In 2008, 22-year-old Diana O'Brien was like most foreign models abroad in Shanghai. She shared a model apartment with her roommate, Charlotte. She Skyped with her boyfriend after returning home from strange jobs in cities like Kunming. She went out with friends, waking up early for morning castings.
As she returned home from dinner with these friends one night, she was followed home and murdered in the dark hallway of her apartment building. After stabbing her 22 times and robbing her apartment, her assailant fled the scene. Shortly afterwards, her agency, JH, changed their name, deleted their website, and were otherwise unreachable.
These events caught the attention of Mara Hvistendahl, a journalist living in Shanghai. Hvistendahl’s new book, And the City Swallowed Them, probes not just O'Brien's murder but also the murky underworld which accompanies the Chinese modeling market. To write it, she spoke with dozen of sources, including investigators, O'Brien's family, models, agents, and the family of the convicted murderer. It’s a tragic and fascinating portrait of the unglamorous subculture often found in second-tier modeling markets around the world.
As a young girl growing up in the small island town of Victoria, Canada, O’Brien probably never expected to end up in Shanghai on a modeling contract. She got her start posing for local small businesses, and was later signed to the island’s only modeling agency, Barbara Coultish Management.
She soon found herself overseas in Milan, where she “built her book” – industry-speak for booking editorials and test shoots to add to ones’ portfolio. When she returned, her mother agent Laura Cooper emailed her with news.
“I am SO excited for you!” Cooper wrote. JH Agency, in Shanghai, was interested in O’Brien, and sent over a 3-month contract immediately. As with most models, O’Brien was asked to work on an illegal tourist visa, a practice that recently made headlines after 60 models were arrested in Beijing for doing exactly that. She was sent a fake visitation letter by Helen, her agent in Shanghai, which allowed her to obtain a 30-day tourist visa. Soon, she was off to China.
Agencies in China are numerous, with little or no regulation, often with strange names and no reputations. Hvistendahl spoke with several agents and models about this. “A lot of smaller agencies take risks with other people’s safety,” said Dan Grant, who runs the Model Resource, a website for Canadian models out of Toronto. There’s also the problem that “anyone can say they’re an agency,” said Felix Zhuang, a modeling scout.
But O’Brien went to Shanghai anyway. According to Hvistendahl, O’Brien didn’t like the strange jobs booked there. A far cry from the runway shows and editorials of Milan, she was sent to cities like Kunming as a “whiskey girl” for Ballantine whiskey, where models were asked to “sashay out of the changing room bearing a bottle, circle the club, climb up on stage, then return to the changing room. Wait and hour or two, then repeat,” writes Hvistendahl.
O’Brien hated these types of gigs. “What the hell am I doing here?” she wrote to friends on Facebook. But her contract stipulated that it could be cancelled if she refused a casting or job.
“Models always think the grass is greener on the other side… it rarely is!” wrote her mother agency in an advice email. “This agency has finally given you your chance in Asia!”
O’Brien changed the return date on her ticket to an earlier flight, planning to leave after a month rather than her original three-month stay. She had only been in Shanghai for two weeks. She was murdered three days later.
At first, her roommate Charlotte suspected her agency was involved. After contacting Helen, her agent at JH, she was advised to keep quiet; Helen also asked that her name be kept out of the press. Shortly afterwards, the agency had disappeared.
Police eventually tracked down her killer: Chen Jun was an 18-year-old migrant worker who police believe killed O’Brien in a robbery gone wrong. He was eventually convicted of the death penalty with a two-year reprieve – which means that after two years and no further crimes committed, he would suffer life-long imprisonment. He had stolen money, jewelry, and a digital camera, which were eventually found under his mattress in his home province of Anhui.
Though O’Brien’s story is tragic and extreme, as are the circumstances surrounding her death, her situation in China was not. She was one of thousands of foreign models who travel to cities each year to find work abroad, sold on the idea of expensed travel and potentially lucrative jobs. But those who have been in her shoes know that for every model who books an expensive campaign, there are dozens more doing jobs like O’Brien’s, in agencies similar to hers which offer little — if any — support. Though her agency cannot be blamed for a random act of violence, her situation was dangerous, and because her agency in Canada seemed eager to send models abroad, they did little research into what it would entail.
“To become a model now was to become both famous and anonymous,” writes Hvistendahl of the influx of models in these second-tier markets like Shanghai. “To clients, they looked all the same.”
O’Brien is anonymous no longer. But in Hvistendahl’s book, she’s also no longer a model: She’s a quiet girl who grew up in a small island town, whose parents visited Shanghai, devastated after her death and unable to get straight answers from the police. She’s someone who longed to travel, and was excited to see the world. She’s a young woman in a precarious situation, just trying to get home.
And the City Swallowed Them is available now as an eBook from Amazon.