By Natalia Zurowski
Erin Blaak is a model from Toronto, Canada. After modelling successfully in London, Athens, and Milan, Erin took the plunge and went off on her first trip to Shanghai, a market aptly touted as "model boot camp." Blaak talks to The Business Model about the modelling market in China, her life-shaping experiences, why she keeps going back, and what models can expect if they plan to embark on an adventure out East. Hint: An open mind will be your biggest asset.
The Business Model (TBM): When was your first trip to China?
Erin Blaak (EB): My first trip to China was September of 2009 to Shanghai. As it was my first time in Asia, it was an eye opening experience. The culture, the people, the food . . . the cockroaches and the mice!
TBM: You've worked in some of the top-tier markets in the world like London and Milan. After all these years, why do you continue to go back to China?
EB: The reason I continue to go back to China is because the payment is quick and very high. Usually it takes me 3-6 months to get paid and in some cases, up to a year for some clients - in Asia, China specifically, that isn't the case. I can either arrange to be paid every 30 days in cash, or take my cash when I leave the country. It has been very beneficial to mix a few trips in with my other markets. Working in China allowed me to buy my first condo! Unlike other markets, there are jobs every single day and long hours, making the sky the limit for earnings. Just be prepared to work until you drop!
TBM: Around 2009 there were no more than 10 agencies in Shanghai and now there's rumoured to be around 40. Did you find that there was significantly more competition this time around? Did you notice any other changes in the market since your first visit?
EB: Competition depends on the agency, the strength of the models, and the suitability of the model to the market. In my case, I am in a strong agency with strong models. I didn't feel competition as I feel the fashion market is always growing and expanding creating more jobs every year. I also think that my agency is incredible with matching me to suitable and professional clients. Every client wants something different and in China there are so many jobs it's a matter of having a great agency that can match you to the right clients. I also believe I'm a great match for the Asian market with my blonde hair and blue eyes. However, I'm sure some models are feeling stressed out by competition. There are many agencies with way too many models with similar looks and no experience. Choosing an agency is a very crucial step.
TBM: Of all the Chinese markets, which is your favourite, and why?
EB: Shanghai this year became my favourite market again. I had been dreading going back to China and (in an incredible feat) managed to stay away for a year and a half, which, if you know me, is a very long time! There is so much stress, pressure, lack of professionalism, long hours, tough conditions, and a lot of other things that I could speak for hours about. However, on this trip I was pleasantly surprised. The agency I worked with was extremely professional, kind, and they really cared for me. When you are working long hours in less than ideal conditions this is very important. If I was feeling ill or if the job was expected to be difficult they would send along a helper and translator with me. The castings in Shanghai are very short and sweet. If you've been to China then you know that each casting can sometimes take hours and you are faced with 10 per day. My apartment and living conditions were also very clean - always a huge plus. On my first trip I never even saw a cockroach or a mouse in my apartment - which has happened in some models apartments before. We even had a cleaning lady 6 days a week.
Shanghai itself is an incredible city and has everything you can imagine - whether you're interested in modern art, music, or cuisine, Shanghai has it all - the sky is the limit! Also, the clients in Shanghai (or at least with my agency) were very professional, accomodating, and tried very hard to care for me - even during those times I was working outside in bikinis in zero degree weather. I found it to be the most accomodating trip I have ever experienced in Asia. However, my last trip to Shanghai before this one I was with another agency and it was not good at all - that's why I say agency, agency, agency. Being in a great city with a great agency and earning good money, why wouldn't I go to China?
TBM: How is modelling in China different from modelling in Toronto or London?
EB: Modelling in Toronto or London doesn't compare at all. In my experience, everyone in North America and Europe is very kind and respectful. You feel you are working with friends. On set, there are often breakfast, lunch, and dinner buffets. It feels more like fun than work. There's a lot more creativity happening and an effort to try and produce original images rather than copying - as commonly seen in China. There are no below standard or extreme conditions and you will not go without sleep or food for days at a time. This isn't to say models don't eat or sleep in China! It's just that if you get a good response from the market, you'll likely be working everyday - sometimes in other cities - and eating the Chinese fast food they give you on the job.
TBM: Out of all your years working in China, what has been your most memorable or interesting modelling experience?
EB: My most memorable experience has to be when I visited the Great Wall the first time. I can't even describe it, you would have to see for yourself. It was breathtaking.
The most ridiculous experience, at least one of them, was probably the time I was in a $10,000 USD gown in a very wealthy European area in Guangzhou. We were in front of a flowerbed shooting a huge campaign when a man came down and squatted in front of me, pulled down his pants, looked at me, and started reading his newspaper in the middle of this fancy street right in front of me. Ever since that moment (and I have had hundreds of experiences) I think nothing in this world phases me any more. Why? There's no why, you just become immune to anything. Because China.
TBM: What piece of advice would you give new faces embarking on their first trip to China?
EB: Be prepared to work 7 days a week (12 hours a day if necessary), and eat a lot of food you may not like. Always pack snacks and extra food, pack extra clothes and bathroom things. You never know if you'll have time to go back to your apartment and go straight to the next airport. Also, there are plenty of gross things you will see like cockroaches, mice, and even some habits people exhibit that you may not be accustomed to. Be prepared and have an open mind!
In addition, watch and take cues from other models; how they pose, interact with clients, how they work, and try and learn as fast as possible. Asia requires a completely different set of skills.
Also, you may come back with a lot of money. Invest it! Buying a place was the best thing I ever did!
TBM: Have you ever felt unsafe while in China? What’s your advice for models looking to stay safe?
EB: Personally, no. However, I had a friend that was murdered in China, and another who did drugs and committed suicide.
In saying this, never go anywhere alone at night, including before or after parties or on your free time, even on weekends. If you are working, don't be alone!
Always keep your agency address, home address, and imporant phone numbers on you in case your electronics die. You don't want to be stranded in a country where you don't speak the language and not be able to find where you live.
Also, be very careful about drinking in foreign countries, and even more so with drugs. I would advise to stay away from them completely. It isn't worth your life or going to jail in a foriegn country.
TBM: Do you think you will be returning to China again in the near future?
EB: If you asked me earlier this year I would have said no. However, after my recent experience in Shanghai I will be back in a few months. The money was amazing, I had a great time, I stayed safe, and enjoyed all Shanghai had to offer. I would love to buy some more real estate in Toronto.
Don't get me wrong though, China isn't for everyone! I can deal with working 12 hours per day 7 days a week, with all the pollution, cockroaches, and not entirely ideal living and working standards. It's not for everyone!
TBM: Where is your next stop?
EB: I just got back from Shanghai so I am going to stick around Toronto for now. Probably China again later this year or maybe LA if I can get a work visa. We will just have to wait and see won't we?