Foreign Babes in Shanghai
There’s a pink boa pinned above the whiteboard where someone has sagely scrawled, “The search for reality is the most dangerous undertaking for it destroys the world in which you live.” Below it, there’s a dining table platter full of condoms, which the three resident models say is for a laugh. As Faviola Dadis hands a Romanian woman a thick stack of 100 kuai notes to pay out to models that night, it looks assured that reality is the last thing the women living here are in danger of finding.
“It’s all so wild I can’t differentiate anymore,” says Sable Blake, a willowy Canadian whose height and classic beauty make her a runway regular throughout China. Sable shares the apartment with Anisia Dadis, a sweet-faced American of German-Egyptian descent, and her sister Faviola, a seasoned model, bicontinental socialite and probably the closest thing this foreign model set has to a den mother: she once choked a client at a fashion show who tried to get out of paying her sister.
It was an extreme measure, but sometimes that’s what it takes in the bootstrap world of freelance modeling in China. Opportunities abound, but so do swindles. A common scam is one where companies have a casting call, put models in hair and makeup and then just use the test shots for their advertising without paying. Models don’t find out until they see their own faces plastered on subway station walls. But usually the three women get paid, and they do relatively well: in the West, agencies are struggling to stay afloat. Friends back home languish out of work, but here Sable and the Dadis sisters sometimes spend exhausting 12-hour days answering half a dozen casting calls. Rates are much lower, but that’s made up for by the volume of work. They turn jobs down all the time.
“If I have to be up before 3pm I usually turn it down,” Sable says. Recently all three were hired to dress up in nylon short shorts and biker jackets for a bulldozer convention. Several years ago, Faviola was modeling Versace jewelry in the United States. Now she walks down the runway in Ningbo carrying flooring tiles. Another time she got a thousand kuai to show up and drink champagne for half an hour at a wedding at the Waldorf Astoria. Sable spent a day in Jiangsu as ‘Miss Universe USA’ in a phony pageant.
They came to Shanghai on contract with agencies, but make a lot more now as free agents. Modeling contracts offer a glamorous way to move abroad, but not a lucrative one. Most models the world over don’t make great money, even ones with international credentials. Agencies provide everything – housing, transportation to casting calls, pocket money – but they also take a huge cut and overcharge expenses. When Faviola was living in agency housing she paid RMB3,500 for a bunk bed in a house she shared with 12 other models. Models at her agency received their earnings at the end of their contracts and got a RMB400 weekly allowance in the interim – not a lot to survive on, especially if you speak zero Mandarin.
“Well, they don’t really expect you to eat much,” Sable explains. She knows women who were threatened with having pocket money taken away when they started gaining weight. Sometimes the agency would weigh models to check. Tact was not part of the equation:
“One time they were like, tell your friend to shave her lip,” Sable says. To make up for the low pay, many models take on nightclub work – something agencies dislike, but have little control over. Many of the bigname spots – Bar Rouge, M1NT, Muse – pay models to come sit pretty and make the place look good, a marketing ploy engaged by clubs vying for coolness the world over. It sounds questionable at first blush, but there’s no funny business:
“They won’t send us to the really drunk tables,” Anisia says. They all get propositioned from time to time, but club security is there to protect from grabby patrons.
In Shanghai nightclub work starts at RMB100 for a couple of hours, but outside the city rates can shoot upwards of RMB1,600. There’s also the occasional RMB3,000 tip from appreciative Chinese businessmen who are given face by having foreign women play dice and drink whiskey with them. Faviola used to do similar work at celebrity haunt Tao in Las Vegas, where she could make US$1,000 a night. She was paid to attend Paris Hilton’s birthday party several years in a row. Now she’s somewhat of a modelwrangler; clubs in Shanghai coordinate with her to send models out every night. Even when they aren’t hired, models field daily texts from promoters plying them with free drinks and food to show up. It’s a late-late-night lifestyle, to say the least.
“The cliché is true – orgies and drugs are definitely part of it,” Faviola says, though not about herself. She’s getting older and calming down. Models usually tap out around age 25. Currently she’s taking online pre-med courses; she majored in biology and would like to go back to med school. She aced her cognitive psychology final in December. Sable is a couple of years younger and not thinking as far ahead.
“I’ve figured I’d model until I couldn’t anymore. It’s easy and fun,” she says. This elicits a disgusted “Jesus Christ” from Faviola. What’s unsaid but undisputed is that this is a time that wasn’t built to last. For the moment it’s enough to make a living in a city where there’s plenty of work, free-flow drinks and clothing frequently comes gifted from designers. And it doesn’t hurt, as Sable adds, that “When we go out we’re usually the best looking crew.”
That’s Shanghai, 2011