Secrets of an Underage Model: Prostitution, Money in New Film ‘Girl Model’

Girl Model, a documentary out this week, follows the career of a 13-year-old Siberian model who is relocated to Japan. Anna Klassen on the most shocking bits.

On an average day, Nadya might have her food intake monitored so her hips don’t grow more than a centimeter. She might be told to lie about her age, and she even might be shown dead, autopsied bodies at the morgue. The scariest part? She’s only 13 years old.

A revealing new documentary, Girl Model, which opens in select theaters on Wednesday, details the life of the 13-year-old Siberian schoolgirl and the modeling scout who discovers her. According to the film, the cruel practices are widespread—though the film focuses only on Nadya, who has been plucked from her quaint life in the Siberian countryside with the promise of earning money to support her family with a fruitful modeling career in Japan.

But over the course of several heartbreaking months, she is mistreated in the chaotic and cold Tokyo fashion industry. She lands in a pint-sized apartment, and shares a bunk bed and cloistered bathroom with another teen model. Her hours are long, often going days without time off at the commanding hand of her agent, Tigran. Language barriers on “go sees” and one failed booking after another quickly turns Nadya’s young career into Japan’s Next Top Model from hell. Here, seven revelations from the frightening documentary.

Modeling Can Lead to Prostitution

Ashley, a former model turned scout, scours the Siberian countryside for fresh faces to feed the insatiable hunger of the Japanese market. But because modeling is a notably tough industry to enter, she says, the girls who are chosen from local castings often end up selling their bodies in a more literal manner. “All the girls just want to get out,” Ashley says. “They can be athletes, they can be gymnasts, they can be ballerinas, they can be prostitutes…you are a beautiful girl who uses her body to make money so it’s kind of natural.” She continues: “It’s just normal to be a prostitute, for them…maybe it’s easier than being a model.”

‘You Can’t Be Young Enough’

Chosen specifically for her pre-pubescent looks, Nadya’s wide-set eyes and seductively pouty lips have just the right mixture of youth and sex appeal for a Japanese market. But her age—a tender 13 years—is nearing too old for a bankable model. According to Ashley, “you can’t be young enough” when it comes to selecting fresh faces. “There is a certain glow to the skin,” and “innocent” is always in style. Ashley also notes that “when you catch a girl at 12, when these girls are in these very delicate stages of their life, then you have more power…to guide and direct.” When Nadya is brought to her first castings in Tokyo, she is told by her agent to say she is 15, two years older than her real age. According to the film, this kind of deception is common, and while being too young is frowned upon by professionals in the field, there is an underlying understanding that if you claim to be of a reasonable age—even 14 or 15—no one will ask questions.

You Might Never Know If You Book a Gig

In their free time, the young models will walk to the closest drugstore and spend hours poring over fashion magazines—but it’s not to catch up on the latest style tips. By paging through dozens of international covers, the teens are hoping to find pictures of themselves. While it seems obvious that American models know which clothing, magazines, and objects they’re branding, models like Nadya are kept entirely in the dark—an agency trick to keep models silenced. If a model doesn’t know where her photos are going, especially a 13-year-old who can’t speak English, let alone Japanese, she is less likely to demand a payout for each outlet that picks up her shots.

It’s Good to Be Scared

Tigran, Nadya’s agent (who is interviewed on-camera) has a very severe way of keeping his models in check. To make sure his girls behave themselves, he does something many might find twisted and even abusive: Tigran takes his models to the morgue and shows them the bodies of young girls, to highlight where their lives could have taken them, it seems, if they weren’t fortunate to be taken under his wing. He says that he “shows them young girls or boys who did drugs and passed away. And if the model is still too hardheaded, we have the autopsy done in front of them…believe me, seeing a dead young girl in front of you has a very strong effect…with their body cut open.”

You Have No Control

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Nadya’s contract, a lengthy document of fine print, comes with one very important clause: her agent has the right to change her contract on a day-to-day basis. With all rules out the window, Nadya’s job security, and the chance of a healthy income, is zilch.

You Aren’t Allowed to Go Through Puberty

Although many of the models selected for the Japanese market aren’t yet teenagers, going through puberty could be a breach of contract. According to Nadya’s agreement, if she gains even a centimeter on her hips, waist, or bust, she is liable to be sent home.

You Don’t Make Money From Modeling

Thirteen-year-old Nadya left her comfortable home life in order to support her family—a chance to send them a little extra cash so they could eat three meals a day. But the glamorous life of modeling was anything but. While living in Tokyo, language barriers and lack of funds quickly drove Nadya into debt, a common state for models of her age and experience working in Japan. But when addressing the press, model scout Ashley disputes these facts, stating: “Every model has success in Japan. Unlike other markets, where they might go into debt, they never do in Japan—they only win.”