Photographer Terry Richardson Accused of Sexual Assault in New Lawsuits

Terry Richardson lawsuits

Disgraced fashion photographer Terry Richardson is back in the news again, and as has been the case for more than a decade, it is not good news for the once-famous, always controversial photographer.

Content warning: This article includes mentions of sexual assault.

Model Minerva Portillo, who now lives and works in Spain, has filed a lawsuit against Richardson under New York’s Adult Survivors Act. This law provides victims a one-year window in which they can file civil lawsuits, even if the statutes of limitations have expired for bringing criminal action. The one-year window opened last year and is set to close and Portillo is one of over 3,000 victims who have filed civil suits in New York under this law.

Richardson, whose work graced the covers of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and GQ, among others, and even directed Miley Cyrus’ famous music video for her hit song, “Wrecking Ball,” has previously called the nearly-decade-long string of accusations against him a “witch hunt.”

As The New York Times reports, Ms. Portillo alleges that Richardson was dressed only in a robe during their first meeting in New York, when Portillo was new to the United States and just 22 years old. “She was really on her way, in the late ’90s and early 2000s, to becoming a top supermodel,” says Portillo’s lawyer, Carolin Guentert of Sanford Heisler Sharp. At the time, Portillo’s agency was Trump Model Management, which told the young model to overlook Richardson’s behavior because he was prominent and influential in the industry. Trump Model Management, started by former President Trump in 1999 as T Models closed in 2017, is named a defendant in Portillo’s suit.

In May 2004, Portillo was booked for a shoot with Richardson at his studio. The model claims that she was provided a beverage she thinks was spiked with “an intoxicating or narcotic substance,” which, per her new lawsuit, made Portillo feel “dizzy, disoriented, and not fully in control of her body.”

According to Ms. Portillo, during the topless photoshoot, Richardson began posing with the model and pressed his exposed genitalia against her body. The lawsuit alleges that Richardson forced the model to perform oral sex on him while she protested. Further, the alleged assault was photographed by Richardson’s employees, according to Portillo.

Out of fear that she would lose her career in a new country and perhaps her agency, Trump Model Management, would withdraw its support of her visa to stay in the United States, Portillo returned to Richardson’s studio the following day, where she alleges she was once again commanded to perform oral sex on Richardson while the event was photographed.

Some of these explicit images of Portillo were included in Richardson’s exhibit, “Terry Richardson: Terryworld,” and were published in a 2006 book, Kibosh. Portillo claims a Spanish agency dropped her because of the photos.

She also says she did not consent to the distribution or sale of the photos but had signed an “undated release” on the day of the first assault. Given Portillo’s state of mind on that day, when she claims to have been drugged, and the fact that English is not her native language, her ability to consent, let alone sign a legal document, is questionable.

“Enduring sexual assault is one of the worst things that could have possibly happened to her, but then to have images of it captured forever and circulated on the internet and sold for profit — it just really altered the trajectory of her career and her life,” says Portillo’s lawyer, Ms. Guentert.

Two days after Portillo and her attorney filed their lawsuit in New York, another woman, Caron Bernstein, filed a similar lawsuit against Richardson. Bernstein has previously accused the photographer of forcing her to perform oral sex on him in 2003 during a photoshoot. Bernstein’s lawsuit says that photos of this assault were also included in the “Terryworld” exhibit and in Kibosh. As New York Times reports, Bernstein’s lawyer cites Portillo’s lawsuit as inspiring Bernstein to act against Richardson.

Unsurprisingly, Portillo and Bernstein are far from the only models with complaints against Richardson.

In a 2014 profile, New York Magazine wrote, “According to someone close to the situation, as many as nine people depicted in the original Terryworld have threatened Richardson with lawsuits since its publication.”

This profile arrived years after a scathing piece in The Guardian, in which Hadley Freeman referred to Richardson as “fashion’s shameful secret,” and wrote, “Fashion is bizarrely fond of celebrating men who are vile to women. Take photographer Terry Richardson, whose pictures are boring and who has been accused of preying on his models.”

Public accusations against Richardson go back even further. Jezebel covered allegations against Richardson way back in 2010, and so too did The Gloss, although its article from March 16, 2010, is no longer actively hosted.

It is worth noting that it took the fashion industry years to finally turn its back on Richardson. Assuming that any of the many allegations against him are true, and there is little reason to think otherwise at this point, is bizarre and sad.

In 2012, model Sara Ziff founded an advocacy organization, Model Alliance, which was created partly as a response to models’ experiences with Richardson. The organization supported the creation of the New York Adult Survivors Act and is working to help pass further legislation concerning the fashion industry.

“When Richardson’s behavior first made headlines, some people focused on his porn aesthetic,” Ms. Ziff tells The New York Times. “But I believe the problem is not his imagery, it’s how he and his enablers treated young women and girls to create those images.”

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.