ashley arbaugh, ashley sabin, cyst, david redmon, documentary, girl model, human trafficking, indentured servitude, madlen, nadya vall, noah models, predatory, rachel blais, switch models, the model alliance, tigran khachatrian
I will start this by saying that Girl Model is one of the more disturbing documentaries I’ve seen in some time. I don’t think it takes a mental titan to realize that the modeling business is fucked up, predatory and generally unsafe for the young girls who ply that trade. How many stories do you hear about bulimia, anorexia, overwork, abuse, and prostitution with regards to this industry? Do a Google search. I doubt you’ll be surprised. Girl Model reaffirms any and all misgivings you might have.
The opening shot of the film basically tells us our tale – a tracking shot through a herd of bathing-suit clad 13- and 14-year old girls crowd a room in Siberia (the coldest fuck place on earth) where model agency scouts measure them, assess their “desirability” for foreign markets and are told frankly that they are or are not, as is the case about 99% of the time, suited for modeling. Too “fat”, and let’s consider fat a relative term here as no one in their right mind would consider these girls fat, not fresh enough of face, hips too big, not young enough – these are the criticisms that dash these young girls hopes as they search for a way out of their small rural towns and poverty.
The film follows two people’s trajectories – Nadya, the 13-year old who is chosen for a modeling contract to work in Japan and the former model scout who signed her, Ashley Arbaugh. After winning the contract, Nadya is shipped off to Japan where she fits the look that is in there – read: pedophiles like looking at 13-year old girls and that’s what she is. Oh yeah – child labor laws be damned. Armed with a contract that “guarantees” her at least US$8000 and two jobs while there, she lands with no one to pick her up, lost in a country where the language barrier couldn’t be higher. As one might expect, things did not turn out how they were promised or planned. Nadya returns home without the $8000 she was promised and that she and her family needed and instead is saddled with $2000+ in debt, money neither she nor her family can afford.
Ashley Arbaugh is the talent scout who discovered and signed Nadya. She works for NOAH Models, owned by Tigran Khachatrian. He named his model agency after the biblical Noah and views his mission as saving his models “one by one” like Noah saved the animals “two by two.” This guy is a slime, basically pimping out young girls all over the world, making money off of them, keeping them saddled with debt so they have to keep working in a sort of de facto indentured servitude. And Ashley is key in making this happen. The most interesting part about her is that she was once a model who did exactly as the girls she scouts for Tigran and hated it, felt exploited and abused. How do we know this? She provided the filmmakers (David Redmon & Ashley Sabin) with the self-indulgent video diaries she made while modeling in which she complains of many of the things Nadya (and her roommate Madlen) complain of. Ashley quit modeling because of these things…but now? She puts other girls in the same situation and makes unreal money doing so. The American dream at its finest. The scenes with her talking about her two baby dolls and the third one she dissected and about her cyst with blonde hair (fresh with picture of said cyst) are pretty fucked up. That Ashley openly admits that these girls for whom she is responsible for sending to other countries often fall into prostitution as the line that delineates selling one’s body for photographs/art/fashion and selling one’s body for sex is extremely thin and malleable. She was the creepiest part of this film without a doubt. This says a lot. Later, even after we’ve seen Nadya‘s plight, Ashley tells a Russian TV interviewer at a casting call, that Japan is “a very safe market. Unlike other markets, the girls never go into debt.” Really, Ashley? The welfare of their models is clearly not in the interest of Ashley or Tigran. They are merely pawns in a complex money game.
Like I said at the outset, what is detailed in this film isn’t really news. It just solidifies how nonsensical this business really is, the superficiality of it absurd. That people can profit on what basically amounts to legal human trafficking is amazing to me. Groups such as The Model Alliance are starting to surface to ensure better practices for these girls, but there will always be a way around any measures put into place. With girls crossing borders into any number of countries, how can they ever be covered no matter where they go? It appears that Nadya still models even after all of this. That makes me sad.
Since the idea of this documentary came from batshit crazy Ashley Arbaugh, the directors seem to tiptoe around any wrong doing on her part, although they let her own words and videos do some fairly loud talking on her behalf. I feel like they were on the cusp of delving into more of the darker side of the business but never pushed far enough.
Here is the trailer: