The modeling industry boasts no pretenses about the abysmal treatment of its underage muses. Designers like Marc Jacobs make no bones about their use of underage girls in their runway shows which normally include early call times, little to no breaks, sexual harassment, payment in designer clothes, and sometimes no health insurance for girls as young as 12 or 13. But despite how awful this business treats children, the beast keeps getting fed as is captured in the chilling Girl Model documentary.
Directors David Redmon and Ashley Sabin follow the travels and hopes of Ashley Arbaugh, a jaded modeling scout and veteran model herself, who scours Siberia for fresh faces to introduce to the Japanese market. On an open casting call, she encounters 13-year-old Nadya Vall, a demure self-admitted “country mouse” who dreams of liberating her family from poverty with a lucrative modeling career. The prepubescent and lanky girl is beautiful with wide blue eyes and blonde hair that agents tug at as they ask her to lean further into their cameras. She struts across the room in a bikini, her lithe frame teetering over high heels.
Model scout Ashley likes her look as she describes the Japanese market as “very specific.” The fetishization of youth is clearly the aim, and young model Nadya is perfectly child-like. From there, she is plucked from her rural community and sent to Tokyo where she rooms with another young modeling hopeful in a space about the size of an Amtrak sleeper. The two teens are lucky enough to speak the same language as the cameras capture that they’re unable to communicate with anyone else. Young Nadya is forever going to her dictionary as she is sent on casting calls unsupervised, navigating the busy streets of Tokyo with only a few teary phone calls to her family to sustain her. Meanwhile, she is getting further into debt for her personal expenses — none of which the agency is paying for. Her crooked contract fails to deliver her the modeling jobs that were promised to her family, while the photos that she does take disappear into obscurity. Nadya happens upon one of her shoots while perusing a magazine stand, delighted to see that her work is in fact being published. No one has told her otherwise.
Scout Ashley exhibits nothing short of full on Stockholm Syndrome as she openly admits that the fashion industry is based on “nothing.” She looks at the camera with dull eyes as she shares her own bouts of depression when she was a young teenager floating in the Japanese market. Her forced smiles and shifty gazes punctuate stories of young models turned prostitutes as she is forthcoming about the conditions she inducts these young girls into. Her boss, the head of Switch Models, is in 40s and when she tells the camera that he likes young girls — the moment is ambiguously uncomfortable. Cut to the same man showing Ashley photos on his laptop of a rising star in his agency — a 12-year-old girl in thigh-high stockings and high heels photographed in black and white. She nods and smiles at the photographs approvingly.
Her emotional disconnection from her job, her “trained eye” for youth, and her work with “the girls” squares oddly with her pronounced want of a child — a desire that is revisited as she mocks a couple of baby dolls she purchased when she bought her Connecticut home. Later in the film, Ashley has to have both a cyst and a thyroid removed, a tactful inclusion on the part of the filmmakers as in the context of the film and her continued justification for her seedy job, she appears to be rotting from the inside out.
The ending accurately conveys that there is no ending as we again return to another open casting call with more prepubescent girls. Ashley appears taken with the look of one bikini-clad 13-year-old girl just as she was with Nadya, asking her questions in English that she clearly doesn’t understand.
The film spotlights the treatment of children in a global industry that evades child labor laws with a seemingly glamorous sheath. The peek behind the makeup and the heels and into actual working conditions reveals our cultural blind eye to the mistreatment of children, exploited through a business that so blatantly abuses them. And yet the maltreatment of children remains tenuous, as a mother or father who puts their daughter to work in a coal mine for 14 hours a day will certainly be bound for jail. But escort her into a business in which she’ll work the same amount of time, if not more, with few breaks, no food, no health insurance, and no guarantee of payment, along with the documented presence of cocaine and pressures for sex and you know where those parents are headed? Good Morning America, to beam about their daughter’s successes, career, as well as their “admirable” parenting.