More than a mannequin: The models of Guangzhou

By Simon Smith, June 13, 2014

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If you’ve been in the city long enough, chances are you’ve noticed an increasing number of willowy individuals strutting the streets. Each week, another wave of foreigners breaks over Guangzhou, leaving behind more and more lean and lissome bodies in its swash. Though many wouldn’t think of the City of Flowers as host to the beautiful and stem-like, Guangzhou has a sizeable expat model community – blossoming in fact. Harder than finding a four-leaf clover is a model that has the time to talk, and extracting their age is nigh on impossible. Not to be deterred, That’s PRD sought out some of the city’s in vogue inhabitants to learn about the beautiful and the beastly parts of their profession.

 

Tomas

Born and raised in Germany by a Macedonian mother and a father from Slovenia, Tomas Bohinc is one of the more veteran models working in Guangzhou today. A former pro basketball player for German team the Weissenhorn Youngstars, the multi-linguist’s biggest dream was to play in the NBA. 

Since going full time with modeling four years back, Bohinc has worked with some pretty big names, including Jia Jingwen in a jewelry advertisement and Zhang Dongjian for a Sinoer clothing commercial. He is even set to appear alongside Chow Yun-fat in an upcoming movie.

Bohinc first arrived in Guangzhou back in 2010 and has been coming and going ever since. In total, he has been modeling for eight years, working the camera in Italy, Taiwan, America, India and all across China.

Guangzhou is a draw to overseas models, according to Bohinc, because “it’s a huge market and the pay is quite decent.” In countries where the economy isn’t strong, unstable Italy for example, there may be “the chance to hit top brands and the pay is more, but you work way less and the cost of living is higher, so there isn’t a chance to save money like in China.”

As to what exactly a model can pull in over here, Bohinc, like everyone in the local industry, is tightlipped. Those that reveal this closely guarded secret can find themselves stigmatized, he says, and it can be ruinous to one’s livelihood.

Posing as an urbane, stylish businessman is the cleanly handsome German’s bread and butter, and he regularly appears in photo shoots for luxury real estate companies, TV commercials, fashion shows, catalogues, billboards and magazines for “brands that represent money.”

 “When people get to know you, everybody wants to work with you,” he says. “Photographers and bookers call.”

To be able to go full time, Bohinc says it takes “at least one year, with three to four jobs every week. But not everyone is working that well. Some countries like you more, some countries like you less. Everyone has a different profile and face.”

Born in Ulm, Bohinc is somewhat of an anomaly in Guangzhou, as “many models come from Russia, the Ukraine, Eastern Europe, Brazil, but rarely Germany… Brazil is very famous for modeling. They are slim, tall and here they can make a good living.”

For anybody out there wondering whether they’re cut out for the camera, Bohinc says “models are usually between 183 to 190 centimeters… If you’re too muscular you can’t fit in the Chinese clothes and can only do underwear… It’s perfect if you have a body that’s not too built, not too skinny, you have to see where your strengths are.”

 

Katya

Katya Antonova was born in the Siberian coal-mining city of Kemerovo. In total, she’s been modeling for the past five years, the last three in Guangzhou. 

Like Bohinc, Antonova has worked in a variety of countries and found that “different countries want different models. Singapore likes tall, skinny girls, Bangkok a pretty face for TV commercials and Hong Kong is very good if you are mixed blood.”

In China, different cities have different types of jobs – Shanghai and Beijing being places of high fashion. With Guangdong province home to an abundance of clothing factories, “lots of catalogues and pictures are needed for Taobao,” according to Antonova, adding that in recent years, “agencies have started to use girls taller than 170 [centimeters] to copy the big fashion brands.”

With foreigners still seen as “quite special,” Antonova is asked to model at many public exhibitions, which can include promoting the latest phones, cars, furniture, bags and even light switches.

As for what bookers want in a girl, Antonova says they must have a height of between 170 and 173 centimeters, “with boobs being a must for underwear.” Also important are “white skin, blonde hair – because the Chinese don’t have blonde hair – and jawbones that don’t stick out… Some [women] even have [their jawbones] shaved off.”

“Even with a pretty bone structure you won’t get work here every day,” she goes on. “In China it’s good to have a heart-shaped face with a pointed chin.” A strong nasal bridge – the top of the nose directly between the eyes – is also a plus, as Asians tend to be quite flat in comparison to Westerners.

In Paris, plastic surgery was suggested on Antonova’s nose, as European bookers incline towards the small, straight and quaint. If she had landed a well-paid job from serious clients, she would have gone under the knife.

Though there are “many models and dancers pretending to be models coming to Guangzhou offering cheaper prices, a client will pay any money if they want a particular girl,” says the Russian beauty, and that particular girl will change “depending what the season is.”

Aside from specific bone structures, another difference between Europe and China is the process of a fashion shoot. In Europe, “it's step-by-step and take your time, it’s subtle.” In China, “it's the moment, the photographer knows the moment and just takes the picture. Every time you have to change the pose, completely change. It’s about showing the product. The photographer doesn’t have time to wait for the good shot, you need to show the product.” 

Some days, Antonova is expected to model up to 300 pieces of clothing, spending an eye-watering eight hours standing in high heels, all while looking very comfortable in front of the camera.

Another intriguing dissimilarity comes at the castings. In Europe, girls aren’t supposed to attend wearing makeup because “they want to see your face… you should be natural.” At castings in China, “they expect you to be dressed up, with nice hair and make-up. The Chinese can't imagine that you can be different without the make-up. You must turn up looking like a supermodel.”

 

The Agent

Elaine Kong, born and raised in Shenzhen, is a performer and freelance model agent. She’s been doing the latter for the past two years and works with the likes of singers, dancers, DJs, performers, magicians and models in both Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

Explaining the process, she says that “a Chinese company books the models before they come to Guangzhou and a branch of that agency then transfers them here.” The contract often includes “flight tickets, spending money and accommodation, yet after arriving the models often meet other freelancers, leave the agency and go freelance themselves.” This allows them to work with other people, rather than remaining exclusive to one company.

“Freelancing can be more varied,” explains Kong, “with more chances to work in different cities.”

Having had formal training as a model herself, Kong’s previous job was to instruct her former peers – many of them non-natives – on the sets of photo shoots and TV commercials. She says that a lot of the Westerners who are fresh off the boat need plenty of direction.

“Yes, foreign girls are tall and beautiful, but many that come here are not actual models, they’re shy and lack confidence. I would have to stand against a wall for three hours to practice. Foreigners haven’t had that kind of practice."

Kong has built up quite a contact list assisting photographers and directors and now has over 100 models on her books – hundreds, if you include the other entertainers she represents.

For those who want to shoot a model, there are two main ways of acquiring one: contact an advertising company or contact an agent.

Kong says, “Some models think working alone is riskier. The foreigners have a list of bad agents and WeChat records of those that don’t pay.”

This is where Kong comes in: with no contract to sign and having established a trusted reputation, native Kong is an attractive option as mediator between booker and beauty. 

The booker and Kong agree on a general price range. After that, they negotiate with the model. Bookers can range from clothing and car companies to someone who wants to be flanked by beautiful people in their wedding photos.

There’s a whole litany of positions open to male and female models, from hosting at events, to DJing, to go-go dancing and drinking with partygoers at high-end clubs. As Kong succinctly put it: “Models do what only beautiful people can do.”

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