HONG KONG—On Aug. 20, Vlada Dzyuba boarded a plane, leaving her home in Perm, located on the banks of the Kama River near the Ural Mountains. She was 14 years old, with a modeling contract that took her to Shanghai, where young women arrive each day to appear in photo shoots, strut on catwalks, and maybe even find bit roles in films.
Dzyuba soaked in the metropolis, posting images of herself in a nightclub, at a concert, and on a night-time bicycle ride onto her feed on VK—a popular Russian social media platform.
Less than two months after her arrival, Dzyuba found herself backstage at Shanghai Fashion Week, walking down the runway at least twice. She kept working, but collapsed backstage at another fashion show last Tuesday. She was taken to a hospital the following day, but died before the weekend, less than two weeks shy of her 15th birthday.
Questions surround Dzyuba’s death: How can a young teen be offered work in China in such a manner? What exactly killed her? More importantly, who is responsible?
A flurry of tabloid reports followed, riffing off coverage by The Siberian Times, which alleged that Russian models are being sent to China on “slave labor contracts.” The news outlet quoted Dzyuba’s mother, Oksana, who said, “She was calling me, saying, ‘Mama, I am so tired. I so much want to sleep...’ I didn’t sleep myself and was calling her constantly, begging her to go to hospital.” Another report, also published by The Siberian Times, claims that Dzyuba earned only $8 a day.
Promoting and exporting young models has become a virtual industry in parts of Russia, while Chinese modeling agencies and fashion show organizers recruit legions of young Caucasian women—the whiter and younger, the better—to showcase the creations of local fashion designers.
China’s labor law allows businesses to hire workers below the age of 16 if they are working in cultural, sports, or art activities, so long as the employer ensures that their underage employees are guaranteed an education. (The argument that modeling agencies engage in cultural enterprises is tenuous at best.)
In the two months she spent in China—all the while skipping school—Dzyuba took 16 gigs, according to ESEE Model Management chief executive Zheng Yi. He told the Chinese state-run outlet Global Times that Dzyuba’s workload was “moderate compared with other models.”
ESEE employs about 30 other foreign models, according to the same report in Global Times, and had employed Dzyuba on a three-month contract.
The agency released a statement online saying that the company feels sorry that it “lost an angel.” The company also attempted to absolve itself of all responsibility by indicating that Dzyuba became unwell six days after the main event where she modeled. This happened after she traveled to another city, Yiwu, south of Shanghai, where she was meant to appear in a photo shoot that had to be canceled because she was unable to perform as planned.
After Dzyuba was taken to Ruijin Hospital, Russian consular staff informed her family in Perm about the incident, kicking off a series of speculations as to why her condition was rapidly declining, which eventually turned into conjectures about the cause of death.
The exact circumstances of the tragedy remain unclear, although the doctors who treated her filed a report that indicated the model was suffering from septicopyemia, a form of blood poisoning. The same report recorded damage to multiple organs, incomplete kidney functions, rhabdomyolysis—a rapid breakdown of skeletal muscle—and disseminated intravascular coagulation, meaning blood clots were appearing in the small blood vessels throughout her body.
Dzyuba’s contract was arranged by a middleman in Russia, who failed to negotiate for medical insurance for the would-be supermodel. This has been cited as a reason for her delayed hospitalization.
Vlada Dzyuba’s last social media post was a day before her health swiftly deteriorated. She shared photos from a shoot conducted on Shanghai’s Miaojiang Road, a former industrial area along the Huangpu River, once home to a power station that kept the city lit.
Instead of making calls to re-examine problematic loopholes in Chinese labor law, the relevant parties—from the modeling agency that Dzyuba was attached to, to representatives of Shanghai Fashion Week, as well as the labels that are served by young foreign models—are shirking responsibility.
At the moment, Dzyuba’s agent in Russia is the fall-guy; while his failure to negotiate a fair contract for Dzyuba contributed to the conditions she faced in China, the actual conditions were created and perpetuated by the Chinese parties in this business.
Meanwhile, other young women are in the same position as Dzyuba, lured by the prospects of making a name for themselves in the limelight, only to discover they may be working for next to nothing, or worse.