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    China’s Kid Models Trade Childhood for Livelihood

    As the country’s online fashion industry booms, parents are choosing photography studios over kindergartens for their children.

    ZHEJIANG, East China — At 2 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon in March, when most toddlers at Hangzhou’s Kid Castle bilingual kindergarten are taking a nap, one bed is empty. Its owner, 5-year-old Huai Miluo, has taken another leave of absence and is spending the entire day pursuing her career in child modeling.

    Between photos, the angelic-looking Miluo scribbles a drawing on a cluttered dressing table while assistants see to her hair and prepare her next outfit, the fourth of dozens she will wear over the course of the day. She has the air of an industry veteran. It makes sense — she’s been modeling clothes for online fashion outlets for eight months now, a significant stretch of time given her tender age.   

    But Miluo — one of hundreds of thousands of child models in China swept up by the wave of the nation’s booming e-commerce industry — doesn’t hide her frustration at missing out on the playtime that is normally a staple for children her age. “I prefer my kindergarten because there are a lot of toys there,” says Miluo. “But my mother brought me here.”

    “Here” is Catfree Kids, a photography studio in Hangzhou that specializes in child modeling. The large room in which the day’s photo shoot is happening is populated with an odd collection of uninviting props. Instead of the toys back at her kindergarten, she is surrounded by a broken washing machine splashed with yellow paint, a wooden cupboard, a simple dressing table, a couch, and a computer desk. Miluo — who also goes by the nickname Lele, literally meaning “joy joy” — grows impatient after hours in front of the camera, and she retreats to a corner when she’s finally had enough. 

    Miluo’s mother, Tan Cuidong, maintains that her daughter’s modeling is just “another type of fun” and likens it to any other extracurricular activity. Tan, 32, also hopes that the experience will be good for her daughter’s development and instill her with confidence.

    But there is another motive: Child modeling in China can be highly lucrative. One month after Miluo became a child model last year, Tan quit her job as a fashion designer to ensure that she and her daughter were in a position to accept any job offers that came their way. Now, Tan says, the money Miluo earns modeling — she can model around 50 outfits in one day and gets between 50 and 80 yuan (around $7-$12) per outfit — constitutes a considerable subsidy for the family’s expenses, more than enough to cover Miluo’s 10,000 yuan-per-semester tuition fees at the kindergarten.

    China’s child modeling industry began to thrive in 2014, and there are already hundreds of thousands of parents like Tan who are passionate about turning their children into stars, either on the catwalk or in front of the camera posing for clothing retailers. Almost 150,000 families have entered their children in a catwalk contest scheduled for May, organized by the China Children Model Association — which, in addition to organizing modeling events, aims to regulate a market that is beset by agencies with little regard for the well-being of the child models.

    Zhang Peng, the association’s secretary-general, estimates that child modeling agencies in China number in the thousands. “While some bigger ones might have started to consider making efforts to regulate this market, smaller agencies are struggling to survive,” he tells Sixth Tone. “For them, making money is the main concern.”

    China’s labor laws do not cover the industry, given that — at least in the eyes of the parents, agencies, and studios involved — a small child posing in a cute outfit does not constitute child labor. There are also no industry regulations that guarantee a minimum wage or limit the number of hours a child can work in one day. 

    Miluo regularly spends up to eight hours in the studio, and for her recent photo shoot, she ends up working for 11 hours. The temperature outside is around 3 degrees Celsius, and Miluo, modeling summer skirts, is sneezing by the afternoon despite the air conditioner running in the room. Wearing a thick down coat, her mother tells her to concentrate on the shoot and follow the photographer’s instructions so they can get the job done quickly.

    Tan dismisses criticisms of the heavy makeup caked onto Miluo’s face for every photo shoot. “They told me it’s made of natural substances; I think that’s acceptable,” Tan says. She does, however, take issue with her daughter’s hair being constantly curled with straightening irons; Tan is constantly cutting Miluo’s hair to do away with the damaged ends.

    Whenever Miluo says she doesn’t want to model anymore, Tan brushes her complaints away by reminding her of the money she is making. “I don’t want to take photos anymore,” Miluo says at one point, “but my mother told me I can make money from it, and with the money I can buy toys and snacks that I like.” It may seem like coercion, but Tan is adamant that her daughter has the final say. “I think that because she’s only a kindergartener now, she can afford to spend time on modeling,” Tan says.

    This mentality baffles Shanghai-based psychotherapist Ji Longmei, who believes that engaging a child between the highly impressionable ages of 2 and 7 years old in the “adult world” could be damaging to the formation of their personality and cognitive ability. Ji has witnessed firsthand the lasting effects of a childhood spent in front of the camera, having once handled the case of a young man who became trapped inside his memories of modeling as a child. His fixation on the limelight, she says, meant he refused to look for a normal job after he failed in his academic studies.  

    “I can understand parents wanting to improve the temperaments of their children,” Ji says. “But giving up so much time to modeling during this golden period would be a huge waste.”

    Against such warnings, scores of parents continue to seek ways to get their children ahead in the industry. One day in the week following Miluo’s photo shoot, the Hangzhou studio is packed with more than 20 children aged between 3 and 8, all first-time students in a 4,000-yuan, 10-session course on modeling. 

    “We teach them the basic movements so that they can finish shooting a set of outfits efficiently,” says Guo Haimo, the photo editor who leads the weekend training at the studio. Over the course of the one-hour class, children master six poses to deploy when — or if — they make it into the industry.

    More than a year ago, Wu Yifan — the son of a Chinese mother and a British father — took the same course. The training did him good: He ended up securing dozens upon dozens of modeling gigs. 

    Yifan’s mother, Wu Yanfei, never had big ambitions for her son — while she was pregnant, her only hope was that he be healthy — but things changed when compliments on his cute looks began pouring in from the people around her. “When all the others are saying you have such a pretty boy, you start to think differently,” she tells Sixth Tone. “You want more from your child.” 

    Pride took over, and seeing her son pose for the camera became something of a thrill for Wu. But now, a year later, she is rethinking her decision to impose the profession upon him at such an impressionable age. “The mentality of parents has so much influence — our child is a blank sheet of paper,” she says. “When our desires begin to swell, we should calm down and remind ourselves of our original wishes.” 

    Eight-year-old Yifan still occasionally does shoots for online shops, but now, the extracurricular activities he devotes the most time to are soccer, taekwondo, and picnics with the children of family friends. 

    But for Tan, Miluo’s mother, child modeling does nothing but good for both her daughter and the family as a whole, regardless of whether Miluo is happy with the decision to continue. “I’ll leave the choice to her when she gets older,” Tan says.

    Miluo continues to spend almost all of her weekends in the same studio doing photo shoots. To keep her focused, the photographer tells her she is being live-streamed to online audiences throughout the shoot. “If you don’t model professionally, you’ll lose fans,” she is told. In reality, her only audience consists of her mother’s friends in chat groups on messaging app WeChat, where Tan regularly flaunts short clips of her daughter’s shoots. 

    The lie appears to work with Miluo. “It’s important to be professional,” she announces in a moment of seriousness. “Celebrities are professional, and they are super rich. I want to be a celebrity, too.”

    This article has been updated to clarify information regarding Miluo’s income. She receives between 50 and 80 yuan per outfit and models around 50 outfits per day. She does not necessarily receive 4,000 yuan per day, as previously stated. The video has also been edited to accommodate an interviewee’s request that their interview footage not be shown. 

    Editor: Owen Churchill.

    (Header image: A boy poses for a photo shoot in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, March 12, 2017. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone)