Fashion Victims

"First of all, I want to tell you that I don’t want my name to appear in the article. Nor my nationality,” begins Kasia, a startlingly beautiful 20-something working as a model in Beijing, when we meet at a cafe to talk about her job. Her request for anonymity, I soon discover, proves routine among foreigners working in China’s fashion industry.

When I call a Russian model, who travels around China for fake Victoria’s Secret shows, about her visa status, she abruptly hangsup. A tall, dark-haired Romanian, who has been modeling part-time, agrees to meet after a casting call in Shanghai, only to later panic and decide she doesn’t want her words featured in print.

I was on the cover of a magazine two years ago, yet I’m theoretically an illegal worker. It makes no sense.

Of the eight women I interview, none allow their personal details, photos or portfolios to be published. Model agencies’ names are kept private, as are clients’. The message is clear and somewhat contradictory to the usual ethic of modeling: keeping a low profile is of the utmost importance. And given the Chinese authorities’ recent crackdown on the industry, this is hardly surprising.

In May, Beijing police set up a fake casting call at Chinese agency M3 to lure models working illegally. More than 60 people were rounded up in the sting and taken into custody, detained on the premise that they didn’t have proper work permits or visas. Four models were jailed and subsequently deported.

Shortly afterwards, a similar crackdown took place in Guangzhou, where authorities apprehended a pair of models before pushing them to disclose the addresses of others. Details of the crackdown were hushed but industry groups and bloggers advised foreign models across the country to avoid casting calls and hide their portfolios.

A month on, the threat to illegal fashion workers appears to have calmed. With this period of relative quiet, all of the models I meet are already back to work, though still none of them have the proper papers to do so.

Unlike many countries, China does not grant ‘entertainer’ visas to models. Instead, agencies simply ignore the visa issue, telling the girls and women in their care to pretend they are traveling rather than working.

“Everyone knows there is no visa that specifically allows modeling in China. The police are also fully aware of this,” says Kasia. “That should change but I feel it’s not something that’s going to happen any time soon. It’s all a big contradiction. I was on the cover of a magazine two years ago, yet I’m theoretically an illegal worker. It makes no sense.”

Born in Eastern Europe (like many of the models based in China), Kasia has lived and worked in the country for the past three years and modeled for the past ten. She first arrived, aged 21, on a three-month- long contract – describing it as a ‘summer internship’ because many models take on such work during school breaks – which her parent agency at home procured for her.

Girls, some as young as 15, can be sent to China on such assignments. Coming on three-to-six-month-long tourist visas, they arrive young, vulnerable, completely beholden to their local employers, and with little negotiating power. This can often leave them in a precarious legal situation and facing sub-standard working conditions.

On her first ‘tourist’ trip to China, Kasia was put in an over-priced, run-down apartment (which she had to pay for) with four other models. She was asked to work practically non-stop for the duration of her stay: six days a week, from sunrise photo shoots to late-night events. Regularly traveling alone to second- and third-tier cities for business fairs, she was also obliged to carry out other odd assignments that had little to do with fashion, including appearances at an International Grape Festival in Dunhuang and an auto show in Tianjin.

Once her contract was over, she decided to stay in China but instead chose to work freelance.

“I made enough contacts to leave the agency and start working for myself, which was probably the smartest thing to do for my own sanity,” she explains. “I like to be able to choose what jobs to take. You can’t do that when you’re bound to an agency. You can’t even say no to assignments most of the time.”

Still on a tourist visa, she now tries to work solely in Beijing, only taking occasional out-of-town gigs if the pay is sufficient. No longer needing to share her earnings with an agency, she only pays commission fees to her booker – an agent who scouts girls and lines them up with jobs – which allows her to live comfortably.

But for most models on short contracts, the realities of the industry are starkly different. Agencies can take up to 50 percent of a girl’s income – Chinese booking companies usually skim 40 percent commission from the model’s net earnings, with another 10 percent going to models’ parent agency — and exercise near-despotic control on pocket money for transport and food. If a model puts on weight or violates the strict body measurements required, she can easily have her allowance withdrawn. Rent, too, comes out of a model’s expenses and is deducted from future jobs. To leave the country penniless is not unheard of.

“Most companies lie about specifics of the posts they send you to,” says Lena, a Ukrainian model. After working in Guangzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai for four years, she recently relocated to Milan. Like Kasia, she opted for a freelance career in China as soon as she had made enough industry connections.

“It’s quite common to arrive at a job and find out you’re not just supposed to pose for a shoot or stand by an expensive car and smile, but that the client wants you to work overtime or ‘entertain’ their guests, sometimes with dance routines and whatnot,” she says. “The agency usually knows that all along but doesn’t bother telling you. And you have to comply or they won’t pay you.

“That’s the key, really,” she says after a pause. “If you want to work and make money as a model in China, you have to keep your mouth shut.”

Keeping tight-lipped is precisely how Rafaela, a willowy 24-year-old Brazilian based in Shanghai, caught hypothermia on her first shoot in Harbin, Heilongjiang. Along with ten others, she was sent to the city, which is renowned for harsh Siberian winters, shortly after Christmas – to model clothes for the summer season.

“We were asked to wear these tiny bikinis and skimpy clothes for eight hours straight,” she recounts. “As the day got colder, I started feeling incredibly fatigued. I didn’t complain, as the agency had repeatedly told us to not bother the client – an important European brand – but I was freezing. Before the shoot ended, I lost consciousness. They sent me back to the hotel, and I only got to the hospital later that night, by myself. I missed day two of shooting.”

Experiences like hers, Rafaela tells me, are worryingly normal, particularly for young, inexperienced models who come here for the first time and don’t speak the language.

“I was 17 when I went to Harbin. I was too intimidated and compliant to stand up for myself. I’ve seen lots of other adolescent models in the same situation.”

Despite her poor treatment, this is now the sixth time Rafaela – who has since changed agency – has come to China for work. I ask what brings her back. She is no longer a beginner and could surely turn down exploitative jobs.

“China is easier to access than other competitive markets,” she says. “And, despite everything, there are more opportunities to earn good money.”

 Lena also cites the potential earnings as a key motivating factor to work in China.

“If you play your cards well, you can make crazy amounts of cash. That was the main reason I decided to go to Guangzhou a few years back,” she says.

A foreign face can go a long way in Chinese fashion. Local brands and companies remain keen to project an international image by using western faces, and are often willing to pay well for the chance. If a model freelances or negotiates decent commission fees with her agency, the potential payouts can be substantial.

A catalogue shoot can start from RMB600 an hour. A day at a trade event, such as a car show, commands approximately RMB3,000. TV commercials pay even more – up to RMB10,000 for a day’s work. A model who works regularly can, in a good season, make anywhere between RMB30,000 to RMB50,000 a month.

“To make that kind of money in Europe, you’d have to be quite high up on the industry ladder,” says Diana, a Russian model working between Shanghai and Beijing. “Although, of course, you can’t always count on such substantial earnings – especially as more girls are coming in. Hundreds of new models arrive every year. It’s also becoming increasingly common for small Chinese clients to employ students or simply good-looking Western girls, which means getting a job is becoming harder. We all look the same to them.”

Although Beijing and Shanghai are considered more glamorous locations, the better-paid jobs are usually found in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. But with more than 70 agencies serving hundreds of clients nationwide, lucrative modeling gigs can be found anywhere.

If you want to work and make money as a model in China, you have to keep your mouth shut.

Breaking into the Chinese market is also somewhat easier for models who may have trouble finding jobs in first-tier marketslike New York or London, as jobs will often not require the typical western industry standards of 34-24-34 body measurements and 5’10 height.

“You don’t have to be the typical tall, super-skinny model to be sought after here,” Diana tells me. “Given the more commercial nature of the jobs available, clients don’t really go for that look. They prefer cute, medium-sized girls – say 5’6 or 5’7 – which opens the industry to a huge number of us.”

“Doll faces – big eyes and small, round lips – and a curvier body shape are what clients want,” she continues. “It’s different for catwalks: strong-looking girls are definitely more prominent there, but overall it’s easy to have access to the fashion world if you’re not a Gisele or a Karlie Kloss.”

The models I speak with are each a case in point — all are beautiful and thin, but not excessively so. Kasia has a lean, almost athletic frame. Rafaela, with chestnut hair and pale skin, is petite with delicate lineaments. Lena is a typical Eastern European beauty – full lips, ice-blue eyes and blonde. Diana stands little over 5’5 and has a healthy, curvaceous silhouette that might attract sneers from western designers.

But despite the greater opportunities afforded by working in China, these models’ careers remain fundamentally different from their counterparts in Europe or the US: they are, or have been, working illegally.

That’s what eventually led me to leave,” Lena tells me from Milan. “It was getting too stressful. It’s hard to demand certain rights when your position isn’t officially recognized.”

But for others, the lure of profit outweighs the ongoing risk of deportation.

“Modeling here gives you opportunities you couldn’t have anywhere else,” says Kasia. “It’s a double-edged sword. We all know it’s not something we’re going to do forever but as long as we can keep putting up with it – with clients’ requests, with the waiting, with traveling solo or the occasional clampdown – there are good things to be had.”

The glamour associated with the job may only form a smallpart of these young women’s worlds, but Kasia’s acceptance of the situation is all too common among the women I speak with. As the summer season brings swarms of new models into the country, ‘putting up with it’ may be all they are able to do as they continue to operate beneath the gaze of state.

Names in this article have been changed.

First appeared in That's Shanghai and That's Beijing magazines, August 2014.