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Foreign models flock to China, which embraces a Western vision of beauty

By Keith B. Richburg
Saturday, December 26, 2009; C01

BEIJING -- China's Next Top Model may well be a blue-eyed Canadian blonde named Nicole.

Nicole Vos, 19, has been modeling in Canada for four years and was doing runway shows for Toronto Fashion Week when "my agency one day just told me that I'm going to China." Now just halfway through her three-month contract in Beijing, Vos has been photographed for catalogues, magazines and commercials.

"I love it here!" Vos gushed, shouting over the blaring house music at Touch, a club at the Westin Beijing Chaoyang hotel, the models' watering hole. "I definitely want to come back!"

Vos isn't alone. Western models, it seems, are everywhere these days in the People's Republic of China: on department store display ads, in catalogues for clothing brands, on billboards, in commercials and on the runways at fashion shows. They are blue-eyed American and Canadian blondes like Vos, sultry Eastern European brunettes and hunky male bodybuilders with Los Angeles tans and six-pack abs selling products from jeans to underwear.

A walk through the Guiyou department store in central Beijing is instructive. On the third and fourth floors, where designer brands from Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou are showcased, there's a display of a blonde modeling over-the-knee boots and red-and-black pumps for Hongke shoes. A pouty brunette advertises Baykal, a local brand of wool products. Even the mannequins have Western features.

It may seem incongruous that a country of 1.3 billion people -- roughly half of them female -- would have to import models. Or that designers and clothing brands would want to use blondes and redheads to market to a nation of black-haired consumers.

But the use of foreign models has been growing in China's fashion industry, as brands jostle to be known as "yangqi," or trendy -- literally "foreign-style" in Mandarin Chinese. The alternative, using only Chinese models, is interpreted as making the brand come off as "tuqi," or countrified.

"It's all relatively new," much like China's fashion industry, said Angelica Cheung, editor of Vogue China.

"It just reflects the growth of the fashion industry. It needs a variety of girls now. If it's a local Chinese brand, they want to show their clothes look good on Westerners, especially brands that want to sell overseas."

Other factors, Cheung said, include the relative lack of professional training among Chinese models. "They are very wooden, or they don't have any experience responding to the camera," she said. The Western models, often with more years of professional training, come with a certain attitude and, in the end, it's all about selling attitude as much as clothes and watches.

Ou Haibin, head of the Yuanjin Modeling Agency in Shenzhen, said 20 to 30 modeling agencies in China use foreigners, and 300 to 500 Western models are here during any given month, almost always on short-term contracts of up to three months.

"My clients feel that their products will look international if they use foreign models," Ou said, and so they are willing to pay the higher fees, which are about a third to a half higher than those for Chinese models.

Then there is the matter of the Chinese sense of what constitutes beauty in a globalized world. "The foreign models' faces are much more three-dimensional," Ou said. "They look nicer in pictures."

He added that he never hires black models. "Our clients don't ask for black models," he said. "It's an issue of Chinese people's aesthetic view."

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How much the models make depends on their workload. Natalia Tydir, 25, from a small town in Western Ukraine, said that in her best month she made 50,800 renminbi, or about $7,440. Other models said a good haul from a three-month contract might be $10,000 to $30,000. But the models must begin by paying back expenses, often including the cost of the plane ticket to Beijing.

Many models live together in relatively cheap apartments. Tydir started out in a two-bedroom with five other girls and a single bathroom, paying $878, before she moved into another place with one roommate.

And many, like Tydir, come from Eastern European countries, where opportunities are fewer. Tydir said she was teaching at the university and tried modeling and acting in Ukraine when she learned about modeling in China. "I heard you have an opportunity to go abroad and make money," she said. "I'm 25 years old -- I need money."

Jezlan Moyet Decator, 22, was modeling in Los Angeles when her "mother agency" told her there was a talent scout from Beijing. "We sat, we chatted for maybe half an hour," she said. Two weeks later he sent her a ticket to Beijing.

The scout was Mike Chen, originally from Las Vegas. Chen said he usually brings over 10 to 15 girls each month. And he knows what type of models will make the cut for his clients in Beijing.

"In the summertime, it's usually blondes," Chen said. "For the winter collection, it's more likely they want brunettes." Brunettes, he said, photograph better in furs. He's not big on height, and prefers a fuller figure. But most important, he added, "it's all about attitude."

* * *

Brandon Waarbroek, who is 28 but looks much younger, is one of the few male models on the Beijing circuit. He was working as an instructor at a small gym in Southern California and doing some modeling when Chen sent him to China. Now he's planning to return, to learn Chinese and maybe even go into business here. "I love China -- I really love it," he said.

Waarbroek also tried to explain his take on the local fascination with foreign models. "The fascination is they look different," he said. "They might have a million models who are Chinese. They like what they don't have, like tall blondes." In his case, he said, "they really like muscle here, and there's not a lot of us."

The models' life here is far from easy. Most complain about working far longer hours than they would in the United States or Europe. There's often no lunch, or just a bag of McDonald's hamburgers dumped onto a common table. And the girls get measured; if they gain weight, they can get shipped home before the end of their contract.

And they all complain about the waiting. Early wake-up calls, followed by hours of waiting.

"They work crazy hours here," said Vos, the Canadian model. She often has to wake up at 3 or 4 in the morning. In Canada, she said, "a casting before 9 would not happen. . . . And they work weekends here."

The language barrier has created misunderstandings and mishaps. Tydir understood she was going on a shoot once but had no idea where. She ended up on a 10-hour train ride to Inner Mongolia in freezing weather, and she was wearing only T-shirts and flip-flops and had not packed an overnight bag.

But most said they would recommend China as the new "in" spot for modeling.

"If you can get rid of all your insecurities, you can model in China," Waarbroek said. "If every day you can take getting lost, not knowing how to order food, and looking at symbols all day."

He added: "You're either going to love China or you're going to hate it. . . . The strong people survive."

Staff researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.

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