No Country for Old Pervs: The Fall of the Houses of Terry Richardson and Dov Charney
“Isn’t this fun?” That’s how model Anna del Gaizo paraphrased Terry Richardson’s assistant Leslie Lessin’s words as Richardson suddenly attempted to stick his dick in del Gaizo’s mouth while Lessin photographed it happening at Richardson’s studio. Del Gaizo wrote about her 2008 encounter with Terry Richardson last week for Jezebel, adding her voice to a chorus of other models including Jamie Peck, Rie Rasmussen, Sarah Hilker, and Felice Fawn, as well as a cabal of fashion industry–related professionals who have called for magazines to stop working with Richardson. Richardson’s defenders, including the man himself, have tried to retaliate. Last week, New York magazine ran a controversial cover story about Richardson that favored quotes from friends of Terry and questioned the motives and truthfulness of the models who had spoken out against him. The profile softened his image with stories about his fucked-up parents, particularly Terry’s father, Bob Richardson, whose edgy ’70s fashion photography and an outsize difficult personality to match seemingly set the template for his son’s career.
Whatever your opinion is of Richardson’s brightly exposed white-wall portraits, sometimes explicit personal work, and provocative fashion photography should be irrelevant to the question of whether he should continue to be hired. If Richardson touches and molests models without their consent, as multiple accounts allege in specific, extremely similar detail, there’s no excuse for his ongoing high status in the photography world. Richardson never flat-out denies the allegations in the profile, but he evades taking responsibility and shrugs off any collateral damage. It’s all just part and parcel of the artistic process for Uncle Terry, apparently! He claims ignorance about the sexual politics of his photography and accompanying feminist backlash, but also cannily made a beeline at a birthday party to take an already infamous picture with Gloria Steinem. The profile mostly contains old information, other than Richardson’s taste-damning admission that he loves the Seth MacFarlane movie Ted.
The New York profile’s positive spin on Terryworld is what prompted Anna del Gaizo to come forward. In her Jezebel piece, del Gaizo wrote: “I’m not talking about this now because it’s something that has necessarily been gnawing at me for the past six years, but what does bother me is the fact that this man, who has announced with his actions that his desires, fantasies, and yes, his raging boner are more important than another human being’s state of mind or consequential distress, continues to be revered, hired, and supported by celebrities, professionals, and publications alike.”
It’s been more than four years since we finally bid farewell to the terrible 2000s, but the decade continues to haunt us. Recently, the flagship ’00s company American Apparel announced it was firing founder Dov Charney, who has long been known for his own hands-on hiring policies. The public firing comes very late in the game for a guy who had amassed a rap sheet of scandals more or less since day one. American Apparel had tried to offset its reputation as a hotbed of open sexual harassment with its ethical production standards. The company attracted kudos for its non-sweatshop labor model as it downplayed the constant reports that its predominantly young, attractive female retail workforce was being sexually exploited. Now, the board is distancing itself from what had been an open secret. The letter from American Apparel’s board to Charney demanding his resignation refers to multiple incidents of Charney paying off former employees to not go public with their stories, or giving some employees preferential treatment and salary bumps for sexual favors.
Secret sexually motivated favoritism predated American Apparel, but what made the company different was that it wore its proclivities on its overpriced sleeves. At American Apparel, there was a hiring bias toward young beautiful women, driven by Dov’s own personal fetishes, which were fed from a diet of ’70s and ’80s porn mags. Female employees were required to have long hair and wear minimal makeup, and Charney was known for coming into random stores and firing people who weren’t up to his exacting physical standards on the spot. The idea was that girls would want to work at the store because it was cool, and because working there put them in the running to be in the brand’s series of successful porno-styled print ads. The underlying idea was that these women would willingly subject themselves to whatever the job required of them if it meant a shot at being confirmed as publicly desirable by the then–in vogue retail brand.
It was very smart and also very cynical, co-opting the third-wave feminist idea that women have the right to display their own bodies and profit off of them while downplaying the reality that the person really getting rich off these images and the clothes they sold was Dov Charney. AA models were only superficially diverse, culled from retail stores around the world. The advertisements presented a never-ending chorus line of fresh-faced young international ingenues, an indie-styled version of fellow 2000s phenomenon Girls Gone Wild. The AA models were always young and gorgeous, skinny but often with T&A, and always with the American Apparel trademark look of natural makeup and long hair, hocking the line’s cotton goods in poses demonstrating their flexibility and exposing their flesh. Despite the brand’s supposedly edgy aesthetics, the ads never chose any controversial-looking models to advance the company’s highly traditional agenda of selling sexualized images of women’s bodies. They occasionally showcased a male model, but that model was sometimes Charney himself.
At the original flagship American Apparel store in Echo Park, there are still wheat-pasted examples of the brand’s old porno-chic style everywhere, but lately, the large billboard that looms at the Alvarado corner has been heavy on ads featuring factory employees, often women of color who sew the clothes. They are always seen fully clothed, sometimes with face masks, generally in an action shot sewing the clothes on the factory floor. It seems like AA has always tried to simultaneously have its glitter thong leotards image while building a reputation as an ethical, sweatshop-free purveyor of basic clothing that might eventually turn into a store like the Gap or J.Crew (which it would essentially have always just been if not for those porno aesthetics and glitter thong leotards). Now, AA is doubling down on its do-gooder reputation while attempting to sweep its basement-porno-shoot past under the rug.
But it’s fully possible that the turn in the company’s fortunes had less to do with people tiring of the Last Night’s Party vibe and more to do with the low quality of the high-priced clothes, even though high pricing is ostensibly what helps pay the factory workers a fair wage. American Apparel’s board members didn’t fire Dov Charney because they suddenly realized he was a creep. They have known the whole time, and apparently didn’t care enough to oust him. But American Apparel hasn’t seen a profit since the end of the 2000s. The board may have fired him now only so the company wouldn’t get delisted from the New York Stock Exchange.
Every decade has its own version of porno chic based on the porn that is popular at that time. The ’70s had Deep Throat and Vanessa del Rio. The ’80s had Traci Lords and New Wave Hookers, which Lords’s scenes were cut from when it came out that she’d been underage during the shoot. The ’90s had the sleaze of Max Hardcore’s gonzo porn and glamorous blonde vixens like Jenna Jameson, who mainstreamed the idea that a porn star could be a sort of supermodel. American Apparel ads were about amateurism, but the amateurism was an illusion. Tellingly, the company put porn stars in the ads more than once. That was the point; the girl next door was now indistinguishable from a porn star, because even the professional porn stars now tended to look more like Sasha Grey than Jenna Jameson. Racism and sexism flourished under the guise of irony, the hilariously untrue idea being that we were living in a progressive post-racism and post-sexism society.
I remember thinking in 1999 that we were finally on the brink of the future. I saw how wrong I was about that repeatedly. After 9/11, the culture became demonstrably more conservative. Gender essentialism returned, and the ’90s were suddenly considered a failed experiment, like the ’60s, in pushing the boundaries for sex roles too far. Kurt Cobain in a dress wiped out hair metal. To wipe out the image of Kurt Cobain in a dress, we were graced with another hair-centric musical genre — the mainstream garage-rock revival whose brightest stars were the Strokes and the White Stripes. Rock came back for one last guitar-fueled indie-rock shuffle step around the mainstream before the tidal wave of EDM eventually arrived to swallow it. “Is this it?” I asked myself constantly, in all seriousness, as each year of the 2000s passed.
In 2008, presumably to successfully transition into a respectable brand, Vice magazine parted ways with Gavin McInnes due to “creative differences,” and it has seen that choice pay off. Like American Apparel, Vice played it both ways. It was a fashion magazine about naked women with articles about international politics. Some of the articles were too interesting to dismiss the product altogether, but the international coverage was inflected with a bent of Internet colonialism, as if the journalists were in a race to be the first to blog about every different kind of world poverty. “Look at this fucked-up thing!” the magazine would exclaim, sometimes making its point through first-person testimonies. The best Vice issues were the theme issues from 2006, where a topic like “cops” or “Russia” was investigated in depth. The magazine was a mixture of riveting and repulsive, presenting itself as the natural next phase of Hunter S. Thompson’s gonzo journalism, with writers regularly bioassaying the most extreme experiences available.
Vice was always a frustrating mix of brilliant writing and bottom-feeding bullshit. It asked to be taken very seriously, except on the various occasions it insisted it was all just a joke. The fashion editorials often weakly covered “edgy” territory that had already been razed and confused by British fashion mags in the ’90s. Vice’s tits, parties, and hard-core journalism aesthetic was really a throwback to old Playboy, which helps explain why its gender roles sometimes felt so ’50s. The most cutting-edge magazines have often been men’s magazines, and if Vice was not openly a men’s magazine, it still read like one at times.
The original Vice ethos was espoused by McInnes in his popular “Dos and Don’ts” column. His writing ascribed to a not-even-jokingly macho agenda wherein men are men, women are women, and a woman’s purpose is to have a nice ass and look pretty in high heels. McInnes’s physical preferences, which he was always very vocal about, were much like Charney’s; he despised short hair on women and openly exoticized women whose races he thought it would be fun to guess. McInnes, now openly a neocon, is a talking head on Fox News shows. He was recently seen telling fellow outraged conservatives on Hannity that he would have no problem letting his son go on a spring break trip, but would never let his daughter go.
The constant sexualization of female images in magazines like Vice, the AA ads, and Terry Richardson’s photography created a false binary; if you couldn’t tolerate it, you must be a square. To be offended was to condemn sexual freedom entirely, even if all you were offended by was that the nudity focused on pretty young women to the exclusion of everyone else. The best you could do was to be indifferent and wait for it to pass. It’s confusing but common that someone can be incredibly transgressive and intelligent on some fronts and remain willfully dumb about others. Vice has become a much more diverse magazine since the McInnes years, but the overall aesthetics have not changed a tremendous amount.
Some other things about the world have also not changed a tremendous amount. The potential shadow of another Iraq war is looping us back to the start of the last Iraq war, like Tom Cruise in Edge of Tomorrow. If we are still suffering from an ’00s hangover, it’s because it really wasn’t all that long ago. The return of neocons like Paul Wolfowitz and William Kristol to the public debate feels like a flashback, as does the sudden reappearance of a wild Dick Cheney. They are arrogant and unapologetic about the events of the last Iraq war. Refusing to apologize and insisting that what we need is actually more war smacks of a conservative take on masculinity much older than the ’00s. Again, the ’50s and early ’60s come to mind, since they were in part a conservative pushback against social gains made by women and minorities during World War II.
The selfish masculinity of Dov Charney and Terry Richardson is very intimately related to the selfish masculinity of Dick Cheney and George W. Bush. Not that Bill Clinton didn’t also abuse power in a very masculine way, but at least under pressure he apologized publicly and vaguely pretended to feel bad about what he’d done, which was perhaps what ’90s toxic alpha masculinity was about. The supposedly liberal side of the culture just mirrored the neoconservative mainstream. The response to the 9/11 attacks amplified the masculine aggression. There was something perversely unapologetic and arrogant about the way we invaded Iraq under the false flag of liberation. It was about mass-marketing freedom when what was sold was actually nothing of the sort. The flagrant fouls of the Bush administration made Watergate seem small in comparison. After all, Nixon was only trying to steal one presidential election through wiretapping 17 people he considered opponents. George W. Bush leveraged an ill-gotten victory in the 2000 election into an unnecessary war, and wiretapped everyone. It was about justifying exploitation as the natural state of the world, and thinking you are smarter than everyone else for having figured that out.
It’s not that I don’t want to see a blow job. It’s that I don’t want to see Terry Richardson getting a blow job. I don’t really want to watch Ron Jeremy get blow jobs, either, but at least I know that everyone Ron Jeremy works with signed a consent form and knows exactly what they’re in for. Terry’s supporters would argue that anyone working with Terry should also know exactly what they’re in for, which is kind of Terry’s argument, too. This is contradicted by the fact that he specifically targets young models whose agencies would consider working with Richardson a big opportunity, putting them under pressure to have a successful shoot, only to find out that Terry’s definition of “successful” might not overlap with “professional.” After all, no matter how pornographic the shoot, Terry is not a pornographer. He’s a fashion photographer posing as an art photographer, and it is never appropriate for the person in a power position to initiate sexual contact with a less powerful person without the less powerful person’s consent. There is no correlation between a model choosing to take naked photos and her sexual availability, and most photographers manage to take pictures of naked women without raping them. Dov Charney openly refused to attend American Apparel’s mandatory sexual harassment seminars, because sexual harassment laws were put in place to stop the kind of sexualized abuse of power that took place at American Apparel and in Terry Richardson’s studio.
Even now, when so many nearly identical accounts have come out about Richardson’s tactics, some people (including the New York profile author) undermine the models by suggesting they could be lying (and worse). The models’ critics use the fact that they agreed to pose for naked pictures for a notoriously sexual photographer to indict their judgment and assume that if you ever choose to be objectified in public, you are never allowed to later regret or feel conflicted about it.
What was insidious about the ’00s view of the world was that it assumed certain cynical things as a given: that the fashion world is and always will be corrupt, that the molestation of young women by older and more powerful men is tradition, that people can be manipulated through fear. It assumed that what was in the interest of a few powerful men was naturally what was right for the masses. The decade kicked off with Bush’s victory over Al Gore, in which the general public will was overridden on a technicality, and went right into a misguided response to the terrorist attacks on 9/11, which established a general atmosphere of fear and sparked a depressing wave of American anti-Islamic sentiment the Bush presidency rode into an unnecessary war. The ’00s were a bully. The whole decade revolved around the public and private erasure of consent. And now, like a bad batch of party photos on social media, the mistakes of the decade are reappearing unexpectedly in the nation’s feed. Turns out you can’t really ever outrun the past. Isn’t this fun?
This article previously stated that Gavin McInnes was fired by Vice magazine; he left due to “creative differences.”