My surreal, strange life as a foreign model in Shanghai


The author and his cash, of which he didn’t earn very much

Being paid to go clubbing with models is, like many things in life, something that sounds much better on paper than it is in reality. For a certain segment of the Shanghainese nightlife community – a community significantly smaller than the demographics of the world’s largest city would suggest some clubs are meccas, playing up to all the stereotypes of an eccentric Asian nightclub: tone deaf EDM at eardrum-shattering volume, neon lights everywhere, enough lasers to blind an entire school of small children, and of course, bottles that come in sizes too large for any single human to lift. A local site calls one of them “extremely classy” before effusively noting the rows of expensive sports cars outside. Inside, one will find Shanghai’s full coterie of fuerdai and tuhao, the rich-second-generation and nouveau riche. The minimum spend for the night was ¥20,000 (£2,300). Vast glass cabinets full of Dom Perignon were wheeled to tables, some containing upwards of twenty or thirty bottles. A site for expats says, “Expect the most ballers of ballers,” but aside from a sole western businessman in his mid-forties, there were no expats at all. The only westerners in the club were models. There were forty of them. It was a Tuesday.

The models had all lined up at around 10:30pm in an underground car park beneath the club. I had managed to pass myself off as an agency model in Shanghai, having worked as a model in Milan, and had got myself on the list. There, amongst rows of mopeds and non-expensive regular cars, the kind not worthy of being displayed outside, was a desk, behind which stood a Brazilian guy called Roman and a Korean man whose name I never learned. I was lucky, because that night “The Korean Door Bitch” – as the models affectionately referred to her as – was not there, meaning that the casting process was less harsh. I didn’t see anyone cry, which I guess is a positive thing, because I had heard that she regularly reduces models to tears. Those who arrive form an orderly queue and proceed to the front, where their names are checked on a pre-approved list, and they are given a once over. If they aren’t wearing the right clothes, or if they don’t have the right look, their name will not be ticked off, they will not be given a wristband, and they will be sent home.

The theme for the evening was “smart-sexy” which meant for men a suit and for women cocktail dresses. I did not have a suit with me in Shanghai, so I had to borrow one from a friend. I’m about five inches taller than him, so it looked a little as if I’d had a growth spurt in between stepping out of my cab and lining up behind three Brazilian models who had arrived together. I hoped no one would notice, and I avoided any movements that would make the sleeves ride up, so I spent my time moving like a penguin. When I got to the front Roman greeted me and went to find my name on the list.

“First time?” he said.

“No”, I lied, saying I had come before when the last promoter, a guy named Felix, had been in charge.

“Ok, good.” He said, “So you know how it goes down.”

Just as he was ticking my name off the list, the Korean guy shook his head. I looked at him, and he reached into his pocket, producing a hairbrush and some gel. He pointed at a nearby moped and made me fix my hair, slicking it across my forehead, before I was allowed to return to get my wristband.

Along with the band, which is cut off at 3am once the models have finished working, I was handed two large plastic boxes, which were fastened to both of my wrists by Velcro straps. They had the club logo on them, and I had no idea what the fuck they were until I stepped onto the dancefloor and they started flashing in time to the music. All of the models, of which I was one for that night, were made to wear them.

The thing about this particular club is that the paying population, which is almost exclusively Chinese, do not dance. They sit at their tables. They drink. They pay for xiaojies – female hosts who may or may not also be hookers. They play a drinking game with dice. They get hammered. But seldom do they venture onto the dance floor, which is, from about 10:45pm until 3am, the sole preserve of a phalanx of foreign models.

When I first stepped onto the dancefloor, and had got over the fact that the plastic boxes on my wrist pulsed in time to the aggressive EDM music, I pulled out my phone to text a friend and tell him how surreal this was. Within moments the Korean guy was on me, and told me never to take my phone out again. Considering I was just another model to them, at various points in the night I would be told, either by him, by Roman, or by another of the promoters, to smile more, dance more, raise my arms, throw confetti, cheer, and generally appear to be having a much better time than I was. The experience led me to an eternal skepticism of the phrase “getting the model treatment”.

And herein lies the issue. Being paid to go clubbing with other models is actually a job. An extremely underwhelming and financially unviable job. For the entire evening the models were paid 300¥ (£34) each. I was there four and a half hours. Linda Evangelista famously once said that she didn’t get out of bed for less than £10k, but yet I managed to find myself with over 40 models who, on a Tuesday night, were willing to be bossed around a club by a multi-national hit-squad of promoters whose entire purpose seemed to be to ensure the evening was as unfun an experience as you can imagine.

The question of course is why, and the answer to that is long and complex. In short: the Shanghai modelling industry is, like the modelling industries in many other cities across the world, fucked.

“There are too many models, for one thing,” says Martin, who runs a boutique agency in town. Moreover, the industry is incredibly unregulated, a fact confirmed by Stephan Moskovic, the founder of industry bible and his Newfaces Editor Rosy Daly. “While there might be an opportunity to make money for models just starting out, this has been suffering due to the number of freelance models working there illegally,” they told me.

This intense competition, exacerbated by the lack of barriers to entry in the Shanghai market that enable non-agency models to compete for most jobs, is one factor that pushes models to start going clubbing for money. “You also have to remember,” said Adam, a British model who has worked in Shanghai for three extended periods in the last couple of years, “that a lot of us aren’t paid until the end of our contracts.”

“I’ve heard of models dressed as giant tomatoes, as hamburgers, as hotdogs. I’ve heard of models giving away food” – Martin

The life of an agency model in Shanghai is probably the least glamorous “glamorous” life you can imagine. A lot of models are either at the very start of their career, or have reached a plateau in Europe or America and are therefore looking for a market that is perceived as easier. It isn’t. There are 30 plus agencies in Shanghai, based on the estimates I heard from various models and from Martin. only lists six Shanghai agencies that it is willing to vouch for. “The agencies we work with are the ones that have a presence or connection to the wider international market, and the ones that have been established for some time,” Stephan and Rosy said. Moreover, they were quick to note that most of the agencies they back do not necessarily work with both foreign and Chinese models. A lot just work with Chinese models with a view to sending them abroad to work in the established markets of Paris, New York or Milan.

Of course, models are exploited the world over. A foreign model recently came out against Trump Models in NYC, claiming that she was made to lie about her age, to work without a visa, and to pay $1,600 a month for a cramped ground-floor apartment, where she slept next to a window through which a man once peed on her. She claimed it was “modern-day slavery”.

But in Shanghai it’s even worse, because the pickings are extremely slim for foreign models seeking a reputable agency. They are also fairly opaque. It is hard to judge how an agency will treat you, nor how the local market will receive you, when signing a contract a few thousand miles away. One thing that Stephan and Rosy made clear however was that: “If you’re looking into signing with an agency in China you will need to make sure that they can acquire work visas (Z Visas) for their models. Only agencies with the right legal status can get these.”

In recent years there have been crackdowns on models working illegally in China on tourist visas. In Beijing in 2014 the agency M3 collaborated with local police to stage a fake casting. 60 were arrested, spending up to a month in a holding cell, and four of them received jail time. The rest were deported, and barred from ever entering China again.

“We had to hide our books. People came to our apartment,” said Adam, who was in China during one such crackdown. When I was a student at a university in Shanghai, learning Mandarin, it was a fairly open secret that class sizes on the first day of term, which would be some forty students deep, were not indicative of the actual class size. By two weeks into term, the class had dropped to about ten students as the visa-seekers moved on to more lucrative and less academic pastures.

Modelling jobs in China are also not particularly high paying. “Currently all major fashion editorial or advertising is booked through NY or Europe. Any major Chinese jobs will usually go to Chinese models,” noted the team. “There are models who make money in China, but they are few and far between. They’re the ones who the agencies really like and push hard. I think in each agency there might be two or three like that, max five. They might make ¥100k (£11,000) a month. But the rest don’t earn anything close to that. And they get the really shit jobs,” said Martin.

In the modelling industry in China models get employed for jobs that would never be considered ‘modelling’ in any other market. “I’ve heard of models going to store openings where they have to carry balloons and hand them out. I’ve heard of models dressed as giant tomatoes, as hamburgers, as hotdogs. I’ve heard of models giving away food. Male models topless in shoe stores, that sort of thing (kind of like Abercrombie&Fitch’s marketing strategy circa 2009) I stay away from those jobs with my agency, but you hear about them,” said Martin.

“Oh yeah man, people do weird jobs all the time,” confirmed Adam. “I remember one that was a plastic surgery convention. I had to stand on stage with the owner of the surgery and draw lines on a big face on a whiteboard, where the good places to get surgery were. There were like 500 people in the audience. I had no place being there at all.”

“I remember one that was a plastic surgery convention. I had to stand on stage with the owner of the surgery and draw lines on a big face on a whiteboard, where the good places to get surgery were” – Adam

Models come cheap in China. The day rate for handing out balloons or attending a plastic surgery convention might be as low as 2000¥ (£233) even with agency fees. So for Chinese clients who are flush with cash, it seems like a good investment. Models therefore end up doing jobs that we would consider completely bizarre, and that intersect heavily with what one journalist has called the ‘rent-a-foreigner’ business.

When I asked Adam what the weirdest job he’d ever heard of was he laughed. “My roommate was a guy called James, an American guy. They told him he had a job and that he would have to fly to another city. When he got there they handed him a script that he was going to have to learn. He was confused, but set about learning this script. The script was describing buildings and architecture. He had a day to learn it. The next day, when the job comes they tell him that this Chinese architect has built this building, and they were going to pretend that he had made it instead. They put him on stage and he had to give the speech, pretending he knew everything about this project.” A Russian model I spoke to said that she had to dress like a mermaid and sit outside of a shopping mall in a small town three hours away from Shanghai for an entire weekend.

Aside from forcing models into bizarre jobs and not securing their models visas, the less reputable agencies also saddle the models with huge debts. “The models might get a stipend once a month from the agency if they’re lucky, but that is just another debit to their account,” said Martin, “they will also have an inflated bill for their flight, their apartment, and the bus.”

“Every agency model in Shanghai knows the pain of being dragged around in the bus,” Adam told me. The models, the vast majority of whom speak no Mandarin and won’t spend enough time in Shanghai to learn it, get carted around the city in minivans, going from casting to casting. This makes sense from the agencies’ perspective, as it keeps the models close and means they don’t have to field calls from those that have gone adrift in amongst the intelligible sea of Mandarin, but it also means that models end up being dragged en-masse to castings that they aren’t eligible for, and kills their free time. They’re also charged a daily fee to be on the bus, regardless of how many castings they go to, which again eats into their bottom line.

As such, the models end up in a situation where on the day to day, their money is extremely tight. Going to the clubs in the evenings where they can make some money becomes an option. “It’s pocket money slavery,” says Martin. “It’s also a vicious cycle.” Clubbing, in some cases four or five nights a week, with free-flowing alcohol, is obviously not recommended behaviour in an intensely competitive industry predicated on looking good. Especially when you have early morning call times or at the very least have to be picked up by the bus, regardless of when your castings might actually be scheduled in the day. “It can kill a model’s career within a very short space of time,” Martin added.

“But to be fair, it can be a good laugh,” said Adam. “Like, I’d heard about it before I went, and I was just confused, because obviously this does not happen in the UK. So the first night I went to one of these clubs, I walked over to the model table where all this alcohol was and I was genuinely nervous. I kept thinking someone would come and pull me away.

“I kept an element of fun to it. I’d go to the clubs a couple of times a week because it’s a good way to party, but yeah, for some people it is a job, and they are pretty miserable.” There are degrees to the clubbing for money experience. The highest paying one at ¥300, genuinely felt like a job. I wasn’t allowed to look at my phone, I was told where to stand and I was constantly told to smile and dance more. But across the city in another place, a place famous for its large sea animals in tanks, models are paid only ¥150 (approx. £3 per hour) but get a lot of leeway to enjoy the night. We were told to stand by the bar and that was it. Had I been there with a decent group of friends, it would have probably been quite a good night, though by 2am I was itching to leave, and when we lined up to collect our earnings at 3am, the queue was full of bleary-eyed models who didn’t exactly look like they’d just had the time of their life. I imagine it gets old quickly.

A sensible question, logically, is if you aren’t willing to club for money, and the agency has a choke-hold on your pocket money, how do you earn enough to get by?

Herein lies another structural issue in the Shanghai job market, which is the fact that because a lot of the jobs aren’t necessarily what would be considered ‘modelling’ by an objective definition, jobs can easily be completed by freelancers or students. Chinese social media, particularly Wechat, also allows models, both freelance and agency models, to connect directly with clients and bookers.

“Wechat is a parallel agency,” said Martin, explaining how the system works. Models arrive from all over the world, and quickly make contacts with other models, who introduce them to bookers over Wechat. The bookers will then post jobs or castings and the models can send their composites over and then head to the castings, or get booked directly. A model can quickly build up relationships with certain bookers and get fairly regular work, though it is inevitably going to be of the handing-out-balloons-in-a-mall variety, and not walking for a major brand.

Intrigued, I asked around and got myself introduced to a few bookers. A model named Nila gave me a bunch of contacts and invited me into a few groups for foreign models, where jobs are posted. I saw a job posted by a booker named Chunhua and sent her a composite card I’d cobbled together from some photos.

She invited me to a casting that I went to the next day. There were probably fifty models there. We lined up and were handed a number on a sheet of paper and then had our photos taken. We were then told to check our Wechats later to see who had been picked. As I was leaving I turned to Chunhua and said thank you for having me in Mandarin, and struck up a quick conversation. The photographer also came over and we chatted for a few moments.

A couple of hours later, I saw my photo posted in the group, and was told to message Chunhua directly. She told me that I should come to a mall in Xujiahui, in the Southwest of the city and meet there for a rehearsal at 10am the next day. I would get ¥200 (£23) for the rehearsal, which would last an hour, and then the job would be the day after. The fee would be ¥1500 (£174). When I asked what the job was she told me it was a “car show.”

Unclear as to what that was, I got on the subway the next morning and headed to Xujiahui. Xujiahui is a bustling commercial district and the interchange between three lines, so most of the passengers disembarked. Rudderless, I was carried by the human current to one of the exits before I could really take stock of where I should have been going.

By the time I arrived in the mall, suddenly aware that I had never been told where I’d be meeting everyone specifically, I was five minutes late. I walked into the main atrium, the harsh perma-bright mall lighting bouncing off the sharply polished marble floors and stainless steel accents on the criss-crossing escalators, and spotted a group of tall, sharply cheek-boned guys, huddled around a Chinese woman.

I walked over and introduced myself. The guys were all freelance models, with the exception of two agency models that were working this as a ‘black job’, meaning that their agency doesn’t know and isn’t taking any commission. It’s risky. Chunhua asked me if I could help her translate some of the things the client was saying to the models, a mixture of Eastern Europeans and Brazilians, who were struggling to understand her accented English.

Chunhua told me that she was waiting for a choreographer to arrive. I told the guys this and they grumbled. Confused, I asked her why we needed a choreographer, assuming that even freelance models would have worked out how to walk a catwalk, even one set up in a shopping mall.

She told me that there would be no walking. Instead, we were to do a kind of short dance sequence, all fifteen of us, and that we’d have to circle the cars twice, in a figure of eight shape, before striking poses, strategically placed to accentuate the cars’ ‘great qualities’. It took me a long time to really get this, especially because my brain, even when it understood the Mandarin in principle, refused to believe that I was actually hearing it correctly.

The choreographer eventually arrived and we walked out of the mall so we could rehearse in a quiet corner around the back and out of sight of the public. He put us through our paces, explaining the routine and marking out where the cars would be positioned the next day by placing our jackets and bags in two rectangular piles.

The next day I arrived at 8am. We had hair and makeup, which amounted to a thick coating of white powder and wet-look gel slicking my fringe to my face, such that I looked like I was auditioning to be Count Dracula in a school play.

Shanshan came up to me and said that there was a problem. The routine had to be changed. We trooped outside again to the same spot as the day before and rehearsed a new routine. We were also told that instead of doing it one time, we were now going to be expected to do it four times, at various points during the day. Some of the models started to get pretty pissed off, and asked me to translate to Shanshan how annoyed they were. I did my best, trying not to hurt her feelings, though she had actually understood everything they’d said.

We wandered back into the mall and waited for our first performance, which was scheduled for 11am. At 10:30am she got a text from the client, asking for more changes. I saw her face visibly contort as she read the message. She turned to look in my direction, and waved me over. She then whispered to me to get everyone to go outside, but before I’d had a chance to they seemed to have clocked something was going on and stormed over. Shanshan raised her hands, and started to explain the situation, but before she finished two of the models stormed off and the others started shouting at her.

She burst into tears and suddenly we all paused. The models’ anger quickly subsided as they watched her crying. They tried calling the other two models back to no avail. Shanshan wiped a sleeve across her face and we stood motionless for a moment, before a tall guy from the Ukraine extended a muscular arm and placed it around her shoulders. Soon the other models joined in, forming a large, moderately chiselled, group hug around Shanshan, hunched at its epicentre, fighting back the tears.

I could go on, but suffice to say, two models down, we stumbled our way through the routine. We were then each handed envelopes with our pay, 1700¥ (£198) and parted ways. My WeChat was already blowing up as various jobs and castings flashed up in the modelling groups, along with non-sequiturs like ads for go-go dancers needed in Inner Mongolia, or for people advertising apartments to rent or old mopeds to sell – the tying up of loose ends by the models who were calling it quits and leaving Shanghai.

But for each one who leaves, more come in their stead. The market, already saturated, can’t sustain them. Especially because China just doesn’t have enough mall openings or fancy clubs to hire ‘models’ for. But they’ll still come, because the lure is too great. As Martin said to me, “when you’re a model, even a shitty model, you feel like you have a more exciting life than an officer worker.”

Names have been changed to protect identities.

Fede = Felix

Michel = Roman

Jacob = James

1. The Chinese for this is 高大上 which literally translates as TALL BIG UPPER and is thus a fairly decent mono-syllabic vocabulary for anyone who finds bottle service and EDM a fun way to spend a Tuesday night.

2. Tuhao, which can be translated as local tyrants, is a derogatory term that comes from the republican period when much of China didn’t have formal governance and warlords reigned kleptocratically over large swathes of the country. The term was resurrected in the 90s to describe local officials who had created their own rent-seeking fiefdoms, and has now morphed into a catchall phrase for anyone with more money than taste [picture Hermes belts with the big letter H, Louis Vuitton print everything and a color palate the wrong side of loud]. It became popular online and has entered the English online gaming lexicon.  

3. £2316.13.

4. If you want to understand how the Shanghai modelling scene works, this is as good a place to start as any.

5. Having worked as a model, most recently for Major in Milan, I sent the promoter, Michel, a link to my portfolio and claimed I was in town for a few weeks with an agency, but hadn’t got a local book yet. He seemed to buy it and invited me down to the club that night.

6. As the other models affectionately call her.

7. As such, I spent much of my time in the queue with my arms clasped to my side, like a penguin. I also borrowed shoes off my friend that were two sizes two small. My big toenails went black. One subsequently fell off a month later.

8. I was tipped off to do this by the friend who introduced me to Michel on Wechat and helped me get on the list.

9. Until 1am, when the dance floor miraculously split in half, a stage raised from nowhere, and an African-American guy in tight red leather pants appeared and did covers of Usher and R-Kelly, before disappearing again. His set lasted approximately 10 minutes, all the while the models were handed confetti, such that when he sang his final warbling high note, we threw the confetti in the air and cheered, and he made a hasty escape. Through the fluttering confetti, it was hard to discern what the Chinese crowd must have thought of this, if they thought anything of it at all.

10. This has now bred in me what I suspect will be a lifelong scepticism for people celebrating getting ‘the model treatment’.

11. £34.

12. This is an assumed name, as he didn’t want blowback on his business.

13. It isn’t.

14. Obviously very few of these were aspiring models – a full spectrum of expat workers use student visas. Immigration raids however have systematically targeted models.

15. To be fair, this is Abercrombie&Fitch’s entire marketing strategy circa 2009.

16. £233.31.

17. The best story I heard while doing my research for this piece was of a Brazilian model who arrived in Shanghai on her first overseas contract. Her aspirations of being the next Gisele Bündchen or Adriana Lima were somewhat shattered when she was flown to a third tier Chinese city for a mall opening. She was made to sit on a giant spinning toilet in the mall’s main atrium, waving to the shoppers below. The toilet made one full revolution before she burst into tears.

18. It seems most models in Shanghai have a story like this. I asked Marina, a model from Vladivostok in Russia what her weirdest job was, and she told me she had to dress like a mermaid and sit outside of a shopping mall in a small town three hours away from Shanghai for an entire weekend.

19. China has a pretty well known problem with fake alcohol. Whether or not the models end up drinking fake alcohol, it’s pretty clear that the bottles of Grey Goose from which their drinks are poured are actually empties from high-roller tables that have been refilled with bargain-basement local equivalents.  

20. Of all the people I spoke to Adam is the least jaded and most levelheaded. For him, China is bizarre, but he doesn’t see that as an issue. “I enjoy it man. I take it for what it is,” he said.

21. When I asked the managing director of M1NT, called Ting, why it was that the club employed foreign models she told me she had no comment. Why it is that clubs, even world renowned clubs like M1NT which have shark tanks and international DJs, feel the need to hire foreign models to prop up the bar is still something of a mystery to me. Except that the answer is probably a nexus of a hangover from the rent-a-foreigner era and how cheap the models come. The club can offset the cost of 40 models with only one or two tables (40 models at M1NT only costs the club 6,000¥).

22. This worked out at roughly £3 an hour when I went.

23. A common complaint I heard a lot was that clients and bookers in Shanghai aren’t professional and don’t know how to distinguish between ‘proper’ models and people faking it, which means jobs can go to any half-way decent looking westerner over 6ft.

24. A social media app that is a combination of Twitter and WhatsApp that has over 800mn users in China. In a city like Shanghai, in three years, I did not meet someone who has been there longer than a week and does not have a Wechat account.

25. The other models looked on in annoyance, some whispering what I can only imagine were not particularly kind comments in Russian. Speaking Mandarin, it would seem, is a competitive advantage that immediately distinguishes you as not a ‘real’ model, but enables you to build up the kind of relationships that freelance and marginal agency models crave.

26. Most Agency models will do the occasional black job, though it is risky. Aside from the obvious fact that they are breaking contract, considering they spend their time on a bus going to castings and live in an apartment that the agency owns, it’s hard for agency models to slip away. Models who get caught can find themselves cancelled, losing all their earnings to that point and returning empty handed to wherever they came from.

27. Shanshan told me that she had ended up as a booker because she had been at a foreign languages university, studying English, and had met a few western students. Her friend, a photographer, had called her up one day and asked her to furnish some models for a job he’d be contracted. She did so, and quickly ended up making a career out of it.

28. £198.57.

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