Every now and again the fashion world allows the mainstream to glimpse its process, get to know its people, and help the layman understand how a fashion icon comes into being (because it’s complex, you see). Isaac Mizrahi filled viewers in on his neuroses, vision, and everything in between in 1995’s Unzipped. Since then, every designer, fashion editor, and photographer whose persona rivals their talent has added their personal tale to the canon of fashion history.
In the case of models, top-tier agency Elite Model Management has televised a couple of its Look of the Year competitions since the heyday of Cindy, Naomi, and Christy–most recently on Hulu, who has exclusive rights to the 10-part Elite New Face, a visual diary of 2011’s 28th Elite Model Look World Final. As is par for the course in other fashion documentaries, Elite’s MO is to tell the tale of discovery and the rise to stardom. Gawky, grinning 14-year-olds have their sometimes classic, often unusual, beauty affirmed by top scouts in the industry, and then win the accolade, along with a contract and/or cash prize. Particularly if viewers’ knowledge of the modeling industry relies heavily on the Top Model franchise, the assumption is that winners of these face and body competitions go on to enjoy ad campaigns, swanky apartments, and first-name notoriety. But who can be bothered to follow up?
After receiving a pitch from model scout and former catwalker Ashley Arbaugh, filmmakers David Redmon and Ashley Sabin (Kamp Katrina, Mardi Gras: Made in China) were compelled to do just that: document what happens after young, bewitchingly beautiful girls are green-lighted for international stardom. But from the start, the circumstances in Girl Model seem very different from what Elite portrays in its international model search. The girls are about the same age (an average of 14 years old), but the starry-eyed smiles worn by the young Elite talent fade painfully fast for the Russian teenagers Redmon and Sabin follow post-discovery.
The first disconnect is the lack of flash. Based on the model searches to which we’ve become accustomed in the United States, one expects such events to be connected with reputable agencies and models with household names, but when lesser-known agencies send scouts to places like Siberia with the goal of finding the youngest, thinnest, and most-striking girls, the process quickly begins looking like something that should probably be illegal. Prepubescent girls, all gangly arms and legs, line stark, poorly lighted rooms holding flimsy signs with their information because most speak little to no English. Scouts, including the somewhat disturbing Arbaugh, who later shamelessly shares a collection of photos she’s snapped of young models’ feet, arms, and torsos that she likes to mix and match, size up nervous groups of girls, audibly voicing that one is so-so, the other too fat, or has potential.
Nadya, a 13-year-old angelic-looking waif from Siberia, is deemed a could-be hit for the Japanese market following one of these searches, so she leaves her extremely tight-knit, financially challenged family and departs for Tokyo in hopes of making a name for herself and sending home some cash to her family. Modeling was what she was always going to do, according to her mother. But little did she or her mother know that no one would be there to help Nadya on arrival in Tokyo or that she’d share a rather derelict excuse for an apartment with another young Russian model who also was promised at least two well-paying jobs during her stint in Japan’s capital.
Unsavory stories about model housing and going off to a foreign land only to come back with a few photos, no earnings, and more debt than the model left with have been told before. In 2003, Channel 4 in the UK aired the documentary This Model Life, which contrasted the life of the successful British model Erin O’Connor with newcomers Anna and Ruth, the latter of whom suffered all the same letdowns. However, the unique and completely unsettling aspect of Girl Model is that through interviews and careful observation, Redmon and Sabin manage to get the modeling industry figures in question to expose their own dysfunction, which ultimately colors their young talent’s foray into the fashion world.
Arbaugh, credited as a creative consultant on the film, supplied the filmmakers with footage of herself that she recorded as a young model in the 1990s. She seemed to loathe the industry then and doesn’t talk about it fondly now, but demonstrates an unnerving detachment when it comes to roping naïve girls into modeling in parts of the world where Arbaugh admits that the profession is easily confused with prostitution. Then there’s the male agent who insists that he’s so intent on protecting new models that he takes them on a field trip to the morgue so they can see first hand where making the wrong decisions will land them. Taking the girls under his wing and showing them how to take care of themselves, he claims, is part of his calling. Unfortunately, neither he nor Arbaugh–or anyone of age–is ever around Nadya when she’s lost, forced to borrow money off her roommate, or having an impossible time calling home.
Although Girl Model is an eye-opening film that successfully contradicts the glitz of Elite New Face and its modeling contest counterparts, it leaves a trail a question marks at the very point one wants answers. If Japan is a hotbed for girls barely in their teens to “launch” their modeling careers, why aren’t agencies working in that market more strictly regulated? Do girls at the Elites and Fords of the world endure such tribulations when they’re working to get their first jobs, or are these circumstances unique to smaller agencies that use independent scouts around the world? How is Arbaugh, who not only shows the filmmakers the two unclothed baby dolls (she dissected their sibling) she keeps in her large Connecticut home, but also a cyst she had removed, allowed to continue working as a mentor to young girls? It’s clear that Girl Model has an important purpose, and it does an excellent job at shedding light on an industry veiled in glamour. But something so incredibly shady needs to be investigated much further to truly benefit future legions of hopeful starlets who have no idea what they’re getting into.