“Every girl is traumatised”: how “yachting” exposes the dangerous pursuit of fame

Written by Amy Beecham

It’s been happening for decades, but ambitious young women continue to be endangered in the pursuit of fame. Stylist investigates the practice of “yachting”, Hollywood’s shady open secret.

“Yachting” is one of the entertainment industry’s biggest open secrets, with A-list stars including models, actors and royalty being rumoured to have been involved in yachting during their careers.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, ‘yachting’ is used to describe the practice of being paid to spend time and be pictured with wealthy ‘clients’, often aboard megayachts. It is considered a popular formula for It girls and rising stars to raise their profile, but it has a murky underbelly of sexual exploitation, coercion and trafficking.

According to the podcast I Know I Sound Crazy, hosted by Ashelyn Galloway, aspiring actors and models, as well as those already in the industry who want to raise their profiles, often enter into yachting with the goal of making connections.

While yachting, they gain access to exclusive surroundings and social notoriety through the wealthy or famous men they accompany. However, the practice is not as luxurious as it might sound. 

As Galloway explains, women are often recruited by their co-stars or other yacht girls, and take the work believing it to be a modelling or acting job. But in reality, what appears to be getting paid to party and be pictured with wealthy businessmen actually blurs the line between perfectly legal and mutually beneficial relationships and speculated sexual solicitation. 

The term yachting gained media traction in 2013, when The Hollywood Reporter published an investigation into the culture at the Cannes Film Festival, claiming “models (and even some Hollywood actors) swarm the hotels and yacht parties” during the festival.

“Women installed on yachts in Cannes during the film festival are called ‘yacht girls’, and the line between professional prostitutes and B- or C-list Hollywood actresses and models who accept payment for sex with rich older men is sometimes very blurred,” is sometimes very blurred,” a veteran of the film industry told journalist Dana Kennedy at the time.

Quoting Elie Nahas, who ran a Beirut-based modelling agency before being arrested on charges of running a prostitution ring in 2007, the article continues:“You’d definitely recognise more than a few names from Hollywood,” he says. “These are actresses who made bad career choices and fell off the radar. They tell themselves what they’re doing at Cannes is OK, that they’re just on dates with rich men, when the reality is they’re doing what prostitutes do. But they like the money.”

Nahas was later convicted of supplying more than 50 women “of various nationalities” to rich Middle Eastern clients during the festival.

While yachting may be considered an open secret by some within the entertainment industry, it’s still hard to get people to talk about it.

“It’s been around for a long, long time and is a common factor in many different industries, but particularly in entertainment,” a popular culture expert, who wished to remain anonymous, tells Stylist.

“Yachting” is about more than being paid to party, it’s Hollywood’s murkiest open secret.

They agree that yachting is often displayed most prominently at events like Cannes. “You might see people on the red carpet and have no idea who they are, but there’s a reason why they’re being elevated. They’re being seen, but so is the person who invited them there.”

The expert claims that the strategic elevation of people, particularly women, is something they’ve seen firsthand in the industry. “You often see someone with a million followers, always travelling and being pictured on a private jet and you think: ‘Well, how are they doing that? Where are they going and who with?’”

The practice was broached by model Emily Ratajkowski in her 2021 memoir My Body, where she detailed being paid $25,000 at the start of her career to go to the SuperBowl with disgraced Malaysian financier Jho Low, who “‘just liked to have famous men and women around’”.

In an interview with The Sunday Times, Ratajkowski said: “I was on the clock,” and was “unaware” about what was expected of her during the date. She told the paper that she had been “unsure of why she was there, how long she had to stay and who her agent had to check with at the end of the night to find out whether she could leave”. 

In her book, Ratajkowski also describes how, from the age of 19, she would be invited to restaurants by a club promoter whose job, it seems, was to bring attractive women together for high-profile events.

“I’d only spent a handful of nights in clubs, but I knew that I didn’t particularly enjoy them. I didn’t like the music they played, or how drinks spilled on my bare legs, or how someone always seemed to be groping me,” she writes.

In one instance, she recounts being taken on an all-expense-paid luxury trip to Coachella festival alongside 14 other young models.

Describing a conversation she had while there, she writes: “A tall model with thick black hair and a nasally voice came and sat next to me. ‘So you know the big bald one is, like, a prince, right?… His mom is super-famous obviously. But yeah, I’ve heard him and his fiancee like to have threesomes…So they’re, like, always looking for girls for those.’”

Ratajkowski later describes watching a Victoria’s Secret model drinking with Low.

“He was drunk. A tray of shots appeared in front of him, and he grabbed two, handing one to the Victoria’s Secret model. She had ignored me and the other guests, her attention focused on Jho Low. Now she kept her eyes locked on him as he took his shot, throwing her head back dramatically as he did, only to quickly toss the alcohol over her shoulder. When he faced her again, her eyes sparkled and the famous dimples appeared on her cheeks. Damn, I thought, what a manoeuvre.”

Addressing the morality of the practice, she mused: “I liked to think that I was different from women like her… But over time, it became harder to hold on to that distinction or even believe in its virtue. I watched models and actresses guarantee themselves financial success and careers by dating or marrying rich and famous men.

“I couldn’t help but wonder whether those women were actually the smart ones, playing the game correctly. It was undeniable that there was no way to avoid the game completely: we all had to make money one way or another.”

Yachting is not as luxurious as it might sound.

Highlighting the grey territory and power imbalances that come with yachting, the culture expert tells Stylist that it’s all smoke and mirrors, and that the practice will always stay very mysterious. However, greater awareness is being raised surrounding the dangers associated with yachting.

“Conversations are finally starting to be had about the fact that sexual abuse and exploitation are endemic in society, and the information published around the sexual exploitation of young women and girls in Cannes is probably only the tip of the iceberg of what is taking place there,” the Human Trafficking Foundation tells Stylist.

“Misogyny, fear, grooming and shame force many victims to remain silent, particularly when there is a power dynamic as in these cases involving the very wealthy. Control isn’t always visible or through violence but can be carried out, for example, by holding a person’s passport, encouraging victims to take drugs or via threats such as revealing private pictures to their families.”

“Women need to be more aware that it’s happening,” stresses Galloway on her podcast. “Social media feeds this, and people don’t always realise the lifestyle they’re promoting.”

“Every story I’ve heard [about yachting] is negative. Every girl has some kind of trauma after.”

Refuge supports victims of human trafficking and modern slavery across its national services, which can be accessed via its website and the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247.

Sexual assault referral centres provide a safe space and dedicated care for people who have been raped, sexually assaulted, or abused. If you have been raped, sexually assaulted or abused and don’t know where to turn, search “sexual assault referral centres” to find out more or visit www.nhs.uk/SARCs to find your nearest service. 

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