Doc 'Girl Model' investigates the dark side of the catwalk

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Hopefuls line up for a cattle call in 'Girl Model.'

The recent outcry over a "Team Supermodel" strut showing off British fashion during the Olympics' closing ceremony underlined a dichotomy: as much as people want the conventional glamour of the moment, they don't want to feel guilty about it, i.e. have it exposed by direct comparison to the purportedly natural physical beauty of athletes.

Yet there are parallels between these two groups, particularly in the realm of concerns about weight and drugs. Plus, being a sports star and a model are both roles that allow the performer to actually merit being "entitled." Everyone wants to be special — though of course that only works if other people aren't.

The disturbingly instructive new documentary Girl Model (opening Fri/14) makes a good case for not encouraging such desires in your child, because the likelihood is that someone will come along to exploit that desire, convincingly promise them fame, then leave them worse off than before, with debts accrued from the dream that didn't come true. "The first secret to a successful modeling career is to start modeling at five or ten years old," says an emcee at a cattle-call showcase early on in David Redmond and Ashley Sabin's film. It's Russia, where the relatively new capitalism trickles down even less than here, so the families are even more eager to turn little Svetlana into a moneymaker. But that way lies madness, or at least deceit and disappointment.

Plucked from a couple hundred pretty, rail-thin girls — the lucky ones are reassuringly told, "We'll put you on a diet" — 13-year-old wide-eyed blonde Nadya Vall is yanked from her rural Siberian village and mother and sent to Japan, where she fits a general type sought there. One that is willowy, "innocent," but mostly just plain young. The younger the better, as talent scout Ashley Arbaugh tells us, qualifying that it's not her taste, but she's learned to see through the clients' eyes. An ex-model herself (who "hated it," and is seen in footage she videotaped of that career years earlier when she was 18), Ashley gives off disillusioned, compromised vibes. She constantly seems on the verge of confessing some horrible truth about the business, but is held back by good taste or the Russian mafia or her own maternal instincts toward her charges. It takes a while for us to realize that she's a user and a hypocrite — not a buffer between the girls and harsh reality but a key part of the problem herself.

Nadya has never traveled abroad and speaks no languages but her own. She arrives in Tokyo (an overwhelming place for even the best-prepared visitor) alone; no one shows up to meet her. Of course she's homesick — she's a child. But worse than her fast, unkind education and personal sacrifice is that there appears to be no reward. A Japanese agency admits that there's little use for such "new faces" sans portfolio here, even though he and the Russian agency (whose flamboyant chief simpers "Just like Noah saved all the animals, I'm trying to save these girls ... in a way for me it's a religious matter," sounding about as convincing as a Fox pundit) promise their young recruits exactly the opposite.

Needless to say, Nadya ends up owing rather than making money. Meanwhile Ashley lounges around the immaculate, expansive, coldly all-white house her job as middleman has earned (and which she's about to sell at a profit). She has two plastic baby dolls she keeps around, and shows off snapshots she's surreptitiously taken of models' extremities. She is creepy, never more so than when she visits Nadya and a roommate at their flat and is as uneasy playing the best-friend-slash-minder as they are having her there. At one point we learn she has two stomach growths that must be operated on, and rather than feeling sympathy, we wonder if this is some cancerous manifestation of her having exchanged the role of exploited for exploiter.

At the end she's straight-facedly telling a new group of parents "Every model has success in Japan, unlike other markets where they might go into debt. They never do in Japan." She's even picked another 13-year-old protegee from the crowd — one that, like Nadya, will probably be fired once she's been snagged in debt for gaining as little as a centimeter in waist, hips, or bust. This is the point in a Harry Potter movie or other fantasy where the wicked witch would be surrounded by tell-tale black smoke, or reveal her true ugly face. But this is the real world, and Ashley stays pretty on the outside.

GIRL MODEL opens Fri/14 in Bay Area theaters.

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