Why This Documentary About Siberian Models Heading To China To Find Anything But A Glamourous Life Is Worth Watching
The Debrief: 'You can buy the perfume but that's not going to get you into the VIP section'
If you thought models in Europe had it tough, spare a thought for the thousands of Siberian girls heading to China each year, hoping for a chance to strike it lucky in the Far East, only to find a very different kind of reality.
This week on Channel Four’s Unreported World, filmmaker Marcel Theroux follows the trail of girls from Siberia who head to Shanghai to find work in the relatively new economic power that’s keen to showcase it’s burgeoning fashion industry on models with European looks. ‘Globally the template for beauty in fashion has been set in Paris, London and Milan,’ Marcel told us. ‘So the Chinese often use models who are tall, skinny and fair skinned. Since China is a country of a billion raven haired people, they have to import them from elsewhere.’
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Siberia, otherwise known as North East Asia, includes the northeastern part of Russia that, crucially, shares it’s borders with China. ‘The thing is that Siberia is nearby so it's basically the nearest and cheapest source of European-looking models,' says Marcel. ‘The economic power of China is so considerable that it’s sucking into it all the raw materials around it – everything that it needs to keep it’s economy going, and that includes beautiful women because it’s fashion industry is now considerable.’
For one Russian woman in particular, modelling proved to be the catalyst that transported her from a life more ordinary to international superstardom. Natalia Vodianova, once the world’s third highest paid supermodel, is originally came from Nizhny Novgorod – a city just to the east of Moscow. She was ‘spotted’ working on her family’s market stall aged 17. ‘It’s a Cinderella story,’ explains Marcel. ‘She’s the Siberian Kate Moss. It’s that idea that you can come from nowheresville and then someone’s going to “spot” you. There needs to be one of those stories because the chances of any one girl making it as a model are so remote as to be ridiculous. But here you’ve got a shining example of one Siberian woman who’s made it. She’s got a lot to answer for!'
Because for the Russian models arriving in Shanghai, the reality proves to be very different than the dream. ‘Shanghai is the bottom rung of the modelling ladder. They go out there and they’re chucked into a Darwinian struggle where they’re going to open castings to impress bookers whose criteria are unfathomable,’ Marcel says. During the girls’ stay in Shanghai they live in cramped high-rise hotels, two to a room, with little chance at making money. ‘They are in debt from the word go because the agency has paid for everything from their accommodation to living expenses, drivers and comp cards.’
But will things work out in the end? ‘The models usually do a three month contract initially. But a lot of them will go home early. I met one girl who made about 800 quid for two months’ work and that was considered a really good return, but even in Irkutsk in Russia where she was from, that isn’t enough to buy a second hand car. The reality is, for most models is that is doesn’t make economic sense.’
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In fact, in Marcel’s film, one model who spends her days (starting at 6:30AM) driving from casting to casting was having to supplement her wages by spending evenings hostessing in nightclubs for £20 a pop. When we meet her, she’s had one hour’s sleep.
Despite their less-than-glamourous lifestyles though, Marcel says he found a resilient group of women, ‘I thought we were going to go and find that they were all miserable and abused and they weren’t. They didn’t say “God it was so humiliating having that man stare at my boobs”, they were just like, “Oh whatever, no big deal, on to the next thing.”’
Surely with any such group of young girls (one girl Marcel meets is 15), away from home and unsupervised, there’s the prospect of unsavoury goings on to consider. ‘I did look for that,' says Marcel. ‘There was the usual what you’d expect young people to get up to when they’re let off the lead in a foreign country. I’m sure there were underage people going to clubs, getting drunk and probably taking drugs, but then that’s happening in London too. I didn’t get the sense they were being exploited. except in the fact that the implied promise is so great and it clearly isn’t being delivered. When you’re told you’re going to go abroard and be a model, what springs to mind is not being jammed in a big bus and being driven around to have mysterious people make remarks about your body in a language you don’t understand. That doesn’t seem to be what it says on the tin.’
But perhaps, Marcel muses, that's the promise that fashion makes to us all. 'It hoodwinks us into wishing we were someone else,' he says. 'It makes these absurd promises of how we’re going to be so much more beautiful and rich and skinny if we sign up for it but when does it really ever deliver?’ It did for people like Natalia Vodianova... ‘Yes. It’s an industry that promised everything to a lot of people but itt’s a pyramid scheme that most of us can'y get a look in. It’s like, you can buy the perfume but that’s certainly not going to get you in the VIP section.’
Siberia's Next Supermodels is on Channel 4 tonight at 7:35PM
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