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At Flaunt Magazine, a “progressive” workplace meant unwanted groping and kissing, lawsuit says

A new lawsuit accuses the magazine's CEO and editor-in-chief of harassment.

by Carter Sherman
Apr 11 2019, 9:36pm

Since at least fourth grade, Joseph Dalla Betta wanted to become a writer. So when Dalla Betta — who’s 25 and uses they/them pronouns — landed their first job in journalism with Flaunt Magazine, a self-described "satirical fashion and culture" publication based in Los Angeles, they were thrilled. In July 2018, Dalla Betta started working directly for the magazine’s CEO, Luis Barajas, as his assistant.

Dalla Betta can't remember how or exactly when the harassment started. But while working for a magazine that prided itself on being "provocative" with a "progressive and liberal attitude," Dalla Betta said they were repeatedly touched and kissed by Barajas, and once kissed and struck in the face by Matthew Bedard, Flaunt's editor-in-chief.

Now, nine months later, Dalla Betta no longer works for Flaunt and is suing the magazine, Barajas, and Bedard for sexual harassment, sexual battery, failure to stop discrimination, and a litany of workplace violations they say they endured while working there. Dalla Betta's lawsuit is seeking unspecified damages.

Barajas and Bedard declined to comment.

In an interview with VICE News and in their complaint submitted to a Los Angeles Superior Court Thursday, Dalla Betta described a workplace with few boundaries between workers’ professional and personal lives, where suggestive comments were routine and openly made, and where they were often expected to work late into the night at rowdy parties, without fair compensation. Flaunt also lacked any clear way to report sexual harassment or discrimination, according to the lawsuit.

“I felt incredibly anxious,” Dalla Betta said. “Like, yeah, paralyzed, really just, like, paralyzed in the rut of going to work and experiencing it and coming home and not being able to talk to my closest friends about it — and simultaneously feeling proud to have this job.”

At first, Dalla Betta thought that the expectations and behavior at Flaunt were normal in the journalism industry. They poured themselves into Flaunt, often working through weekends. At times, it felt like even the boundaries between Dalla Betta and the magazine itself had dissolved, because they felt the successes and failures of the magazine so intimately.

"LIBERAL" CULTURE

An independent magazine co-founded by Barajas in 1998, Flaunt covers art, culture, and fashion and publishes six issues a year. It hosts star-studded parties and its Instagram often features celebrities whose names might not be on marquees but are certainly recognizable to a generation that grew up on the internet, like Ross Butler and Natalia Dyer. Chloë Grace Moretz, Andrew Garfield, and Halsey have all appeared on recent Flaunt covers. Its staff is relatively small; Barajas is married to its creative director, the lawsuit says.

“[W]e are a casual office. We are also provocative and have a progressive and liberal attitude,” it says in a 2018 welcome packet Dalla Betta received, according to the lawsuit. “Please be aware that this is not your typical ‘office experience.’”

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Joseph Dalla Betta. Photo credit: Lucy-Bleu Knight

In August 2018, Dalla Betta traveled to Las Vegas with Barajas and Flaunt’s publisher for a fashion industry trade show, according to the lawsuit. It was only after that trip that some of this behavior began to feel like abuse, Dalla Betta said.

The three people were all booked for a shared hotel suite, where Dalla Betta was expected to take the couch and Barajas the master bedroom, according to the lawsuit. After gambling and drinking together, however, Barajas allegedly insisted that Dalla Betta sleep in his bed, despite Dalla Betta’s repeated protests.

Once they were in bed, Barajas started kissing Dalla Betta, even though Dalla Betta repeatedly pulled away and said no, according to the lawsuit. When Barajas allegedly wouldn’t stop, Dalla Betta pretended to fall asleep. The complaint says Barajas then started masturbating Dalla Betta, before masturbating himself until ejaculation.

Days after getting back from Las Vegas, Dalla Betta said, they told Andie Eisen — an associate editor at Flaunt and a friend who helped Dalla Betta get the job — about what happened, according to the lawsuit. Eisen confirmed to VICE News that Dalla Betta told her about the alleged assault, and is not named in the lawsuit.

“At that point, I definitely realized it was wrong,” Dalla Betta said. “But at the same time, I still felt it was kind of part of the job — something, like, I had to accept in order to continue there.”

“DEEP, DEEP UNSETTLING RAGE”

That wasn’t the last time Barajas touched Dalla Betta, according to the lawsuit. At one point, he mistook Dalla Betta’s teddy bear keychain, which was in Dalla Betta’s pocket, for their penis and fondled it, the lawsuit alleges. Barajas also kissed Dalla Betta four times, Dalla Betta alleges. One of those times, the lawsuit alleges, “Dalla Betta allowed Barajas to kiss them because, by that point, Dalla Betta felt resigned to the idea that providing sexual favors to Barajas was part of the job.”

At a work party in October 2018, Bedard, Flaunt’s top editor, kissed Dalla Betta on the lips and then slapped Dalla Betta three times across the face, according to the complaint.

“Bedard appeared to be very intoxicated and possibly under the influence of cocaine or another drug,” the lawsuit alleges.

Both Eisen and Jake Harrison, who then worked as Flaunt’s fashion assistant, told VICE News they witnessed the incident.

“I said, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ because I was standing right there,” Eisen told VICE News. She said she tried to pull on Bedard’s arm but he drew back and hit Dalla Betta again. “I could see Joey was trying to just hold it together.”

Still, Dalla Betta didn’t want to quit. Then, in early December, a Flaunt editor told Dalla Betta that Barajas had groped him and given him an unwanted kiss, the lawsuit alleges.

“At that point, I just — I cracked,” Dalla Betta said, describing “this deep, deep, unsettling rage” that someone else had evidently been abused. “We felt scared for just everybody in the space.”

Dalla Betta said that they met with Barajas and Bedard to confront them over what the lawsuit calls the “major boundaries issues within the workplace at Flaunt.”

“I know that we mix professional and personal relationships in this office, and if we need to separate those relationships from here on out, we can do that,” Barajas allegedly told the staffers. He added, “We will stop doing cocaine with the interns,” according to the complaint.

Two days later, at another work party, Dalla Betta heard that Barajas had groped a Flaunt intern’s boyfriend, according to the lawsuit. Less than a week later, the complaint says, Dalla Betta decided to go on medical leave, to treat anxiety and depression.

Days after that leave ended, Dalla Betta resigned.

“It was really disappointing, especially because I gave them, we gave them this opportunity to change their behavior,” Dalla Betta said. “I really had high hopes for both my place in the magazine and the magazine as an entity.”

Eisen and Harrison also said they quit their jobs. While Eisen now works for Playboy magazine, both Harrison and Dalla Betta said they are still looking for steady work in media.

For weeks, Dalla Betta said, they couldn’t even sit in front of a computer and write.

“It was so linked to Flaunt. The whole experience made me question why I was there in the first place and why they liked my writing, and it totally destroyed that for me for a moment,” they said. Dalla Betta wondered if they’d only been hired at Flaunt as a sex object, or if any compliments they’d received for writing were genuine.

Still, Dalla Betta is now sending out pitches to publications.

“It’s still challenging,” Della Batta said. “But I think everything is a little more challenging in the wake of trauma. I feel like I am rebuilding myself as a person.”

Cover image: Flaunt magazine's Luis Barajas in Austin, Texas on March 14, 2014. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Flaunt Magazine)