Do you believe Chloe Ayling? She is the 20-year-old glamour model whose dramatic story has been all over the newspapers throughout August. She claims to have been lured to a fake photoshoot in Italy, injected with ketamine, stuffed inside a suitcase and shoved into the boot of a car.
So far, so just about credible. But the story becomes ever more bizarre. Ayling says she was then driven to a farmhouse, where she was threatened with being sold via an online auction as a sex slave to a man in the Middle East, who – we must assume – has a taste for busty blonde British babes. Not only was he willing to stump up £273,000; he was also prepared to ‘feed her to tigers when he became bored’.
In a thrilling twist, Ayling then apparently managed to charm her captor. Despite the £39,000 ransom fee not being paid, he decided to set her free. He drove to the British Consulate in Milan, promptly handed her over, and was arrested. Somewhere along the way, the pair reportedly even managed to find time to go shoe-shopping. It’s unclear, though, whether she was still zipped inside the suitcase at this point.
It’s a sizzling summer story that seems destined to keep running. Lots of people think it must be a publicity stunt, which has in turn caused a backlash from Ayling’s defenders. The Mail on Sunday and an alliance of feminists are standing up for her. The paper has reportedly paid thousands for the rights to her tale, because the public also has a penchant for busty blonde babes.
The cast of side characters is intriguing, too. There’s Ayling’s ‘close friend’ Carla Bellucci, who was on TV soon after the story broke. She revealed Ayling had responded to the trauma with a Page 3 photo shoot ‘as her way of coping’. Then there’s Phil Green, Ayling’s former agent from Supermodel Agency. He says he is ‘hacked off’ Ayling dropped him on her return to the UK. There’s also her lawyer, who claims that it is ‘evil’ to suggest Ayling was somehow involved in her own kidnapping.
The glamour model’s new agency is Kruger Cowne, a far more sophisticated PR outfit with illustrious clients including Alastair Campbell and Claudia Schiffer. The agency’s website says Ayling is no longer a model. She is now described as an ‘anti-human trafficking activist’, who ‘recognises she is not an expert witness’ but is able to ‘speak from the heart on her first-hand experiences’.
I wondered if she would speak to me, so I got in touch with her agent and put forward my proposal. Might Miss Ayling be prepared to discuss the kidnapping and how it has been portrayed? Miss Bellucci has suggested Ayling wants to be famous and would be ‘willing to go all the way’. Is that fair? After an initial reply that asked about my other ‘sources and contributors’, things went quiet.
One particularly disturbing aspect of the story was the ‘Black Death’ group, a crime syndicate reportedly in the business of abducting women and selling them via the Dark Net. After Ayling’s release, Italian police found a letter from the group written in English. It suggested her capture had been a mistake. At the top of the letter was a picture of a group of plague doctors, which, incidentally, is one of the first images that comes up if you search online for ‘black death’. The letter also said Ayling was obliged to ‘sneak a pre-determined set of information into the media’ once home. This response seemed surprising from such a malevolent group. Stranger things happen, I suppose.
I contacted the National Crime Agency’s Modern Slavery Human Trafficking Unit, and was put through to a woman who seemed more forthcoming than Kruger Cowne. I asked whether the NCA was concerned about women being trafficked via the Dark Net, and whether the agency did anything to prevent it. She said the vast majority of trafficking happens on ‘the open web’. Most people forced into servitude are vulnerable and searching for a better life, she said, and it is within traffickers’ interests to appear legitimate. Given the volume of trafficking via more orthodox channels, the NCA doesn’t consider it a worthwhile use of their resources to monitor the Dark Net.
Which is not to say Ayling’s story isn’t true. It makes it seem more implausible but not impossible. Perhaps her tale would be more widely believed if she were a ‘middle-class girl from the Home Counties’, as her new agent has suggested. Maybe the other models mocking her by posting photos of themselves in suitcases are just being horrid.
It is the case, though, that anyone who dares question her account is accused of reinforcing ‘rape culture’ — never mind that her story begs many questions. ‘Blaming women perpetuates a cycle of violence,’ argued journalist Vonny Leclerc in defence of Ayling. ‘We must be mindful of the stereotypes and narratives certain reactions reinforce.’ Whether the story is true doesn’t seem to matter, then. It must be accepted as an important parable about how men always exploit women.
But the NCA’s approach at least implies that Ayling’s alleged experience is an anomaly. Most trafficking victims cannot generate massive publicity. They tend not to have an agent — or two. There will not be book deals and documentaries. Real people smugglers won’t use ghoulish medieval monikers because they don’t want us to pay attention. And most of the time, we won’t. The campaign to combat modern slavery has become a cause célèbre in the past few months, but the point the NCA woman was trying to convey is that the usual stories tend not to be salacious. They are depressing — and we’d rather not hear about them. Give us babe-munching tigers, even if it does turn out to be fantasy. The truth is by the by.