When I moved to London to try my luck at modeling overseas, I had to get a work visa. I was the one who initially brought up the issue, because I'm an adult and knew the consequences of working illegally. I couldn't have done it without my agency, who helped me with all the paperwork I needed. My Visa cost about $150 and it was good for an entire year.
I can't imagine a 16-year-old girl being shipped off to China even knowing what a work visa is, much less the guidelines for work visas in different countries. She's probably assuming her agency has everything under control -- why wouldn't she? I've met models from other countries working in America who were either waiting for their visas or, you know, "working on it." It's not convenient for either party, and can be expensive depending on which country you're in, so it's definitely not a priority for some agencies.
I look like a serial killer in my visa!
My agency in NYC was adamant about getting visas before even sending girls on castings, which is how all agencies should be. But when you're constantly getting shipments of models overseas to work abroad, I can see how the visa issue could be swept under the rug.
Last week, a sting operation was set up in Beijing at a fake casting. The models who showed up without proper visas were arrested and taken into custody. Their passports and cell phones were confiscated, too. They'll most likely be deported, but will have to remain in custody for at least another week, according to The Business Model. Some girls were asked for addresses of model apartments, and agencies are telling their models to not answer their doors.
Apparently China has a stricter law for models obtaining work visas. Usually countries have "entertainer" visas that are relatively easy to attain, but China does not have a category for models. The agencies in China tell their models to get "tourist" visas and to say they're just "visiting" friends upon entry.
Even I was intimidated when I first went to work in London. The first day I went into my agency, they sent me on a handful of castings. They showed me a map and I stood there staring at it, looking at colored lines and names like "Piccadilly" that I had only associated with Mary Poppins until then. Thank God I understood the language, or I would have just started crying from anxiety.
It took me an hour to find my first casting, and my iPhone was on the fritz so I had to turn it off as much as possible to reserve my ability to look at a map. Luckily the casting was at Net-A-Porter, which was inside the Westfield Shopping Mall, conveniently next to an Apple store. After the casting, where I had to stand in my underwear with wet hair from the rain, trying my hardest to look like an actual model, I walked to the Apple store and plugged my phone in while saying, "No, thanks, I'm just looking," to employees every five minutes.
While waiting forever for my phone to charge, I Googled "How to use the London Underground," hoping the cute British guy next to me, who looked like Ian Curtis from Joy Division, would notice and whisk me away to the rest of my castings while saying things like, "You look knackered, let me ease your collywobbles by personally guiding you around." Then later we would probably make out and have some rumpy-pumpy. My fantasies are real weird, guys.
The point is, if I was overwhelmed working in London at 28, I can only imagine how lost and scared a 16-year-old would feel. Can you imagine flying to a foreign country by yourself as a teenager? They have agents to guide them, but they're ultimately looking out for their own bottom line.
A British millionaire was just arrested for allegedly keeping over 10 models captive in Spain and fathering children with a handful of them. This 56-year-old man, Shoja Shojai, lured young, prospective models in London to his mansion in Spain with promises of helping with their modeling careers. He told the young girls he was an oil tycoon and friends with Barack Obama.
One kidnapped model said Shojai emotionally and physically abused them and forced them to have sex with him. Police found drugs and rohypnol (date-rape drug) in the mansion, too. He told the police the women worked for him and consented to sex with him. The women complained of having headaches and being forced to take antidepressants.
Young models are being taken advantage of all the time. They are promised money and success while being sexually exploited. While some of them do make great money, they're often far away from their families and extremely vulnerable. If a persuasive older man claims to be able to help with your career, and you're an impressionable 16-year-old, how do you know who to trust?
I hope this work visa scandal influences agencies to properly hire models and only allow them to work legally, especially models under 18 years old who need protection from the industry.