As the world points its collective finger at the culture of silence around one of Hollywood’s most prominent producers, my mind goes back to the Florence modelling scene of the 1980’s. There was a sexual predator just like Harvey Weinstein in Florence, yet no one protected or warned young models. I believe many people knew Franco Susini was molesting young girls, but the model agency (now out of business) still sent me to see him.
In those days girls were trying to get jobs modelling his clothes on the runway. How many people knew he was abusing young, innocent, often foreign girls in his office? Many. How come you only find out about dangerous, abusive reputations after the abuse? Because rather than protect you, people would rather protect themselves.
I wrote about Susini’s disgusting behavior in The Promise. I ridiculed him, changed his name and infused comedy into the scene. I knew if I didn’t inject some laughs into this seriously disturbing scene, it would have been too serious for people to read. But it was no laughing matter. I was a 17 year old naive, trusting and above all, powerless girl. My heart went out to those women, trying to talk seriously with Weinstein about acting, only to be molested. We have to stop this silence. Susini made me feel like an idiot. Just like Weinstein – same modus operandi, different man.
From The Promise, a cut and paste of the Susini story from my original draft.
He led the way down a hallway and into a dressing room. In a brusque, business-like manner he asked how much experience I’d had.
“Not much, though I’ve been around models all my life because my mother has model agencies in Australia. I’ve also done several model courses.”
“No, no, courses dey make you stiff. Dey are no good, no good at all. You will now forget all dat dey teach you,” he scoffed with a voice that dripped thick with Italian accent. He glanced around the dressing room and went to a rack full of hanging garments. He seemed to know exactly which dress he wanted because he rummaged with quick, determined purpose.
“I need to see you in an evening gown, ‘ere put dis on”. It was a long silky number, shiny slate grey, sleeveless with a deep neckline, plunging back and slits up to the waist. After he left the room, I examined the dress. It felt shimmery and slippery in my hands. I held it up by what I hoped were the shoulders in an effort to work out whether the front was the back, or maybe the back was the front. It didn’t seem to be a dress, but rather the top half of a cocktail outfit. Had he forgotten to give me the pants, as surely my underpants will show? The slits were so high they reached the top of my hipbones, so what was a girl to do about the sides of her panties showing?
I slipped off my Fiorucci gold threaded pink gingham, my Berlei trainer bra and pulled the sheath (for want of a better word) over my head.
I’d never worn anything like it in my life and puffed with pleasure when I saw that the fall of the garment was superb, it draped well on my long, thin body. On one hand I felt elegant and mature.
But it also made me feel exposed and uncomfortable with so much flesh showing. The grey shimmered and shone in an uninterrupted flow till it hit my waist, where the sides parted to reveal my underpants. Like white lightening they flashed every time I moved.
Any good aspiring model knows that a panty line wrecks the look of a garment so I was sure to wear my full brief cottontails. It just wouldn’t do to have a pair of bikini briefs create the rubber band affect by pinching the fat at my hips. My trusty Bonds Cottontails had half an inch of thick banding around the leg, a solid cotton gusset and a waist that almost reached my ribs. But there was no way I could hitch those cottontails higher than the slits in that dress. I wrestled and writhed and wiggled and tried to get those underpants a little further up my bottom so they wouldn’t show. No success. Those cottontails were like cast-iron around my hips.
As I tried to figure out a way out of this unprofessional predicament, Mr Susini strode unannounced back into the dressing room.
“Now model it for me” he said with a commanding wave of his hand.
No problem. I’d seen this done a thousand times and knew just what to do. Stride down here, little half turn there, make sure the feet always look pretty, the head doesn’t bob, a perfectly executed full turn with hands on hips to show how the dress moves in motion.
“You aren’t wearing a dong”.
“A dong. A DONG!” He said aggressively, like I didn’t understand English. He pointed his finger at the region of my cottontails. I stopped mid-glide and felt my brains scramble in confusion till I remembered that Italians often can’t pronounce the “th” so say “d” instead. If so, he meant thong. If so, he meant, in Australian, G-String. If so, my cottontails had blown it. My big opportunity at making it in the big time sabotaged by Bonds.
I was disappointed and he sensed it.
In a softer tone “all the good models wear dongs. But let’s work on anoder technique”. Mr Susini walked over to a full-length mirror and like a patient schoolteacher with a slow but potentially good student, explained to me that he wanted to unveil my hidden sexuality. He had developed his very own personal model training process aimed at revealing the sensual side of my nature. His series of exercises would help me become one of those sexy models that strutted the catwalks of Milan. He settled his serious brown eyes on mine and told me to stand in front of the mirror. I did what I was told.
“Do you know what an orgasm is?”
Now here was my shot at modelling with the big boys and already I’d botched badly. Something as simple as a bad choice of underwear had almost wrecked my burgeoning career. Not wanting to confirm his suspicions that I was a provincial girl with convent modesty, I said of course I knew what an orgasm was.
“OK, den touch yourself in the mirror like you’re going to have an orgasm”. There’s a moment in one-on-one conversations when people connect and know that an understanding has been reached. It can be a moment of recognition, agreement or perception of the other’s intentions. This wasn’t that moment. I had no idea what he was talking about so I stood there blankly and rubbed my arms.
“Come on, you must be sexy, feel sexy. Touch your breasts.”
I ran my hands numbly across my chest, touched my neck with my fingertips, then opened my palms and ran my hands down my hips.
Though I did what he asked, I felt disconnected from my body, like someone else was at the controls and I was just a robot. I could hear a phone ringing in an office somewhere down the corridor but no one was there to answer it. The neon light above us buzzed monotonously as we stood silently in its hard white light. My senses were alert, but my movements were mechanical.
“But you don’t look like you’re about to have an orgasm.”
Something was wrong and I couldn’t figure out what.
I was far too well-mannered and in awe of this man’s power to reject his teaching methods. I barely understood the concept of ‘exploiting an innocent young girl’ and just didn’t think of myself as green. I thought I had enough worldly experience behind me to identify a tricky situation. I respected Mr Susini because he was a successful fashion manufacturer. He’d taken time out at the end of a busy day to try and teach me how to model like the supermodels in Milan and initially I was grateful. But a sick feeling of discomfort was growing in my stomach. I had trusted him implicitly, because he was Lauren’s friend, but I now felt invaded, compromised. I was also acutely embarrassed because he was persuasive in a matter of fact professional way that made me feel like I was the one acting improperly. The force of his authority seemed unquestionable so the strength of spirit to rebuff this man was slow.
I looked in the mirror, saw the reflection of his face peering over my shoulder, the look of barely disguised lust in his eyes and everything fell into place. My stranger danger alarm bells exploded and I stepped away from the mirror. We looked at each other – this was the moment of understanding. After hours, no staff, no interruptions. He had wanted to get me alone.
“I’d like to model the dress again properly.” Not knowing what else to say or how to escape the mirror, parading seemed the only way to get away from his hands. But his eyebrows narrowed and his expression showed determination, he knew that he wasn’t yet finished with me.
“Come here, let me guide your hands. You must feel sexy to be a model. I will show you.” He took my shoulders, stood behind me and angled me towards the mirror. With his hands covering mine he rubbed my palms over my body. Fear robbed me of strength, I couldn’t resist, I felt powerless and utterly unable to physically fight back. He had the power and I had to be submissive. But I wasn’t a willing puppet and he could feel that. My hands were limp and my body motionless. Mr Susini could see that this little modelling technique was not working. I was far from turned on.
“Bah, we try somding else”, he said impatiently. “Put your clodes back on. Come into my office drew dis door,” he said pointing to a door that I hadn’t noticed off the side of the dressing room.
When he strode from the room, I almost fell prostrate on the floor with relief. Snatching up my dress, I ripped off Mr Susini’s silver sheath and threw it over the back of a chair. Like a snake, it slithered onto the floor and I didn’t bother to pick it up. Pulling my gingham on over my head and buckling up my shoes my mind raced. Bloody hell, I bet he’s moving on to Plan B.
“Maybe I should go now,” I said timidly opening the door afraid of what I’d find. But he was fully clothed, in front of his big mahogany desk, jauntily leaning back with his arms folded. He flicked his wrist and motioned for me to stand in front of him.
“We dry anoder ding. I am master of meditation. I will go into a trance. I do not know where I am when in dis trance, I do not even know who I am wid. And I CANNOT remember what ‘appens. You can touch me; feel me all over, anywhere you like. When you finish, clap your hands dree times and I will come out of de trance. Dis exercise will make you feel like a beautiful model. Den when you are finished we will talk about your modelling career.” He then proceeded to close his eyes, lean back further against his desk and hum.
He has got to be kidding I thought as he ohm-ed his way into a self-induced state of make-believe oblivion. He really expects me to believe this crap? The ridiculousness of the scene and his farcical behaviour was bringing out an angry scepticism in my attitude. But I was also too scared to turn on my heels and run. He still had the authority, the power and I was still his junior, in his office. So I stood in front of him and sent him powerful thought messages, “you are such a thoroughly demented, desperate old man.” and “you make me sick, you kinky old scum bag.” I sent him all the thoughts that I would never, ever have had the courage to actually say. I wanted the messages to smash into his pretend transcendental plane, so that he would know of the disappointment and humiliation that he’d made me suffer. We stood there face to face, his aftershave nauseatingly strong, for about sixty seconds and I never lifted a finger to touch him. When I clapped my hands three times he shook his head as though he was clearing cobwebs, looked at me and said, “I don’t dink you ‘ave a future in modelling.”
I flew down the steps and out onto the pavement beside the Arno River. He was right, I would never have a future in modelling.
Like a rape victim that feels guilty, as though she brought the attack on herself, I never told anyone about Franco Susini. I was too embarrassed to vocalise what had happened. I spent my time wandering the streets of Florence, exploring the piazzas and markets, mostly checking out the picnic food that could be eaten on my bed.
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