Nadya Vall was 13 years old when she entered the world of modelling though an agency in Toyko, Japan. What she got was a series of manipulations and deceptions that preyed on her youth and inexperience. Or did she?
IS GIRL MODEL A DOCUMENTARY OF MANIPULATION?
In the frigid, barren depths of Siberia, Nadya Vall lives a modest life in a lower-class family. But when modelling scout Ashley Arbaugh rolls into town, Nadya is given the opportunity to enter a career that promises a shot at money and fame. It’s an opportunity too good to pass up.
Arbaugh is an enigmatic character in the film, distant and robotic in her commentary and unflinching in her judgment of the young teen models. A former model herself, she explains that she is looking for girls for the Japanese market.
Essentially, she explains, this means she’s looking for very, very young girls. Girls with prepubescent features. In short: jailbait. Nadya is thin, with large round blue eyes and barely a hint of pubescent development. Ashley believes her to be perfect for Japan.
From the moment Nadya arrives at Narita Airport, she is lost. Her only friend in Japan is Madlen Nazarova, another young Russian girl recruited to Tokyo who shares a dingy room with Nadya. Though the two become friends, there’s little they can do to stop themselves from being tossed around in a world too alien to navigate and too dark for them to know where they are going.
It comes as no surprise, then, that through a series of clauses and stipulations in her contract, Nadya’s (and Madlen’s) first foray into the modelling world gets them nothing more than a series of unpaid shoots and both end up leaving Japan $3,000 in debt.
It would seem that Girl Model is an unveiling of the insidious world of teen modelling in Japan. A world where there is a massive void of information, and in that void, plenty of room for manipulation and exploitation. Agencies based around the world pluck girls from remote and impoverished corners of the world with the promise of a better life, a proposition that many parents feel might be the only hope for a future for their child.
But while the film raises important questions about the modelling industry’s treatment of young girls, it fails to dig into the issues any deeper than the surface. The New York times aptly notes that
Like much of the public, the filmmakers seem wary of wading into the darker aspects of the business. Perhaps it’s a first step. Or perhaps they fear the public isn’t ready to go there.
A HOUSE OF SMOKE AND MIRRORS
Since its release, much of the conversation around Girl Model centers on the abusive potential of the child modelling industry, not only in Japan, but in the rest of the world as well. The filmmakers certainly give the impression of an exposé. Their website features a call to action, mostly pertaining to fair pay and age verification.
But there are more insidious forces at work that are only hinted at in the film that seem to be raised and immediately forgotten. At one point in the film, Ashley Arbaugh (Nadya’s scout) quietly insinuates that one wrong turn can lead to the seedy underworld of prostitution and sexual slavery, yet this chilling remark, along with a vague insinuation that perhaps Arbaugh herself had been sexually abused, isn’t properly examined.
To complicate matters further, there are allegations that the film is disingenuous.
Nadya now lives in Asia and continues to pose for the camera. According to Hayley Phelan of Fashionista, the model was unhappy with the response that she received from the film, and doesn’t feel that it accurately portrayed her experience working in Japan. In an email exchange with Nadya, Phelan quotes her as writing:
Phelan rightly recognizes the probability that Nadya wouldn’t have the ability to speak freely even if she wanted to. Models are under intense pressure because of the freelance nature of their work. Those who speak out against the industry aren’t likely to get jobs in the future.
It’s possible that Nadya has already been blacklisted. Reportedly, she was beginning to make a career for herself, but has not had as much work since Girl Model came out. It’s also possible that she is happily making a name for herself in the modelling industry and hasn’t been victimized.
Who is to be believed?
SIMPLE FACTS AND SMALL STEPS
In 2008 Vanity Fair published a series of photographs of the then 15-year-old Miley Cyrus, which included a topless (though covered) photo of the young pop star. The media went insane, both condemning and praising the photographs, and everyone wanted a peek, even if it was to express outrage. Many decided that it was a tasteful photograph of a beautiful young girl; a far cry from the twerking, foam-fingered side-show we’ve been treated to in more recent days.
Perhaps our ire should be more appropriately channeled toward child beauty pageants, popular not only in the United States but growing in the UK as well? These competitions, like their adult counterparts, even feature a swimsuit modelling segment. To claim that a pageant is non-sexual while plastering the face of a four-year-old in makeup and parading her in a swimsuit is a hard sell.
Child and teenage modelling seems to be in the realm of things that most would rather pretend don’t exist. But they do. And our collective societies need to make some admissions: that there is a distinction between nudity and pornography; that there is a difference between beauty and sexuality; that we can admire youth without exploiting it.
But we need to be careful. When very young girls are placed in front of the lens with the dream of reaching superstardom, there’s no end to the variations of manipulation and abuse that are possible, both financial and sexual. We need to draw some lines in the sand–and then set them in concrete. And like the filmmakers of Girl Model, unless we’re willing to dive into the shadows of the modelling business, we can’t expect any real change.
Nadya may not approve of the way the modelling business is depicted in the film, but it’s hard to argue with the fear in her eyes as she finds herself in foreign nation alone, scared, and unable to communicate. If this isn’t a reckless industry, then none exist.
Until nations start forming more comprehensive legal protections in the fashion industry, we can’t ever know what is going on behind closed doors–if models are being paid fairly, working in safe environments, and are protected from recruitment into the sex trade. In an industry where a 13-year-old girl is flown to a foreign country and left unchaperoned while moving from agency to agency (as was the case for Nadya), how can we consider this adequate protection?
And can we also please, please wipe the makeup off the faces of four-year-old girls?