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I Modeled in China

Serving face abroad — without losing it

Illustration by Amanda Suarez

Modeling is nothing like what you might see on TV or in the movies. It’s often profoundly dull, it’s rarely glamorous, and it can be extremely tiring. There are moments where you feel like a million bucks, but those are few and far between. You spend most of your days running around for “go-sees” (auditions where you show off your card and book of photos) and attempt to make yourself stand out from a waiting room full of people who look like you except slightly different, like some C-story of The Twilight Zone. Most of the time when I modeled in North America, I was bored or even bothered by the experience.

And then I went to model in China.

Because I was young and dumb, I honestly didn’t think uprooting myself to Hong Kong, where I did not speak the language or understand the labyrinthine business customs, would be any different than modeling jeans back home. I had been modeling quite a bit in Canada, and it was suggested that I meet with Irene, an agent who booked Canadian models for work in China. I was to meet Irene at a hotel and have my photos taken, wearing a bathing suit, and she would “let me know later.” Irene met me and said, “I like you. When can you come?” and the deal was done. The bathing suit stayed in my purse.

Anyone who has visited Hong Kong will describe it as too hot, very loud, and very, very fast-paced. There are places in the city where you can’t see the sky because the buildings are too close together. I’ve lived in cities before, but Hong Kong is the citiest city. Everything you hear about the frenetic lifestyle, the elaborate rituals of introduction and business card exchange, the constant vigilance to save face, the toilet mechanics alien to Westerners — all true.

The business of modeling in China is massive. Only larger companies opt to use “Western” models, so I was generally booked for at least two days on a given shoot, and I was usually expected to travel. Typically these were high-fashion catalog shoots, makeup shoots, and lingerie. Agencies in China operate with ruthless efficiency. If you’re sitting down, you’re not making them money. You’re put to work going on go-sees or meetings with clients for up to 12 hours a day. Including travel, that can easily reach 14 to 16 hours. It was a harder job than being an ESL teacher based on sheer hours and time-on-feet alone. Once you book jobs, though, modeling in China is highly lucrative. A two-day makeup shoot for a major brand could net you US$10,000.

I went to a booking for what I was told would be “just a few pictures of a mother and baby,” and it turned out to be an ad for a breast pump. Instead of holding the baby, I had to demonstrate the buttons on the breast pump, then hold the baby as if I were breastfeeding. There was a commotion behind the camera, and a photography assistant asked me very politely whether I would be able to get the baby to latch onto my nipple. I refused, equally politely, and the baby’s mother came over to give them shit. Luckily, I did not have to explain why the request was inappropriate and risk my employers losing face.

Sometimes, saving face means saving your own reputation by cheerfully enduring weird situations. One multiple-model shoot for the most expensive department store in Hong Kong took place at an amazing beach in Discovery Bay. As the day wore on, we moved from the beach to a more forested location. Forests in China are often more jungle-like than piney or open. All the models were asked to pose as a group in the middle of this dense greenery. We were happily chatting away when the lighting guys started making jokes about “not looking up.” Of course, we all looked up to see dozens of snakes clinging to the tree branches. One model nearly peed in her outfit. Another screamed as soon as the cameras stopped shooting.

My agent and her husband told me early on that working with people on longer shoots often means going out for dinner as well. Dinner can sometimes end up as a night out on the lash until you’re bleary-eyed at 3 a.m. on a Wednesday and forgot where you left your keys. There are Chinese social rules about never refusing hospitality, and I really tried to do my best.

My translator “Uncle Wong” advised me to “eat whatever they put in front of you” and “make sure you make a big deal about the food.” I went out to dinner with the president of a handbag company and his wife. After I did as instructed (and ate the eyes of the fish head I was given), the wife said to me (in front of the entire table), “Maybe don’t eat so much for the rest of the shoot.” Everyone laughed at me, and I had to laugh with them.

Weeks later, I was in mainland China modeling an entire catalog of lingerie for a company in Guangzhou. Not only were several “clients” there every day to watch the shoots, but the “clients” also brought their “girlfriends,” who were “also models.” We all went out to a private jazz club after the shoot wrapped, and it was made abundantly clear that I was drinking and having dinner with gangsters. I just tried to play dumb to save everyone’s figurative face and perhaps my literal face.

I desperately needed a haircut two months into working, so I asked the extremely cool and cool-looking assistant in the agency office to recommend a place. She said she would set it all up and text me the address. I went to the somewhat nondescript salon in the Midlevels, a fairly hip Hong Kong neighborhood, and after being told how different (read: bad) it was to cut gwai mooi (white lady) hair, I was blown out and styled in a way reminiscent of a 1980s shampoo commercial. Then they brought me the bill. It was nearly $450. I saved my face from hitting the ground, paid, and immediately went home to wash out the hairspray.

Everyone living the expat life is transient to some degree, so you don’t get too deeply involved with many people. I had a group of “champagne pals” from my neighborhood. They all worked for banks, and we traded rounds of champagne every Thursday night. One distinguished Mancunian member of our party was traveling to Shanghai at the same time I was, and he offered to “show me around.” We met up there, and he took me to an Irish pub he owned, and then to one of the most expensive restaurants on the Bund. We ate in a private dining room, and I’m not sure a menu was ever proffered. I think food just arrived. It was impressive in a cinematic sort of way. He never made a move on me, which was a relief. But afterward, I found out by accident (that is, by Googling him) that he was a literal grifter who had taken money from many UK investors in China and was being investigated by the Chinese police. I never saw him again. I wonder who paid for our steaks. I wonder if he actually owned that Irish pub.

I was asked to do the first-ever Chinese campaign for an Italian makeup company. The theme was “fairyland.” The makeup was extremely over the top, as if the whole part of my face around my eyes had been replaced with a Monet painting. This was a look RuPaul would call “a bit much.” After two hours in the makeup chair for the first look, I was shown to a room and handed a one-of-a-kind Alexander McQueen dress — a pewter-colored ball gown that looked like hot metal poured out of a teapot to the floor. It felt like absolute heaven to put on. I started tearing up and was subsequently yelled at by the makeup artist. I barely got out with my heavily made-up face intact.

I was lucky that the makeup companies I modeled for did not ask me to model their face-bleaching products, but it’s a problem endemic to the region, thanks to Western beauty standards. Even a trip to the drugstore presents you with a sea of bizarre “whitening” products for facial skin. It is a sobering reminder to me of our society’s complicity in telling nonwhites they aren’t pretty enough.

Modeling in Hong Kong might have been strange to a first-timer, but it taught me how to roll with the punches, handle any kind of criticism, and, most importantly, read a map and successfully navigate around any city within 30 minutes of landing. I even learned some Cantonese and Mandarin, and I still get a little sentimental whenever I see pictures of the Hong Kong harbor. I left mostly because I wanted to see other parts of the world. Months later, I was asked to go to Cape Town, South Africa, for another modeling gig. Not a bad way to travel at someone else’s expense, and you will forget about the sore feet, eventually.