ENGLISH VERSION10 июля 2008 2:00

Sex slaves to the model industry

Debt forces young women to choose between escort services or death

The noise around the recent tragedy isn't getting any quieter. Last month, the 20-year-old star model Ruslana Korshunova jumped from a ninth-story window in New York. Foreign press have recently reported the "Russian Mermaid"was without work, fell into depression and let herself go. Dark circles could be seen under her eyes in her home photographs. Her face looked tired and sad. Ruslana attended seminars in Moscow to help heal her mental breakdown. But her career troubles were accompanied by an unhappy love life. The result was a tragic suicide.

Foreign media have also wrote about the modeling industry's "New York-Paris-Moscow" shadow mafia that forces Russian models to work for miserly pay, uses them and tosses them out like garbage. Korshunova's friends were surprised that her agency didn't even offer to pay for her funeral. Her loved ones had to collect money themselves.

We decided to find out more about the dubious "international model trade,"and to tell our readers the tricks often used to lure and keep innocent young women captive.

Trick One: Debt

Today, it's impossible for a girl to break into the international fashion industry straight off the street. An entire network of modeling agencies exists in Russia that looks for young girls to send abroad. It's easier for Western companies to deal with agencies that have an arsenal of beautiful women. So it's hard for girls to make it in the business without an agent as everyone wants their cut.

Modeling agencies receive payments to their accounts and pay the girls after all the expenses have been accounted for. On the one hand, it's easier to make a name in the business with the help of an agency. On the other hand, most models don't become financial successes overnight and quickly fall into debt as they are rarely able to cover the expenses their modeling agencies incur.

We called the Russian model Vanya in Paris to learn more about the situation. She's 17 years old and has worked abroad two years.

"Ruslana Korshunova was part of the same agency as I am in Moscow — 'Black Model Management,'" Vanya told KP. "We have the same agent, Aleksey Kalinin. He has a lot of experience and huge connections abroad. Aleksey was her Russia-side agent until the very end. His agency takes a cut from all our work done abroad — something like 10 percent. The agency that represents us abroad also takes a cut — about 20 percent. Taxes are also deducted before we see any money — and taxes are huge in the U.S. Expenses for food and pocket money are also taken out of our salary as the foreign agency pays all these expenses in advance."

Vanya said Russian girls usually work themselves into a debt within several years.

"I'm not in the 'plus' yet either, although I've already been working abroad two years," Vanya said.

The models only receive $100 per week for food and transport. As a result, many models take the metro to get to fashion shows that may be held several times per day. Cosmetologists, hairdressers, masseuses and fitness experts are needed, too. They're also quite expensive. "Foreigners come up with all sorts of expenses and present models with astronomical bills," said another model working in Paris. "For example, my agency made me make new photographs. But they prohibited me from using any photographer but their own. It turned out he charged me far more than the market price. The agency also overcharged me for other services so they could deduct the costs later."

One model told us how a Moscow agency had played her for a fool after sending her to Tokyo. The Tokyo agency wired the money she had earned (before deductions) to her Moscow agency, which shut down immediately after. The directors opened a new agency within a matter of days.

How much do models earn? Beginners make $100-300 per fashion show (before deductions). Top models earn over $1,000 per show, but reaching that level takes time and few get there. Many young models starve abroad less for the sake of their waistline than bank account.

Trick Two: Health

Models have bouts of depression for two reasons — when they're out of work or have too much work. The girls have to run around to all sorts of shows. They always need to look good and they start taking stimulants and drugs. And they run the risk of collapsing due to the crazy rhythm of life.

"Nervous stress is part of the package for new models," Vanya said. "I was first sent to Tokyo at 15. I wound up in a strange country, without knowing the language and without any moral support. What happened to me occurs with all new models abroad. I started going to night clubs to relax and get rid of my nervousness. I drank, smoked and tried to save myself from my depression and stress. I started missing castings and went to some of them inebriated. I couldn't sleep, called home and yelled: 'Get me out of here. I don't want anything anymore!' But my parents weren't rich enough to go to Japan to get me. And the agency wouldn't let me go. No one wanted to give me work after seeing how I looked. I gained 8 pounds from going to all the night clubs. I was really out of shape. I remember my booker in Japan called Aleksey and complained. He said I was too young and didn't know anything, I was acting horribly and he didn't know what to do with me! But luckily they gave me a second chance. I went on a diet and lost weight. And now I'm in Paris. I've talked to other models and learned we all go through depression. It's the school of life."

"How do you fight depression now?" we asked.

"Sometimes I take sedatives and other times energizers. My stomach is ruined from all these diets. But I have to keep in shape. I hope I achieve everything I've set out to accomplish," Vanya said.

"What can depression do to a model?" we asked

"It can drive her to suicide in Ruslana's case! I'm just lucky nothing like that has happened to me," she said.

But agents also say they take risks. When they pay for a model's food and housing, they're placing a wager on the likelihood that she'll succeed.

Trick Three: Dubious Agency

Besides the renowned agencies, they're are tons of fly-by-night companies hunting young aspiring models. There are plenty of escort services disguised as modeling agencies. But those aside, even genuine agencies can be dangerous — especially smaller companies. The less financially stable the firm, the bigger the risk it takes when placing a bet on the new model.

"My girlfriend went to Paris and lived with 9 girls in a one-room apartment on the first floor with huge windows," one model told KP. "Several male guards who stood by the windows and doors and controlled their every move. The girls were turned into escorts. The men stole their documents and beat anyone who refused to work. My girlfriend was lucky to get out. When they started beating one of the girls, she broke a window and a passersby called the police. She phoned her parents who helped her escape."

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