An ugly truth behind a seemingly glamorous lifestyle
Written by Fiona Pitt
illustrations by Mandy Alberoni
As a young girl, I collected fashion magazines, stacking them as high as my windowsill, even covering a whole wall with the images. I had never considered the possibility that beyond the catwalk and behind the glossy pages lay an underworld of desperation, drugs, money, gangsters and deceit.
After graduating from Huntington Beach High School in 2009, my only plans were to avoid entrance exams by attending community college. That plan was interrupted when a young, hip woman covered in tattoos approached me and handed me her card that read “Model Scout.” During that brief exchange, she encouraged me to meet with an agency in Beverly Hills.
Despite being weary of a possible scam, I took the card and later found myself driving my junky white Toyota Echo to the agency. I signed a yearlong contract with Models International, a small agency, but a huge step into a world I had never imagined.
For the next few weeks I focused on building my portfolio, until I was contracted to work in Tokyo for three months. Anxious mostly about Japanese customs and concerned with who my roommates would be, I hadn’t considered how much I didn’t know about the modeling industry. I would soon learn the ugly truth behind those glossy pictures.
Landing at the Narita Airport in Japan half an hour before my first casting had me panicked. At 17, I wondered how I could comply with this already rigorous schedule. Time was short. I still needed to apply makeup to the bags under my eyes, find a public phone to alert my manager of my arrival and be careful and overly respectful to everyone around me.
In my luggage was a bulky portfolio, high heels, an 80-day modeling contract and a small card from my mother, who wrote, “Fiona–Have a wonderful trip and time in Tokyo. Be safe.”
Alone, I made it into the city by bus. My manager, Kazu, led me through a line of pale, lanky models who held books larger than their waists. The girls chatted in foreign languages, smoked, texted and sized each other up.
I sat before three clients as they discussed my portfolio in Japanese, occasionally looking up to examine some part of my face. Kazu would chime in occasionally. One client snapped a photo of me, bowed and, in broken English said, “Okay, thank you for coming.”
Finally, Kazu dropped me off at the model apartment in Sangenjaya, a district near Shibuya. Overwhelmed and almost delusional from the 17-hour time difference, I struggled with my giant, red suitcase down a grim hallway. Illegible pamphlets in Japanese cluttered the door.
Inside, a young Russian girl, Anna, was the first to introduce herself. Her porcelain skin and large, blue eyes made her look nymph-like, distracting me from her nearly incomprehensible English. She showed me to my room which contained a single mattress and full-length mirror, spotted with childish stickers. Between her manicured fingers was a strange brown cigarette. She asked if I smoked. I didn’t, but I took it anyway.
Anna and I soon became close friends. She had been to Tokyo a year prior so she was familiar with the city. She was just 16. Our other roommate, Erika, was from Hungary. She was the oldest in the house at 19.
After spending most of my first week in a van, snaking through Tokyo traffic and attending nearly nine castings a day, the girls were ready for a night out. Still jet lagged, I agreed to go.
Anna’s on-and-off boyfriend, a Brazilian soccer player, picked us up in his matte black Porsche Cayenne with laced yellow rims. Alongside him sat Dmitry, an established Russian club promoter in Tokyo.
The night began with dinner. Models splashed and scooped out various squid bits and other mysterious edibles from one bountiful bowl. Amongst them sat Japanese men, bearing heavily tattooed arms. Everyone was smoking, drinking and enjoying themselves.
Afterwards, we were escorted to a nightclub, my first, and walked back to a VIP section with laminated notices reading, “Reserved for Models.” In this section everything was free: drinks, cigarettes, anything, if you knew who to ask.
While nursing a vodka orange, I found myself chatting with an older Japanese man who I recognized from dinner when Anna spotted me. She approached and, over the music, said, “Be very nice to this man. OK? But try to get away soon.” I didn’t understand. She emphasized to me in her uneven accent, “Be a nice girl baby, OK.” In an unspoken way, I understood and did as she said, only after he told me I looked just like his ex-girlfriend and I should take a trip to Italy with him.
As I got back to Anna, her eyes were wide. She told me, “Fiona, he is mafia! You have to be careful.” I brushed her off. I didn’t really believe her or his elaborate offers. More run-ins with this man, Jett, occurred. Eventually I found out Dmitry worked for Jett, and it wasn’t a coincidence that we kept encountering him.
His offers to take me out became more frequent and intense. Dmitry showed up at our Sangenjaya apartment and handed me his cell phone to talk to Jett. Our district was too far from central Tokyo to be “in the neighborhood.” I told Jett I had a boyfriend back home. He refused to care.
They both showed up to our apartment late one night. Anna convinced me that it was fine to go with them just to grab dinner. It was apparent in Jett’s driving he was temperamental. After a speedy ride in his Maserati, everyone sat around a low, Japanese table. The restaurant, famous for its view, looked out onto a warmly lit Tokyo Tower that was 40 floors high. Unable to enjoy the dazzling surroundings, Erika, Anna and I sat, tense.
Some delicately-placed amuse-bouche came out. Jett didn’t like it. He screamed in Japanese at the waiter and threw the plate at his midsection. Everyone became quiet. Conversation was cautiously coaxed again. For a moment Jett was casual until I politely refused yet another offer to Italy. His temper quickly flared.
He yelled, “She’s a bitch! She’s a bitch! This girl is a bitch!” The few guests around us stared. He continued shrilling obscenities in Japanese while Dmitry took my arm. Frightened, I looked back at Jett who was suddenly calm. Waiters bustled around him, apologizing profusely. All Dmitry said was “go,” and we were put in a taxi and sent to Roppongi. We knew this place and in the taxi felt safe.
After that night I avoided clubs that mafia members were known to frequent. All I knew about Jett and his “position” is what I was told and, those who I trusted in the city, assured me, Jett was dangerous and to be avoided.
I questioned my friendliness toward strangers. Why was it taken the wrong way? Still, something inside me was changing. The naiveté I came to Tokyo with was weakening and in its place grew confidence. Confidence in light of the experience I had been granted. I worked in Japan with experienced models and booked jobs for major companies and publications. I mingled with danger and didn’t care. I felt invincible. Packing to go back home, I found Mom’s card. I hadn’t listen to her. I was not safe during this trip. Not safe at all.
At 18, safety wasn’t my biggest priority. I couldn’t stop thinking about when I could leave Huntington Beach again. So I did. I was sent to Hong Kong in the summer of We knew this place and in the taxi felt safe.2011, after signing with a new agency, LA Models.
I spent the first few weeks becoming accustomed to the congested city. Unlike Japan, models in Hong Kong must navigate the city by map instead of being driven. During a time before my first smartphone, I learned to match the Chinese characters in my emails with the ones on the buildings.
I landed jobs shooting editorials for Elle, Harper’s Bazaar and other major Hong Kong publications. Photos of me appeared on covers of Chinese magazines and I booked national campaigns wearing Fendi, Lanvin, Valentino, Giorgio Armani and Chanel.
I was at the top of my game, but I felt frail—32, 23, 34 were the measurements I recited to clients. Still, agents encouraged me to lose centimeters and, with their advice, I was continuously booked for shoots.
By the summer of 2013, I was 21. I took a year off school to model in London, and two months later, I was headed to Seoul, South Korea. After another humbling flight across the Pacific, my agent, TJ, greeted me at Incheon Airport with a cup of coffee and cigarettes before settling me into another overcrowded and under-cleaned model apartment. Regardless of previous trips to Asia, my first step in Seoul and my first step in snow, was just as shocking and exciting as ever.
Life in the fifth-floor apartment began with four new foreign girls and boys to get to know. Sharing bunk beds, arguing over trash duties, spending countless hours in a van and making endless efforts to break language barriers became commonplace.
I knew these unspoken customs when it came to roommates and apartments. However, I learned early on some other rules. TJ was protective of his models and being older than the other girls, he asked me to take care of them. He told me about his arch nemesis in the city, a Russian-Korean man he called Bruce.
Bruce befriended his models and lured them into dangerous situations, starting with being paid to go to clubs. These warnings felt familiar. Only this time I knew not to brush off such counsel.
I became instantly close with my 18-year-old roommate, Alenka.The 5-foot-11-inch Ukrainian model was booked daily for jobs, but she wouldn’t return to our creaky bunk until 1 a.m. every night. She told me she was disappearing each night to meet with a Russian friend. Suspicious about her activities, I asked if I could join her. She laughed and said I wouldn’t enjoy it because he couldn’t speak English. Though cautious, Alenka finally agreed. She gave me a tight black dress to stash in my purse before we left and I wrinkled my eyebrows at her. This was a bad sign.
During the taxi ride into Gangnam, Alenka instructed me to cover my head with a scarf. She ordered the taxi to stop, paid and said “fast,” as we ran inside through a dark lobby and into another room. I could hardly see where we entered at the speed she was going. Once inside, I wasn’t sure where we were.
Everything was deep red and imitation Renaissance art hung above the couches. There were six other girls there smoking and drinking Americano. Alenka greeted her friend with two kisses, one on each cheek. I did the same. Even though I had just met him I knew who he was. It was Bruce, but he introduced himself to me as Dima.
I followed Alenka into the restroom. There she briefed me on the truth behind her nightly disappearances. She’d been having dinner with rich Korean business men. For this she was making a maximum of 1,000,000.00 won, the equivalent of $1,000 a night.She was doing this to support her family in Ukraine, who were struggling with a newborn—her little sister whom she adored.
I told Alenka to translate that I was only there to wait for her. “My lady, just try. You are so beautiful; all you have to do is some karaoke, make conversation, and drink if they tell you to drink,” Dima responded.
He made it sound harmless and Dima took my silence as acceptance. I found myself once again brushing off potential danger, giving into this attitude of living my life carelessly, without caution and, as my journal reads, ‘insanely.’
Hours later, someone entered and urgently told Dima something in Russian. I assumed a client had arrived as the girls began to pack up and Dima motioned us quickly into the next room. Inside, all of the girls stood in a line.
It was creepy, too similar to a model casting. One by one we introduced ourselves with fake names. It was my turn. “I’m Amanda. I am 20 and from the United States,” I said reluctantly. After the introductions, the client made no acknowledgements. Instead, he took three long minutes looking up and down the line. Embarrassed, he laughed and apologized, saying, “I don’t remember your names, but I would like three and six.” I didn’t get picked—I was more than relieved.
The girls who weren’t chosen went home. I had to wait for Alenka, she was number six and always chosen to stay, which didn’t surprise me. Alenka looked her age—young and animated, yet equipped with strong Slavic cheekbones and features. I waited with Dima for hours.
I never went back to that place, but I couldn’t stop Alenka. She explained that the opportunity to make that amount of cash in Ukraine was scarce. With little to no market for models, Alenka worked at a fast food restaurant while studying in school.
Luckily, her contract with TJ ended and she made it home safe. Although models at this establishment were merely having dinner with businessmen, it was rumored that Dima was up to worse activities elsewhere, selling drugs and selling girls who were willing to have sex with clients. Those rumors were all but confirmed when I returned to Seoul this past summer and asked a club promoter about Dima. He informed me that Dima was in prison carrying out a 40-year sentence. The promoter wouldn’t say exactly what Dima got arrested for, but I assume it had“I don’trememberyour namesbut I wouldlike threeand six.” something to do with his “businesses.”
After Seoul I had the choice to transfer schools and complete my degree at a university, or continue this typically short-lived career path. I believe highly in receiving an education; the dilemma I faced was timing. A modeling career, especially in Asia, usually ends around 25 years old.
After the introductions, the client made no acknowledgments. Instead, he took three long minutes looking up and down the line. Embarrassed he laughed and apologized, saying, “I don’t remember your names, but I would like three and six.” I didn’t get picked—I was more than relieved.
My family encouraged me to finish college rather than continue traveling, and listening to them was the wisest decision I’ve made. At 22, modeling came to a halt and in May a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Cal State Fullerton will be mine. That I owe to them.
I was able to live some of my defining years as an artistically fulfilled young woman traveling abroad and living a dream, despite its dangers. I wouldn’t trade the experiences, or the woman I was shaped into while working as a professional model in an industry filled with imperfection.