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.
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.
In one of Girl Model's more chilling scenes, a Switch agent, while caught in traffic, is asked how it is that Noah, Switch and recruiters like Ashley can profit from girls who apparently don't make money and even end up in debt. "From new faces I think we can't make money," he says. "They can get their, like, experiences; that is all."
Nadya's roommate, Madlen, purposely binges in order to invoke the clause in her contract that dictates that if she gains one centimeter in her waist, hips or bust, she'll be sent home. She leaves having racked up two centimeters in her waist and $2,200 in debt to Switch. When Nadya finishes her contract, she owes Switch $2,700 — a far cry from the "minimum" $8,000 in earnings she was promised. Before leaving Tokyo, she finally finds a magazine with a picture of herself (her lovely face half-hidden by an oversized black wig) and purchases copies with her own meager funds.
Ashley reflects the economic and moral ambiguities of the industry. A young model herself in the 1990s, she provides remarkably candid commentary on her current work, which is juxtaposed with excerpts from the video diary she kept as an unhappy and disillusioned young model. From the minimalist house in Connecticut that she bought with modeling money when she was only 23, Ashley notes the irony of her situation — the industry that she said she despised has now claimed her, and she is putting young women in the same situation. "I was the person that hated this business more than anybody," she says, "and now I'm 15 years into it." She admits that the young women she signs don't fully comprehend their own relationships with her — is she a friend, a parent figure, an employer or something else altogether?
Ashley's inner conflicts about her future — sharpened by unexpected surgery for removal of a growth that is making her own waist expand — are stark testimony to the fashion industry's economic and psychological hold on millions of people. "I would be happy to be four months pregnant with a healthy thing, but this is just something that's growing for no reason," she says. "I want a baby because that's what I am born to do. . . . Hopefully [it] could travel with me to Russia. So when I go to have a baby I will, like, decide which date and just go and have the same operation that I just had."
As the film closes, Ashley sets off on another round of auditions in Siberia, making the same promises that were made to Nadya about the guaranteed success of models in Japan to a fresh group of hopeful girls and their mothers. The film reveals complicated truths about the world of modeling, the relationships between wealthier and poorer nations and a seemingly insatiable craving for young girls in many different societies.
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.