POV "Girl Model"

(Rochester, New York) – The distance from Novosibirsk Oblast in Russian Siberia to Tokyo, Japan is about 3,000 air miles, not so far in today’s jet-paced, globalized world. For Ashley Arbaugh, a former model and now a scout who specializes in the young Russian models much prized by Japan’s fashion industry, it’s a regular commute. However, as shown in the riveting new documentary Girl Model, for the girls recruited by Ashley it is a much longer journey. A. Sabin and David Redmon’s Girl Model airs Sunday, March 24 at 10 p.m. on WXXI-TV/HD (DT21.1/cable 1011 and 11).

Typically from poor villages and often as young as 12 or 13 (though passed off as 15 by their agencies), girls like Nadya Vall experience a dizzying leap from country to city, from loving families to cold business and from naive hopes to adult realities. Through Nadya and Ashley’s intertwined stories, Girl Model takes a rare, inside look at the insatiable global market for fashion-driven images of youth, and the legal yet poorly regulated industry that makes untold wealth from meeting that demand.

In Girl Model, Ashley is a link in the supply chain that provides Siberian models to the Japanese fashion market—where a pre-adolescent, doe-eyed “Russian look” is all the rage. On behalf of Noah, Russia’s largest scouting agency, she attends makeshift rural beauty pageants, where girls, usually accompanied by anxious parents hoping for better futures for their families, compete in droves for modeling contracts. Each of Ashley’s recruits gets a ticket to Tokyo, where she will work for one of Japan’s biggest modeling agencies, and a contract that guarantees her a minimum amount of photo shoots and money and a shot at a big-time modeling career. It’s a girl’s dream come true—or is it?

A 13-year-old, self-described “gray mouse” of a country girl, Nadya is as incredulous as she is excited at being chosen an “Elite Star” by Ashley. Her contract promises at least two modeling jobs and $8,000 at the end of her term—a substantial sum for a village girl and her family. But even before her departure to Japan, there are hints of a more troubling reality. The pageant hosts mention “grace, good communications skills [and] good manners,” while Ashley notes that she is looking for a “quite specific” physical type, with the right measurements, skin, hair, eyes and, of course, “young is very important. . . . They love skinny girls in Japan and she [Nadya] has a fresh young face.”

Nadya arrives at the Tokyo airport, but no one is there to greet her. She is eventually delivered to the care of the Switch Agency, and her dreams of a glamorous modeling career begin to unravel. The travails of Nadya and her roommate, Madlen, with whom she shares a tiny apartment and a series of photo shoots and auditions, form the heart-wrenching core of Girl Model. The auditions yield some work, but the girls never receive any pay or copies of the ads that use their photos—despite being told all the while that building their portfolios is the most important thing they can do in Japan.

Worst of all, beyond ferrying Nadya and others to their appointments, Switch’s care turns out to be no care at all. Left to fend for themselves, the girls, who speak neither Japanese nor English, feel increasingly lost, homesick, tired and even hungry. Because the agency charges the girls for photos and they have to pay their own way in expensive Tokyo, they also find themselves in debt.

Girl Model puts the lie to the glamorous portrayal of modeling provided by reality television programs and the glitzy images on the covers of high-fashion magazines. Instead, this poetic film lays bare for viewers a modeling industry rife with Ashleys and Nadyas, mirror images of exploitation and uncertainty.

Credit: Courtesy of Meghan Brosnan




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