Extreme Russia: Teen Model Factory

Reggie Yates’s Extreme Russia, produced by BBC, 2016


Teen Model Factory of Russia is the third installment of a three-part documentary film series produced under the banner of BBC. It looks at the modeling industry of Russia with respect to model-making as a form of lucrative business and how that business functions on various levels. Although the documentary explores a number of different aspects surrounding the industry, what comes up as most interesting in this whole journey is the position of the models.

I have not watched the previous two episodes of this series, but the theme of Otherization is quite strong in this episode, or film. Reggie Yates’s narration, coupled with frequent images of vehicles and the train running along the tracks of the Trans-Siberian Railway drive home the idea of venturing into a foreign land of unknown mysteries and curious differences. As a whole, the series begins at a time when Vladimir Putin is well into his third term as the president and reflects the life of the youth in the country twenty-four years after the fall of Soviet Union. Yates goes around the different parts of the country and looks into the lives of the young girls aspiring to the next Natalia Vodianova.

Natalia Vodianova in Dior Magazine by Peter Lindbergh

Vodianova, born to a poor family in the obscure city of Nizhny Novgorod, is the quintessential Russian rags-to-riches success story. At the age of 17, picked up by a model scout from her country, she signed a contract with a Parisian agency and soon rose to modelling super-stardom. Even today, at the wrong side of 30, she is one of the most well-known and sought-after faces in the European and American fashion industries. Ever since, international scouts have been pouring in from all over the world to scout for their preferred faces from a huge group of young girls. The search for the next Natalia Vodianova is on.

In the first few minutes of the film, Yates’s states that in UK girls under 16 are not permitted to walk the ramp, but there are no such restrictions in Russia, or countries in far East which regularly send in their agents to scout for new girls. Yates meets a couple of such scouts from Tokyo in the Trans-Siberian Railway. In their conversation it comes up that they try to get as many teen and preteen girls as they can, children of 13-14 years of age, as the demand for them back home is quite high. One female scout says, “Our clients like young girls”. This scene sets up the moral overtone of the film, with heavy allusions to language associated with sex trade, human trafficking, and pedophilia.

Yates’ journey includes interactions with the young girls who aspire to take up modeling as a career. He meets three such girls—Anya, Vika, and Katia—from different communities in Russia and looks into their daily life and the motive behind such an aspiration. Their stories and lives give a picture of the reasons behind the craze of choosing modeling in the country, especially as a means to move and build a career abroad. We see brief glimpses of the three girls’ backgrounds, and what comes up as a common context among them is the dire need to move out of Russia and the feeling that no other career is as viable or lucrative as this one. This could be a means to end all their financial troubles. The stakes of making it to the top are too high, but these girls seem to be quite ready for it. What comes as a shock though is their age. They are mostly as young as thirteen. Often they start their model training classes as young as four or five. Anya shows Yates around her house, points towards her paintings and says that she would love to be an artist. But she also mentions the lack of opportunity in the field of art as compared to the chance she would get while working as a model. Vika, on the other hand, survives on a diet of buckwheat thrice daily to lose two extra centimeters for the castings. Katia’s parents have to go through the stressful decision of whether their daughter, who is only 15, should go to China for a modeling contract at such a young age all by herself.

Girls as young as thirteen or fourteen are a common sight in the scouting rooms. The process includes standing almost naked in front of complete strangers, holding a board specifying one’s name, age, height, place of origin, and a short general intro. The approach of the agents and scouts towards the girls is so mechanical that at one point, the head of the agency compares the girls with Ferrari cars. He says, the girls in Russia who audition are mostly like cars without engines, it’s only when they start working that the agency puts engines in them.

In preparation, girls as young as five in Russia attend classes for modeling which teaches them how to walk, pose, and do own their makeup. The girls are raised under harsh conditions where modeling is often one of the very few potential careers where they can move out into the world and lead a comfortable life. But the dreams that fuel such enthusiasm is often betrayed by reality. Often what these girls fail to realize is that the sum of money they would be earning as a model is not what that they will have for themselves at the end of all transactions. In most cases these models are left with almost no money, and more often than not they live in debt. The film also throws light on another much more sinister alternative industry that thrives under the shelter of these modeling agencies. It is quite a common practice for the agents to set these girls with a  rich boyfriend. In worse cases, they end up as high profile escorts. Often failing to make ends meet, or sometimes just for the glamour of high society lifestyle, these girls do take up such a choice.

Teen Model Factory looks into the lives of young impressionable minds trying to find a better standard of living. The documentary tries to find out the percentage of girls who stand a chance in succeeding; while the fashion industry persists in selling its fairy tale – for fairy tales always finds its believers.

The search for the next Natalia is still on.

– Arpita Sinha