In 2008, the murder of young Canadian model Diana O’Brien shocked Shanghai. In a new book, And the City Swallowed Them, journalist Mara Hvistendahl tells the story of Diana O’Brien’s life and of the murder case.
O’Brien had come to Shanghai to work in a deal arranged between her Canadian modeling agency, Coultish Management in Victoria, BC and a local agency named JH. The following excerpt, from Chapter 6 of Hvistendahl’s book, is about the state of the international modeling industry.
Diana O’Brien came to Shanghai on a contract negotiated by Canadian agency Coultish Management. The modeling industry, like tech and garment manufacturing before it, had gone completely and irretrievably global. Though always reliant on the exotic beauties of faraway lands, it was now an industry without a center. Beneath the vaunted runway shows of Milan, New York, and Paris was a sublayer of other markets, many of them in developing countries. Canadian models now competed for distant jobs against Brazilians and Romanians and Ukrainians. To clients in Dubai or Shanghai, they all looked the same. Becoming a model now meant being both famous and anonymous.
Originally, modeling agencies were introduced to protect models’ rights. The industry dates to the 1920s, when models were essentially freelancers who earned a pittance. It was only after agencies rose to prominence in the 1960s that the work became profitable for the women and men who made it possible. Early agents were hardly beyond reproach; industry pioneer John Casablancas was notorious for sleeping with young clients. But models gained an economic edge that they have only recently lost. In 1990, supermodel Linda Evangelista told a writer for Vogue, “We don’t wake up for less than $10,000 a day.” While today’s supermodels are still wealthy, many starting models struggle just to break even. They are the latest victims of our frictionless global economy.
According to a pamphlet Diana received from her Canadian agency, “The industry has been glamorized by the media, and therefore has resulted in many aspiring models.” It cautioned that foreign agencies “can afford to be very critical with so many prospects to choose from.” But breathless media reports were hardly the problem. New technologies—and an expanded labor pool—were. Whereas securing a contract abroad once required printing an expensive portfolio, now it was enough to simply look good online. As the barriers to forming an agency fell and models flooded the market, foreign agencies increased their cut from as low as 25 percent all the way up to 50 percent. In markets like China, agencies multiplied to the point that even veterans now have trouble hazarding a guess at how many exist.
In many ways, Diana’s local agency, JH, exemplified this race to the bottom. She never saw the agency office and knew the bookers only by their English names. The two addresses JH listed in promotional materials and online profiles were both in residential compounds. One was on the second floor of a dank, dirty tiled building where residents hung wet laundry out the windows. The other was a small fourteenth-floor apartment in a neglected tower. Neither looked anything like a booking center for international models. Other models in Shanghai never saw Diana at castings for coveted jobs.
Local agencies recovered costs by charging models exorbitant fees. JH billed Diana 2,500 RMB per month for her room in the agency’s apartment. If all three rooms were filled, the agency could pull in nearly twice what the apartment was worth. With two women there, it still likely made a profit. Then there were various other expenses, all of them at premium rates: almost 1,000 RMB to feature Diana on the JH website, an equal amount for promotional materials, nearly 2,000 RMB a month for company-provided transportation, and up to 350 RMB every time they printed her portfolio. Her weekly allowance, on the other hand, was on the low end for Shanghai: less than 400 RMB to cover food, taxis, and incidentals. But it hardly mattered, since spending money would also be deducted from her earnings. For many new models, making any money at all on their first overseas trip is considered a success. Some even end their stints abroad in debt to an agency.
The experience of a model named Renee Thomas—who was what the youth-crazed industry terms a “fresh face” when she started working at fourteen—shows how far the industry has fallen. On her first contract, in Bangkok, she was never paid by the local agency. In Paris, she was forced into a fruit-and-vegetable diet by the French agency that hosted her, eventually growing so sick that she had to return home. Her nascent career came to a halt in Beijing. She’d had to front the money for her own flight—a highly unusual setup in Asia—and for two weeks, she booked not even one job. Finally, her Chinese agent called one night to say he would stop by the apartment to escort her to a fitting. He picked her up at 7 p.m. and started driving, then suddenly pulled the car over on the highway. “I didn’t bring you into China to model,” he said. Instead, he proposed. He wanted to become a Canadian citizen, he said.
From the book And the City Swallowed Them by Mara Hvistendahl. Excerpted by arrangement with Deca Stories. Copyright 2014.
You can buy And the City Swallowed Them by Mara Hvistendahl as a Kindle Single through Amazon. Or, you get it as part of a subscription to Deca Stories, the newly launched writers’ collective publishing the story, by pledging to their Kickstarter campaign.