By Natalia Zurowski
Siberian Supermodels (watch below) documents the life of Siberian models working in Shanghai, China. The filmmakers do an excellent job showcasing where these models come from, what they go through when they're abroad, and a glimpse of the Chinese fashion and modelling industries. The documentary brilliantly highlights the toughness of the Chinese modelling industry and how it truly is a world apart from the major markets in the West.
However, the documentary fails to convey the financial freedom China can offer that many other markets cannot.
In the documentary, we are introduced to Alyona Belyarusova, the owner of Sky Models, a model management company and modelling school in Irkutsk, Siberia. Alyona talks about what she looks for in potential faces and how China has become her most important market. She says that Chinese agencies constantly need models, "Every month, every year, they need more and more models."
In contrast to the over-saturated Western markets, Chinese agencies are constantly looking for more models, in no small part to the fact that a new agency is always opening up in the country's fashion capitals, Beijing and Shanghai. What the documentary neglects to explore is the high earning potential for European models in China.
We see a couple of models from Alyona's agency go through test shoots, learning how to pose, and having English lessons as well, all hoping to become the next Natalia Vodianova. On one of the shoots, we meet Leda, a model who recently signed with Sky Models who is off to Beijing on a contract. The documentary's host talks to Leda about her start in the industry, her thoughts about it, and how by becoming a model she could potentially help her mother financially.
The documentary's host takes us to her home where we meet Leda's mother and see them both working on their garden. Leda and her mother lead a modest life with a small holding farm. Siberian Supermodels does a great job showing viewers what the reality is for many Siberian models. Many of these models are misunderstood by their Western counterparts, who often wonder how these young models' parents 'let them' leave home to go abroad at a young age. But behind these young girls are very supportive, loving parents. Although Leda's mother will miss her daughter, she wants her to experience life as much as she can. Despite Leda's reservations and what she has heard from other models, she knows that if she works well she could help her mother. That is why so many models form Russia and Siberia go to China for work.
The documentary then turns to Shanghai, where we meet a group of Russian models at a fashion show casting in a cramped corridor. We meet 19 year-old Ukrainian model Vika, who takes viewers on a tour of her model apartment and talks about what working in Shanghai is really like: "We work, work, work, and all our money goes to the agency. When we work off the debt all the money after that will be for us."
It's a very common misconception that models get sent on contract to markets like Shanghai and incur no expense. Viewers see firsthand that models have to pay back their expenses through their jobs and only then will they be able to earn money, which still is subject to agency commission, usually between 35-50%.
After seeing models attend hectic castings and discuss their unstable financial situation, viewers quickly see how modelling in Shanghai may not be what it's cracked up to be. The best description of the market was from the host himself,
This is what a models life is: driving around Shanghai from casting to casting, bumping into the same faces - half friendly, half competitive because they're all vying for the same jobs.
When you go to work in China, your days are often spent in the model van driving to castings and hoping to get booked for a job. From the cramped elevators, castings held in crowded corridors, to models sleeping in the model van, Siberian Supermodels does an excellent job of showing the realities of the modelling industry in Shanghai.
We then see models attending a lingerie casting, where some of the models are asked to pose, are criticized in Chinese (common), and it becomes clear rather quickly that the clients don't know who they like. The host notices this himself, commenting, "It's like a riddle who they choose." Two models who look completely different from one another are put up against one another. In China, clients almost never know what they want and if they're still unsure, they'll usually revert back to the typical look of a fair skinned model with light hair and eyes. At the end of the day, the blonde model was shortlisted by the client and tried on the lingerie - in China, trying on clothes is one step closer to actually booking a job.
The blonde model is named Kristina, a Russian model who "in three weeks has only had two modelling jobs." In order to earn some money she had decided to work in the evenings at a night club along with some other models dancing, drinking, and selling "an image of European glamour to Chinese newly rich." Although it has to be made clear that even though some models like Kristina choose to partake in such activities, most agencies do not condone their models working in nightclubs. Some even forbid it. For some of these models though, their reality is such that any money they can earn is better than nothing. Going for a few hours can earn them anywhere between 200-500 RMB ($30-80 USD) a night.
At the end of Siberian Supermodels, we meet Yana, a model who has just finished her contract and has earned £800 ($1200 USD). The narrator calls her "a success story," and her booker congratulates her on a job well done.
Although Siberian Supermodels is for the most part an accurate portrayal of the modelling industry in China and Shanghai specifically, this is the main fault with the documentary. Working in China is not "a shot at stardom" as the host narrates, it's a money grab.
Yana's earnings are modest, and nowhere near an amount that would truly be considered successful. The success stories of models in China are under reported. Working in China, as most models know, is not a step toward stardom. As seen in the documentary, castings are long and "even the simplest communication is difficult." The models that return year after year do so because they leave with a substantial paycheque.
Models can earn up to $15,000 USD (in some cases even more) in two months time and are paid in cash. Unlike the star-making Western markets, Chinese agencies (and in Asia generally) pay models immediately after the end of their contract or within 30-45 days after their departure at the very latest. By working in China, models have been able to put a down payment on an apartment for themselves, put themselves through college, or even help their families.
Working in China doesn't give models the opportunity to work with high profile clients to help launch their careers; however, it's a great place for a model to get experience and learn to expect the worse, which is why the market is often aptly touted as model boot camp. Also, by working in China, models can earn money that can help fuel their aspirations to work in top tier markets like Milan or New York, without having to struggle financially. Siberian Supermodels fails to mention this. China can provide models not born into wealth, with financial opportunity.
Siberian Supermodels shows how modelling in China isn't easy or glamorous. It excellently highlights the back stories of some of the Siberian models, the casting protocol in Shanghai, and the Chinese modelling industry in general. Although working in China is no paradise, for models who are able to find success in the market, it's a chance at a better quality of life.
Watch the full documentary here.
All still images belong to Unreported World, Channel 4.