By Natalia Zurowski
Shanghai-based journalist Mara Hvistendahl, author of And the City Swallowed Them, talks to The Business Model about model Diana O'Brien's story, working and living in Shanghai, and what regulative changes she would like to see made in the modelling industry.
The Business Model: What inspired you to write about Diana's story?
Mara Hvistendahl: At the time that Diana was killed, I was living a few blocks away. I was a single woman in an apartment building with no security, and the news left a strong impression on me. Many expats in Shanghai had a similar reaction. But for the first few days no one really knew what had happened. The police didn't make much information available, and rumors were flying. After the authorities finally found a suspect, there was speculation that maybe they had arrested the wrong guy. The fact that Diana’s Chinese agency, JH, split town soon after she was killed made many suspicious. For most people who were in Shanghai in 2008 and heard about the crime, that question was never really settled. I wanted to find out what had really happened.
TBM: Were you familiar with the modeling market in Shanghai prior to writing about Diana's story?
MH: Not really. The Shanghai-based fashion photographer Todd Anthony Tyler is a friend, and I had once interviewed him about his work. But I'd only once been to a shoot, and I didn’t know much about how the market worked. The closest I had come to the fashion world before working on this story was visiting an agency in Minneapolis at age 14 during some kind of model search. (In the end I was deemed too short to be a model.) These days people in Shanghai sometimes approach me on the street about using my 17-month-old daughter as a child model. But the experience of researching this story has made me very wary. I would be reluctant to jump into any kind of arrangement in China quickly.
TBM: After doing your research, what is your impression of the global modelling industry? In China specifically?
MH: First of all, the models I spoke with for this story were extremely helpful. I could not have had a better group of interview subjects. I understand from Todd, who worked as a model in the 1990s and has lived in Shanghai for years, that an influx of models from all around in the world has resulted in lower pay and in agencies taking higher cuts. Some issues, like models working without work visas and living in crappy agency apartments, are common everywhere. But in China these problems may be more pronounced because of the proliferation of shady agencies here.
I visited the addresses that JH had listed as its offices, and both were apartments in very basic residential compounds far outside of the city center. One of the buildings was rundown and dirty. It was definitely not the sort of place I’d expect to be a booking center for international models.
TBM: What regulative changes would you like to see in China and in the industry generally?
MH: One big improvement would be to allow short-term entertainer visas, so that models no longer need to work under the table. The recent visa bust in Beijing is a sobering sign that working without a visa in China can be a real liability. But with or without work visas, mother agencies also have to thoroughly research the local agencies to which they send their models. China is in transition, with all kinds of companies opening overnight. It’s very easy to buy a desk and a phone and claim that you’re an agency.
TBM: You live in Shanghai. As a foreigner, have you ever felt unsafe in the city?
MH: No. I have very rarely felt unsafe in China. The few times that I have, it’s been connected to reporting on sensitive or controversial issues. In general, the crime rate in central Shanghai is very low. That’s why I initially wanted to write about Diana’s murder. It was such an anomaly.
TBM: Is there any advice you would give models or foreigners planning to go to China?
MH: Do your research! Read The Business Model’s market guides, and check out the resources provided by Model Alliance. Don’t assume that an agency has your best interests in mind. That isn’t always the case.
For more information on Mara's work, visit her website.