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Working for the Skin-Deep Trade

Girl Model (2012)


The dichotomous nature of the modeling industry is brutally exposed by documentarian duo David Redmon and Ashley Sabin in this stark exposé of the realities of the business. It’s a bleak and damning indictment of a trade that shatters any glamorous or aspirational illusions that may have still surrounded it, instead revealing it to be as sordid as many might have suspected.

Mr. Redmon and Ms. Sabin’s focus rests on the unsettling underbelly of the market that exists between Russia and Japan. A casting call in deepest Siberia had incredibly young girls lined up by the hundreds and ushered around like livestock to be inspected, photographed and approved for effective export to the apparently lucrative Japanese market, which has very specific requirements for very fresh faces.

It’s immediately evident that these girls were being manipulated; and there’s no disguising the fact that they were essentially brainwashed into believing that modeling is a viable and worthy career choice from as young as five.

One such aspiring model is 13-year-old Nadya Vall, an instant favorite who provides a revealing case study into how far the promise lay from the reality as she left her family behind to venture to Tokyo.

Scouted by former American model Ashley Arbaugh, Ms. Vall was subjected to a depressing experience that does nothing to validate Ms. Arbaugh’s protestations that modeling is in any way exciting.

But Ms. Arbaugh too bears the significant scars of having emerged through the other side. She’s evidently made money from her former profession; but she’s distant, passionless, lonely and deep down fully aware of her role in what is a stifling and uncomfortable industry.

There’s obvious conflict within her, as she slated the industry for being “based on nothing” and for having “no weight,” but at the same time peddled a dream that she refuses to believe in.

It’s all very raw and emotive stuff and Mr. Redmon and Ms. Sabin’s naturalistic direction succeeds in providing a telling contrast to the artificiality of the business. It’s a pensive and thoughtful piece of work that dares to delve into the blackest parts of the industries soul.

Flashbacks to an 18-year-old Ms. Arbaugh undergoing exactly what Ms. Vall was put through in Tokyo are particularly telling about the cyclical nature of the business, not to mention its ability to cause significant emotional harm.

Ms. Vall, treated as nothing more than a commodity, was shuttled back and forth to dead-end casting meetings and fed false promises by her agents as she sinks deeper and deeper into debt and despair. It’s all perfectly grubby and inherently unglamorous.

The comparison that is drawn between Mses. Arbaugh and Vall through the dual narrative is effective and revelatory, more so given Ms. Arbaugh’s damaged psyche. Here is a woman who loathes modeling, yet is fully immersed in the business. She’s fundamentally addicted to the lifestyle that it affords, regardless of the effect that it has had on her.

Yet, Ms. Arbaugh is as guilty as anyone else in perpetuating the problem as she peddled false hopes to these naïve, ambitious girls, fully aware of the reality that awaits them. Her blasé admission that most will in all likelihood end up in prostitution seems entirely believable, as in effect they were already prostitutes in all but name.

“Girl Model” is an unnervingly insightful snapshot into an unseemly trade that also succeeds in holding up an uncomfortable mirror to an industry that through effective criminality preys on the naïve by taking advantage of their dreams. And what could be uglier and more abhorrent than that?


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