Long hours, Instagram hell – being a Hong Kong model is fun, but it isn’t all roses
Models in Hong Kong say the initial dazzle of the career can be a trap for young women moving from overseas. These experienced insiders say more needs to be done to stop newcomers from being exploited by the industry
Anya Tekin understands that she needs to post regularly on Instagram in her line of work, but that doesn’t mean she has to like it. “If I wasn’t a model I wouldn’t post as much, and it would be photos of architecture or silly cat pictures,” she says.
The Ukranian-born, Hong Kong-based model says the photo-sharing app has become so integral to her work that if she deleted it she would probably lose about a third of her work.
It’s a sentiment others in the industry share. They say that the social media site is flooded with Photoshopped “Instagram models” clamouring for followers.
Industry heavyweights including American Rebecca Romijn and Australian Essena O’Neill have spoken out against the platform for its negative impact on the modelling industry and women in particular.
It’s no secret that modelling is a cutthroat business, and there are many pitfalls for models, especially those working in big cities far from home. New York-based fashion news site Models.com posted an article recently filled with anecdotes from models exposing the industry’s long working hours, the unwanted sexual advances that happen at shoots and how models lose wages after gaining weight.
The Asian modelling world is still recovering from the death of 14-year-old Russian model Vlada Dzyuba, who died from an infection in a Shanghai hospital in October last year after apparently working on a 13-hour assignment. The Russian government has opened a formal investigation into her death.
Tekin, who is in her mid-20s and has lived in Hong Kong for three years, says she is lucky enough to be in the city on a spousal visa, which allows her to work as a freelance model rather than sign to an agency.
“My story is probably [very] different [to] most models,” she says.
Nevertheless, freelance booking agents sometimes try to take a cut of up to 70 per cent for securing a job (against the industry standard of about 30 per cent) if they know a model is hurting for work or it’s the slow season, she says.
Tekin, who has worked for such brands as Marie France Van Damme and Indian fashion designer Manish Malhotra, says that given how competitive the profession is, many models in Hong Kong either have a side gig or are working multiple jobs to boost their income.
She, for example, also gets paid to do ballroom and contemporary dancing, and she has a background in graphic design – something she regards as her potential “Plan B”.
Many other foreign models in the city are tied to work visas acquired for them by the agency that brought them to Hong Kong. Usually they are on a one- or two-year contract, after which they’re free to pursue other opportunities.
Regardless of the pitfalls, Tekin says she still likes modelling, especially when she gets to express her creative side by shooting a video or working with fashion students who have an artistic flair. “It is fun, don’t get me wrong,” she says.
Irina Logvinchuk, who is also from Ukraine, is signed to Elegance Model. She says the term “everything’s possible” is a common saying when it comes to job demands in China. On a recent shoot for a clothing line, she was required to do hundreds of wardrobe changes during an 11-hour day, for multiple days.
“At the end of it you still have to smile, but your eyes are literally starting to shut on you,” she says.
Compared to other cities, though, Hong Kong is a great place for a model to work and live, Logvinchuk says. Her agency looks after her quite well, she adds, but there is room for improvement within the industry overall.
Logvinchuk, who is in her early 20s, cautions that young models may be taken advantage of simply because the lifestyle is initially glamorous and overwhelming for them. Although she enjoys the work, Logvinchuk says she would like to see models have more of a cohesive voice when it comes to speaking out against violations of their rights.
Hong Kong native Akiko Sakai says she has seen a lot of models come to the city at a relatively young age. The 30-year-old artist, who also dabbles in modelling and tattooing (her left arm is covered in a full sleeve tattoo), adds that many of the young woman have never left their hometown before coming to the city, and are thrown into a local industry that has little room for feelings and can exploit naivety.
A lot of these girls are incredibly underprepared for the fast-paced and hard partying side of the city, she says.
“A lot of the models are Eastern European and they’re coming from places where they had nothing. And now they live in this crazy, big city, and they’re poor, but they’re living this insanely glamorous lifestyle,” Sakai says. “And then the drugs come in to deal with weight and anxiety, and it’s hard because it’s also so accessible. Living in Central, [you have] one drink at 7pm, and then the next thing you know it’s 4am – and that’s standard.”
She agrees with Tekin that to stay ahead of the game today models need to spend a great deal of time on social media. Sakai, who recently modelled for boutique lingerie brand Raven + Rose, says Instagram is just one of the mediums she uses to promote her work as a model, and it requires a certain level of personal and professional management.
“You definitely find after a while that your followers are expecting something from you,” she says. “So if you’re posting every day in swimwear, and one day you put on winter wear and post a photo like that, people are like, ‘What are you doing?’ So for some, it’s a very freeing space, but it can also be a really judgemental place.”
Bulgarian model Rosita Georgieva, who has been modelling across Europe and Asia for the past five years and now calls Hong Kong home, says professional models are increasingly finding themselves competing with Instagram “influencers”. She says these influencers could be freelance models who are willing to promote products on their pages solely in exchange for free goods.
Georgieva, who is in her mid-20s and is signed to Model One, has not been short of work, though. She says the toughest part of her job – aside from the social media competition – is the frenetic, sometimes demanding schedule.
“When you get that call, you have to go, even if you’re out with friends. But [your friends] tend to understand the profession,” says Georgieva, who has modelled in such cities as Milan, Paris, Tokyo, Beijing and Singapore, and has worked for such brands as Valentino, Nike and Adidas.
She says she got into modelling for the opportunities to travel, but at times it can feel like too much of a good thing. “I do feel like I live out of a suitcase sometimes,” she says, admitting that she gets homesick at times.
Mherck Dela Cruz, 29, sees a different side to the modelling scene in Hong Kong. Dela Cruz, who handles digital marketing for such clubs as Dragon-i, Cassio and the Tazmania Ballroom, has also made a name for himself in Hong Kong as one of the city’s more alternative fashion photographers.
His photo shoots, which he showcases on his Instagram account, feature images that are more provocative than usually seen in traditional assignments. His images are reminiscent of a gritty, raunchy and playful style currently popular in North America and Europe.
He has done multiple shoots for Canadian men’s clothing line JJ Malibu, a brand well known for its “raw and uninhibited style”, Dela Cruz says.
“I don’t do studio shoots, ever,” he adds. “For me, it’s all about artistic expression. I want them in their natural element.”
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Dela Cruz says he regularly shoots models who work for agencies; however, he’s not afraid to turn his camera onto subjects such as escorts, porn stars and exotic dancers. Even though the style he shoots has made its way into mainstream culture in cities such as New York, London and Los Angeles, it’s still an uphill battle in Hong Kong.
“It’s really difficult in Hong Kong right now; being a photographer with this kind of style is still not accepted,” he says. “The provocative images … it’s still very conservative here, so some people don’t want to work with me, even though I tell them I can do more conservative stuff.”