PARIS: A former top boss of one of the world's biggest model agencies is to be investigated for rape and abusing an under-age girl as well as other women, French prosecutors announced on Monday.
Gerald Marie, former European head of Elite Models, is the target of a complaint by a former BBC journalist and claims of rape by three ex-models, the Paris prosecutor's office told AFP.
A specialist child protection unit will lead the probe into allegations of "rape and sexual assault, as well as rape and sexual assault of a minor," it added.
The investigation is based on complaints lodged by women for alleged assaults between 1980 and 1998.
At the time of the alleged offences, Elite Models had launched the careers of household names such as Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer, Cindy Crawford and Marie's former wife, supermodel Linda Evangelista.
Former BBC journalist Lisa Brinkworth claimed that in October 1998, when she was posing as a model while doing an investigation, Marie sexually assaulted her in a nightclub, pushing his genitals against her abdomen.
She was working undercover on a documentary into allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour towards models -- many of them underage -- in certain agencies.
Brinkworth's complaint is accompanied by claims from three former models of alleged rape by Marie in Paris when they were teenagers or young women.
US model Carre Sutton accuses Marie of "countless" rapes in 1986, when she was 17, fellow American Jill Dodd of a rape in 1980, when she was 19, while Swede Ebba Karlsson claims she was raped in 1990, when she was 20 or 21.
Pascal Narboni, Marie's lawyer, told AFP that his client "absolutely formally contests these facts" and said he planned to counter the charges with a lawsuit over the "slanderous allegations".
- Too late? -
Under the statute of limitations, which limits the number of years that can lapse between an alleged crime and the initiation of legal proceedings, a prosecution may no longer be possible.
This is one of the issues to be determined by the investigation, which in France does not necessarily result in trial.
Brinkworth has said she was traumatised by the alleged assault, but was prevented from coming forward by an agreement between the BBC and Elite in 2001 following a defamation suit.
Her legal team hopes this restriction on her speaking out can be a basis for bypassing the statute of limitations.
Brinkworth's lawyer Anne-Claire Lejeune welcomed the announcement by Paris prosecutors on Monday.
"This investigation will, I hope, give others the courage to speak up. This is an encouraging first step and a relief for the victims," she said.
Marie left Elite Models, the world's biggest modelling agency, in 2012 and is today head of the Paris-based agency Oui Management.
- 'No forgotten victims' -
Brinkworth's documentary caused a stir when it was screened in Britain in 1999.
It led to the suspension of Marie and fellow executive Xavier Moreau. But they were later reinstated and the agency pursued the BBC and other broadcasters of the programme for defamation.
The documentary, which filmed Elite's activities with a hidden camera, alleged that under-age models were pressured into having sex and using drugs.
The BBC told AFP it would not deny Brinkworth access to its archives.
"We have had extensive discussions with her lawyers to establish how we can make material available. We've always been clear the BBC will co-operate fully with any criminal investigation," it said.
The step to investigate Marie came months after a sex harassment probe was opened against French modelling agent Jean-Luc Brunel, a former associate of accused child sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.
Brunel, founder of Karin Models and MC2 Model Management, is accused in American court documents of rape and of procuring young girls for Epstein, who was found hanged in his New York jail cell last year while awaiting trial on charges of sex trafficking.
In February, the prosecutor of Paris Remy Heitz said French authorities will not rule out opening investigations into crimes that happened outside of the statute of limitations, to ensure there are "no forgotten victims".