Hong Kong’s modelling industry: the prats and pitfalls
Fashion-obsessed Hong Kong can perpetuate the myth, but modelling is not always a glamorous job, even for successful girls such as Korean-British model Mia Kang, one of the city’s top names and now the worldwide face of Max Factor.
Those who make it are flown to Tokyo, Paris or New York for shows and shoots, and are treated well. But getting to that stage requires not only the right look but also a great deal of perseverance.
“[If you move], your agency advances your flight ticket, three months of rent and three months of pocket money and you are thrown in a tiny apartment, sharing a bunk bed with another model,” says Kang. This is the way most models start their careers abroad.
Despite the industry in Hong Kong being self-regulating, with no equivalent of the Model Alliance, which stands up for the rights of models in the United States, the city is by and large a safe place to work. Globally, however, the lack of financial transparency in the industry means models are sometimes deceived by agencies and bookers who take a large cut of their fees.
M, a model in her early 20s who wishes to remain anonymous, admits that agencies in Greece have tried to cheat her, but “it can happen anywhere”, she says.
Another agency she had contact with, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, sent “girls to men’s parties as paid ‘jobs'”, says the model, who is from Eastern Europe and moved to Hong Kong several years ago for work.
Having spent more than a decade in the industry, Kang hasn’t had to deal with such agencies, but says that they “can be extremely common in other parts of the world”.
While Hong Kong’s modelling agencies might not engage in the industry’s sleazier practices, that’s not to say models here have an easy time – most understand that their bodies are commoditised and must meet certain ideals.
“Some agencies in Hong Kong measure their girls every Monday and, if their measurements increase slightly, they are denied pocket money [HK$500 to HK$1,000 a week],” says Kang. This leaves some unable to top up their octopus cards or eat properly.
“It seems extreme but it’s written into contracts that if your measurements change your agency has the right to take action or even terminate your contract and send you home.”
Agencies in other cities enforce even stricter rules; in some cases staff move into models’ apartments, to implement curfews and monitor what the girls eat and how often they exercise.
Even if a model signs with an agency that actively protects the well-being of its models, controlling every job, stylist and photographer would be impossible. The model has to be prepared to stand up for herself.
“Unfortunately,” says Kang, “models from poor backgrounds or the very young often can’t read properly or understand their contracts, let alone get the fact that they have the right to negotiate.”
Kang remembers a casting in Milan, Italy, in which fellow models were instructed to take their tops off, and a Hong Kong photoshoot where she was asked to disrobe entirely to help achieve the photographer’s “artistic vision”.
“I have even been to a casting in a hotel room with a couple of guys and a video camera. They asked if we [the models] could get changed right there,” she says. “Girls need to know they have every right to say no and walk away. Go to your agency and report them. If necessary report them to the police.”
Every signed “face” has a “mother agency” in their home country, to which she can turn in times of need. But just how helpful they are varies wildly.
“Sometimes a girl just has to be strong enough to deal with her own problems as best she can,” says M, “because when models get in real trouble, some agencies will back off … they don’t want to get a bad name.”
Iris Chan, a scout at Models International in Hong Kong, says she doesn’t see the need for a Model Alliance in the city.
“Everyone here is reasonable,” she says. “It’s just some stupid, party-going, drug-addicted models that the agencies [themselves] should be protected from.”
Chan admits, however, that things may be different on the mainland, and a better strategy would be to educate models on their rights and how to stand up for them.
“If anyone over the age of 18 travels the world and goes to live and work in a new country, they have to assume responsibility for themselves,” says Kang. “Personally, I don’t see why models should be treated differently from any other working-class citizen in any other industry.”
Kang, who has worked extensively in many of the world’s fashion capitals, says, however, that there is one dangerous aspect of modelling unique to Hong Kong in its severity: the city’s night life.
“It’s far worse here than anywhere else I have seen in the world,” she says.
While a champagne lifestyle might seem part of the job, predatory, rich and powerful men who seek an ever rotating entourage of models can often lead young women down the path of exploitation and “unspoken agreements”: lavish gifts exchanged for arm candy and sex.
“These naive models feel special – they are in a foreign country and feel they have made a friend who has resources to protect them and give them an amazing life outside of their overcrowded apartment and tiny bunk bed,” says Kang. “I know countless girls who arrived in Hong Kong fresh faced and ready to work [only to] leave with no money, an appetite for cocaine and probably a couple of STDs.”
The beauty of models has a special currency and a successful girl can use her position to strike lucrative business deals or become a celebrity, paid thousands of dollars simply to turn up at a brand function. But as the models Post Magazine has spoken to all say, girls are easily replaced. As one leaves, another arrives.
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