Earlier this week, the death of a 14-year-old Russian girl who had moved to Shanghai on a modeling assignment shocked China’s fashion industry.
Russian news reported Friday that Vlada Dzyuba died of overwork and exhaustion, but during a press conference, ESEE, the Chinese agency responsible for Vlada, denied the accusations, saying that the girl’s death was due to blood poisoning and unrelated to her work.
However, those working in China’s fashion industry say the death of their underage colleague underscores the dark side of an industry that still largely thrives on a standardized set of beauty norms and unhealthy working practices. Melissa Jo knows this firsthand.
The Chinese-American used to model in the U.S. and moved to China in 2015 to work behind the scenes in the fashion circuit, helping companies organize events and manage models. Jo said she hopes the tragic case will serve as a wake-up call for models working in China and prompt the industry to rethink practices that are damaging to models and those who look up to them.
“It’s saddening to hear that something like this happened to such a young girl,” the 22-year-old said. “She was doing what she had to do to achieve her goals. But it’s too dangerous for such a young girl to be working,” she said, adding that while the fashion industry in the U.S. has made much-needed progress, such as setting a minimum age for models who walk the runway, China still lags behind.
While Chinese law forbids the employment of children under age 16 as a general rule, it makes exceptions for certain industries, including modeling. Child modeling is a thriving industry for thousands of children who are subject to long working hours, provided they have their parents’ permission and supervision. But Russian news reported that Vlada, who had moved to Shanghai on her own, was working 13-hour shifts for pay considered lower than the industry standard.
“To work in an industry that is adult-oriented and not have some kind of guidance… you’re basically like a puppet,” Jo said. “You don’t have a say, and you don’t have anything for yourself other than the job you have to do.”
Jo was 20 when she signed a commercial contract with a U.S. modeling agency, and she has since worked for cosmetics and fashion brands like Laura Mercier and Sandro. She was inspired to pursue the career by her mother, who moved from Shanghai to the U.S. and started modeling in the ’90s.
Besides paying the bills, modeling pushed Jo out of her comfort zone and boosted her confidence — an experience she says most young foreign models in China don’t seem to share.
In the wake of Vlada’s death, Jo gave Sixth Tone an insider’s perspective on a profession that is associated with a rigid body image standard and immense pressure, while also addressing the difference between modeling in the U.S. and China. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Model Melissa Jo poses at photographer Sylvia Hoke’s studio in New York, April 2017. Courtesy of Sylvia Hoke
Sixth Tone: Internet users and media have voiced concerns about whether Vlada’s work constitutes slave labor. According to news reports, she was underpaid and overworked — though her agency denies this. What’s your take?
Melissa Jo: I think that’s an extreme term. As a model, you don’t have to keep working if you don’t want to. If you’re not feeling well, you can take a break. But then that’ll affect your income. You have a choice. However, I do think a lot of models are underpaid in China compared to standard rates around the world.
The job offers between 1,200 yuan to 3,000 yuan for 10- to 12-hour jobs, not including travel time. Most of the girls between 14 and 16 get paid 1,000 yuan for 10 hours of work. It’s not about how good you are, unless you’re at the top. It’s more about your age range.
If you have a client who books you often, it gives you more work and income, but the pay remains the same. So you’re always questioning, how do you define your value? In New York, models move to magazine editorials, so their rates increase with more exposure. But in China, that’s not even the case.
Vlada Dzyuba models an outfit during a runway show at Shanghai Fashion Week, Oct. 13, 2017. IC
Sixth Tone: What drives so many Eastern European models to China? Is there more opportunity or money to be made here?
Melissa Jo: China likes Barbie dolls: They like women with blonde hair and blue eyes. So the fashion industry here is inclined toward Eastern European-looking models. I think they do have more opportunities here. I’ve seen Russian models in New York, but it’s hard for them to survive there — they get less attention than they do in China. You have a high chance of becoming famous if you’re unique rather than generic. People crave what they don’t have.
Also, I don’t think they are being taken care of properly. A lot of times, their privacy is not being protected. While working backstage for a German designer [in Shanghai] in 2015, there were times when a lot of workers were around while the girls were changing. You have to give them a space where they feel comfortable. As much as you see them as clothing racks, they’re humans, and they’re also extremely young, and it does make a lot of them uncomfortable.
Sixth Tone: How would you describe your experience working in China’s fashion industry?
Melissa Jo: For the 2015 show, an agent invited 50 models for a casting call in Shanghai. They were all crammed in one store, roughly 70 square meters, in the French Concession. It wasn’t even a studio. The youngest international model on the list was 13 years old, and the Chinese models were a bit older than the foreigners. I could tell the younger ones were amateurish.
I asked some Chinese models when they started. None of them had worked before turning 18. In Asian cultures, parents usually don’t put their children to work at that age. This should apply to how [the fashion] business operates, too: The industry should be built for people who are 18 and can give consent.
Many young foreign models coming to China are also unaware of the environment they’re in and sometimes lack the understanding of Chinese social etiquette, so they have to make a lot of adjustments. It’s tough, as there are some extremely young girls. The competition at an early age is just too much for them.
Sixth Tone: You started modeling at the age of 20 in the U.S. How is China’s fashion industry different?
Melissa Jo: It has always been a very different environment to work in New York because people are more flamboyant — they appreciate individuality. There is a demand for people of all body types and races. For example, there is a demand for plus-size models, and that changes and shapes the modeling industry because it gives more visibility to people who don’t conform to the beauty standard of being skinny. Models like Ashley Graham have started their own campaigns on body image — they might be on top in their field, but what they stand for is way beyond themselves.
Model Melissa Jo (right) and artist Juan Belmonte (left) pose for a photo at a studio in New York, May 2017. Courtesy of Melissa Jo
In China, they follow more Eurocentric beauty standards. People are promoting a look that is so generic, like it’s manufactured. It’s also a societal problem: Many women are generally less confident about how they look. And they must fit this notion of beauty, which is skinny. It’s not pretty — they look malnourished. For them, extreme skinniness translates to being beautiful, but to me it sounds like there is no body positivity.
I’ve asked some Chinese models backstage about this, and they usually defend how skinny they are by saying they’re suffering from some stomach illness. It feels like an excuse to me: Whatever illness you have shouldn’t contribute to a whole line of workers to look that way.
Victoria’s Secret is hosting its fashion show in China this year, and I hope the show itself will raise more awareness about what it means to be healthy.
Sixth Tone: Is that why you gave up modeling and switched careers in Shanghai?
Melissa Jo: I think I have achieved enough for myself in New York. Also, I don’t think I match the standards of what they want in a model in China. I’ve gained weight since I stopped modeling — I don’t think my look would work here.
When I talk to some of my Chinese friends, I’m baffled by how they perceive skinniness. They’re way more critical of my weight and height than people who are in the business. I think it boils down to how they were raised and the environment they grew up in.
Sixth Tone: Having grown up and worked between New York and Shanghai, in two countries and cultures, are you doing anything to address the body image disparity?
Melissa Jo: Yes. I’ve started a campaign with another Chinese model whom I met in New York. It’s called “A Gang.” You can translate that as “Asian Gang,” or “A Gang of Girls.” The goal for us is to educate Chinese teenage girls — the project is in Mandarin — to appreciate themselves without having to match any standards, and also issues relating to physical and sexual health. We use social media — livestreaming, Weibo — to tell stories of women from diverse backgrounds so they have a variety of role models. Social media gives a big push in terms of advancing [such issues] — it speaks to a larger crowd.
Russian model Vlada Dzyuba (fourth from right) joins other models and a fashion designer for a group photo during Shanghai Fashion Week, Oct. 13, 2017. IC
Sixth Tone: How can the industry to improve? What message would you give to younger models?
Melissa Jo: The solution is to provide diversity and to say that there is more than one kind of woman. You can allow those models to diversify their work according to their body types and [encourage] people to follow these examples, be they clients or customers. That would give models greater self-confidence.
Modeling is not worth it if you’re just doing it for money or fame, because those things will fade. It should be more about yourself. Modeling pushed me out of my boundaries and comfort zone, which is going to last forever. I might go up on a billboard one day, but it will eventually come down — and when that happens, you realize how easily you can be replaced in this industry, no matter how famous you are.
Editor: Denise Hruby.
(Header image: A man applies makeup to Russian model Vlada Dzyuba before a runway show at Shanghai Fashion Week, Oct. 13, 2017. IC)