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China is no walk in the park for foreign models trying to make a buck

Blond, blue-eyed, long-legged foreign models are a frequent feature of mainland China advertisements, whether on the streets, on television or online.

The demand for such models has increased over the past decade as the Chinese economy, especially e-commerce, flourishes and locals tend to favour foreign looks and concepts over their domestic counterparts.

Many foreign models working on the mainland come from eastern Europe, where wages are relatively low and from where air tickets to China are inexpensive.

Sixteen-year-old Kat Rozhkosa from Ukraine is a slim, pretty girl who has been working as a model in Shanghai for more than two months.

It is both her first time to travel outside her country and her first job.

Rozhkosa intended to finish high school next summer, but instead left school months ago to travel to Shanghai with the help of a model agency in Ukraine to “earn a lot of money”.

“I love my work here,” she said. “Although I usually work eight hours every day – sometimes 13 hours – it’s OK as long I make money.”

The 1.78 metre tall teenager comes from the eastern Ukraine city of Severodonetsk where the “economy is not good”.

In Shanghai, she attends casting calls for print advertisements or takes part in fashion shows assigned by her employer, Shanghai BYS Model Agency.

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Sara Liu, the agency’s young and fashionable managing director, is optimistic for the industry, saying models were an indispensable part of marketing and the sector would grow as long as people continued to “pursue beauty”.

Established five years ago, Liu’s agency is the second-largest employer of foreign models in the city, with between 18 to 25 overseas models on its books each quarter. All of the models are on short-term work visas.

A regulation issued by the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security two years ago allows foreigners coming to China for short-term work to apply for a type Z visa, which allows them to work in the country for up to 90 days.

Many Chinese companies would rather use foreign models to make their products appear more “international and fashionable”, Liu said.

“Consumers in second- or third-tier cities can’t tell if a brand endorsed by foreign models is domestic or foreign.”

Foreign models were also popular as their looks were considered fresh by locals tired of seeing familiar Chinese faces, she said.

Fair skin, long legs and more pronounced facial features gave Western models an advantage over their Chinese counterparts, Liu said.

She said Chinese companies had evolved from “blindly using models with foreign faces” to considering whether the model suited their products. “I see it is a good trend,” she said.

Some models, especially men, come to China from Brazil but few are from Western nations that pay higher salaries.

“We once interviewed a model from Belgium and were satisfied with her physical condition, but she finally turned down the job offer,” Liu said. “She said the two-month payment as a model in Shanghai was only the equal to one month’s salary at her job as a supermarket cashier in her hometown.”

Most agencies charge around 800 yuan (HK$930) per hour for foreign models, while domestic models are billed at an hourly rate of about 600 to 700 yuan.

Polish model Adam Jasek said modelling in Shanghai offered him a chance to travel the world.

The 20-year-old was majoring in maritime studies at a university in Poland but dropped out of the course and was unemployed for some time before a model agency sent his pictures to Shanghai where he was offered work.

Jasek described his typical workday as hectic, sometimes requiring up to 100 outfit changes a day, but he didn’t feel pressured and liked “being busy”.

“Shanghai is much, much bigger than my hometown of Olsztyn and its rhythm is high-speed,” he said. The food is also cheap and he eats out for every meal.

Rozhkosa and Jasek both said they had made few friends in Shanghai and did not interact often with local residents.

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Cai Qing, a Guangzhou-based model agent, said the demand for foreign models was great and the competition was fierce.

“In some cases, foreign models that I represented exchanged contact details with clients while I wasn’t with them,” she said. “So the clients contacted them directly and the models don’t use me any more.”

Cai said her “relationships were loose” with the more than 200 foreign models she managed. Some of them are overseas students studying in China and most of them lack work visas.

Recently she had to pay 10,000 yuan in compensation to a client when a model didn’t show up at a fashion event as had been agreed.

Besides modelling, foreign models in China take jobs in bars as singers, DJs, band members and magic performers, said Shi Yu, from the Changsha Model Industry Association, the Xiaoxiang Morning Post reported.

Changsha is estimated to have about 100 foreign models who hold work visas, as well as a large number of foreigners working as models while on student or tourist visas, according to the newspaper.

Whether they work as models legally in China or not, mainland cities are seen as places for young, attractive foreigners to make good money.

Rozhkosa, from Ukraine, plans to leave Shanghai later this month when her visa expires, and take up a two-month modelling contract in Hong Kong at the start of next year. After that, she would like to return to Shanghai.

Jasek said he hopes to stay in Shanghai for a long time to earn enough money to afford his dream life in Poland.

“I love my motherland,” he said. “It’s my dream to build a house, plant some trees and have a big family in my own country.”