Fashion designer and former Project Runway contestant Michael Costello is speaking out after an Asian model accused him of altering her photos and making her look completely whitewashed and unrecognizable in photos from the show.
Shereen Wu shared this video to TikTok, explaining that she had been brought in at the eleventh hour to model for Michael, saying that the photos he shared of her walking did not show her true face.
“Editing my face and removing my race is completely disrespectful,” she said in the video.
Shereen messaged Michael on Instagram asking why he changed her face, and he pointed his finger at the photographer, saying these were the photos he was sent. So naturally, she went to the photographer, with screenshots of Michael laying the blame on him – and the photographer’s response?
“I did not edit the photos that do not clearly show my brand logo/watermark.”
When another model who has a good relationship with Michael offered to try to get to the bottom of it, she was told by Michael that it was “fan art”. Shereen pointed out that that was the third different response he’d provided between his explanations to her, the other model and the photographer.
Shereen pointed out that following these conversations, Michael removed her photo without an actual apology or explanation and then began sharing photos and profiles that feature AI art and models. Shereen explained feeling like he was trying to make the point that everyone else does it, or that she was replaceable.
“I understand that as a model I’m replaceable. I don’t get paid to do these shows. And while I don’t get paid, there’s tacit understanding that I’m doing this for exposure and for photographs. By not using my face, he’s taking advantage of models without the same influence that he has.”
In her video, Shereen ends by saying she’s aware she’ll most likely be painted as a “disgruntled model”, even after highlighting some of his past transgressions, for which the rap sheet is lengthy and includes allegations of sexual harassment, racism and body shaming.
The back and forth and his inconsistencies in his explanations are very on brand. Back in 2021, when Chrissy Teigen was on her apology tour, Michael came out and said that he’d been bullied by her and hadn’t received an apology for her efforts to ruin his career back in 2014, which resulted in, he says, “thoughts of suicide”, among other things. But this was a true case of “you should’ve just sat there and ate your food”, because his response opened up a whole can of worms with people he had wronged in the past.
This article from The Cut outlines claims from Michael that alleged Chrissy came after him in a comment section on Instagram, saying he was racist for what he’s calling a “photoshopped comment floating around the internet … proven to be false,” adding that the comment came from a “disgruntled former employee”.
All of this originated from an instance where he worked with Black designer Maxie James, who accused him of co-opting one of her dresses. When she called him out on it, his response included the n-word. As we saw with Shereen, his story about what happened changed multiple times and in the end, he blamed an intern for the response.
After his public dispute with Chrissy, singer Leona Lewis then came forward with an experience of her own with Michael in a now-expired Instagram stories documented in The Cut article. She called it “awkward and uncomfortable” and said he and his team “clearly did not want to alter” the sample size she was given to try on. She revealed that she felt “embarrassed and deeply hurt” by the experience.
“At the next fitting, the night before the show, with no explanation at all, Michael refused to turn up…Because I didn’t look like a model size, I was not permitted to walk in his dress. I had to sit in the audience and was asked by press why I didn’t walk in the show. I remember having to come up with excuses as I was so humiliated by it all.”
His response to Page Six was, again, lackluster and highlighted his and Leona’s mutual admiration for each other. He chalked it up to him being candid about how he felt about Chrissy trying to blacklist him, adding that it was a “timeline” issue. But with him having dressed icons like Beyoncé, Jennifer Lopez, and Celine Dion, I’m sure he’s made it work with tighter timelines before. Welcome to the world of fashion.
As Leona was sharing her experience with Michael, someone else came forward. A makeup artist and photographer named Jordan Liberty accused him of sexually assaulting him while he was undergoing chemo. Talk about the plot thickening. Jordan revealed that Michael reached out to him via direct message and praised his work, finally asking him to shoot an upcoming collection. They agreed to meet, and Jordan says once the meeting was booked, Michael sent him “a collage of dick pics”.
“I immediately felt like if I don’t respond favorably to this, it’s not going to go well,” the article outlined, telling Michael he was flattered but wanted to keep things professional, saying he was reprimanded over the phone the next day when he called Michael to find out whether they were still meeting.
While all of these instances are especially heinous, Maxie James’ account of exactly what transpired between them is really mind-blowing. During an Instagram live chat with The Jasmine Brand, Maxie recalled Michael purchasing a design from her website and reselling it for a huge markup. She couldn’t reach him personally so she resorted to sharing a photo of the receipt and the dress on Instagram. And when the post went viral, he called her the n-word in the comments. She then went on to say they ran into each other in a fabric store a year later and the police showed up after a physical altercation that ensued.
With all of this as context, Shereen’s story immediately becomes more believable, despite her already providing the receipts for her claims. And speaking of context, she was asked about whether she had any insight into just how problematic Michael had been in the past. In a follow-up video, she describes being sent dozens of articles once she revealed she’d be walking for him, adding that she wasn’t aware of his past before the show, offering some insight into how these casting calls and model assignments go.
Shortly after releasing those two videos, Shereen revealed that Michael had blocked her on Instagram and that her account had been suspended. Despite being blocked, she was sent this video that Michael shared, where he makes it seem like he’s going to apologize for what transpired, but instead, apologizes for the fact that two friends of his, who just so happen to be Asian, “do not know the Renaissance track.”
I can’t describe how insensitive all of his responses have been. Shereen is highlighting some very valid concerns here, and while he’s not under any obligation to take accountability for things that are genuinely not his fault, he has to know that this is not the way to keep your already muddied name clear in the public eye.
I’ve shared before that I recently started posting more on TikTok. And on that platform, I have found a very self-aware, socially conscious group of people who, for the most part, are always rooting for the underdog. It’s why Shereen’s video has garnered nearly 2 million views and thousands of comments, mostly in support of her and her endeavors to advocate for herself and many other models who have found themselves in this unfortunate situation.
Though Michael seems to have gotten off easily from some especially heinous incidents, the picture Shereen is painting, and by all measures, the picture that Michael himself is painting, is that he’s a dick who lacks self-awareness and accountability – and that’s not going to bode well for him, despite him bringing in his legal heavyweight team and having her Instagram account be suspended.
But the other thing this whole debacle is doing is calling into question the role of ethics as it pertains to using AI in the modelling and fashion world. Already, we’re seeing that the use of AI can perpetuate racist and sexist imagery, as highlighted in this article by The Guardian. And even before AI, models have long complained about the manipulation of their photos and the erasure of their natural selves.
Shereen speaking out against a celebrity designer takes a lot of courage. And there are likely a lot of other models who have experienced some form of erasure at the hands of photographers and designers alike. So I have high hopes, but low expectations, that Michael will begin to lose clients as a result of this – particularly the big name ones who can show their solidarity with models like Shereen and designers like Maxie by refusing to work with him, which Chrissy vowed to do when her beef with Michael was born. Because when you’re dealing with this big of a douche, the only way to really send the message is to hit him where it’s guaranteed to hurt–his wallet.