Former teen models accuse magician David Copperfield of misconduct

by 24USATVMay 16, 2024, 4 p.m. 17
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It was September 1991 in New York and the grand finale of Look of the Year, a prestigious modeling contest that had helped launch the careers of supermodels Cindy Crawford and Helena Christensen.

The celebrity magician David Copperfield, one of the judges, watched from the front row as 58 contestants paraded across the runway in their branded hot pink and sorbet yellow swimsuits. Nearly all the contestants were teenagers; some were as young as 14.

Today, more than three decades later, five former contestants say that they were subjected to behavior by Copperfield that they now regard as inappropriate or worse. The women – who were all teenagers at the time – met him at the New York contest in 1991 or three years earlier in Japan, when he was also a judge. Others who attended the events also say they witnessed Copperfield behaving inappropriately towards the girls.

The claims include allegations of unwanted sexual touching and sexual harassment. In one case, a former contestant alleges she was drugged and sexually assaulted by Copperfield in the months after the competition. She was 17 years old at the time, she says.

The claims follow a report in yesterday’s Guardian US, which detailed allegations of sexual misconduct and inappropriate behavior by Copperfield from women who had met him in connection with his performances. There was also an allegation of drugging in that story: one woman told the Guardian that she believes she and a friend were drugged by Copperfield before he had sexual relations with them, leaving them unable to consent.

In written responses to questions from the Guardian, lawyers for David Copperfield denied all the allegations of misconduct and inappropriate behavior. Copperfield’s lawyers said he has “never, ever acted inappropriately with anyone, let alone anyone underage”.

Look of the Year 1991

In 1991, Look of the Year was hosted by real-estate mogul Donald Trump at the Plaza Hotel in New York, which he owned. Former US President Trump and Copperfied were among the 10 judges.

Other judges included a former Look of the Year winner and an executive at an advertising agency. Top fashion photographer, the late Patrick Demarchelier, and Gérald Marie, head of the Paris office of Elite Model Management, the agency that ran the competition, were also on the judging panel. Elite was then the world’s leading modeling agency. In recent years both men have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct towards young models, which they both denied.

The judges and the contestants stayed in rooms at Trump’s luxury hotel overlooking Central Park during the week-long contest.

Behind-the-scenes footage and photographs from the event show Copperfield mingling with contestants during the events. At the grand finale, Elite’s founder and owner, John Casablancas, introduced the illusionist, who was wearing a black dinner jacket with shoulder pads, as “the Emmy award-winning master magician, my friend, David Copperfield.”

Trump sat alongside him in the front row, with his then nine-year-old daughter Ivanka, who would later work for Elite as a model, perched on his knee. Naomi Campbell, then an Elite supermodel, co-hosted the black-tie gala with Casablancas.

The event attracted aspiring models from all over the world, aged 14 to 21. The average age of contestants – according to a Fox documentary the following year – was just 15. Some traveled there alone and were away from home for the first time. The pressure to impress the judges was intense.

Jenniffer Diaz, a Venezuelan contestant, had just turned 18 when she arrived in New York. In the evening, after the day’s events were done, she says the phone in her hotel room rang and a voice said: “Hi, so this is me, David Copperfield.” She claims he repeatedly called her room and invited her to join him in his room.

She recalls being in her pyjamas and being asked by him what she was wearing.

“I really didn’t speak much English and I had no idea what he meant,” she says now.

Only later, she says, did she realize that there was a sexual implication. Diaz, now 50, says she is relieved she declined the invitations, but says that at the time she felt uncomfortable saying no to the celebrity judge. “Even at that age, I was very young and naive, but still, I knew very clearly that you don’t go to a guy’s room at night.”

Copperfield’s lawyers denied that he called Diaz or any other contestants at their hotel rooms . “The allegation against our client is false and makes no logical sense,” lawyers said.

They said that during the event young male scammers would call contestants’ hotel rooms, using Copperfield and other judges’ names in order to “try and meet girls”. Copperfield’s assistant at the time, Linda Faye Smith, said in a statement to the Guardian that there was a “group of scammers calling contestants’ rooms at random – posing as celebrity judges” and “saying they were David”. Copperfield’s lawyers confirmed that he and Smith had been in contact before she sent the statement to the Guardian.

The Guardian spoke to eight attendees of the 1991 event, including an organizer from Elite, and none recalled hearing anything about scammers calling contestants. Diaz says she believed it was Copperfield’s voice on the phone.

Diaz’s account was corroborated by two witnesses. An American contestant, who didn’t want to be named, recalled translating a phone call between Copperfield and Diaz. “I was like, what the hell is going on?” the woman told the Guardian in 2020. Diaz’s then roommate, Stacy Wilkes, 16 at the time, also corroborated Diaz’s account of the calls. During the contest, Wilkes adds, the presence of men with no apparent connection to the modeling industry felt “inappropriate”.

Diaz claims Copperfield continued to contact her even after the competition ended. He called her multiple times at her family home in Venezuela and left messages with their housekeeper, she says. She did not respond. Diaz, who is now an actress and real estate agent, says, in hindsight, she feels it was “absolutely predatory behavior”. Copperfield’s lawyers said he did not call contestants at their family homes “as claimed”.

Diaz says she believes her agency, Elite, may have given Copperfield her home number without her permission. She says it appeared to her that her then boss, Casablancas, and Copperfield, were friends.

Aimee Bendio, a 15-year-old American contestant, says she believes Copperfield also showed an interest in her during the 1991 competition. Footage from the contest shows Aimee being interviewed by the panel of judges in her swimsuit. Immediately after, the camera cuts to Trump and Copperfield leaning back in their chairs to talk to one another.

Bendio says Copperfield approached her on the evening of 1 September 1991, when all the contestants, judges and other “friends of the agency” were taken on a private yacht around the Statue of Liberty.

Bendio first told her story in a 2020 Guardian investigation, which revealed allegations of inappropriate behavior by several men connected to Elite’s Look of the Year, including accounts from contestants that Trump would sometimes appear backstage as they were getting dressed. Trump denied “in the strongest possible terms” behaving inappropriately with the contestants. In response to the article his representatives said he was not aware of any predatory environment at the time.

On the evening of the boat party, Trump and Copperfield posed for photos with the contestants. Bendio claims Copperfield - who was nearly two decades her senior - came up to her and grabbed her around the waist. “He just thought he could do it and it made me feel really uncomfortable,” she tells the Guardian. Copperfield’s lawyers denied Bendio’s allegation and claimed that security, press and chaperones were everywhere at all times.

Copperfield and his assistant contacted Bendio at her family home several times over the course of seven months after the contest, she says. They mainly spoke to her mother, “checking in to see how my career was going.” Bendio says: “We didn’t come from a lot of money and I know that he had offered to help.” Copperfield invited her to his shows and on one occasion offered to send a limousine, but her mother told her to decline, she recalls. Bendio, now a school bus driver in her 40s, says: “We just thought the whole thing was creepy.” Copperfield’s lawyers denied he contacted contestants “as claimed”. They described the offers of free tickets to his shows as “friendly and innocent” behavior.

Like Diaz, Bendio says she is not sure how Copperfield got her contact information.

In addition to Diaz and Bendio, sources say Copperfield contacted at least two other contestants from Look of the Year 1991 after the event.

The same year, Copperfield allegedly connected with another teenage model through one of his stage performances. Carla*, whose story appeared yesterday in the Guardian, says she met Copperfield at one of his shows when she was 15. Afterwards, she alleges, Copperfield repeatedly called her at her family home, sending gifts and tickets to his shows. Like other women who agreed to be quoted by the Guardian on the condition of anonymity, she is being identified with a pseudonym marked* with an asterisk.

Carla now feels she and her family were being “groomed” by Copperfield. When she turned 18 she says he was the first man she had sex with. His lawyers denied her allegations.

The earlier Guardian investigation reported teenage models’ misconduct allegations against Elite’s boss, Casablancas. This included a lawsuit in 2019 that alleged Casablancas sent a 15-year-old model to a “casting call” with the late sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, during which she says Epstein sexually assaulted her. The alleged victim, Jane Doe 3, later reached a settlement with Epstein’s estate.

Four men who attended Look of the Year in 1991 told the Guardian that Copperfield’s interest in the contestants appeared evident to them.

Ohad Oman, a young journalist who attended the event, claims he witnessed Copperfield flirting with a 16-year-old Israeli contestant, which he says he found inappropriate. One European modeling agent says he intervened at one point during the event when he saw the illusionist talking with a contestant he represented who was also around the age of 16. “From the corner of my eyes I saw she wrote her telephone number on a little booklet” for Copperfield, he says. “I took that, threw it on the floor and took her away.”

The agent says: “People in the industry knew why Copperfield wanted to be invited to these events.” He says models at such events were a big attraction for some high-profile men.

“Lots of people in the industry knew of his reputation as a creep. It was obvious,” says fashion photographer Roberto Rabanne, who took photos and video for Elite during the event.

Copperfield’s lawyers said that any portrayal of their client taking part in Look of the Year to exploit teenage models is “simply wrong”. They note many celebrities served as judges and that it was a “high-profile event in the modeling calendar”.

Look of the Year 1988

Three years before the 1991 competition, Brittney Lewis, a 17-year-old high school student from Salt Lake City, Utah, arrived at Look of the Year 1988.

It was September and the contest was held at the beach resort of Atami, Japan. Copperfield, one of the judges, was on a tour of Asia at the time. He was then known for his giant death saw trick and the year before had performed his famous “escape” from Alcatraz prison.

Lewis, according to an article in her local newspaper, The Salt Lake Tribune, skipped the first day of school to attend the event. In an interview with the Guardian, she recalls that Copperfield “got to interview us [the contestants] alone in a room and he asked things like, who was my boyfriend”. It felt “a little uncomfortable,” she says.

Soon after returning to her home in Utah, Lewis says, the phone calls began.

She says Copperfield, then 32, invited her to one of his upcoming shows in California. Lewis says she was excited. At the time she lived with her grandparents and saw her father, Gus Lewis, occasionally. Since she was only 17, they were not sure she would be safe going to meet a man they did not know. Over the course of multiple conversations, Lewis says, Copperfield reassured Patricia Burton, her late grandmother, and her father, that she would be looked after by his female staff.

“He was pleasant on the phone,” her father tells the Guardian now. “My daughter must have told him I was into motorcycles and Harleys at the time, which I was. And so he brought that up first thing…. just trying to be buddy, buddy.” He says Copperfield told him he “would take good care of her and they’d be in separate rooms”.

Lewis says: “My parents are just super good, honest people and trusting … They were starstruck and believed everything he said.”

In late 1988, Lewis recalls, she traveled to California to meet Copperfield ahead of the show. They spent the day together and went shopping, she recalls. “He took me to a mall and he wanted to hold hands and his hand was super sweaty.”

Backstage “he tried to kiss me up against a wall and I ducked and dodged and I was like, no, no, that’s not what I’m here for,” she says. She told him they were “just friends”.

“After the show, he took me to a bar,” Lewis says. “I remember looking down and seeing him pour his drink into mine and I looked at him and said, ‘What are you doing?’ And he said, ‘I’m just sharing’.” The rest of the night is hazy, she says.

She says she remembers flashes of being carried out to a car and being helped into a hotel room, where Copperfield had an adjoining room. She says he laid her on the bed, and she remembers “him on top of me, my clothes coming off and then him kissing down and going down towards my crotch.” Then she blacked out, she says. “I don’t remember anything after that.” Lewis says she believes she was drugged.

In the morning she woke up feeling “nauseous and sick to my stomach”. Yesterday’s Guardian story reported that another woman, Gillian*, believed she and a friend had been drugged by the magician. Copperfield denied Gillian’s allegations, saying: “Anyone who knows our client knows drugs have never been a part of his life in any shape or form.”

Lewis says Copperfield came in through the connecting door shortly after, saying he wanted “to talk to me about what had happened.” She says he then said, “I just want you to know that I didn’t penetrate you because you’re underage.”

Lewis says Copperfield told her it would be best for her to return home that day, despite having a multi-day trip planned. Before she left, she says, he convinced her to write him a letter. She can’t recall the exact wording but says it suggested that nothing wrong had happened and that Lewis would not tell anyone about the alleged incident. “I feel like that note kept me hostage for a long time,” she says.

Copperfield’s lawyers have denied Lewis’s allegations. His lawyers said “our client did not act as alleged.”

Months later, Lewis says, Copperfield called her again, inviting her to one of his shows in her hometown. Lewis told him she never wanted to see him again and hung up, she says.

Lewis says her fear of Copperfield was compounded by a childlike sense that he was capable of real magic. Lewis recalls him telling her he was into black magic. When she returned home and realized one of her crystal earrings was missing, she was convinced Copperfield had taken it and was “really scared of what he could do”. Another woman in yesterday’s story, Lily*, who alleged she was groped on stage by Copperfield when she was 14 or 15, says for years after she had nightmares fearing that he would “use his magic on me”.

Lewis, now 53, gets emotional when she talks about the impact the alleged incident had on her life. She had been sexually assaulted as a teenager before she met Copperfield. “I fought the first time … and I thought if it ever happened again, I’d fight harder,” she says. With Copperfield, she says she believes she was drugged “so I felt really defeated and scared of men, scared to date, scared to have boys kiss me.” She “started drinking young,” she says. “I was just really self-destructive for a long time.”

On many nights for a decade after the alleged incident, Lewis says, she had nightmares, in which she was being attacked by a man on top of her. Eventually, she began opening up to those close to her about what she says happened, and got therapy. Now, a mother of three, living a quiet life in southern California with her husband, she says: “I just found a lot of really great alternative ways to heal.”

The Guardian corroborated Lewis’s claims by interviewing three friends and family members, as well as an acquaintance with whom she is no longer in contact. They recall her telling them about the alleged incident several years later. Lewis says she initially felt she couldn’t tell people because of the note she had written Copperfield.

In 2018, Lewis shared her allegations publicly in The Wrap, inspired by the #MeToo movement. Copperfield posted a statement on Twitter after the article was published praising the #MeToo movement while saying that he had been “falsely accused publicly in the past”.

Another contestant from Look of the Year 1988 also recalls getting phone calls from Copperfield at her family home after the contest. Natalie*, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, had turned 17 just before the competition.

She had no idea, she says, that Copperfield was also allegedly contacting Lewis around the same time.

Natalie remembers the giddiness of having a celebrity taking an interest in her. They developed what she thought at the time was a friendship and describes being “enamored” of him. Over the phone, he would take the time to ask her how she was and how her modeling career was going, she says. “That made me feel special.” Copperfield told Natalie that he would be performing in her hometown soon and offered her and her parents tickets, she says.

They jumped at the opportunity. It hadn’t crossed their minds that anything inappropriate could happen with their daughter, who was still a minor, as they would be there with her, she says.

Lawyers for Copperfield said he did not call contestants as claimed, adding: “If people our client met asked his office for tickets to his shows our client would often provide complimentary tickets”.

Copperfield, who she says had built the family’s trust, invited Natalie to join him backstage alone, she recalls.

In an interview with the Guardian, Natalie, now 52, says: “He tried to have his way with me.” She alleges he kissed her, touched her breasts and “pushed me down” onto a couch. “He was trying to move forward and go further south and I just didn’t let him do that. I stopped him.”

Natalie, who says she had not had sex before, remembers feeling scared, not wanting to upset the man who had been so generous to her and her family. She notes that while she did not want him to touch her, he stopped when she asked him to stop. She remembers joining her parents in the audience after the incident.

When she returned home the phone calls continued, she says.

“Whenever he came back to [my hometown] he always offered tickets to my family,” she says. Natalie admits that at the time, part of her enjoyed the attention from a celebrity. “I was naive, I was foolish,” she says.

Natalie, who now runs a business in New York, never told her parents, believing for years that she was somehow to blame. “I don’t know, I felt guilty, maybe,” she says.

Copperfield’s lawyers said he denies Natalie’s allegations. They noted that the backstage environment at a magic show is “densely populated and inhospitable to the kind of outrageous conduct alleged. It would be like engaging in this sort of misbehavior during rush hour at Piccadilly Circus.”

A third contestant from 1988, Diana Long from Pennsylvania, says Copperfield “pursued” her during the Japan contest. Long, who was 19 then, says that the magician never crossed a line, but “I remember thinking he was pretty bold and why didn’t he get the message.”

She says that following the competition, Copperfield’s female assistant called her family home at least two times, speaking to her mother. They declined offers of tickets to his shows.

Long, now a mother of five, didn’t give much thought to her interactions with Copperfield at the time, she says, but if he was “talking that way to my 18-year-old, I would be really upset. It’s very inappropriate.” She describes it as “an abuse of power … I think he took advantage of his position, especially being a judge and being famous.”

Copperfield’s representatives denied Long’s allegation, saying it is “not our client’s practice” to offer tickets to shows.

Regarding the phone calls, Long adds: “I’m wondering how many of us he was doing this to and making each one of us [think] it was only us.”

Elite was forced into bankruptcy in 2004. The Elite brand continues to be used by two separate agencies, owned by different corporate entities. One, Elite World Group, said in a statement that the “current ownership since 2012 have no ties to John Casablancas. It never employed, consulted or conducted any business with Mr Casablancas during his lifetime.” It said the agency is “committed to providing safe work environments for our … models.”

The other inheritor of the brand, Elite Model Management, declined to respond to questions. In response to the 2020 article it also strongly distanced itself from the Casablancas-owned firm and era.

A decade or more after the 1988 and 1991 Look of the Year events, Valerie* – who was quoted in yesterday’s Guardian investigation – was working as an assistant to Copperfield. She recalls Copperfeld having a “little black book”, containing contact details for models and others from the modeling industry.

Valerie, who worked for the magician for 18 months from the late 1990s says some of Copperfield’s closest staff would use the list to “contact modeling agencies” and arrange for models to meet him at or after his shows. This included agencies across the US.

“There were always models coming in and going,” she claims.

The Guardian spoke to an American model agent from the list who confirmed that he received a call from a Copperfield employee asking for a group of models to attend his show.

In 1993 Copperfield began dating the Elite supermodel Claudia Schiffer. According to reports, they met when he brought her on stage to participate in a mind reading act and a flying illusion.

Copperfield reportedly proposed to Schiffer the following year on Little St James, the island that would later be purchased by Epstein. In the years that followed, Schiffer appeared on stage with Copperfield multiple times. Schiffer never married Copperfield and their relationship ended six years later in 1999. There is no suggestion she was aware of any alleged misconduct during their relationship. Schiffer declined to comment on the allegations against him.

Valerie said in yesterday’s story that she felt so uncomfortable about her boss’s behavior around young women that she quit and paid back her Christmas bonus.

The final trigger for her leaving, she says, was witnessing Copperfield’s behavior around a mother and her daughter, an aspiring model, who spent time with him over a number of days in his New York apartment. Copperfield’s lawyers said he is unaware of staff members quitting for the reasons cited.

Valerie says that a modeling agency had connected Copperfield with the pair and the illusionist appeared to be advising them on the girl’s modeling career.

Copperfield, whose lawyers said he denies acting as alleged, took the mother and her daughter – who Valerie recalls was still a minor – to nightclubs until late at night, she says. Valerie attended one such evening and recalls his behavior towards the girl as “creepy”. She says: “That mother seemed very naive, very starstruck.”

Valerie notes that she does not know of any misconduct between Copperfield and the girl, but adds that she felt “it was super wrong.” She felt she couldn’t work for him anymore, she says.

“I left as soon as I could after that.”
• None The Guardian US was assisted with online research by Jules Metge

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