Sex, Sex, & T-Shirts or (The Unexpected Defense of Dov Charney)

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Just before my 12th birthday, I underwent my first cosmetic surgery. It was a surgery to remove a mole about the size of a nickel just beneath my left earlobe. The surgery itself was forgettable; it was the consultation beforehand that made a more lasting impression.

I sat with my legs awkwardly dangling from an exam chair, awaiting the doctor. He arrived in a flurry of charm and authority; a pristine white coat, a head of dark curls, and a killer smile. Even at 11, I felt myself trying to straighten my spine. I half-listened as my mother explained the situation.

“Let’s take a look.” He leaned in so I could smell his cologne and see the knot in his silk tie, brushing my hair back and examining my mole. I felt my face flush in anticipation of what the boys at school had said.

“Well there’s hair growth,” he announced as he gently fingered the most embarrassing part of my birth mark, “So it’s most likely benign, but because of the size and shape, it would probably be best to remove it now.”

He smiled at me and I smiled back without knowing why.

“Such a pretty girl, you could be model,” he said, “but that’s no Cindy Crawford mole, so let’s just get rid of it, huh?” He winked.

I nodded, speechless.

Back in my pink-on-more-pink bedroom, I took it upon myself to figure out who this Cindy Crawford was. In the days before the Internet, I ended up poring through my mother’s copies of Vanity Fair. It didn’t take long before I found her, the sex symbol of the 90’s, on a beach in high-waisted jean cut-offs, grinning from ear to ear with her infamous mole: Cindy Crawford.

I devoured her image, this supermodel: her tawny thighs, full breasts, and sun-kissed hair blowing perfectly in the wind. I was in awe. At 11, I could hardly imagine myself possessing any of the assets that lay spread before me on the glossy page and yet, I pondered my potential. Could the doctor possibly be right? Could I be a model a la Cindy?

Alas, my pre-pubescent aspirations were buried in the flat plains of Minnesota. It would take a move to New York City and a chance encounter with Dov Charney for me to live out my Cindy Crawford fantasy.

Exactly seven days after leaving my nickel-sized town, I managed to spend my entire life savings, so I got a job as a barista at Dean & Delucca, an overpriced cafe and bespoke deli that catered to Soho’s trendiest crowd, the future CEO of American Apparel among them.

Dov arrived one busy afternoon; he was smallish and Jewish and covered in hair and enthusiasm. I, of course, had no idea who he was– I’m not sure he did either. I helped him as I would have anyone else in the endless line of actors, writers, entrepreneurs, and drug addicts– in that overly friendly Minnesota-nice way that is probably only endearing in brief interludes like buying a latte. After I rang him up, he turned back to me with a jittery energy that made me think this was more like his seventh cup of coffee.

“How much do you make here,” his voice was surprisingly big for a man of his size. It had a nasal quality that reminded me of a scratched record. He wasn’t asking me a question. Dov didn’t ask questions.

“$8.50 an hour,” I replied, “plus tips.” I pointed to the sad glass jar next to the register.

“I’ll pay you fifty bucks an hour to come work for me,” he said, handing me a business card.

I turned it over in my hand. It was white with “Classic Girl Clothing Company” written in black type.

“Doing what?” I asked, my eyes re-examining the legitimacy of the card.

“Modeling, that’s my clothing company,” and he was already in frantic conversation with his pretty female companion on the way out the door by the time I looked up.

He didn’t tip.

This was the fall of 2003 – a very pivotal year in the history of American Apparel, which until that point had achieved success solely as a wholesale brand (aka Classic Girl) and was only beginning its voyage into the retail market. 2003 would see the opening of the first American Apparel retail stores in Los Angeles, New York, and Dov’s hometown of Montreal. It would be considered by many to be the fastest rollout in American retail history. Dialing the phone number on the back of that card, I was ignorant to all this. I was 18 and broke.

The first shoot I did for American Apparel was later that week above Dov’s storefront in the Lower East Side. Even though this was little more than a decade ago, the LES has morphed significantly in a short amount of time. Much like his first west coast storefront in Echo Park, the neighborhood felt seedy, dangerous, and enthralling all at once– an apt preview of his marketing strategy if there ever was one.

There were four of us. Dov, myself, a different pretty female companion, and a male model, Mike, who was tall, thin, dark, and everything you could ever want a Brooklyn hipster to be, except I think he was European.

The shoot started off with Dov asking me if I was comfortable being shot in underwear; he held up a string thong and his infamous boy boxer briefs. “I would wear these,” I said, pointing at the briefs.

Dov offered us beer and pot. I politely declined both, while Mike happily accepted. It crossed my mind that this was definitely sketchy and possibly unsafe, but my gut still felt solid, so I stayed. And for the next three to four hours, we shot.

At one point, I’m lying horizontally on this scratchy brown couch, decked out in black running shorts, white-striped knee-highs, and a yellow hoodie with nothing underneath. The pretty female companion didn’t give me a bra with the wardrobe change. I also didn’t ask for one. Dov is standing on the sofa, dancing precariously, and I’m sandwiched between his feet. He’s looking at me through the camera lens and I’m looking straight back at him and twisting and turning my body while shifting my face. And I feel like Cindy, or how I imagine that Cindy must feel. This man with this camera thinks I’m sexy…and maybe I am? I turn again, facing the camera full on and I pull the zipper down on my fluffy yellow hoodie just enough so that you can see the edge of my breasts. And I consider pulling the zipper down all the way, when Dov’s face jerks out from behind the lens.

“How old are you.” His mustache twitches.

“18,” I say.

“Thank god.”

And even though I’ve just confirmed for both of us that I’m legally allowed to do whatever I damn well please, I’m reminded of something else, so I yank the zipper back up and we continue shooting into the night.

I didn’t hear from Dov again until I returned home to Minnesota that summer. He called to invite me to shoot again, but this time in California. My parents allowed me to go on one condition– that I had a chaperone.

So, for the first time in my life, I found myself in Los Angeles. More precisely, The Standard Hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Talk about Sex. I blushed appropriately as I stood next to my father in the lobby restroom, which was adorned by a photograph of fleshy female thighs removing a pair of white panties, effectively allowing everyone in between said thighs. Modesty turned to sheer mortification when I saw that our hotel room had a glass shower. I dismissed my Dad downstairs while I got ready for my first day at work. While I shot, Dov took my father on a tour of the factory.

It really is a sight to behold: a super-sized salmon-colored building, it is the largest garment manufacturer in the U.S. with seven floors the size of football fields full of mammoth metal machines, fabric rolls in every color you can imagine, and mostly Hispanic employees buzzing around, cutting, sewing, folding, and packing. And of course, Dov, as their King Bee. If he didn’t seem commanding behind the camera earlier that fall, he certainly did now.

I willingly admit that I was always attracted to Dov. I now know that it was not a sexual attraction, but when I was 18, I didn’t know shit about shit. Sexuality, especially for a young female, is a cluster-fuck (a decade later, I’m still struggling). However, at this point in the process, and maybe it was that doctor, it seemed to me that my sexuality must have to be determined by a man. Men must make women feel sexy. If I can get a man’s attention, then I must be sexy. And I liked getting Dov’s attention, or any man’s for that matter. However, a part of me also felt guilty about it, the same part of me that didn’t like glass showers or walking into a woman’s pussy. Maybe it was wrong to want to do that and maybe I should feel ashamed?

So I always kept my zippers half-zipped and when I shot underwear, I never turned my ass to the camera or wore a thong. And in some strange way, it ended up being exactly what Dov was looking for, a young woman confused and coming into her sexuality, wanting to expose more, but holding herself back…

When I started my sophomore year at NYU, I was shocked to find my face on the back of all our welcome packets and my body plastered across Manhattan’s new AA stores.

This was the same year Dov would infamously masturbate in front of a female journalist in his interview for Jane Magazine, giving American Apparel all the publicity a budding clothing company could ask for.

As Ilse Metchek, the president of the California Fashion Association, put it “That Jane article put him on the map. What is American Apparel without sex? It’s a t-shirt and sweatshirt company.”

The girls at school would find out I worked for him and in the same breath call him a pervert and then coyly inquire:

“Do you know if they’re looking for models?”

Isn’t that how we’ve cultivated sex in America after all? Admonished and then secretly admired. Dov was only revamping the age-old adage: Sex sells. But, instead of a wink, a smile, and a pop of cleavage, we were getting it sans retouching – rough and raw. And the kicker was: it worked. In 2004, AA was producing approximately 1 million t-shirts per week and the following year, Dov’s t-shirt and sweatshirt company would make the list of the United States’ 500 fastest growing companies with 440% growth and revenues. America loved American Apparel.

And I loved being one of their models. I was over 18 and if I had wanted to take my top off and get my photo taken, what would be wrong with that? And if Claudine Ko (the writer of the Jane article) was okay with Dov rubbing one out in front of her, what the hell’s the big deal?

The question then becomes was she really okay and did I really want to take my top off, or did the Man take advantage of the girl(s)?

Ko herself wrote in a follow-up article, “Who was really exploited? We both were– American Apparel got press, I got one hell of a story. And that’s it.”

And didn’t I get what I wanted in those photo shoots? Much needed money and a shot at playing Cindy for fifteen seconds? Didn’t all American Apparel models?

Well, everyone knows the answer to the latter. Apparently not. Since 2005, Dov has battled sexual harassment lawsuits from American Apparel employees, most, though not all, worked at one point as models for the company. They range from harassment and phone calls to Irene Morales’ accusing Dov of locking her in his apartment for several hours and forcing her to be his “sex slave.”

These charges have always been a source of confusion for me. I don’t pretend to know Dov intimately, but I did spend a fair amount of time with him. Even after hearing of several sex scandals, I missed my own college graduation to go to Los Angeles to model for AA again. And I can honestly say, I have felt more threatened on blind dates than I ever have with Dov, but that’s not to say I haven’t seen him do things…

I landed in Burbank airport at about the same time my fellow classmates were processing in cap and gown through Tisch Hall and I was picked up by one of AA’s interns, a Norwegian kid, all blonde-haired and blue-eyed and probably less familiar with driving on California highways than I was. I assumed he would be taking me to The Standard and for once, I was looking forward to my glass shower, but instead I found myself winding up a hilltop somewhere in east Los Angeles.

“Ummm, where are we going?” I asked.

“Dov’s house,” he replied cheerfully.

Alright, I thought, well I guess he wants to say hello before I go to the hotel. We continued the dizzying drive up until we reached a gatehouse. Norwegian said something to the security guy, who then granted us access to the gated neighborhood of Hathaway Hills. Dov’s house, which he had just bought the year before, was at the very top and, like his factory and brand, one-of-a-kind. Built almost entirely of cement (even the roof), save the limestone first floor, it has 20+ rooms and is listed on the National Registrar of Historic Places. Needless to say, I was impressed, but confused. After pulling into the circular drive, Norwegian hopped out and started unloading my suitcase. He drove off before I could protest, and there I stood on the doorstep of a concrete mansion with the Pacific Ocean over one shoulder and the Santa Monica mountaintops over another.

I rang the doorbell. And waited. After a moment, an Asian girl with long black locks covering her tits and tiny American Apparel booty shorts barely covering her ass answered the door. We could have been sisters. She smiled and skipped back, her butt cheeks bouncing, to continue shooting. She went to the University of Arizona, and had been staying in the house and modeling, along with several other girls. I couldn’t tell you how many of us there were, because the numbers always seemed to be changing.

There was Camber, who had straw-blonde hair, jewel-green eyes, and seemed to be Dov’s (current) favorite. And then there was Natasha, with her short dark bob, small clever eyes, and smart retorts for everything. I admired her because I thought she could be a bit of a bitch. You’ve probably admired her ass; Natasha did most of the butt shots when it came to leggings and underwear. All of us had our own rooms and we would hang around LA and the house and shoot, whenever someone felt like it.

Dov himself didn’t shoot or even supervise most of the photo shoots; he was too busy running a very successful, by this time, public company. Dov’s stake in American Apparel was worth $580 million when AA became AAP on the New York Stock Exchange. But, he would still stop by every once and a while, we were, after all, in his home. Arizona was shooting in her barely there underwear again and I was waiting to do tank tops, when Dov came in and smacked her appreciatively on the ass.

It wasn’t a particularly hard spank, more like a love tap, but I still remember being a little less than amused. I looked at Arizona right after, and it seemed to me to be the darndest thing, but I would almost say that she liked it. Dov left after a little bit and we kept shooting. Arizona’s parents came by that week and got a tour of Dov’s historic house. They seemed thrilled their daughter was being afforded this opportunity; my parents would have lost their minds if they knew what I was doing.

Did I find Dov’s behavior disconcerting in that instance? I suppose so. But I also saw how it didn’t seem to bother this girl. So then I guess it shouldn’t bother me? Right? And besides, there were so many other fascinating qualities about Dov.

I have still never been around anyone with more energy in my life; it’s like the man’s just downed a dozen cups of coffee, had an 8-ball, and is speeding down some racetrack invisible to everyone but him. Yet his chaos is always very directed, because above any girl’s ass, Dov is about his work. His devotion to his company is legendary and his passion is contagious.

I brought a girlfriend of mine into Dov’s offices a few years ago. She was designing her own clothing line and I thought he could give some guidance. In the middle of her nervously standing and stuttering, he intercepts–

“Where did you get your skirt.”

“Sorry?”

“Your skirt. Where did you get it,” and he’s up from behind his desk and kneeling in front of her crotch, examining her upper thighs.

“Ohhh, ahhh…I- I think it’s Balenciaga?”

“Leather,” he demands.

“Yeah…?” She throws me a look of what the fuck?

“Turn around.” She does, and while I can see that her butt looks great, Dov is only looking at the lines and muttering about a massive shipment of leather fabric they just got in from South America, but they don’t know what to do with, and before either of us can say anything, we’re running after him, through the hall, down the stairs, and over to one of the mammoth metal machines, where he cries for a seamstress by name– “MARIA!!!”

I just watch the whole thing in wonder as my friend’s interview disintegrates and Dov gets a new skirt pattern.

I guess what I would ultimately name that “fascinating” quality wouldn’t be high-energy, charisma, drive, or even talent– although Dov has all of those. At the core of what appealed to me was his power. Dov had an air of knowing. What he didn’t know, he went and found out, and what he couldn’t find; he presumably created himself.

In a phone call around last Christmas, I asked Dov why he never tried to hit on me.

“I knew you weren’t into it,” he replied. And we went on to talk about the factory tour he had given Woody Allen and his daughters the day before.

How did he know that? Does that conversely imply that he knew when women were “into it”.

Many of Dov’s sexual harassment lawsuits were dismissed or settled outside of court because evidence was introduced inferring some kind of complicit action on behalf of the plaintiff, such as a nude photo shoot. However, just because a girl takes naked pictures with you doesn’t mean she wants to have sex with you. And while on paper, this appears to be an overtly obvious idea, it doesn’t seem to be a concept that we cultivate in our culture.

It is said that the human body replaces its cells every seven years. Last month, AA released a billboard of mine from 2007. Driving past an image of myself from seven years in the past threw me for a lot of loops. I wanted to go back and give my 21-year-old self a hug and say, “Hey, all that stuff you’re confused and ashamed about, you don’t have to be – it all turns out okay!” I was extremely grateful to that “old me” for putting herself out there, but also for keeping her zipper zipped. Most of all, I wanted to protect her. And others like her. Becoming a woman in today’s society is complicated enough as it is, without everyone else chiming in. And my friends did have plenty to say regarding my old ad, which they all mistook for a recent job. Among the comments were:

“I was surprised that you would do an American Apparel ad, but you looked good!”

and

“Your ad was great – it wasn’t skanky like some of them are.”

Are American Apparel ads skanky? Is Dov any worse than Disney photoshopping Kiera Knightley’s breasts for a Pirates of the Caribbean billboard? Or Rolling Stone announcing the Olsen Twin’s 18th birthday as “America’s Favorite Fantasy!” on their front cover. But Ms. Knightley is just playing pretend, right? And these American Apparel models are real girls? And they’ve probably been exploited.

Well, from the mouth of one of them, at least: I haven’t.

Looking back on all of this, though, I do get a funny feeling that I have been exploited by something or someone else, but I don’t know who to point the finger at. My doctor? Cindy Crawford? The advertising firm that hired Cindy Crawford? Or the men and women who dictate with every billboard, pop-ad, magazine cover, and commercial what a “sexy” woman is? Where are they? Can I fire them? Because they’re the ones truly mismanaging, abusing, and harassing us.

Perhaps I should ask Dov. He’d probably know. And if not, he’d at least know where to look. And if you want to point the finger at him, then you better start by pointing it at yourself first.

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