A few months ago, the infamous Instagram watchdog, Diet Sabya, broke a story on modelling agency TFM/360, highlighting the fact that they owed over 70 lakhs to nearly 12 models. The models had not been paid since 2018, despite all their efforts and a lot of legal notices. However, the story got more complicated as TFM claimed that not only had 70% of the models been paid their dues but that they were being defamed and wrongly portrayed by disgruntled models.
The story kept getting complicated and became a classic case of “He-said-she-said”. We contacted Ex-TFM Models, Arlette Grao and Seerat Mast, TFM Owner and Designer, Ashish Soni and an international Ex-TFM model Anne (named changed to maintain confidentiality). We decided to uncover this issue and get our (and your) facts straight.
TFM owes me three and a half lakhs. Instead of paying me what I’ve worked hard for, Ashish Soni has filed a defamation suit and is taking legal action against me!
We are not and will never withhold anybody’s payments, but times are hard, especially so during COVID-19. Nobody seems to understand that, not the models and not these media agencies who have conveniently made me a scapegoat. Since when is an Instagram page a… law?
TFM/360 was co-owned by Thomas Haugen and Soni. Having a foreign owner, it bore the promise of giving its models international placements and lucrative contracts. This attracted models like Grao and Mast to the agency and initially, they had a great run as well. But after a year or so, red flags began popping up. Grao says,
In 2017, I was the brand ambassador for Pretty Secrets and my payments kept getting delayed a lot. Despite asking for it, writing to Rishu and Preity (the managers), calling Ashish and trying in every way, I was ignored.
According to my contract, TFM was obligated to pay me within three weeks. But from September 2017 to May 2018, I didn’t get a single penny. I was new to the industry and thought it was normal. It was when I started freelancing and interacting with other models (after fulfilling my contractual obligation with TFM) I realised it was not.
Grao, who has bank statements and financial documents to back her claims, has sent three legal notices to Soni and TFM. They responded to the first one by stating she had breached her contract and defamed the agency, hence they had the right to withhold her payment. The remaining 2 notices have not been replied to yet. Mast too sent a legal notice, which received a similar reply. They also contacted Diet Sabya and other media outlets to get their story out.
Is asking for what I’m legally owed a breach of contract? When my contract with TFM ended, I took on freelancing jobs after the mentioned three-month cooling period. How is that a breach? How have I defamed them when I’m simply speaking the truth? These are just terms they’re throwing around to get out of paying me, and many others like me.
— says Grao.
We asked Soni to justify his legal actions, and he did. He said that COVID-19 affected TFM like it did all other businesses. As it is, in the modelling industry, clients withhold payments for up to a year, and the pandemic made it worse. He was sympathetic to the models’ situation, but not to how they went about it.
There are procedures in place to retrieve the money you’re owed. They should have filed a legal notice and taken us to court, which they rightfully did. But, spreading lies, derogatory statements and alleging that I personally owe them money isn’t right, and it is extensive defamation. They posted this on social media as well. Diet Sabya is the new court of law, is it?
TFM was mainly managed by Preity Venu and Rishy Bartariya, and most of the models were under their care. All three models claimed that at first both of them were extremely supportive and friendly. However, when the payments started getting delayed, their behaviour became suspicious. Grao alleges that they were responsible for jumbling up the financial ledgers and misappropriating details. A viral YouTube video by Ex-TFM model Shivani Bafna reveals that Bartariya threatened to send “Gundas” after her. Grao told us that this was not unusual as Bartariya came from a military background and often made such statements. The models also claimed that they were responsible for a toxic environment at TFM. Rishu was even accused of verbally abusing the models. However, it gets worse.
Anne was an international model who had signed with TFM and was working in Mumbai. She had friendly relations with Soni and Bartariya at first, but after four weeks of working with them, she started feeling uneasy. They didn’t take good care of her either. Anne says,
International models are supposed to be housed and taken care of in a certain way. I signed my agreement with TFM and got my work visa on these very conditions. However, TFM just put it on paper for official purposes and the reality was extremely different.
She was housed in an apartment in Bandra for which she was heavily overcharged. She was asked to pay much more than the rent and pay for a car and driver service which she never used, as the car was never in a functioning condition. More than half her salary would go towards such expenses, which she never got the benefit of. But this is not what tipped her over the edge. She says,
I was punched in my face by a drugged male model, twice. This happened in my apartment. I wanted to file a police complaint but Rishu emotionally blackmailed me and somehow made it seem like a terrible choice, for me and my career. She brushed it off completely. I wrote an email to Ashish about this, and narrated exactly what happened, but he didn’t even bother responding. I was so traumatised by this whole incident.
Not only was Anne physically assaulted, but also not paid for her work. TFM still owes her a lot of money. She says,
It’s not about the money really, but the human side of it. Why do they take advantage of models like us? The least he (Soni) can do is apologise to us, for ruining our lives and treating us badly. If it wasn’t for my personal contacts, I would have been out on the streets.
We asked Ashish if he was aware of this ghastly incident, Rishy’s role in it and her alleged toxic behaviour in general. He said,
I never got any email as such. As for Rishu’s behaviour, I have no knowledge of this whatsoever and personally find it to be completely untrue. Why would she ever do this? However if I knew about it and it was true, I would definitely taken action and terminated her employment. I would condone it to the highest level.
We contacted Venu but she declined to comment as she has signed an NDA. We also tried to get in touch with Bartariya but got no response.
Soni has been deeply disturbed with how he and his reputation have been dragged through the mud. He says that due to the pandemic, TFM started sinking. Cash flow into the company was cut off completely. He denies any form of misappropriation of funds and deliberately not paying TFM‘s models.
Never once did I deny anyone’s payment. If they are owed money, they will definitely be paid, but in due time. Due to the current scenario, there has been a massive cash-crunch, due to which payments are being delayed, but they won’t ever be forgotten about or written off, I personally guarantee that.
He refutes claims of stealing money and fudging ledgers by saying that TFM‘s financial history and records are available for public use on the Registrar of Companies online domain and they show no such misappropriations. Soni also started a grievance cell for this very issue and to help the models
Soni set up a grievance email address ([email protected]) which was managed by a lawyer to help settle claims fairly and legally. Soni says that the models who wrote in and had verified and honest claims were paid.
95 models have been paid and their dues have been settled via this grievance email. Those who have larger amounts are being paid in instalments. I encourage everyone to write in. If their claims are true, they will be paid.
Grao, when asked about this email address, said that it existed, but models were getting paid after heavy negotiations and pay-cuts. She says,
I tried using this and they bargained with me. They wanted to give me less than 50% of my dues! They justified this cut by stating I had breached my contract, which is not true.
The TFM scandal, while disastrous financially was also extremely taxing mentally. A small cut in our salary can affect our daily lives to a large extent, so one can only imagine what would happen if we weren’t paid a penny for months. Arlette was under so much financial duress that it began affecting her mental well-being. She says,
I didn’t have money to get a wax for an audition, or even take a rickshaw. It got that bad for me and then even worse when COVID-19 hit. Mentally, I was at an all-time low.
I was so traumatised after my physical assault that I just wanted to leave it all behind. I got no support from TFM and that really affected me.
Soni, who has also been affected by this says,
Social media and wrongful allegations have ruined my hard-earned reputation. Is that fair?
According to a written statement made to Live Wire, TFM has paid its models around Rs. 2.65 crores. However, models like Anne, Arlette and Seerat have still not been paid. However, Grao says that she will keep fighting. She wants her story to inspire other models and warn them to not trust easy and be passionate to the point of being gullible. She doesn’t want anyone to go through what she is.
Additionally, online news portals and social media pages have named Soni as the key accused in the TFM scandal, which Soni feels to be pure harassment. He says,
I’m in public view and I’ve been made a punching bag. I’m not running away from this. My stance has never been problematic, yet I’m bearing the brunt of it. I’ve been in this industry for 30 years, would I have survived if I was dishonest?
He further encourages other models to write to the ‘Grievance Cell’ and not get influenced by the “wrong” people who are making false allegations and filing wrongful police complaints as they will be dealt with sternly and legally.
Will the models be paid their dues? Can TFM/360 return from the dead and recover the reputation it lost? Are more defamation cases and lawsuits going to be filed? We want answers to these as much as you, but we guess only time will tell.
What do you think about this TFM scandal? Share your views with us in the comments below.