MOSCOW — Do you know any children with 2,500,000 “likes” on their Facebook pages? A nine-year-old Russian girl living in Moscow, Kristina Pimenova, just topped that number.
She’s probably a very likeable kid, in fact, but the popularity is all about the pictures. One fashion blog named her recently as “the most beautiful girl in the world,” full stop. And while the “beautiful” is evident, especially those penetrating grey-blue eyes, there’s an uncomfortable edge to some of the photographs that blurs the difference between “girl” and “woman.”
Brooke Shields, 49, who started modeling when she was less than a year old, posed nude when she was ten, and played a child prostitute in the Louis Malle film “Pretty Baby” when she was 12, recently said she didn’t think the pictures of Pimenova she’d seen were particularly suggestive.
“I don’t think they’re that bad, these photos,” Shields told Meredith Viera. But Shields said she was concerned about the social media environment today, which spreads the images so far and fast, and often with disturbing anonymous comments. “It just becomes dangerous,” said Shields. (Ironically, perhaps, this video segment is posted on Kristina’s Facebook page.)
The Pimenova sensation has been growing for a while. Three years ago, a program on Russian state television, “Vesti,” called Kristina "a million dollar baby." Kristina's long blonde hair, sometimes curled or fixed up in a bun like an adult, her puffy childish cheeks and lips often covered in make-up, have appeared on the cover of Vogue Bambini, and shined for Dolce & Gabbana, Benetton, and Armani.
Kristina’s family has a certain star power. Her father, Ruslan Pimenov, was a well known soccer player for Lokomotiv Moscow, among other teams. And her mother, Glikeriya Pimenova, is a model herself who acts as her daughter’s personal agent, posting new photographs on social networks every few days.
Images of Kristina sitting on the edge of a bathtub or in bed in her pajamas have come in for particular criticism, including on Kristina’s own Facebook page. The little girl’s admirers ask her parents not to be in a hurry with the fashion business and let Kristina have a normal childhood.In the most recent image posted by her mother, Kristina is wearing a black vest over her skinny shoulders. More than 1,000 “likes” appeared instantly, as soon as the picture appeared. The girl's blue, piercing eyes look very adult. "When did she have time to grow up so fast?" one of her “friends” commented.
Russian mothers of beautiful girls often treat the fashion business as a window of opportunity for their daughters to become famous, successful, and travel around the world. There are over 10,000 Russian fashion agencies training girls from age four, and new ones pop up every month. One of five top agencies in Novosibirsk, Elite Stars, recently was producing over 200 models every two to three months.
"Our Siberian girls are admired more by Asian countries than by the West," Elite Stars school director Tatyana Fetisova told me. "On coming back from a business trip girls often have more money than both their parents make in a month and feel proud that they can help their families," Fetisova said.
Russian professional models often describe their business as "exhausting" and "frustrating," especially for a child. Lia Serge, a Moscow-based model working for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, tells The Daily Beast she doesn't approve of Pimenova's parents’ choice.
"I would never bring my child into the fashion business: the world of big money, competition, jealousy and hypocrisy,” said Serge, who is 24 and began working when she was 18. “A model’s routine can be destructive for children psychologically.”
To protect Kristina from "star disease" hers parents do not allow here to sign autographs, her mother told the TV program “Vesti”: "If she decides she is so important, that would not be normal and might develop problems for her merging with society."
In a recent television interview in Russia little Kristina said: "I don't know much about money, I am a child, so I should not be aware of that stuff." But from the beginning she’s handled the business like a pro. In her first interview with Russian Channel One, when she was six, Kristina said, “I like to take part in fashion shows more than in photo sessions, as then I can walk and not get tired of standing." At the time Kristina still could not quite pronounce the "R" sound in Russian, but she made her meaning clear. She did not plan to be a model for too long, she said: "I will do it for a bit and then get a real job as an archeologist."