Two photographers and a stylist have taken over the sidewalk of a leafy street in Shanghai’s former French Concession for a regular weekend photo shoot. It is a familiar scene. But this time, the subject is neither a soon-to-be-married couple posing for wedding photos, nor a woman toting a local brand’s latest winter trends. It’s a child, or to be more precise: a toddler. Gao Yu is 3 years old.
The seemingly happy boy is wearing leather pants and a bomber jacket, bright red sneakers and a jumper with a monster drawn on it. All the items are from a Taobao store specializing in children’s wear. He poses, balanced on the curb, making endless different faces for the camera until another kid on a bike cycles past and steals his attention.
“One more,” says the photographer. “No thank you,” the youngster responds politely. And, just like that, the shoot is suspended.
“Can I go pee now?” the boy asks his mum, who has checked every single shot on the photographer’s camera screen. “Yes, but you only have five minutes,” she replies. “We still have two more outfits for the catalog.”
Such is the life of a child model. Fueled by an exponential growth in demand for children’s wear and items, child modeling has become a highly lucrative slice of China’s fashion and media industries in recent years.
According to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics, urban Chinese parents of only children devote nearly 30 percent of their expenditure to items for their offspring. This, in turn, has created a need for young models and baby actors to advertise products – from clothes and costumes to strollers and toys. Many parents have taken advantage of this opportunity to make a little extra income from the trend.
Gao Yu is one of the tens of thousands of underage models currently working in China, according to estimates from the industry insiders we speak to. Eager to ride the ‘kids’ wave,’ modeling agencies (or divisions of larger agencies) specifically targeting children have sprung up across the country. A Baidu search returns results for over 300, with many based in Shenzhen or Guangzhou, as well as in second- and third-tier cities. As well as photography and booking services, they also offer training and talent classes to teach kids how to walk down the runway, act or sing.
A booker at a Guangzhou agency, who asked to remain anonymous, says he has seen the number of child applicants grow by 50 percent in the past three years.
“There’s a lot of demand from brands, particularly with the rise of Tmall,” he says. “But a lot of parents also sign their kids up in search of notoriety.”
Children’s agencies may produce cuter pictures, but their business is just as ruthless as their adult counterparts. In most cases, they demand large sums of money to enroll a child on their roster, before demanding 60 or 70 percent of proceeds made from runways or photo shoots. The absence of specific regulations for child modeling in China means that agents can compel kids to skip school so they can attend castings or shows. Moreover, the coaches teaching modeling classes often lack proper qualifications.
Child modeling is a murky, unregulated industry that leaves many with no real chance of a sustainable career as a model, argues Chen Bin, owner of Catfree Kids, a modeling agency based in Suzhou.
“It’s a sector full of sharks,” he says “Many agents or agencies don’t even select the kids or have minimum age requirements. They just sign them up and ask parents to pay up. Unsurprisingly, these children end up getting no jobs.”
Marketing itself as ‘boutique,’ Catfree Kids differs from many larger agencies, Chen argues.
“We only have around 110 kids, which makes us the smallest child modeling agency in the Yangtze area,” he says. “Yet we have families coming from all over the country to work with us – even a girl from Dongbei, believe it or not.”
Indeed, at one of Catfree’s talent classes we meet kids from Shandong, Nanjing, Henan and Shanghai. They are here to attend a ‘posture session,’ where a 20-something former model shows them how to strike a pose, walk up and down a room, and stand still “elegantly.”
Lined up in a room in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror, the children – aged 4 to 7 – listen sleepily to the teacher. Two boys make faces at one another, while a girl keeps checking herself out. Chen says most kids love the lessons. But, at a glance look, they just seem incredibly bored.
Classes cost RMB3,500 per semester and only allow 15 kids at a time, Chen says proudly. They are only held on weekends or during summer holidays, so aspiring models don’t miss school – and so parents can find the time to travel to Suzhou. Families can make back the cost of class fees through a couple of photo shoots, and after ‘graduating’ from the course, training becomes free.
“We try to keep it fairly simple for both parents and kids,” the businessman says. “The main criterion is to be cute. You can learn the rest here.”
Meanwhile, things are more animated next door in Catfree Kids’ photography studio – the company’s main source of income. Tmall brands from across the country send clothes for catalogs and ad campaigns here, where the agency’s full-time models – those who have ‘graduated’ from the classes – pose in them for the camera.
The room is wide and brightly lit with a handful of bean bags on the floor. One corner is piled up with toys and a makeshift bed (for unplanned afternoon naps, perhaps). At a makeup station covered in blushers, lipsticks and whitening ointments, a stylist is busy working on Yang Yang, a 7-year-old from Wuxi. She’s booked in for a Chinese New Year-themed shoot – lots of red dresses and traditional Chinese garments – and seems excited about it.
“Yang Yang likes being photographed,” her mum says. “She’s a natural. Everyone kept telling me how pretty she was, so [coming here] seemed the obvious thing to do. She loves dressing up in cute dresses and gowns. She feels like a little princess. And she is.”
As the shoot starts, the small girl twirls in circles endlessly, smiles, sticks her tongue out, smiles again. She goes through three outfits, redoing her makeup after each one. The shoot lasts one hour, but she seems to genuinely enjoy it.
“This is mostly about her having fun,” her mum continues. “Whether she’ll continue or not in the future depends on her studies. But this helps her confidence. We certainly aren’t doing it for the money.”
For many parents however, a chance at fame is a real incentive. It is also an increasingly achievable one – children’s profiles in popular Chinese culture have never been higher. Reality TV shows like ‘Where Are We Going, Dad?’ which sees celebrity fathers and their children undertaking adventurous challenges around the country, have been hugely successful. Other popular shows include ‘The First Time’ (essentially the same concept, but with mothers and kids) and ‘The Strongest Child,’ in which children live by themselves for 72 hours and face a series of vexing tasks and new environments.
Child celebrities have emerged as a result, including Wang Shiling (aka Angela Wang), the daughter of film director Wang Yuelun. She shot to fame in 2013 after appearing on ‘Where Are We Going, Dad?’ as a 4-year-old. The young star has since become one of the country’s most buzzed about celebs (especially since walking Ralph Lauren’s children's runway show in New York in 2014). Similarly, 9-year-old Xiu Qiu also achieved celebrity status earlier this year, when she became the first Chinese child model to appear at Paris Haute Couture Fashion Week for Chinese designer Laurence Xu.
Both girls have benefited from family connections (Xiu is said to be related to the designer Xu). But that isn’t tempering the ambitions of some of Catfree’s models, like 6-year-old Maris Whajah Victory.
“I want to be rich and famous,” she says.
A beautiful, curly-haired child born to a Chinese mother and a Ghanaian father, Maris travels here every week from Nanjing. She started modeling with Catfree a year ago and has since walked Shanghai and China Fashion Week, shot catalogues for international brands and appeared on Hunan TV. To help her to focus on her career, Maris’ parents decided to home-school her earlier this year.
“Modeling makes me feel beautiful, especially when I do makeup and wear pretty dresses,” she says before dashing off in front of a camera to shoot a casting video. “I want to be a model when I grow up too. I don’t miss school at all; I’m too busy with my job.”
Her mum seems to be of the same opinion: “Her dad and I just hope she’ll be tall enough to keep doing this once she’s a teenager,” she says. “The plan is to send her to Brazil so she can perfect her skills. Her looks make her different from the other children, and that’s definitely an advantage moving forward.
“Marise was born to do this,” she continues. “She did an outdoor photo shoot in the summer for a winter collection, under the sun and in almost 40 degrees Celsius, and she didn’t complain a single bit. That’s rare, if you ask me.”
As we talk, a flurry of other kids enter the studio, kicking a football and screaming at each other. Some, like Wang Yi, a 10-year-old from Hubei (who wants to “keep modeling in the future” because “I just like it a lot and you get to make a lot of friends”) is next up for shooting. Others are here with their parents to see whether they have what it takes to join Catfree.
One 3-year-old boy, here from Shanghai with his mum, is not what they are looking for, apparently. “The owner said my son is too young,” she explains, referring to Chen with a disappointed look on her face. “Perhaps we’ll try again next year.”
Luckily, the kid doesn't seem too bothered, though the impact of rejection on children's self-esteem is unknown. At such young ages, many of the child models have no idea what a career centered on looks entails. They don't know that if their bodies change in certain ways, they may no longer be wanted. And from my visit to Catfree, I am not sure the parents grasps the consequences either.
Indeed, when I ask Marise to name the hardest thing about being a model, her answer is slightly heartbreaking: “I don’t like when they don’t choose me because I am not pretty enough,” she says in an upset voice. “And I hate when I lose a tooth and can’t smile for a while because it doesn’t look pretty in pictures. I want to always be pretty.”
First appeared in the January 2016 issues of That's Shanghai and That's Beijing.