Foreign Models Flock to China, Which Embraces a Western Vision of Beauty

Keith B. Richburg, Washington Post, December 26, 2009

Nicole Vos, 19, has been modeling in Canada for four years and was doing runway shows for Toronto Fashion Week when “my agency one day just told me that I’m going to China.” Now just halfway through her three-month contract in Beijing, Vos has been photographed for catalogues, magazines and commercials.

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Vos isn’t alone. Western models, it seems, are everywhere these days in the People’s Republic of China: on department store display ads, in catalogues for clothing brands, on billboards, in commercials and on the runways at fashion shows. They are blue-eyed American and Canadian blondes like Vos, sultry Eastern European brunettes and hunky male bodybuilders with Los Angeles tans and six-pack abs selling products from jeans to underwear.

A walk through the Guiyou department store in central Beijing is instructive. On the third and fourth floors, where designer brands from Shanghai, Shenzhen and Guangzhou are showcased, there’s a display of a blonde modeling over-the-knee boots and red-and-black pumps for Hongke shoes. A pouty brunette advertises Baykal, a local brand of wool products. Even the mannequins have Western features.

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Ou Haibin, head of the Yuanjin Modeling Agency in Shenzhen, said 20 to 30 modeling agencies in China use foreigners, and 300 to 500 Western models are here during any given month, almost always on short-term contracts of up to three months.

“My clients feel that their products will look international if they use foreign models,” Ou said, and so they are willing to pay the higher fees, which are about a third to a half higher than those for Chinese models.

Then there is the matter of the Chinese sense of what constitutes beauty in a globalized world. “The foreign models’ faces are much more three-dimensional,” Ou said. “They look nicer in pictures.”

He added that he never hires black models. “Our clients don’t ask for black models,” he said. “It’s an issue of Chinese people’s aesthetic view.”

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Jezlan Moyet Decator, 22, was modeling in Los Angeles when her “mother agency” told her there was a talent scout from Beijing. “We sat, we chatted for maybe half an hour,” she said. Two weeks later he sent her a ticket to Beijing.

The scout was Mike Chen, originally from Las Vegas. Chen said he usually brings over 10 to 15 girls each month. And he knows what type of models will make the cut for his clients in Beijing.

“In the summertime, it’s usually blondes,” Chen said. “For the winter collection, it’s more likely they want brunettes.” Brunettes, he said, photograph better in furs. He’s not big on height, and prefers a fuller figure. But most important, he added, “it’s all about attitude.”

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Brandon Waarbroek, who is 28 but looks much younger, is one of the few male models on the Beijing circuit. He was working as an instructor at a small gym in Southern California and doing some modeling when Chen sent him to China. Now he’s planning to return, to learn Chinese and maybe even go into business here. “I love China–I really love it,” he said.

Waarbroek also tried to explain his take on the local fascination with foreign models. “The fascination is they look different,” he said. “They might have a million models who are Chinese. They like what they don’t have, like tall blondes.” In his case, he said, “they really like muscle here, and there’s not a lot of us.”

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