Carré Otis wants justice, but she also wants change. The 52-year-old former supermodel—the one-time face of Guess, Calvin Klein, and other defining brands of the ’90s—has already brought a lawsuit against the modeling executive she says repeatedly raped her at age 17. But now she is calling on his former agency, Elite, to make sure this never happens to another model again.
“I think survivors still face the same challenges [I did] when it comes to speaking up and speaking out—whether it’s a threat to their carers, to their lives, to their wellbeing,” the model, who now goes by her married name, Sutton, told The Daily Beast this week. “But we have not seen the level of accountability that we need to see in this industry.”
Sutton filed a lawsuit earlier this month accusing former Elite Model Management executive Gerald Marie of sexually assaulting her multiple times in the 1980s. On Monday, she brought the call to the top of the company’s ranks—CEO Julia Haart.
In an open letter in partnership with the Model Alliance, a models’ rights nonprofit, Sutton asks Haart and Elite to publicly address the claims and make meaningful changes to the way they do business. Among the suggestions is signing onto the RESPECT Program, a code of conduct that the Alliance created in collaboration with more than 100 models. (Elite would be the first company to join the program; similar calls to have Victoria’s Secret sign on following a New York Times expose on its workplace culture were unsuccessful.)
The letter accuses Haart of presenting herself as an advocate for women while profiting off her agency’s sordid past, and failing to make meaningful commitments to change.
“As the world’s largest conglomerate of modeling agencies, Elite World Group has the power to fundamentally shift the modeling industry and end the cycle of abuse,” the letter states. “Will you use it?”
In a statement, Elite World Group said Marie’s contract with its precursor, Elite Model Management, ended in 2010, and that Marie had never worked for the company under Haart or the rest of its current ownership. (Elite World Group purchased the model management company in 2011.) The company said it found the allegations against Marie “egregious and abhorrent” and was providing all possible support to French authorities.
A spokesperson added that the company had a “zero tolerance policy” for abuse, harassment, discrimination and gender bias.
“We are shocked and saddened to see Model Alliance attack the only female leader in this industry, on the brink of her sharing her own personal story of survival,” the spokesperson said.
Sutton’s modeling journey started as something of a Cinderella story: as a 16-year-old runaway, she was spotted by a model scout in the Bay Area and whisked off to work with Elite in New York. But when her career in New York did not take off immediately, Otis claims she was instructed to fly to Paris and live with Marie, then the agency’s European president, in his personal apartment. While there, she claims, Marie repeatedly raped her and sent her out to be abused by his wealthy and powerful friends. When Sutton protested this treatment shortly after she turned 18, she claims, she was kicked out of Marie’s apartment and transferred to Milan.
Sutton was the first woman to publicly accuse Marie of sexual assault—in her 2011 memoir Beauty, Disrupted—but she was not the last. Last year, the Guardian published interviews with 15 other women who accused him of sexual misconduct ranging from sexual harassment to rape. French police started an investigation into similar allegations last September; they have reportedly invited 11 women to participate in interviews.
An attorney for Marie told The Daily Beast that his client “refutes with dismay these false and defamatory allegations,” but would be “withholding his eventual statements until speaking to the competent authorities.”
Elite’s founder, John Casablancas, has also been accused of sexual abuse, including in a 2002 lawsuit that claimed he engaged in “a pattern of seducing, sexually exploiting and/or abusing minor girls, including girls as young as 14 or 15 years old.” Casablancas’ lawyers at the time claimed the allegations were without merit, and the lawsuit was dismissed for jurisdictional issues, but he had already openly admitted to “dating” 16-year-old Stephanie Seymour in 1983, when he was 41. Ten years later, he married his third wife, model Aline Wermelinger, when she was 17. Casablancas died in 2013.
Julia Haart could not seem more different than the men who ran Elite before her. A former Orthodox Jew, Haart left her community, changed her name, and divorced her husband in 2012, in hopes of finding personal freedom. (“When I left, I wore the lowest-cut tops I could find, the shortest shorts,” she once told The New York Times.) She launched her own, eponymous shoe line just months later, and shortly thereafter became the creative director of luxury lingerie brand La Perla. In 2019, she signed on as CEO of Elite World Group, the parent company of Elite Model Management.
In interviews and in her new Netflix series, My Unorthodox Life, Haart presents herself as a champion of women, who left her conservative community in part to give her daughter a better life. Earlier this year, she told the Times she initially resisted the idea of taking over Elite because “in my mind, the modeling industry was young women being paraded in front of men getting told, ‘You’re ugly, you’re fat.’” She said she only took over after her husband insisted she could use the position to make change from the inside, and “put the power in the hands of the women.”
“My goal is to help create an army of financially independent, strong women who will never have to ask permission and never feel less than great,” she told the Los Angeles Times in July.
That’s why Sutton says it is particularly hurtful that Haart and Elite did not have a more proactive response to her allegations.
“I’ve been a bit stunned and disturbed that Julia had never reached out to this group of survivors and to myself,” Sutton said. “Anyone making money off the back of such a dark history—it should be a conversation.”
“Julia has an option to be an agent of change,” she added. “So I really hope she accepts the call to action that we’re asking of her.”
Elite Model Management held a roundtable with its models in 2018 to address sexual misconduct allegations against photographers and stylists that had surfaced during the #MeToo movement. The company said at the time that it was working on developing a code of conduct and polling models about their experiences and ideas. Butterfly Cayley, who was then Elite’s executive vice president, addressed the allegations against Casablancas, saying: “We know our history. It doesn’t define us. How can we move on? How can we make things right? It’s giving the girls their voices and empowering them to do so.”
A spokesperson told The Daily Beast the company had also entered into “good faith discussions” with the Model Alliance in 2019 about the RESPECT Program, and had offered to create a legal fund in partnership with Model Alliance to support victims, but had been unable to come to an agreement.
She said the company began developing its own safety protocols instead, and had pursued legal action against those who violate its code of ethics.
“Elite World Group is calling on Model Alliance to accuse those who have done wrong to so many models in our industry,” the spokesperson said. “EWG is asking Model Alliance to start a mutually acceptable and legal program, that accepts feedback from model management companies to create the program.”
Sara Ziff, the executive director of the Model Alliance, said Elite had never offered to form a legal fund with her organization, calling the claim “a complete fabrication.” She added that for an anti-harassment program to truly work, “there has to be a binding commitment to change and an independent channel to bring forward complaints”—something she has yet to see from a modeling agency.
The Alliance runs a hotline that working models can call to report abuses, and Ziff said she frequently receives allegations of criminal behavior, including sex trafficking. An anonymous survey of 85 models the group conducted in 2012 found 28 percent of them had felt pressured to have sex with someone at work and 29 percent had experienced sexual harassment. “This is not something that just happened 30 years ago,” Ziff said. “This is something that’s still happening to this day.”
Sutton eventually switched agencies and went on to have a hugely successful career, modeling for everyone from Calvin Klein to Playboy. But, she says, the abuses of her youth followed her, leaving her with an eating disorder and drug abuse issues that she details openly in her memoir.
She said she had not wanted to take legal action against Marie until Bill Cosby’s sexual assault conviction was overturned earlier this year.
“It blew me out of the water, it was so distressing,” she said of the decision to free Cosby. “And I felt like it was really my duty, my responsibility to do all that I can to see there is change within all industries when it comes to sexual violence.”
Otis filed her suit under the Child Victims Act, a New York law passed in 2019 that allowed survivors of childhood sexual abuse a two-year “lookback window” in which to file old claims. Thanks to this law, Otis is the only victim who is known to have been able to take legal action against Marie; the rest are outside the statute of limitations.
But she said her focus wasn’t on seeing the former model boss locked away, it was on seeing how the industry would respond to her claims.
“Justice for me isn’t putting someone in jail,” she said. “Justice for me really is about seeing change in this industry.”
She added: “I’m in this for the long haul, and for all those other survivors who don't have the opportunity to speak out or file a claim.”