonies will spur prosecutors to pursue a pillar of the French fashion industry, accused of abusing young models with widely known impunity over dozens of years.
"It's haunted me for 20 years," Lisa Brinkworth, a former BBC journalist, told AFP of her encounter with Gerald Marie, the former Europe chief of the Elite modelling agency, and its fallout.
Brinkworth is one of several women who met with investigators from the French police's child protection brigade last week, with others set to do so in the coming days.
The inquiry was opened in September 2020 after complaints lodged over alleged rapes and sexual abuse between 1980 and 1998, including of minors.
Although that would normally put them beyond France's statutes of limitations for prosecution, the women hope their accounts will nonetheless lead to criminal charges, especially if they spur more recent victims to speak out.
"I just think now that the time is right. He was untouchable for too, too long," said Brinkworth.
- 'Kept on going' -
At the time of the alleged offences, Elite Models had launched the careers of household names including Naomi Campbell, Cindy Crawford and Marie's former wife, the supermodel Linda Evangelista.
Brinkworth encountered Marie in 1998, when she was posing undercover as a model for a report on abuse in the modelling industry.
In 2015 Gerald Marie's name came up again in conversations with models when she also investigated links between Jean-Luc Brunel, a French modelling agent and Jeffrey Epstein, the US financier who was facing multiple charges of sex trafficking of minors before his 2019 suicide. Brunel was charged with rape of minors over 15 as well as harassment last December.
"I was just astonished by the number of women who were making allegations against Gerald Marie," she said.
During a dinner at a nightclub in Milan, she says, Marie repeated propositioned her and offered to pay for sex, before pinning her to a chair and assaulting her through her clothes.
"I was absolutely powerless to do anything, and I was saying 'no, no, no' and he just kept on going," she recalled.
But even though Brinkworth managed to film much of the incident, she says she was prevented from coming forward by an agreement between the BBC and Elite in 2001 following a defamation suit.
- 'I froze' -
Ebba Karlsson, a former Elite model from Sweden who also spoke with investigators last week, said Marie quickly disabused her of any notions of a glamorous career as a face of fashion.
She recounted a meeting where Marie showed photos of the agency's models, asking if she knew how they got to be famous while putting his hand on her leg.
"He said, 'Well, to be able to be so famous, you have to give something from yourself'," she said, and then put his hand up her dress to assault her.
"I felt like somebody chopped my head off. My power just disappeared. I had no power. I froze," she said.
Sources close to the inquiry told AFP that at least five other former models will speak with investigators this week, while around a dozen others have made similar abuse claims but remain reluctant to formally file reports.
Marie is also facing a criminal complaint filed in New York last month by Carre Sutton, a former Elite model, accusing him of serial sexual assault starting when she was 17.
Sutton, known as Carrie Otis during her modelling career, is to hold a press conference in Paris on Tuesday.
Marie has denied any wrongdoing but has not yet been questioned about the allegations, his lawyer Celine Bekerman told AFP.
"He is reserving any eventual statements for the competent authorities," she said.
But Karlsson, Brinkworth and others hope the sheer number of women coming forward in the wake of the MeToo movement denouncing sexual abuse and harassment will prompt prosecutors to take action.
"We have lawyers and we are powerful and the more we are, the more power we have," Karlsson said.
"If he is not convicted for this crime, at least we have been causing some sound, some noise, that can create more awareness about the world as such in the model industry."