[Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Jim McGuire was a co-creator of the Transformus festival. Organizers have stated he was not a co-founder of the event, nor did he ever hold a leadership position, but was known as a longtime participant. It also misstated that Yoga One, where the event described below was held, is located in NoDa. It is in the Plaza Midwood neighborhood. We apologize for these mistakes.]
On Saturday, May 12, Linda Simthong sat with five other panelists in a hot room at Yoga One to talk about the #MeToo movement. Many of her fellow panelists were there to address sexual harassment in the yoga community. But Simthong had a different story to tell.
Before Simthong appeared at the Saturday event to speak publicly about her experience, she sat down with Creative Loafing and opened up about an experience that changed her perspective on the Charlotte arts scene and harassment in the workplace.
It all started with a text.
According to Simthong, after a long day managing a fashion shoot, she took a much-needed breather on a couch in Studio 1212, where she had hosted the event. Exhausted, sweaty and believing she was alone, Simthong kicked up her heels, laid her head back and browsed through her phone. Her shirt rode up, exposing her midriff, but Simthong didn't bother tugging it down. It was hot and she was alone.
Or so she thought. Moments later, according to Simthong, she received a text message which, to her horror, contained a real-time photo of herself. The caption read, "Sexy."
Simthong, 33, was being watched.
The text was from Jim McGuire, 58, the local photographer who owns Studio 1212. Simthong said he'd made unwanted passes at her before and that it had made her uncomfortable. But this was the first time she felt unsafe.
- Simthong hosted multiple events at Studio 1212 and says she was harassed by its owner, Jim McGuire. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
By now, most Americans are aware of the #MeToo movement, an international campaign against sexual harassment that took shape following allegations against movie producer Harvey Weinstein in October 2017. Supporters of #MeToo began using the hashtag #TimesUp as a warning to those who had mistreated women that their day of reckoning would come.
Since then, the #MeToo movement has come home to roost in Charlotte, as multiple high-profile men have faced not only public allegations but legal and civil actions against them.
Kyle Conti, owner of Charlotte Yoga, faces allegations from two former employees who say he groped and harassed employees and clients, creating a "sexually hostile work environment," according to their complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Conti stepped away from the business in April after facing more criticism for posting a picture of himself in nothing but a towel on the morning of his meeting with his two accusers. Along with the photo were the words, "When your integrity is questioned & you get the opportunity today to look your accuser in the eyes you wake up at 4 am so excited for that moment..."
Prominent Charlotte eye doctor John Christenbury, owner of Christenbury Eye Center, voluntarily surrendered his medical license in November after two former employees filed a lawsuit against him alleging he maintained a sexually hostile workplace environment.
Now, Simthong says she was sexually harassed in the workplace, and is pointing to McGuire, a well-known and well-respected artist in Charlotte's creative community.
McGuire is highly regarded as a photographer, and in the past has done work for Creative Loafing. His studio shares a sheet metal duplex with The Actor's Lab on 10th Street near Central Avenue in Plaza Midwood. It often doubles as an event space and is known for hosting a series of art parties earlier this decade called "The Happening."
Simthong said she began working with McGuire at Studio 1212 in March 2017. "I was looking for a place to do a fundraiser for Standing Rock. A friend recommended the studio to me and it was perfect," she told Creative Loafing. "We had access to a full studio, stage, a DJ booth. I was very grateful."
After the fundraiser was a success, Simthong said, McGuire expressed interest in partnering with her to bring more diverse events to the studio. She had recently founded an organization called School of Jai, which focused on diverse community events, and the partnership seemed a natural fit. She would schedule and manage events, then pay a percentage of the earnings to the studio in exchange for the space.
"After I finished two events, I liked our working relationship. He was becoming a great business mentor to me and I felt invested in the studio," Simthong said. "I asked if he needed any extra help there and he said he needed someone to clean twice a month."
After that, Simthong said, things got weird.
During one event, according to Simthong, a friend of McGuire's told her to be careful where she undressed in the studio. "It didn't make any sense to me at the time, but I didn't press the issue," she said. "I thought, 'I don't undress here, I manage events and clean. Why would I take off my clothes?'"
Then, Simthong said, "One day in August, I was supposed to come in and clean. He texted me that morning to say I didn't need to clean, but I could join him for lunch if I wanted. I wore wedges, shorts and a tank top — a typical summer outfit. When I arrived, he asked me if I was coming on to him because of the way I was dressed. I told him I was only interested in a professional relationship, that I respected him and my job, and saw him as a mentor. I told him if it ever crosses the line from professional to personal, our relationship would have to end."
Creative Loafing reached out to McGuire, who said he remembered the lunch, but recalled Simthong inviting him rather than him inviting her. "She invited me maybe the day before," he said. "She arrived and she looked like she was kinda sexy and I was confused by that. I just wanted to clear the air because it felt weird she would ask me to lunch, then show up dressed sexy. I just wanted to establish boundaries."
According to Simthong, after she told him she was only interested in a professional relationship, McGuire persisted: "He said, 'I actually think we'd make a good couple.' And so then I told him I was already in a relationship and he started asking a lot of prying questions about my boyfriend."
McGuire said he does not remember that part of the conversation. "I don't think so," he said, laughing. "She's not my type. I might've said it as a joke, but I can't imagine why."
After lunch, Simthong told her boyfriend and another close friend what McGuire had said, and that he had made her feel uncomfortable. Creative Loafing reached out to both parties, who confirmed the exchanges.
"After that happened, I became more cautious," Simthong said. "He would often make comments about my appearance. Nothing crazy, but I didn't think they were appropriate.
"That progressed into him telling me graphic details about his sexual encounters with women," Simthong said. "I was like, 'I'm not interested,' and he was like, 'Am I saying too much?' I told him I wasn't cool hearing about this. He also talked a lot about black women and their bodies. He would make comments about my clients' bodies who were black women."
"I don't remember having those conversations with her about women's bodies, but I'm kind of an open-book person," McGuire said. "I have been accused of oversharing, and I thought we were pretty close friends, so I might've shared something like that."
Appropriate conversation between bosses and their associates is a big topic of discussion in the corporate, entertainment and arts worlds today, in light of the rush of #MeToo allegations. Creative Loafing reached out to Red Ventures, a company known for being a fun and irreverent work environment, where co-workers often form friendships, and asked whether or not comments such as the ones Simthong remembers would be considered appropriate at that company.
Maghan Cook, Red Ventures vice president of communications, declined to comment on this specific case, but said, "Companies must do everything they can to create safe, productive environments where their employees are able to do their best work. No good work environment tolerates harassment in any way."
In early October of 2017, according to Simthong, McGuire invited her to lunch again. She hoped he would honor her earlier request that he not cross personal lines. "I hoped it'd be productive for our professional relationship," she said.
It wasn't, she said. According to Simthong, who is of Asian heritage, McGuire began telling her about an encounter he'd had with an Asian woman.
"He started talking to me about her body, especially about her rear end," Simthong said. "Then he said, 'Most Asian women don't have curves, but you have a nice ass.' I said, 'Yo, that's not cool. Don't talk about my body like that.' And he said, 'Oh, I forgot, you're sensitive about stuff like that.' I said, 'I'm not sensitive. I'm serious.'"
Again, McGuire remembers the exchange differently. "Wow — I can't imagine saying that. I don't think I said that," McGuire said. "I mean, I don't remember that conversation. I might've said something like that. Yeah, it's possible. I'm a fashion photographer. I talk a lot about women's bodies in general. She might've been offended by something."
It was the final straw for Simthong. "After that, I knew I couldn't be there much longer," she said. "I could've left at that point, and I should have, but I had four more events booked and I needed those shifts. I thought, because it was just words, I could deal with it a little longer. But I knew I had to leave right after. The environment was no longer conducive to my well-being, and professional and personal lines were being crossed."
- Simthong (center) at a recent panel event with (from left) Jasmine Hines, Kelly Carboni-Woods, Grace Millsap and Vivian Selles. (Photo courtesy of Amplify & Activate)
The first of two events Simthong worked happened on October 21, 2017. It was a women's fashion photo shoot, and it was after this event that Simthong said McGuire texted the photo of her on the couch inside the studio.
"I was terrified, not just for myself but for all the other women and girls who had been in there," Simthong said. "They had been undressing in there all day during the shoot. I knew I couldn't have been the first one he spyed on."
According to McGuire, he had every right to photograph her. "She was laying on my couch, in my lobby, under my employment," he said. "She knew all about the secret cameras — I don't want to say 'secret' cameras — she knew all about the security cameras. I even showed her how to use them one time. She knew they existed."
McGuire said he has a camera in Studio A, the big room where he holds events, which records a couple days of information in case there's a break-in. There's another camera in the lobby, and another in Studio B, which is where Simthong was on the night in question. All of the cameras have wide-angle lenses and can be moved around.
"I usually keep them pointed at the doors," McGuire said. "They're big, they have blinking red lights on them." In addition to their visibility, McGuire said he's posted signs in front of his studio which state the area is under surveillance.
"I don't go out of my to not tell people there's cameras there. They're super easy to see," McGuire said. "There's absolutely no hidden cameras anywhere except... well, there aren't any. There never was a shower cam, actually. There never was a dressing room camera."
The shower camera McGuire is referring to involves a story that showed up on social media after Simthong shared her experience at Studio 1212 in a Plaza Midwood Facebook page post. Wyley Buck Boswell, a booking agent who is well-known in the Charlotte music community, said he dated a woman who, in 2010, briefly lived at Studio 1212 with three other people. One day, the woman contacted Boswell, distraught, and told him that after showering, she was walking back to her room when she heard McGuire and another man laughing in another room. The door was cracked and she looked inside to find the two of them staring at a monitor, Boswell said.
The monitor displayed a live feed of the bathroom the woman had just walked out of, according to Boswell.
After hearing this, Boswell said he drove to the studio to confront McGuire. "As soon as [McGuire] saw me, he said, 'I know why you're here,' and in a nutshell told me he wasn't proud of what he'd done, that it was meant to be a joke and he'd used poor judgement. I told him he was a pervert and that I'd be packing her things and moving her out right away. Then, he got down on his knees, begged for my forgiveness and asked me to punch him. At that point, I thought it was getting pretty weird, so I said 'no thanks' and left."
Boswell returned the following day to move his girlfriend out, he said. McGuire later came to the home Boswell shared with his girlfriend and again got on his knees, this time inviting Boswell's girlfriend to punch him, according to Boswell. She declined. She has since moved to another state and CL was unable to reach her for comment.
But, Boswell said, "I don't mind telling my part of this story with [McGuire], because it happened, and clearly it's still happening. It doesn't surprise me, with the kind of cronyism going on around him and how some people are saying what he does for the art community outweighs violating people in this way."
McGuire confirmed the shower story is true, but said it was all a big misunderstanding.
"I was shooting a movie that had a shower scene and I told her I put a camera in the shower," McGuire said. "Me and my friend were expecting her to put on a show when she went in there, but I guess she just didn't even hear when I said the camera was in there. When she came out, we were like, 'Oh wow, that was great show' — knowing she could hear us, but she just totally took it the wrong way.
"The facts are: We were shooting a movie with a shower scene and I put a camera in there to test it and she just happened to be taking a shower," McGuire said. "It was so boring, there was nothing to it, you couldn't even see anything. I would say it was a bad joke gone really bad. I felt terrible and said, 'I'm so sorry,' and then she ran and told her boyfriend. We're still best friends. I love her. She's like my daughter. So I felt terrible and I wanted her to hit me."
Creative Loafing reached out to the friend McGuire said was with him that day, but the friend said he could not recall being there during the incident.
In addition to Boswell's story, a photo surfaced on Facebook, reportedly taken from McGuire's personal account, showing a room full of half-dressed women in what appeared to be a dressing room at 1212. None of the women were looking at the camera or seemed to be aware a picture was being taken of them. According to McGuire, "There is a lobby that was being used for a green room and that lobby has a camera, but the picture that showed up, I believe, was taken with my iPhone. I walked in there just to see what was going on because it was a public area. It was a bathing suit fashion show, so it probably looks like everyone was scantily-clad, but it was just a fashion show."
Said Simthong, "No one deserves to be watched without their consent, especially when their body is showing."
Other people who have come forward with stories about 1212 declined to speak to Creative Loafing, citing intimidation and McGuire's power and stature in the community.
In addition to McGuire's aforementioned creative clout, he also works with some of the bigger corporate clients in Charlotte: Bank of America, Harris Teeter, RBC Centura, Carolinas Healthcare System (Now Atrium Health), Time Warner Cable (Now Spectrum) and even the Girl Scouts of America.
Community stature of accused offenders seems to be a common deterrent for victims who have been allegedly preyed upon. Many don't go public for fear of being ostracized. At the May 12 Yoga One event addressing the Kyle Conti case and the topic of harassment in the yoga community, Adam Whiting, a lead teacher at Charlotte Yoga, explained the dynamic.
- Simthong (black shirt, background), shares her story with attendees of the recent Yoga One event. (Photo by Grace Borchers/SweatNet CLT)
"There is a tendency to look at the teacher as a guru or the guide or the person responsible for this (life) change, when it's the practice (of yoga), not us," Whiting said. "Remember your first teacher? Mine were on a pedestal for me ... they were god-like."
Vivian Selles, a yoga teacher, shared her experience with the fallout from the Conti accusations.
"When the recent news broke about Charlotte Yoga, I had known about that for a while, because it happened to my friend. And it shook me to my core just having to sit on it," Selles said. "When the article came out, I watched social media, and I saw all these teachers in the community gaslight the victims, shame and blame the victims, question their sanity and their truth. I was watching teachers I had a lot of respect for, people we hold up on pedestals, do this. It was very disappointing."
The event was the first of a four-part series of community discussions on ethics in the yoga community, organized by Grace Millsap Yoga and the group Amplify and Activate.
Simthong broke down in tears while sharing the story of her Studio 1212 experience. The audience of about 60 men and women remained silent as they waited for her to continue. "I decided to go public so people, at the very least, can make an informed decision if they want to go there," Simthong told the attendees.
Simthong's last day at the studio was October 24. McGuire was out of town on a planned trip, which allowed her to finish her remaining events without him present. She didn't speak with him again until November 6, she said, when she decided to confront him via Facebook Messenger. She said he first claimed it was a joke and that he'd made a bad choice. When she persisted in asking him how long he'd been spying on people, she said, he told her he saw a "monster" inside her, and then, "He said, 'I know you're really upset. Come to my studio and unleash it on me.'"
Like both Boswell and his ex-girlfriend before, Simthong said she declined McGuire's invitation.
McGuire does not dispute Simthong's account. "I wanted her to get that anger out of herself. I invited her to confront me and us work it out," he told Creative Loafing. He then proceeded to tell CL, unsolicited and on the record, a private story of personal trauma Simthong had confided in him much earlier, as a friend. He said he was sharing this information because he thought the "monster" inside her had come from her trauma. We will not include those details.
After Simthong confronted McGuire, she said, she contacted his friend who had warned her to watch where she took off her clothes, texting, "Thanks for the warning. It happened to me."
The man replied, "A king will have his pleasures."
"People see him as some sort of god or something like a cult leader," Simthong told CL. "They all benefit from him in the underground art world, whether it's from photography or just the clout of being associated with him letting them make a name for themselves within that community."
After Simthong posted her story in the Plaza Midwood Facebook group — a group with more than 8,500 members — on January 17, some members of that community rallied around McGuire, she said.
"The backlash I got was interesting. So many people wanted to humanize the predator, but they never thought about those who'd been victimized," Simthong said. "People I respected told me, 'Think of his kids,' 'Think of his humanity,' 'You're causing bloodshed,' and 'Do you really want him to be known for this?' — like I should take responsibility for his behavior."
Teresa Hernandez, an administrator for the Plaza Midwood Facebook group, said she doesn't believe anyone removed or blocked Simthong from the group. "Her post was removed because it was against the group rules of flaming a person," Hernandez said. "We try to screen for potentially defamatory content. We've had, in the past, several instances where people made accusations and the accused party denied it. We admins are not in a position to investigate and determine who's telling the truth."
Simthong said she was approached by some of McGuire's friends to participate in a community forum at Studio 1212 to discuss the issue. "They came to me and said, 'We want to mediate it, and we'll have 100 people there, half your guests and half his. He wants to give a public apology.
"But I don't want a public apology, I want him to recognize he has a problem and get help," Simthong said.
McGuire posted a public apology to Simthong on his Facebook account. It read, in part, "You are a beautiful person and friend. I have betrayed the trust we had. From the bottom of my heart, I ask your forgiveness."
"I don't want to be known for this," Simthong continued. "I'm speaking up because silence enables predators. I call him a predator and I don't back away from that. He preyed on me. I wish more people would speak up. This isn't about if Jim's a good person or not, it's about a public safety issue. Incidents like these have been a concern for me all my life. I'm in my 30s now and I'm gonna speak out. Time's up."