The supermodel, author and activist Carré Otis shares with the readers of ELLE Romania her efforts to create a #MeToo moment in the fashion industry, apparently glamorous, in reality filled with abuses, the results of lessons learnt from her tumultuous past. In her memoir “Beauty, Disrupted”, published in 2011, Carré describes the mistreatment and exploitation young (many of them minor) models were subjected to in the 80s and 90s, mostly by men, including male agents like Gérald Marie, who was at the time the president of the European branch of Elite Model Management and Carré’s first agent while she was modeling in Paris, and who is currently investigated by the French authorities after 11 women have accused him so far of sexual misconduct. While my story highlights Carré’s iconic career moments, it also details her tireless and extensive efforts to make the modeling, and the fashion industry in general, more regulated and safer, especially for young models who are starting out. To accomplish this, and to bring justice to those who have been wronged, Carré is actively involved in non-profit organizations and support groups like Model Alliance NY (and its RESPECT program) and Victorious Angels. And she is working on another book about her spiritual practice, which, she told me, has been her main source of healing and strength for decades.
Carré Otis, supermodel, writer, survivor
The supermodel, author and activist Carré Otis shares with the readers of ELLE Romania her efforts to create a #MeToo moment in the fashion industry, apparently glamorous, in reality filled with abuses, the results of lessons learnt from her tumultuous past
The ones from my generation have probably heard of Carré Otis as one of the great beauties of the 90s supermodels generation (although she made her debut in the 80s, and her career continues to this day). She was born in San Francisco and discovered at 16 years old by a local agent in San Francisco, where she lived with her boyfriend after she had run away from home. Carré is recruited by the prestigious agency Elite, which initially brings her to New York, then sends her to Paris, where her first professional victory is her cover for the French edition of ELLE, in April 1986. She is one of the topmodels who has, since then, appeared on the covers of the most prestigious magazines, in editions from all over the world.
But her beginning as a model was not at all promising. It’s not by chance that my first question to her is connected to the way such a cover was obtained back then. I read, in her memoir, Beauty, Disrupted, that this first professional success happened while she was being abused by her agent, Gérald Marie, and that she had to completely undress herself in front of the then editor-in-chief, Odile Serron. Although it’s clear that Odile was impressed by Carré, I asked her how she sees, in retrospect, a professional victory consisting of a casting during which she was sexualized by a woman in a position of power, and which coincided with a moment when she was struggling with depression and sexual abuse? „That was par for the course in the modeling industry, definitely back then, and probably a bit now too, to go on castings where you were objectified. So that was just what happened then, and most of the women who were modeling during that time did their best to normalize it,” Carré answers me.
But how vulnerable must models from less developed countries feel when it comes to abuses and human trafficking?
„I can’t speak in a generic way, but I have seen that girls and women coming from more impoverished countries tend to have more desperate situations, and may not have other resources, which makes them more susceptible to being abused and trafficked. Maybe they don’t have such a supportive family, a mother who can afford to go to castings and on set for their daughter’s shoots, so I think that, in general, not just with Eastern European countries, girls (and boys too) from poorer countries are more susceptible to trafficking.”
In 1986, Carré returns disappointed and traumatized to California, where she lives for a short while on the farm of a well-known midwife and of her gynecologist husband, who had founded a movement around the benefits of natural medicine. It’s her first contact with Tibetan spirituality, which will have a huge impact on her healing and development, becoming (along with indegineous medicine) a real existential compass, and one of the strongest and most constant anchors in her life.
In her volume, published in 2011, a few years before the #MeToo movement, Carré writes that her disillusion connected to her first experience as a model in Paris and Milan was related to the way her and other models were treated by other men. She confesses in the book that she was raped, at 17 years old, by her agent, Gérald Marie, the president of the European branch of Elite Model Management, an important figure in the world of fashion even today, when he serves as chairman of the agency Oui Management. The incident took place in his Paris apartment, where Carré occupied, at his suggestion, a room, and where many other underage models were accommodated before and after her stay. In the same apartment also lived Linda Evangelista, his official girlfriend, whom he ultimately married. He attacked Carré in her room one night when Linda was gone for a photo shoot.
In September 2020, Carré was one of the four women who have denounced Gérald of sexual aggression, this time in court, not just in writing, which led to an official investigation. In February 2021, in a significant victory for the agent’s victims, the 11 women who have accused him up to present have been heard by the Minors Brigade in Paris, because some of those women were minors during the time when most incidents took place, in the 80s and 90s.
And a second agent, Jean-Luc Brunel, the former president of Karin Models, was arrested in December 2020 and accused of abuse and sexual harassment, rape of minors and of human trafficking. Brunel’s case is connected to that of the pedophile magnate Jeffrey Epstein, the first one using his contacts to procure Epstein minor girls, some as young as 12 years old. Accusations against Brunel date long before his association with Epstein: in a segment from 1988 of the American broadcast television show 60 Minutes, journalist Diane Sawyer interviewed, after a seven-month investigation, young models who accused Brunel of drugging, raping and threatening them that, if they refused to have sexual relations with him or with other men, their careers would suffer.
I tell Carré I find it surprising that it took so long for a #MeToo movement to emerge in the fashion world, compared to the entertainment world. ”It’s unbelievable, and I think that part of the reason is that there is this assumption that if you are beautiful and work in a glamorous industry and have a seemingly glamorous life, you should not complain, that if these girls get into the industry, they should expect to be treated this way, because that’s just the nature of the industry, which is ridiculous. But that’s starting to change, because models should have rights, just like everyone else.”
Although there are numerous official accusations in France, and an investigation happening there connected to the sexual abuses of which Gérald Marie is being blamed, whom some media sources present as the equivalent of Harvey Weinstein in the fashion industry, the same sources express frustration for lack of clear actions on the side of the French legal system.
I ask Carré how close or how far the French legal system is now to his arrest, and what is the reason for which this is not happening: „It’s mainly the French statute of limitations, but, on a larger scale, I believe it’s a whole culture there that makes it ok for these men to behave like predators and like pedophiles. I think because of that, many women there would not even want to be in the same room with these men and testify, so that’s why the authorities in France are also having a harder time getting more women to testify. If this was happening in the US, there’s something called ‚an open window’, and that’s run state by state. In NY state, there is this so-called ‚open window’, because I was a child, a minor, when I was trafficked, so the man who trafficked me could be held accountable by the law even if the abuse happened decades ago. So we’re dealing with a very archaic legal system in France.”
And still, the other incriminated agent, Jean-Luc Brunel, also French, was arrested in France, a few months ago. „ Because in his case, there were women within the statute of limitations who came forward,” says Carré.
Victorious Angels (victoriousangels.com), a support group founded by Carré, together with Swedish model Ebba Karlsson and British journalist Lisa Brinkworth for women who were sexually abused, especially by Gérald Marie and Jean-Luc Brunel, could play an important role in uncovering more recent abuses committed by Marie, incidents which lie within the French system statute of limitations, circumstances which could accelerate the current investigation.
„Victorious Angels was created so that other women, other survivors, can find us. Right now, we’re all about campaigning for justice and for workers’ rights within the modeling industry. We have a lawyer in France who represents us, and we really encourage any woman who has a story to come forward, which is not an easy step, it’s much easier to share with close ones than to step into the legal system, so we offer a network and process of support that we see many women need- that’s really what we are here for.”
And incidents of sexual harrassment, even if less brutal, characterized a period in Carré’s life and career. She describes in her book a European culture in which the models were forced to go to dinners and parties where they were almost offered by certain agents to some men who were willing to pay. If they refused, they were punished profesionally: they were not sent to castings anymore, they were not recommended for jobs, etc. And because during that era drugs were omnipresent, they were also used to control and take advantage of young models, encouraged by agents to consume cocaine, and sometimes sexually abused after they consumed alcoholic drinks in which the same agents (and their accomplices) slipped substances which made these teenage girls temporarily lose their consciousness and memory.
For Carré, the facile access to drugs led, as she confesses with honesty in her book, to a short but powerful addiction to heroine during the 90s, when this was the trendy substance in the industry, and which represented for her an escape from a less-than-ideal marriage to actor Mickey Rourke. I ask her what stigmas she confronted during her addiction and then during the recovery she went through.
„It depends who you ask and who you hang out with. I think the modeling industry, especially during that time, in the 90s, totally condoned and supported drug use, and it was a normal part of life. But I personally look at my life from a very different lens because of my spiritual practice, and I just go back into my path of healing. So in that world, in the world that I live in, there’s no judgment towards whatever healing steps people need to take.”
After she returns from Eurooe and spends a some much-needed time at that farm in California, where she puts herself back on her feet psychologically, Carré decides to continue to work as a model. Through a San Francisco agent, she is noticed by the famous photographer Herb Ritts, who wants to photograph her. It turns out to be not only the meeting that brings her back in the fashion industry, but which also propels her to its top. In only a few months, she is photographed for all prestigious magazines- ELLE, Vogue, Harper’s BAZAAR, Marie Claire, Allure, Cosmopolitan- and for campaigns for Revlon, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Blumarine, by the most famous photographers (Richard Avedon, Arthur Elgort, Patrick Demarchelier, Bruce Weber, Helmut Newton). She remembers the campaign for the Guess brand, photographed in 1988 by Ellen von Unwerth. Maybe, she says, because she felt more comfortable being photographed by a woman in the sex-symbol posture, a rarity in the photography world at that level (then and now). She emphasizes that she particularly appreciated the collaboration with photographer Peter Lindbergh. His characteristic black-and-white photos, in which he immortalized her, especially for the Pirelli calendar, remain iconic.
Before reading her book, I knew that she had a very publicized relationship with actor Mickey Rourke. They met on the set of Wild Orchid, an erotic thriller which represented Carré’s cinema debut. The meeting was the beginning of a relationship filled with passion, marked by controversies, followed obsessively by the paparazzi. Although today Carré prefers to talk about anything else but that relationship, in her book she describes elaborately the years spent with him, including their marriage between 1992 and 1998. Outside the magical beginning of their romance, their connection exhibits all characteristics of a toxic relationship of power. The signs of future conflicts are there from the beginning: Mickey isolates her in his world and obsessively controls every aspect of her life, he’s extremely jealous while he himself is unfaithful, and is opposed to Carré’s career, sabotaging her professional opportunities, like a million-dollar contract with the brand Helena Rubinstein, and threatening people she worked with. Misunderstandings keep happening and escalate, and, in 1994, Mickey is arrested for domestic violence. Divorce happens four years later, when a friend and a therapist help Carré find the strength to make this step.
Free to work again, Carré receives in 2000 the offer to appear in the Milennium Swimsuit edition of the publication Sports Illustrated, a job reserved annually to models at the top. Carré made history on this occasion, being at (just) 30 years old, the oldest supermodel to ever appear in the Sports Swimsuit Illustrated edition. Just like many other professional victories, this success came for her hand-in-hand with a great challenge- a series of health problems caused by the anorexia of which she had suffered since she was a teenager. The doctor informed her that she had three holes in her heart, which were surgically removed, but Carré was advised to change her diet in order to save her life. Following her new diet, her weight changed, and she decided to work as a plus-size model. During that stage, Carré appeared in campaigns and presentations for Marina Rinaldi and Elena Mirò, for the jewelry company Breil, and in magazines like O (produced by Oprah Winfrey) and Mode.
Health problems, together with severe psychological traumas, brought her back to the spirituality with which she had an initial contact upon her return from Europe, after the first experiences as a model. „I was introduced to Tibetan Buddhism when I was 17, and that is my daily practice and it has been incredibly supportive throughout my life. About 10 years ago, I realized that, before there were doctors and hospitals, there were indigenious medicine people who used plants for healing, but they have a more spiritual effect, so I started to work with shamans, and then I was introduced to Bwiti, which is much more similar to Tibetan Buddhism in the sense that it’s a philosophy, and a way of living in connection with these plants. So I went to Africa twice to be initiated into the lineage, because Bwiti is the oldest lineage on this planet. If you think about it, we all have DNA from Africa. And their wisdom and traditions have a very potent way of doing the work, of solving physical and spiritual problems in a faster way than just by going to therapy.”
I tell Carré that I think it’s so impressive that she managed to perform on such a high level, while going through serious abuses and fighting with addictions and with anorexia. When I ask her what she thinks helped her to reach high, to survive and to beat up so many traumas, and to now fight to change the world for other women, she tells me: „I think it’s always been my spiritual life that has been my source of strength and that has helped me heal from abuses in my life. And yes, I also think that I have an internal strength that I was able to access and persevere.”
Right now, besides modeling and work on her next book (which is about her spiritual practice), Carré is involved in organizations and groups which are trying to change the fashion industry, especially concerning the safety and the rights of models. The industry needs a #MeToo moment, Carré declares with conviction: „I am really focused on making the industry a safer place, and that’s the change that I am trying to make at this moment, because it’s an industry that’s been unregulated for a very long time, and that has allowed perpetrators to take advantage of young girls for just as long, and now we are finally able to identify them, so I am really committed to working with the Model Alliance and their RESPECT Program.”
Model Alliance is a New York non-profit organization that promotes a fair treatment and equal opportunities at work, but also prevention and punishment of abuse of any kind concerning not just models, but all persons who have a professional activity inside the fashion industry. I’m curious if there are brands that have already signed the RESPECT program. „Not yet, but we now have a bigger chance and a bigger push than we have ever had to make that happen, because there are so many more and bigger groups that are coming to us and asking for that, so we will have in the coming months more leverage than we have ever had in terms of getting brands to sign it, even in France.”
I ask her what advice she wants to give young girls she meets through Model Alliance, and who want to start a modeling career. „My advice to young girls is that the modeling industry currently is no place for young girls, and I would hope that they go and develop a strong sense of who they are, that they find a really good, safe agent who protects the models, and, if you are a young model, make sure you join the Model Alliance, and make sure that you have a mentor, that you have support. I mean, that’s one of the benefits of the Model Alliance– it’s for the first time in the industry of modeling that you actually have a place to report sexual miscondust, as opposed to before when, if something sexually inappropriate happened to you on set, on a job, there was nowhere to report that.”
Carré advises women to follow her lead and to talk about abuses and injustices, and for those who are witnesses to it to act, in order not no become accomplices. „Personally, I am just trying to use all my social media platforms to let people know that if there ever was a time when it was ok to speak up, it’s now, and if you don’t, it’s basically on your conscience. There’s a good chance that we will move forward, and people will be subpoenaed, and it’s better to be on our side than to be complicit and subpoenaed. I mean, we’ve seen how well that worked out for Ghislaine Maxwell.”
I tell Carré towards the end of our conversation that what I find particularly important in her story is the positive result of her searches and efforts to heal, which have led to her deep transformation, at the end of which she has found a new life partner, with whom she has two daughters: „I think that when a woman fully steps into her power and authenticity, the way she engages with all areas of her life is different, and it’s from an intentional empowered way, and I think that for some of us it’s easier to naturally come into our authenticity, while others of us have to do some healing to get there, and once that is accomplished (and it’s an ongoing thing), the way that we approach everything and anything is from that empowered place. So how I work today in front of the camera is from an authentic place of who I am, which is an empowered woman. I don’t need to be sexual anymore in order to be powerful, but to be present, embodied and to be myself.”