French prosecutors said Monday that they had opened an investigation against Gerald Marie, former European boss of the Elite Models agency, on allegations of rape, including of a minor.
The probe into the ex-husband of supermodel Linda Evangelista follows a complaint from a former BBC journalist and claims of abuse by three ex-models, the Paris prosecutor's office told AFP.
A specialist child protection unit will lead the investigation into allegations of "rape and sexual assault, as well as rape and sexual assault of a minor," the office said.
The investigation will be based on criminal complaints lodged by women for alleged assaults between 1980 and 1988. Under the statute of limitations, this is probably too long ago to be brought before a court now.
This is one of the issues that must be determined by the investigation, which in France does not necessarily result in trial.
Former BBC journalist Lisa Brinkworth claimed that in October 1998, when she was posing as a model while doing an investigation, Marie sexually assaulted her in a nightclub, pushing his genitals against her abdomen.
She was working undercover on a documentary into allegations of inappropriate sexual behaviour towards models -- many of them underage -- in certain agencies.
Brinkworth has said she was traumatised by the event, but was prevented from coming forward by an agreement between the BBC and Elite in 2001 following a defamation suit.
Her lawyers hope this restriction on her speaking out can be a basis for bypassing the statute of limitations.
Brinkworth's complaint is accompanied by claims from three former models of alleged rape by Marie in Paris when they were teenagers or young women.
Carre Sutton has accused him of "countless" rapes that happened in 1986, when she was 17, Ebba Karlsson of an incident in 1990, when she was 20 or 21, and Jill Dodd in 1980, when she was 19.
These alleged crimes may also be beyond the statute of limitations, which restricts the amount of time after an alleged offence that legal proceedings can be launched.
AFP could not reach Marie's lawyer for comment on Monday. Over the weekend, the former modelling boss "categorically" denied the claims to The Sunday Times.
The BBC also did not reply to a request for comment.
Brinkworth's lawyer Anne-Claire Lejeune welcomed Monday's announcement by the Paris prosecutors.
"This investigation will, I hope, give others the courage to speak up. This is an encouraging first step and a relief for the victims," she said.