Failing to get a look in
The era of the Supermodel is over in the West. But in Asia, it has yet to be
Be the Next Supermodel, implore posters pinned up at trendy spots all over Hong Kong by modelling agency Elite.
The West might be speculating over the demise of the Supermodel but in Asia, the legend has yet to be born.
Despite the hype generated by modelling agents such as Elite and many other 'Look of the Year' shows organised throughout Asia, the industry has never produced a supermodel of the status of Schiffer, Crawford or Evangelista.
It certainly hasn't been for the lack of trying: Elite's annual modelling competition this year, to be held on May 25 at the Regent Hotel, was set up in a bid to tempt willowy Hong Kong beauties to aim for a career in the high-flying, jet-setting world of modelling.
But less than a month before the finals, the responses have not exactly poured in. Elite has received a total of 40 entries.
'It's not bad,' said one booker at the agency.
'But there should be more applications.
'Not many girls want to be models, so it means we have a limited choice.' In Milan, London, Paris and New York, wannabe-models pound the streets outside fashion events and knock on the doors of a dozen modelling agencies, hoping desperately to be 'discovered'.
Lured by the possibility of multi-million dollar beauty contracts, the glamour of the catwalk, free designer dresses, celebrity status and dates with rock stars, modelling has become the ultimate dream job.
In Hong Kong, much like the rest of Asia, there is no such frenzy.
Pretty girls would rather be movie stars than catwalk queens, said the Elite agent. The money they make from modelling is not worth the effort.
Elite's body of 30 'exclusive' models earn about $2,500 an hour.
The 'non-exclusive' girls get substantially less.
The difference lies in the height factor: Kate Moss may only reach 168 centimetres but in Hong Kong, clients insist on tall, leggy girls. Given that a number of the applications for Elite's upcoming contest are from girls between 157 cms and 165 cms, the agency is hardly going to be spoilt for choice.
Despite the local modelling industry's endeavours to supply Asian models to the international market, and international designers claiming to be fascinated with the East, Asian models on the worldwide scene are conspicuous by their absence.
Japan's Jenny Shimazu, who is a regular in Calvin Klein ads, does the international catwalk shows, but where are all the others? 'Working in Paris is every model's dream, and the brave ones try it,' said popular local model Anna Lingad.
'I got a little work there once, but it's hard to keep up unless you have what it takes and find someone to represent you.' European agencies told her they already had 'two Asian models on the books', and Lingad felt they would not go out of their way to help her find work.
'At one time the Asian look was in, then it died and the usual Caucasian blonde, blue-eyed look was back.
'There's no market for us,' she said.
'It's safer to stay in your own country. Why go out there and be a small fry when you can stay here and be a big fish?' she added.
Anna Lo, owner of the 20-year-old Catwalk agency, said there was a sense of apathy on the local scene, fed by mediocre fees and irregular demand.
'When I was in Paris recently, I saw a long queue of girls lining up outside an agency,' she said.
'They had to be given cubes of sugar to keep their energy up because they had been standing for hours.
'You would never see that here.
'In the West, models are celebrities. Here, models are just models.' To some extent, clients do not value models enough to pay them attractively.
At the end of a 10-hour job encompassing rehearsals, fittings, hair and make-up and a catwalk show, they rarely walk away with more than $3,500 - before the agent's cut.
There are well-known enough faces on the local fashion landscape: Janet Ma, Qi Qi, Wanda Yeung and Vanessa Yeung, who won Elite's competition last year, continue to be in demand during the height of fashion season.
But Lo said Hong Kong still needed talented, glamorous muses.
'A good model should have a different look, attitude and mood for every job,' she said.
'She should also be able to feel the music, to speak on behalf of the garments.
'It doesn't take a lot to be on the catwalk, but it does take a good personality.' Lo, like other agents, is always on the lookout for that elusive first Asian modelling superstar.
Her company placed an advertisement in a very popular Chinese publication and attracted only four responses.
'Everyone in the West is talking about the supermodel, but in Hong Kong these girls are wondering just what kind of a future they might have,' she said.
'They would rather be in a beauty contest.' Still, the quest is not over yet.
Just before Elite threw open its doors in Hong Kong two years ago, chairman John Casablancas pledged to find Oriental models to send to the West.
'I sometimes make bets with my scouts in cities all over,' he said at the time.
'I tell them that in one day in their city, I will find so many beautiful girls.
'And I always win my bets.' Casablancas had better hurry up.
By the time he finds Asia's first supermodel, she could be an endangered species.