A 14-year-old Russian girl has died tragically while modeling in China, triggering accusations that she had been literally worked to death on the runway. However, the circumstances and events underlying the teen’s untimely death are unclear and under dispute.
On Friday, the English-language Siberian Times reported, citing Russian sources, that Vlada Dzyuba had collapsed during a grueling “13-hour fashion show” in Shanghai last week, falling into a coma and dying two days later at the hospital. According to the report, the preliminary cause of death was “meningitis compounded by severe exhaustion.”
In its report, the Siberian Times quotes Vlada’s mother, Oksana, telling Russian television channel NTV that her daughter had called her last week from the show, saying: “Mama, I am so tired. I so much want to sleep.” Oksana said that these were the first signs of her daughter’s illness and that she had urged Vlada to go to the hospital. However, rather than address these symptoms, Vlada was instead made to continue walking the catwalk until she collapsed from “utter exhaustion.”
Vlada was from the city of Perm in Russia near to the Ural Mountains. Her mother, the editor in chief at a local glamor magazine got her started in modeling after she turned 12 years old. When she was 14, she was able to travel abroad alone and signed a three-month contract to work in China, missing her school classes during that time.
Oksana was not able to secure a visa in time to travel to China to see her daughter before her death.
There is speculation that Vlada did not go to the hospital sooner because she had no health insurance in China. Following her tragic death, fears have been raised about young Russian and Eastern European girls being sent to China on so-called “slave labor contracts” where they are forced to work long hours for little pay in a legal gray area, trying to land their big break into international modeling.
According to the Siberian Times, Vlada’s family fears that “a desire to profit from Vlada won against elementary care” for her. The family has appealed for help from Russian diplomats in looking into the circumstances behind her death.
In addition, the Siberian Times says that under Russian law, girls of Vlada’s age are not allowed to work more than three hours a week.
However, the Shanghai modeling agency which hired Vlada on a temporary contract tells a much different story about the teen’s tragic death, denying charges that she had died after working grueling hours under a “slave contract” and refuting many parts of the Siberian Times report, including its timeline of events.
“I think the accusation against us that Vlada was worked to death is groundless,” Zheng Yi, the founder of ESEE Model, told the South China Morning Post on Sunday. “There is no so-called slave contract. “We are one of the biggest model agencies in China and the contract we signed with her is legal and standard.”
According to Zheng, Vlada had been in China for two months and had been working as much as other models during that time. “She had regular breaks while working,” Zheng told the Global Times. “Most of her work was completed within eight hours. Her workload was moderate compared with other models.”
Zheng asserts that Vlada could not have died while modeling at Shanghai Fashion Week because that event ended on October 18th. She took part in just two events at the fashion week, working for only a few hours, Zheng said.
Instead, Zheng told SCMP that Vlada went to Yiwu, Zhejiang province last Monday (Oct. 23rd) to prepare for a photo shoot. The following day, she worked for eight hours and took three breaks. That evening, she told her agent that she wasn’t feeling well and had started vomiting.
Her shoots for Wednesday were canceled and she was taken to the railway station that morning, boarding a train back to Shanghai where she returned to her hotel dormitory. Her condition did not improve and, at about 6 pm that evening, agency staff took her to the Ruijin hospital in Huangpu District.
According to Zheng, at this point, there were red spots on her body, she had a headache, was vomiting and couldn’t stand up without help from others. Checks at the hospital showed that she was in serious condition and she was taken immediately to the ICU.
That night, the agency contacted both Vlada’s relatives in Russia as well as Russia’s consulate in Shanghai. On Thursday, a staff member from the consulate arrived to check on her.
Unfortunately, her condition continued to worsen. She died on Friday of “multiple organ dysfunction syndrome,” according to a medical report seen by the Global Times which stated that “the young model was suffering from septicopyemia, or a type of blood poisoning, at the ICU, with multiple visceral organs damaged, liver dysfunction and renal insufficiency.”
ESEE Model paid 50,000 yuan in medical fees on Vlada’s behalf, Zheng told the SCMP, claiming that it was not his company’s responsibility to purchase medical insurance for her. Instead, he said that this was typically done by the Russian modeling agency which had originally recruited her. In this case, Smirnoff Models based in St. Petersburg.
As for claims that Vlada should only have been allowed to work a few hours a week, Zheng said that his contract with the Russian agency was standard and legal. However, it did not provide a set number of working hours.
According to the Global Times: “China’s Labor Law provides for an eight-hour work day, and 44 hours a week. The law states that cultural, sports and special arts employees are entitled to recruit teenagers under the age 16, but they have to fulfill national permission procedures and ensure their rights to education.”
In a follow-up story which acknowledges conflicting accounts of Vlada’s death, the Siberian Times reports that Vlada was earning just $8 a day while working in China and dreaming of catwalk stardom on the international stage. Her parents aren’t able to afford the costs of flying her body home, so she will be cremated and her ashes will instead be flown back to Russia.
“Leaving aside any blame, her tragic story is likely to hold lessons for those — anywhere — who deploy teenage girls as models, often enticing them with starry-eyed hopes of fame and fortune in the future, a goal reached by only a handful,” the Siberian Times concludes.
[Images via The Siberian Times]
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