My favorite scene in Girl Model, a documentary chronicling the journeys of an inexperienced 13-year-old Siberian model and the adult scout who finds her, resembles the after-school pig-out sessions I’d have every so often with friends whose parents were more lenient about junk food than mine. Two 13-year-old girls scavenge the kitchen—“I have more cookies,” says one, while the other scarfs down a candy bar—nearly frantic, but joyous.
The innocence of that moment belies the truth of the situation: They’re alone, in Tokyo, where they were delivered from their native Russia by a modeling agency hoping one of them might become the next Big Thing. After weeks of going to casting call after casting call and getting no work—despite the agency’s promise of at least two jobs during their stay in Japan—they think to examine their contracts. Lo and behold, if they gain a centimeter in their barely pubescent bust, waist, or hips, their contracts become void. And so the junk food session begins.
Girl Model is good—excellent, actually—but in a way, that’s beside the point, except for how skillfully it makes the point that much of modeling is child labor, pure and simple, through telling the story of Nadya (the Siberian girl) and Ashley (her American scout, a former model herself). Much of the time when we bemoan the youth imperative in the modeling industry, we’re bemoaning it as consumers: Isn’t it a pity that women are pushed to aspire to look like done-up 13-year-old girls from Eastern Europe? And yes, it is, of course it is. But if this documentary looks at those questions, it does so only obliquely; instead, it gives us the industry as experienced by its workers. I’d say “as experienced from the inside,” except that the people who appear to be its biggest decisionmakers—the agents and clients—give only superficial (though at times painfully revealing) time to the camera.
We wade into the billboard’s-eye view slowly: The first problematic twitch comes in the opening scene, an event where hundreds of lithe Siberian teenagers gather in hopes of catching the eye of scouts. Such events when used for casting (as opposed to scouting) are called “cattle calls,” and it’s not hard to see why: The girls are paraded, asked their measurements, and assured that they’ll be put on diets if they’re heavy in the hips, while the powers-that-be mutter about the selection. This is what consumers are likely to think of when imagining the downside of modeling from the inside—and the thin imperative is indeed thriving in the industry, as evidenced by a recent panel on modeling and eating disorders hosted by The Model Alliance. But the alliance is first and foremost a labor organization, with child labor as one of its leading initiatives. And this is where the rest of the film focuses. We see Nadya arrive in Tokyo with nobody to meet her; she eventually has to ask the filmmaker for help in finding the desolate apartment she’s been assigned. (When her roommate Madlen, another Russian girl, arrives, we learn what would have happened to Nadya had she not been accompanied by the documentarian: Madlen spent four hours wandering through the Tokyo subway before somebody was finally able to assist her. And Madlen even has an intermediate grasp of English; Nadya had none at the time of filming.) Chauffeured from casting call to casting call, told to lie about her age, forced to borrow money from her wealthier roommate since she never winds up landing a paid gig, and suffering from severe isolation, Nadya quickly turns from viewing modeling as a glamorous way to see more of the world (and a way to help support her family) and instead sees it as a confusing scheme she can’t make sense of.
Bridging the gap between the models and the consumer (that is, us) is Ashley, who is so alienated from her own conflicted views on the industry that when we see her flat-out lie to a Russian news team about how models “only win” upon embarking on a career in Tokyo, it almost seems like an elaborate joke she's playing. (Both of the girls we meet in the film leave Tokyo in debt to the agency, a common situation with models.) The title of the documentary indicates that Nadya is who we’re really following here, but in some ways she functions more an avatar for all girl models. As revealing as it is to see the bloom of a child in her garden in Russia wash away to red-faced tears in Tokyo, Nadya simply hasn’t been in the industry long enough for us to see its cumulative effects. Her story is riveting, but anyone who knows anything about the modeling industry won’t exactly be surprised when things don’t turn out for her as they might in her wildest dreams (and in her agency’s promises). It’s the scout Ashley who embodies the philosophical realities here, who shows us what it can mean to sign away one’s teenage years in order to make money by being looked at.
Ashley appears to have a delicate but rich interior life, which is a roundabout way of saying she’s a total weirdo. At first, her sheer bizarreness seems a detour from the main plot of the film (“I had three,” she says of the two life-size plastic baby dolls she bought to keep herself company in the enormous house she bought with her modeling earnings, “but I dissected one”), culminating when the film crew comes to her bedside after she has an operation to remove fibroids and cysts filled with blonde hair that she equates to childbirth. But in a way, her dreamy alienation is the plot: She’s so deeply ambivalent about the industry and her role in plucking girls from around the world to enter a precarious industry that she literally lives in a glass house in Connecticut, preventing her from throwing stones too far in any particular direction. “They can see you, but you can’t see them,” she says. She’s talking of living in a glass-enclosed space and how it can get eerie at night, but she’s also talking of the industry that gave her the funds to buy that house in the first place.
It’s tempting to vilify Ashley here: She knows firsthand what it’s like to be alone in a foreign country at a young age, surrounded by people jostling to take advantage of you in myriad ways, yet she makes her living inviting girls to follow her footsteps. To squarely place the blame for the problems we witness on Ashley would be a mistake, though—not because Ashley and the scouting arm of the industry are blameless, but because it’s an answer that's too easy. Girl Model doesn’t assign blame so much as it reveals the constant passing of the buck. Are we indeed to point the finger at Ashley, the model scout, whose ambivalence about the industry runs so deep that when she drops by the girls’ apartment to check in on them, she appears nearly delighted by the room’s shabbiness? Are we to point the finger at the local agent, Tigran, who “cares” so much about his charges’ welfare that he takes the rowdier ones to the morgue to view the bodies of young people who have died from drug overdoses? Are we to point the finger at Messiah, the Japanese agency head who justifies his entire business as a charity of sorts? What about the girls’ parents—Nadya’s father, who stands in the hollow frame of a new house, saying that he’ll be able to finish building it if his daughter makes a little money? Her mother, who enrolled Nadya in the modeling contest in the first place? Are we to blame “culture” for wanting to dress up children as women and then make their image aspirational for all of us? Are we to blame international economics for creating a world in which it seems reasonable to send a 13-year-old to a country where she doesn’t know the alphabet, let alone the language, totally alone, in hopes of making money? Are we to blame Nadya herself for—spoiler alert—leaving and then returning to an industry that left her alone, in tears, in increasing financial debt, on a balcony overlooking a section of Tokyo she’s unable to even identify on a map?
Perhaps I’m asking questions of blame because I want there to be someone to blame for creating the sentiment of a tweet she recently sent out to her 194 Twitter followers: #beforeidieiwanna be a professional model. I don’t think that someone is Nadya herself, who is now 17—a child, still, in many ways. But I don’t know who that someone is.
Edited 3/21 to add: Thanks to Meli to alerting me to The Model Alliance's petition asking New York State to extend to child models the same labor protections enjoyed by other child performers. Learn more and sign here.