Exclusive: Model breaks down AI ‘whitewashing’ saga after Michael Costello walk

Exclusive: Model breaks down AI ‘whitewashing’ saga after Michael Costello walk
via @shereenwu / TikTok
Editorial Staff
November 10, 2023
Shereen Wu, the Taiwanese American model at the center of a recent AI “whitewashing” scandal, has revealed details of her personal experience surrounding the controversy — and what she hopes to hear from fashion designer Michael Costello.

Discovering the image

Wu, 21, walked for Costello on Oct. 22 at the Los Angeles Fashion Week organized by Art Hearts Fashion at The Majestic Downtown. On Oct. 24, Costello “re-shared” a digitally altered image of Wu’s look on his Instagram Stories, which the model discovered the next day through her mother.
“Michael Costello posted the edited photo on Oct. 24, but my mom didn’t see it until 12 hours later, on Oct. 25 at 9:47 p.m.,” Wu recalls to NextShark. “She was confused, sent me the photo and texted me ‘等一下打給你好嗎?’ (‘Wait a sec, can I call you?’)”
Wu took offense to the image as it replaced her face with that of a Caucasian woman’s. She said she soon found the original image in its photographer’s Instagram Stories.
“My initial reaction was provoked, then scared. How did this get approved? Did the designer do this? I’m too scared to ask — I typically avoid confrontations,” she says, adding that she was “heartbroken” to hear her mother’s reaction.

Confronting the designer

Wu says another model who was “closer” to Costello had offered to ask the designer about the image. But that model did not get back to her on the same day, so she decided to reach Costello herself:

“When I asked Mr. Costello why he replaced my head, I was brushed aside and simply told he couldn’t control what photographers gave him. It was so easy for him to just give me a reason and take responsibility. But he never did. I felt so small. What about the makeup artist’s work? What about the hairdresser who wanted images for his portfolio? None of us, to my knowledge, were getting paid; we do it for the exposure and for the art.”

Frustrated, Wu took to TikTok to shed light on her situation. In a screenshot of an alleged exchange with Costello, the designer claimed that he has “no control” over photographers or artists who send “pictures, videos, edits, illustrations, drawings, renderings or AI images” and concluded that there is “nothing” he can do about them.
Wu decided to contact the photographer, but they reportedly denied editing her image. “I did not edit the photos that do not clearly show my brand logo/watermark,” they wrote in response, as seen in another screenshot.

Alleged conflicting answers

In her now-viral TikTok video, Wu alleged that Costello gave three different answers to three different people. To her, Costello allegedly said it was the photographer’s fault. On the other hand, the photographer allegedly told her that the designer had been unsending his Instagram messages, all to make it seem like they were having a “one-sided conversation.” Meanwhile, the model who was reportedly close to Costello was allegedly told that the image in question was a “fan art” made with AI.
Costello deleted the controversial image from his Stories, Wu said in her video. Subsequently, the designer posted a series of AI art and profiles of AI models “as if to imply that everyone’s doing this or I am replaceable,” she said.
“Michael’s reply was what I put on my video,” Wu tells NextShark. “I debated on saying something, debating on keeping quiet. I sat in fear for three days, wondering what would happen to me if I were to speak out. I figured I would be complaining to a small corner of the internet, to my family and friends. I didn’t realize it would blow up to this extent. But I figured that if I don’t stand up, I’m betraying my own values and integrity. I’d rather face a hit to my budding career than to regret never standing up for myself.”
She adds, “As long as my story is out there, future models who feel scared like I was might have a bit more courage to speak their truth.”

Designer breaks silence

Days after Wu’s video blew up, Costello posted a statement on his Instagram Stories to explain his side. He said he “personally cast” Wu for his show — denying her claim that she was a “fill-in” model — and that he offered her compensation after learning she was unpaid.
The designer confirmed that the controversial image was an AI fan art. However, he pointed out that he did share the original image, which remains visible on his “Lafw” Story Highlights.
Costello said he apologized to Wu over text:

“I re-shared a fan art someone had sent me of an AI art of the very same image. I didn’t think before re-sharing it on my Instagram Stories as I was on an emotional rollercoaster, re-sharing all that I was tagged in. I take responsibility for the re-share of the image. I apologized to Shereen over text, and I offered to apologize to her over the phone for re-sharing the image. The show was my farewell show, and it was also a tribute to my aunt who passed away.”

Legal plans

Costello said he will not comment any further publicly on the matter. He ended his statement announcing a plan to move forward with legal proceedings.
“Over the past few days, my building has been vandalized, my family and co-workers have received death threats, and I’ve been subjected to hateful slurs,” Costello noted. “While I understand Shereen’s frustration with not being seen or heard, this has gone too far.”
He continued, “Her false allegations against me and my business, falsely accusing me of not paying her when she is aware she was hired by another company, falsely stating I didn’t cast her when she was confirmed on my list, all while attempting to harm my business’ livelihood based on previous allegations I’ve been exonerated from, is not the right way for anyone to start their career.”
Costello also shared a screenshot of a text he had sent Wu — which misspelled the model’s first name — but the latter tells NextShark she has not responded to it.

Before the show

In a document exclusively shared with NextShark, Wu details how she ended up in Costello’s show through Art Hearts Fashion. She says “hundreds of models” showed up at the Moxy, a hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, two weeks before the Fashion Week to “give the judges their best walk.” Judges, she says, “can include the Art Hearts casting department as well as designers.”
Wu says a model chosen by Art Hearts gets added to a “confirmed” list. “‘Confirmed’ just means that a model is cleared to show up on any of the four days of Fashion Week in hopes of being selected to walk on the runway,” she explains.
Having been confirmed, Wu was able to pick which day — or days — to walk. She chose all four days of the Fashion Week (Oct. 19-22) to improve her chances. Models, she shares, are “picked on the spot the day of the show from a general waiting room.”
But some designers like to have “a predetermined list” of models, she says. To fill that list, the designers would host and invite models to fittings, which are usually held at the designer’s workplace and may include 40 to over 100 models.
Wu illustrates how she was “confirmed” by Art Hearts Fashion. Image via Shereen Wu for NextShark
Wu says she was invited to Costello’s fittings on Oct. 16, but she describes the whole situation as “extremely confusing.” She details her experience to NextShark:

“Typically, the designer interacts with the model to get a feel for them and then have them try on a dress to see how it hangs on them. If the designer is pleased with it, they take note of the model’s name as a potential candidate to walk the runway. This is not a confirmation though. In my personal experience, I get confirmation the day before through text or I find out the day of. I did not get confirmation through text for Michael Costello.

“When I went to fittings for Michael, I went up the elevator to his store. First thing I see is a model sitting by the couch while Michael and his assistant spoke to each other. I stood there for a bit, afraid to disturb them before they acknowledged my presence. Michael and I only exchanged greetings: I introduced myself and shook his hand, before he quickly left for lunch break. The assistant just took a headshot and a video of us walking (‘us’ being I and another model, Sheba McMahon, at the fittings).

“My other fittings averaged from 30 minutes to 1.5 hours, but this fitting with Michael only took me around five minutes. ‘Easiest fitting ever!’ Sheba jokes. The next model (T) made brief eye contact with me before I went down the elevator with Sheba. My boyfriend didn’t even find parking at that time; it worked out such that he could just circle around to pick me up. Since the assistant didn’t fit me into any outfit, I was convinced I wasn’t walking for Michael Costello, and so I just called it a day. I did not know who he was other than that he was showcasing a collection for Art Hearts, and didn’t look him up because I didn’t want to get my hopes up.”

On the day of the show

Wu says she appeared on the days of the shows of the designers she had fitted for to confirm whether or not she was walking for them. On the last day of the Fashion Week, Oct. 22, she says she asked Art Hearts assistants and “the people in charge” whether she was walking for Costello.
“They told me no, I’m not walking for him, but still stay and double check with him,” she recalls.
Wu remembers sitting and staying on the couches with two models named Krista and Kennedy. Kennedy, she says, fitted for Costello as well, so they asked Art Hearts staff if they were on the list. They were told “that neither of us was on the final list” but were referred to do fittings for Natalia Fedner, another designer. In the end, Wu did not walk for Fedner.
Exhausted and recovering from a previous tailbone injury, Wu had been wanting to go home. Still, she checked in once again with Art Hearts staff, who told her to “double check with Michael Costello.” She says she then asked an assistant to the designer.
Text messages between Wu and models Kennedy and Krista. Image via Shereen Wu for NextShark
“I told her, ‘I just need a confirmed rejection and I can leave,’” Wu tells the assistant. Then, another assistant asked her to “walk for us,” so she did. “You’re not on the list, but just hold on tight,” she recalls them saying.
Wu says her chance arrived when Costello’s team could not find a model for “dress number 17.” She recalls the events that followed:

“The original name attached to this dress was a model named ‘O.’ They considered giving the dress to me or another model. Michael said, ‘Whoever the dress fits gets to walk in it.’ The other model, nervous to wear a long gown on the runway, let me try on the dress first. The assistant told me: ‘It fits! You’re walking’ before the other model could even try on the dress. This happened around 5 p.m.

“Call time for models was 2 p.m., and the show was set to start at 6:30 p.m. There was no way for me to know I was walking for Michael until after he had arrived and was physically present to pick me to fill in. He got to the venue around 4:00 to 4:30 p.m., which is considered quite late; for reference, hair and makeup takes about 1.5 to two hours.”

Moving forward

Wu says she has absolutely no demands from Costello “other than for him to reflect.” She says she wanted him to “admit his mistake” and “take responsibility” in the beginning, “but his actions and messages tell me he genuinely doesn’t believe he’s done anything wrong.”
The budding model says she only shared her story to encourage others who may find themselves in a similar situation, so that they would speak up “even in a power imbalance.” She confirms receiving a text from Costello’s assistant, in which, as seen in screenshots both parties had shared, her name was misspelled.
“I was sent a text. At first I saw ‘Hi Shereene’ in the preview. Well… they got my name and identity wrong,” Wu says. “I was so taken aback by it all and already overwhelmed that I found no energy to respond right away.”
Following Costello’s threat of legal proceedings, Wu reportedly contacted the Model Alliance, an advocacy group for fashion workers. She has since been referred to a lawyer.
 
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