By Liu Meilian
Three decades ago, a fashion show featuring foreign models in the five-star State-owned Beijing Hotel left many Chinese people stunned. These days, if you walk around downtown Beijing, tall, slim beautiful figures with blonde hair and blue eyes can be seen everywhere. Women’s magazines, catalogues, billboards and commercials are filled with their ads.
In a country with a population of 1.3 billion people, the Chinese fashion industry favors Western models to make it look yangqi, or trendy.
As China’s fashion industry grows more confident, the market for foreign models is booming. However, life as a foreign model is not as glamorous as it looks from the outside, and far removed from the glitzy lifestyle that people typically read about. As Meredith Hattam, an American model who blogs about her adventures in China, describes, it is “the dregs of the modeling world, the bottom rung of the high fashion ladder.”
Why China? Compared to the highly competitive and overcrowded Western market, China’s growing modeling industry offers foreign models the opportunity to earn good money.
International luxury brands such as Gucci and Coach prefer to use Chinese stars to model their goods in order to lure Chinese customers, while local Chinese brands prefer to use foreign models to give their goods more of an international feel.
“We will suggest that our clients use foreign models more than Chinese ones,” Chique Wang, senior photographer of Beijing-based Chic-vision Photography Co, Ltd, told the Global Times.
“As many of them only stay in the country for a short period, it is less likely to cause legal problems regarding the use of their images,” Wang explained.
However, it is not always easy to make good money in this business. While internationally known top models can make 100,000 yuan ($16,500) a day, student models may make as little as 800 yuan. Some experienced models are overwhelmed with work, while others are lucky if they get one job a week.
For those who have signed contracts, 50 percent of their income goes to their agencies. Some models’ pocket money could be cut off if they put on weight, and others who earn thousands of dollars could end up leaving the country broke.
While modeling in Beijing, Hattam had 12 roommates in a shabby, dorm-like apartment that had four bedrooms and two bathrooms.
“When we arrived, I found I had no bed — only a stained, faded couch covered in a fake Gucci blanket, for which I was charged $500 a month,” she wrote.
Still, China provides easy entry for foreign models who don’t fit the 34-24-34/5’10 modeling standard, as Hattam points out.
“At 5’9 (‘short’), in my mid-20s (‘old’) and a curvier-than-average frame (‘fat’), I probably wouldn’t have worked as a model in Paris or Milan, but I was embraced by Istanbul and China,” she wrote.
A Ukrainian model in Guangdong Province, who identified herself as Ann, agrees. “In many European countries, where a model’s career ends at around 22 years old, the number in China can be extended to 26 if they are still skinny and beautiful.”
“Even though some don’t make that much money in China, they’ve gained modeling experience and have many sample photos,” Wang continued.
The demand for foreign models is growing, but many insiders say there is a lack of professional models in China, as most Chinese clients use foreign students as models.
“A lot of clients cannot see the difference between a model and a student. We all look the same to them. So hundreds of unprofessional people take your jobs,” an insider who refused to be named told the Global Times.
This is where former model Anna Kiryukhina from Russia saw an opportunity. In 2002, Kiryukhina set up Modelline, one of the first international agencies in Beijing. Now a subsidiary of M Group, it has become the largest agency in the country, with offices in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. They have over 200 contracted models, with a large number coming from Russia.
Before coming to China, Kiryukhina worked as a model in South Korea for a year in 2001. She heard a lot from her friends about the booming Chinese market, so she decided to give it a try.
With 12 years of experience, Kiryukhina soon realized she could do more than just modeling in China.
“At that time, the Chinese market was not known well and was poorly understood by professional agencies and models of the world,” she told the Global Times. “I worked myself as a model and at the same time I started to bring models from abroad.”
Each year, the agency brings about 150 models from around the world to China. These girls usually have three-month contracts. The agency provides them with flight tickets, accommodation, photo shoots and a living allowance.
The biggest obstacle for foreign models working in China is visa problems. Unlike the US, where outstanding models can be granted model visas, or in Europe where models can obtain work visas, the Chinese government does not officially recognize modeling as a profession.
“In China you need a degree to apply for a working visa. Abroad, there are no modeling universities, so it just doesn’t make sense,” one insider said.
Most of the models end up getting a three-month tourist visa and work illegally. They have to pack and leave after three months.
Moreover, many Chinese clients and agencies like seeing new faces. Not many of them are willing to provide the proper paperwork.
Hiring a foreign model is easy. Google “foreign model” in Chinese, and you get over 15 million results. Many Chinese agencies put their contacts out there, which means a foreign model is just a phone call away.
Some inexperienced models started their careers with Taobao, the country’s leading online shopping platform. A Chinese model gets 300 yuan a day, but a foreign model can get as much as 600 yuan per hour.
For many models, living in China is made all the more difficult by the dietary restrictions their job demands.
The Chinese traditional greeting “Have you eaten?” sounds very annoying to Western models as they are constantly hungry, Maria Makarenko, 21, a Russian model and actress in Beijing, told the Global Times.
Makarenko frequently travels all over the country. Wherever she goes, she prepares her own meals: mainly boiled eggs, cucumber and fruit.
“Otherwise, Chinese staff would give you oily Chinese lunch box or McDonalds,” she said.
Having modeled since she was 14, Makarenko continued to do freelance modeling when she moved to China in 2010 during her studies at the International Business and Economics University in Beijing.
With blonde hair, big eyes and a doll face, she stood out from other Chinese competitors. She worked in advertisements, magazines and auto shows before she changed her focus from modeling. She said she did not see any future in the business.
Besides long working hours, early wake-up calls and hours of waiting, language is a big problem for models, which leads to misunderstandings and loneliness. Many said they’ve experienced months of depression.
Some models have even committed suicide. Last year, a 22-year-old Brazilian model named Camila Bezerra jumped to her death in Guangdong’s capital Guangzhou. She reportedly had relationship problems.
Hattam also revealed the dark side of modeling in China: Sex, drugs and dirty money.
“Sex will always quietly surround those who make a career selling their image,” she wrote. “But in Asia, it’s pervasive: model life, if one so chooses, becomes a hypersexual nightscape of drugs and promiscuity.”
One of her friends, a Canadian model named Rebecca, was once asked by the manager of one of Beijing’s most popular nightclubs to stay for one such after-party. She was told she could earn 10,000 yuan in one night for “entertaining” a Chinese businessman.
“After refusing, she returned home in tears,” she wrote.
Ann had a similar experience in Guangzhou. Some Chinese agencies will lie to foreign models, saying they have a show at some KTV. But when they get there, they are told their job is to entertain Chinese clients.
“When Chinese clients get drunk, they start touching the girls, but no one will stop them,” she said.
Once, she was approached by an unknown woman who said she had a “job” for her in Hong Kong that paid $10,000 for two weeks. When Ann asked what kind of job it was, the women eventually told her it was prostitution.
However, many models reached by the Global Times said that the situation in China is better than in other countries they’ve worked in.
“China is the safest place I’ve ever worked in,” said Makarenko, “Nobody forces you to do anything against your will.”
Ann agrees. She said the reason she chose to come to China is because foreigners generally receive respect in this country.
“In my country, the economy is not doing so well, but as a foreigner, I can have a better life here,” she said.