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Meredith Hattam: My Life Working as a Model in China

Meredith Hattam tells us about the difficulties of working as a model in "second-tier" markets like China.
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We’re sitting at a table in our train’s dilapidated dining car, somewhere on the border of Inner Mongolia, en route from Beijing to Chengdu, China -- a 30-hour commute. Sixteen-year-old Lana is quietly salting a hard-boiled egg. Eggs—and only eggs—are all she’ll eat for the next 10 days, but not because of any dietary restriction. Our modeling agency has cut her weekly allowance, as she’s exceeded the body measurements clearly defined in her three-month contract. She has yielded to what, in industry-speak, is called “getting fat,” and must now take drastic measures to reverse the damage.

Each week, back in Beijing, where our agency is based, every model’s measurements are taken by our agency's owner, Alina* (named changed), a Ukrainian ex-model. On Monday mornings, she calls us into her office one-by-one and shuts the door, wrapping a measuring tape around our bodies. “Stand perfectly still,” she says. “Feet together, back straight.” No tights are allowed, which might hide bloating. Gaining more than 3cm on your bust, waist, or hips was a breach of contract and grounds to be sent home. At 5’11, Lana’s* hips are now 96cm—or 38”, a size 8 U.S. (something that would qualify her as a plus-size model stateside.) When she arrived in Beijing from the Ukraine, they measured 91cm, a size 4 U.S. Lana had broken the rules, and as a result, her weekly allowance (referred to as “pocket money”) of 500 RMB (about $80 USD) has been cut.

Sixteen. The age your body develops on its own accord, stunted and shamed by a simple contract. If Lana was back in high school, this change may have been unremarkable, easily solved by a few new pairs of jeans. In Beijing, it is measured, weighed, pinched, prodded, recorded, analyzed and publicly scorned.

“Why should I pay you, when you can’t pay me in return?” Alina often chides.

Lana’s mother and roommates have told her that a high-protein diet will help her lose weight. No fruit, no sugar, definitely no bread. Hence the eggs, and eggs alone.

As I watch her eat her egg in the smog-red sunlight, I think of my younger brother. He’s a high school junior in California, and only a bit older than Lana. At 17, he’s wading through college applications, this little person I grew up with. Writing essays about what matters and what’s important and who’s impacted his life.

I remember being a teenager then and I would never want to be in Lana’s place, salting an egg and staring out at rural China due to a few extra centimeters. Yet my 24 years to her 16 are no matter, as we're both in the very adult situation of traveling passport-less in a foreign country -- a trip we’re required to take, per our agency’s surrender of our passports to the Chinese government.

Alina is renewing our tourist visas for just a few more weeks so that the bizarre jobs that characterize Beijing’s modeling market -- car shows, fake beauty pageants and pajama catalogs -- will not go unbooked. So that our overhead expenses (plane tickets, rent, chauffeur) get paid off. So that we can pass through customs unquestioned by immigration.

In a month, Lana will return to the Ukraine to graduate from high school. In six months, I will return to the U.S. to find a desk job. But for the next 10 days, we’ll be in Chengdu, where we’ve been sent to work as brand ambassadors for the Chengdu International Auto Show. Our job: hawking the latest luxury car, called “Kombat.” For eight hours each day, we’ll lean invitingly on top of a $1.5 million Hummer-like tank wearing short-skirted army uniforms purchased from a party supply store. Our handlers request that we salute every hour, switching into evening gowns during intervals. For this, we’ll be paid $3000 RMB ($200) per day, 40% of which goes to our agency, 10% to our scout. The rest of the money will pay for our expenses. By the time we leave China, we’ll have earned nothing at all.

Most of my stories about China start off like this. All of them are strange, peripatetic tales starring teenagers.

In Beijing, I was one of 13 roommates, all models, most of whom were under 18 and from the Eastern Bloc. Nine girls, four boys, give or take, during the busy season. Lana was one of them, though she wasn’t the youngest. The youngest was 14-year-old Kate, a shy Ukrainian girl who, out of all of our roommates, worked the most -- which, in industry-speak, meant that she was frequently in demand. Kate celebrated her 14th birthday two months into her contract, sitting down with us between jobs to eat a store-bought cake that we purchased with our pocket money. Most of her jobs were nine hours a day, requiring last-minute travel and hotel stays (usually with a handler and another model) to the homonymous cities that comprise China’s fashion economy: Shenzhen, Guangzhou, Hangzhou.

Our shabby, dorm-like apartment consisted of four bedrooms (two baths) for the 13 of us. When we arrived, I found I had no bed -- only a stained, faded couch covered in a fake Gucci blanket, for which I was charged $500/month. As a model, inflated rent and poor living conditions are unfortunately industry standards. Rent is charged as part of your expenses and later deducted from any jobs you may (or may not) do -- which is what makes booking them so important.

In Asia's modeling industry, working under an illegal tourist visa is commonplace. Models are told by their scouts to say they're visiting on vacation, putting them in a precarious situation in which they’re entirely in the hands their employers: If a model denies even one job, she may lose her contract and her apartment. She can't work elsewhere, because she’s a tourist. And if her family or agency refuses to support her, she doesn’t have the financial means to get home.

Such was the case for a roommate who refused a job. The job Alina presented to Anice* was simple: act as a hostess on an overnight boat trip attended by older Chinese gentlemen. Just for a couple of days. Alone.

Anice said no, and was promptly booted from our agency -- and our apartment.

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Now, when you’re a 26-year-old, college-educated European who speaks fluent English and has a built-in support network of family and friends -- like Anice -- you’ll (hopefully) be fine. She wound up staying with friends for a few weeks and switched agencies and got a new apartment. But if this had been Lana? Kate? Would they have been able to refuse the job in the first place, even if they were able to understand the job’s implications?

A connection between prostitution and modelling is referenced in Ashley Sabin and David Redmon's 2011 documentary, Girl Model. In the film, the scout Ashley Arbaugh visits obscure cities in rural Russia, searching for models she can market in Asia. Girls line up in front of Arbaugh during an open call, excited at the possibility of working abroad. “[They all] just want to get out,” Arbaugh says, with jarring ambivalence. “They can be athletes, they can be gymnasts, they can be ballerinas, they can be prostitutes... you are a beautiful girl who uses her body to make money, so it’s kind of natural.”

Arbaugh may be right. Sex will always quietly surround those who make a career selling their image. But in Asia, it’s pervasive: model life, if one so chooses, becomes a hypersexual nightscape of drugs and promiscuity. Older male models frequently sleep with teenagers (whom they often live with), and at clubs prostitution is euphemistically referred to as "working the after-party."

My friend Rebecca, a Canadian model, was once asked by the manager of one of Beijing's most popular nightclubs to stay for one such after-party. For 10,000 RMB/night (around $1,650), she could entertain a Chinese businessman. After refusing, she returned home in tears.

My life modeling in China is not what you typically read about. It’s the dregs of the modeling world, the bottom rung of the high-fashion ladder. You’ll never read about a Hangzhou runway show in, say, Fashionista, though it might pay better than its NYC counterparts. Beijing is considered a second-tier market, the high-fashion trinity of New York, Milan and Paris the first.

Yet these obscure industry offshoots -- usually located in Asia, India and Europe -- comprise much of the international modeling economy. More than 71 agencies exist in China alone, bearing a smattering of strange names like I.M. Pretty, Dolls and Modern Model.

Models travel to these cities for a variety of reasons, mainly because they’re easier to access than more competitive markets. Many are just starting their time in the fashion industry, and in less competitive environments it’s much easier to build one’s portfolio. For foreigners, placement in the European or American modeling market is difficult -- working visas are expensive and tricky to acquire, and an agency must truly believe in a model in order to front their expenses, which with airfare, an apartment and a working visa, can reach up to $10,000. In most of Asia, the cost is about half.

In my experience, there are a few types of models who work in these markets. There are those like Lana, and Nadya, Girl Model’s 13-year-old protagonist, who see modeling as a viable, lifelong career choice (with an age-based expiration date and infrequent work periods, it’s usually not). Second-tier markets like those in Asia provide easy entry into the seemingly impenetrable high-fashion world, though the jobs can sometimes be far from it. There are also those like me, who don’t fit the 34-24-34/5’10 modeling standard and would have trouble finding an agency in a market like New York, though I did work there at age 19. At 5’9 (“short”), in my mid-20s (“old”) and a curvier-than-average frame (“fat”), I probably wouldn’t have worked as a model in Paris or Milan, but I was embraced by Istanbul and China (Asia favors models on the shorter side, and sample sizes in Istanbul are usually a U.S. 6/8.)

Free travel is also a perk. In the course of a year, I lived in Mexico City, Istanbul, Beijing and Guangzhou for just under $6,000, including airfare. But it’s not “free,” of course -- expenses are advanced by your agency and deducted from jobs booked after the agency takes its commission. After expenses, models can earn thousands of dollars over the course of a few months and still be in debt. In the modeling equivalent of indentured servitude, models are sometimes sent to second-tier markets to pay off debt accrued in expensive cities like New York.

Money-wise, hourly rates can be higher than most first-tier markets, but this means that clients are often excessively strict with the pace of your work. One model from my agency in Guangzhou was hospitalized from exhaustion after two months of frenzied 15-hour days. While in her hospital bed, her phone vibrated with scolding texts from the agency: she was missing her jobs and costing them money. The Model Alliance’s Founder Sara Ziff, who worked in Tokyo, was also hospitalized thanks to a relentless schedule.

While these events took place in China, unstable working conditions, often involving underage models like Lana and Kate, are common in all markets. With the help of the Model Alliance, New York State recently passed Child Labor Legislation which affords models under 18 the same protections as all other child performers. (Disclosure: I am the Model Alliance's graphic designer, a role that, while minor, serves to support those I encountered while in the industry.) It’s my hope its effects will echo internationally.

Feeling powerless over your schedule, body and life, however -- no laws can regulate this. In the modeling industry, this mindset is as inescapable as the click of a lens. And for a child, when it's the adults you trust who are making these decisions for your career and for your future -- adults who ship you to foreign countries on illegal tourist visas -- it’s hard to feel as though you have any control over your work.

This feeling of helplessness is amplified in countries like China, where you're lucky to find someone who speaks your language, much less someone to connect with. Personally, I experienced a months-long depression that eventually abated, but when talking with models, I found loneliness to be a commonality. Many models have committed suicide over the years. Ruslana Korshunova in 2008. Daul Kim in 2010. This year, a Brazilian model named Camila Bezerra jumped to her death in Guangzhou on New Years Day. She was 22 years old.

I am back on the train with Lana, both of us staring at the ceiling during the final hours of our trek. Batteries dead, books read, eggs eaten, light fading, we lie silently in our bunk beds waiting for the next two hours to pass. This is actually our trip back to Beijing. While my passport was safely procured -- enabling me to book a three-hour plane ride home -- hers was delayed. Our agency wants to send her back on the same train we came in on. Alone. Lana knows little English and no Chinese. She still doesn't have a passport. How could I leave her alone on a 30-hour train ride?

We talk briefly about the job we’d just finished. It had gone well; our handlers had even complimented us on our work ethic. Chengdu, whose name means “The Land of Abundance,” was a beautiful city. Lana grabs the side of her jeans, now loose. “Three kilo gone,” she says. “I weighed this morning.” She points to the rusty scale in her bag she brought from our apartment. She sounds really, really happy.

I want to tell her that this is not happiness. To go back to school and eat things other than eggs and study hard and find something that won’t fade at the sight of a measuring tape. To be a kid before she’s not anymore. To do stupid, silly, unimaginable things like throwing her scale away. To live abundantly. But at the moment I really don’t have the words to tell her this.