Actress Asia Argento denies sexual relationship with underage teen

Jastinder KHERA
Italian actress Asia Argento became a powerful voice for the #MeToo movement after accusing Hollywood producer Weinstein of raping her when she was 21 in his hotel room in 1997 during the Cannes film festival

Italian actress and sexual abuse campaigner Asia Argento denied Tuesday having had a sexual relationship five years ago with an underage teen, calling the allegations part of "a long-standing persecution".

The New York Times reported on Sunday that Argento, 42, a Harvey Weinstein accuser and leading figure in the #MeToo movement, had paid actor and rock musician Jimmy Bennett $380,000 over the alleged 2013 incident at a Los Angeles hotel.

Bennett was two months past his 17th birthday at the time of the alleged encounter, while Argento was 37. The legal age of consent in California is 18.

In a statement Argento said her late boyfriend, celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain who committed suicide in June, gave money to Bennett upon the condition that "we would no longer suffer any further intrusions in our life,"

"I strongly deny and oppose the contents of the New York Times article... as circulated also in national and international news," a statement issued by her agent said.

"I am deeply shocked and hurt by having read news that is absolutely false. I have never had any sexual relationship with Bennett," it goes on.

Argento says that she was linked to Bennett "during several years by friendship only".

- 'Long-standing persecution' -

The pair had acted together in the 2004 film "The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things", in which Argento plays Bennett's troubled mother.

Argento said the friendship "ended when, subsequent to my exposure in the Weinstein case, Bennett -- who was then undergoing severe economic problems and had previously undertaken legal actions against his own family requesting millions in damages -- unexpectedly made an exorbitant request of money from me."

Addressing the issue of the payment of money to Bennett, Argento explained that Bourdain "was afraid of the possible negative publicity that such a person, whom he considered dangerous, could have brought upon us".

"We decided to deal compassionately with Bennett's demand for help and give it to him. Anthony personally undertook to help Bennett economically, upon the condition that we would no longer suffer any further intrusions in our life," the statement said.

"This is, therefore, the umpteenth development of a sequence of events that brings me great sadness and that constitutes a long-standing persecution," Argento said, before pledging to take "all necessary initiatives for my protection before all competent venues".

- 'Stunning level of hypocrisy' -

Argento became a powerful voice for the #MeToo movement after accusing Hollywood producer Weinstein of raping her when she was 21 in his hotel room in 1997 during the Cannes film festival.

Bennett's legal action was launched a month after Argento's accusations against Weinstein were made public, according to the New York Times report, which added that Bennett's lawyer claimed his client recalled the hotel encounter after seeing Argento present herself as a victim of sexual assault.

Argento made an emotional speech at this year's Cannes festival, telling the audience: "Things have changed. We are not going to allow you to get away with it."

Weinstein's lawyer Ben Brafman has sought to capitalise on the allegations against Argento, accusing her of "duplicity" and "a stunning level of hypocrisy".

On Monday police in California said that Argento was not currently under active investigation over the Times report but that "enquiries will be made".

The reality singing television show "X Factor Italy" on which Argento is a judge has said it would cut ties with her if the allegation was confirmed.