In “Unseamly,” a new documentary available on Discovery+, women from all over the world reveal disturbing new allegations of sexual abuse by multimillionaire fashion mogul Peter Nygard, who was arrested in December. Nygard faces sex-trafficking, racketeering conspiracy, and other criminal charges in the U.S. involving teenage girls. More than 80 women from the Bahamas, Canada, and the United States have also joined a class-action lawsuit accusing Nygard and his women’s fashion company of rape, sexual assault, and sex trafficking.
Supermodel and former ELLE cover star Beverly Peele, who says she was violated by Nygard and had their child, appears in the documentary to talk about their relationship. Below, in her own words, Peele on reclaiming her identity—and learning to love her son.
There are so many fashion horror stories about casting couches and photographers taking advantage of young models. I was fortunate not to encounter anything like that while I was in the industry—at least not until I met Peter Nygard.
I was 27, and my girlfriend and I had just arrived at a house party in Marina Del Rey. The mansion on the beach looked like a big, beautiful tree house. Very Robinson Crusoe meets the lost boys from Peter Pan. Inside, the walls were lined with photographs of a blonde man with piercing blue eyes. An episode of Robin Leach’s Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous played on loop in the living room.
Out of nowhere, the man from the pictures sat down next to me and smiled. His hair was more grey than blonde in person, and his clothing made him look like a mix between Liberace and Siegfried Fischbacher.
“Pay attention,” he said to me, “I’m going to quiz you afterward!”
He pointed to the television. I hadn’t noticed, but Robin Leach was interviewing him in the episode of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous that was playing.
“Who is this flamboyant, full of himself, old white man?” I thought to myself.
It was Peter Nygard—and if I’d known what I was about to get myself into, I would have run away screaming.
My foray into fashion happened by chance. I took etiquette classes at Robinsons-May, a department store in California, where I also helped model clothes on weekends. That led me to enter modeling competitions. When I was 12 and a half, I landed a Gianni Versace campaign shot by Bruce Weber. Later that year, I became the first African-American model on the cover of Mademoiselle magazine.
As a teenager, I traveled all over the world for fashion shoots and runway shows. It was lonely work. Some days I woke up not knowing what country I was in or what language I was supposed to be speaking. But it was also lots of fun. During my first runway season, I carried a book bag with me everywhere so I could finish my schoolwork backstage. Meghan Douglas would help me with my algebra, and other models stopped by to help with history assignments.
Time & Life Pictures
I was well into my twenties when I met Peter, but my career didn’t show any signs of slowing down. Two days after that first visit to his Marina Del Rey mansion, I returned to sign a three-year long modeling contract with his fashion company. The ink was still wet on the paper when he violated me. It felt like an eternity, but it probably only lasted four minutes. I felt so ashamed afterward. This old man had taken what he wanted without asking.
The next morning a BMW truck with a big, purple bow on top appeared in my driveway. I assumed it was his way of telling me to keep quiet.
I didn’t tell anyone—especially not my fiancé—about what had happened. Our wedding was in three months and I didn’t to ruin that. Instead, I returned the car and put on my game face. I had just committed to a contract and I had work to do. But it felt wrong, in every sense of the word. I felt trapped.
My wedding was beautiful. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was actually pregnant. When my belly started to show, my husband got so excited about the baby.
It stayed exciting right up until he was born. My husband was Black, and I’m Black. But my baby boy white. I was in complete disgust. I didn’t want to hold or breastfeed him. My mom had to physically put him in my arms and take my fingers and make me hold him. It probably took a good two and a half months to come to terms with the fact that I now had a child with the man who had raped me.
[Editor’s note: A spokesperson for Nygard told ELLE.com he has “no comment” in response to the allegations made by Peele.]
I felt guilty, ashamed, and, most of all, scared.
My husband and I separated when Trey was 10 months old, but didn’t officially divorce until years later. I just packed up one day and said, “Look, I can’t be with you.” I didn’t have an explanation. I felt guilty, ashamed, and, most of all, scared.
Peter took an interest in Trey, becoming very concerned with his education and the sports he played. Peter also wanted shared custody of Trey, so that he could see him every Christmas and summer. That meant I also had to be there every Christmas and every summer.
It’s hard to explain why, but when I looked at the two of them together, it made me happy. I felt it was important for Trey to know his father, despite what he did to me.
Courtesy Beverly Peele
That’s not to say that seeing my violator with my child didn’t take a toll on my mental health. I had nightmares—screaming-drenched-in-sweat kind of nightmares—almost every night. But it was a trauma I tried to stuff deep down, a trauma I told myself I would deal with another day. Raising my son took precedence over any of my own issues.
When Trey turned 12—the same age I was when I became a model—he asked why I hated his dad so much. At the time, Trey was becoming a grown man. He had a little mustache, and long hair. He was tall, with muscles. Totally sports-obsessed, a good student.
It broke my heart to have to tell him the truth, but I did.
The question I get most is, “Why did you wait so long to come forward?” My answer is simple: I didn’t think anybody would have believed me.
Trey was actually the one who encouraged me to finally speak my truth. “Mom you have to speak out,” he told me one day. “Because if you come forward, maybe other women will follow in your footsteps, and you can set an example of how not to be afraid.”
It’s definitely helped us both heal. Now I want to help other people and provide a safe place for them to feel comfortable to talk about what they’ve been through. That’s something I certainly didn’t have that all those years ago, and I wish I had.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Staff Writer Rose is a Staff Writer at ELLE.com covering culture, news, and women’s issues.