How foreign fashion models are exploited in China: insider stories of the shocking risks they run in a largely unregulated industry
The recent death of a 14-year-old Russian model shone a spotlight on the Chinese industry. A multilayered agency system, partying culture and transient population make China a risky proposition for aspiring overseas models
The faces of foreign models have become ubiquitous in Chinese advertising in recent decades, particularly as a growing number of domestic brands look to give themselves an air of internationalism.
The population of foreign models in China is increasingly made up of young women from Eastern Europe and Brazil looking to earn quick money or get some experience before moving into higher profile fashion markets such as the US or in Europe.
They are initially signed to a “mother agency” in their home country, which then works with a local Chinese agency that helps the models find castings in China. Once contracts are signed, the models go to China on special 90-day working visas, do their time and then move back home or to another country. At least, that is what is supposed to happen; sometimes it does not, and with tragic consequences.
Last month, 14-year-old Russian model Vlada Dzyuba fell ill and died in a Shanghai hospital, with initial reports from media outlets in her native country claiming she was overworked. Zheng Yi, founder of Esee Model – the Shanghai agency Dzyuba was working with – denies claims that she had been forced to work excessive hours, saying that the teenager had died of sepsis.
Chinese labour laws ban children under the age of 16 from working, except in certain sectors such as sport and performing arts, including modelling. For children in these industries, there is no clear guideline within the law that limits how many hours they can or should be working.
Even as the modelling sector in China develops, along with the laws that govern it – a working visa appropriate for models was instituted in 2015, before which it was common for foreign models to be in China illegally working on tourist visas – there are still grey areas which unscrupulous agents exploit.
“This is not unique to China. China is hardly the only place in the world where 14-year-old models are exploited. This is a global phenomenon. The modelling industry has globalised, basically flooding the market with young aspiring models,” says Mara Hvistendahl, author of the book And The City Swallowed Them, which examines the case of 22-year-old Canadian model Diana O’Brien, who was murdered in a robbery-gone-wrong while working in Shanghai. “That means that agencies around the world can now exploit young men and women. Often the models are far from home and don’t have a good agency representing them.
“I talked to models who had totally shocking stories. Models told me about being housed several people to a room and being overcharged for even that level of accommodation. Some are never paid for their work, others are booked as whisky girls at clubs. That’s what happened to O’Brien. This is not what they signed up for when they decided to go overseas to see the world and earn some money.”
Julianna Mucsi, 26, first came to China from Hungary in 2010 to work as a model after graduating from high school and being crowned Miss Maybelline in her homeland. After 20 hours’ travelling, Mucsi was hustled straight from the airport to a casting.
“Agencies don’t respect your time; they take you to castings that are clearly not for you, maybe even castings for male models. They put you in a van with no air conditioning in the Shanghai summer, which was pretty tough,” she says, adding that living conditions were often worst than what was advertised and the food supplied on jobs was often limited to “KFC and McDonald’s”.
In spite of these conditions, Mucsi kept coming back to Shanghai for modelling work and to study, eventually opening her own agency bringing in other foreign models to work in China. “Everyone can be a model in China, that’s the thing. In the past two years the standards [have begun] getting higher, which I am happy about,” Mucsi says. “You can look at a girl’s model card, portfolio, and see whether she is a professional model or not. I would say at least 60 per cent of the [foreign] models in China aren’t professional models.”
Esee Model, the agency with which Dzyuba was affiliated in China, is one of the country’s biggest agencies for foreign models. Director Zheng has denied any wrongdoing, maintaining their management had done everything right when it came to the young Russian. “Our responsibility is to help models get jobs. The relationship between models and agencies is not like between employee and employer; they are independent units and we are a service provider for them and we take commission,” Zheng says, echoing many other agency insiders.
“This protection I think needs to come from their mother agency. They come to Shanghai for work; they only have 90 days here, so our ability to protect them is limited. They need to have guarantees and protection from the agency in their own country,” says Wei Yinghao, who works with the Shanghai-based Modelight Agency.
Zheng also points out the difficulty of overseeing independent young people 24 hours a day. “As a model agency, we have a responsibility to try and teach them to be safe but it’s hard because we often work with them [for] only a short time and we can’t control them 24 hours a day. If I locked them in their apartment every night I would also get into trouble,” Zheng says.
A common grey area for foreign models is after-hours appearances at clubs where heavy drinking, partying and young women who aren’t accustomed to China or who don’t speak Chinese are thrown together with the rich, the powerful, and sometimes the undesirable.
“The models will be at a casting with many agencies together, they will exchange WeChat contacts with someone there and will be paid a little bit of money, maybe a few hundred renminbi, to go to the clubs from 10pm until 2 or 3 in the morning, and in China no one cares if the girls are 15 or 16,” Mucsi explains.
Though China instituted a legal drinking age of 18 in the mid-2000s, the law is a poorly enforced and identification is rarely checked in bars and clubs.
“There is a degree of exploitation [of foreign models in China] since girls are young and innocent, [and] eager to make money. But I honestly feel what exacerbates the whole situation is the hard partying which they all do when they’re here,” says Chris Chang, a fashion designer and industry executive with years of experience in China.
“It’s cruel and a bad cycle, [in] which everyone in the industry is a culprit. A limitless supply of girls and high demand, without regulation and there is still a lack of sophistication from the local agencies and the young girls; heavy partying is the final straw,” he says.
Since Dzyuba’s death, Esee has decided to institute a ban on working with models under the age of 16 and says it will be more careful in checking the level of health insurance foreign models have in China to make sure there are no issues with them accessing help when they are ill.
According to Zheng and Mucsi, another likely outcome of the tragedy will be the implementation of stricter visa regulations for foreign models. Recently, several big-name Victoria’s Secret models faced visa issues in the lead-up to the lingerie label’s show in Shanghai earlier this week. Long term, however, there is little regulatory change on the horizon to keep agencies from exploiting vulnerable aspiring models.
“The industry is ripe for better regulation,” says Hvistendahl. “But probably nothing short of a Chinese government crackdown on shady agencies would help at this point.”