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It sounds like something straight out of MTV: Take a bunch of young and beautiful people from all walks of life and move them into shared living quarters. Put them in stressful situations. Have them compete against each other. Typical reality show formula, right?
That’s basically what life is like as a model living in agency apartments around the world: zero privacy, shared bedrooms, exorbitant rent rates, and underage roommates that speak minimal English are all the norm.
For the past six years, I have been modeling on-and-off in Asia. I started in my late teens, modeling during my summer breaks – my pale skin, almond eyes and thin frame were popular with the clientele – and, throughout the years, earned enough money to put myself through undergrad. Now, a few years out of university, it’s how I earn my keep.
While a lot of models working the “Top Tier” markets of New York, London, Paris and Milan balk at Asian fashion markets that aren’t Tokyo, I’ve been quite happy living and working in the various cities (Seoul, Taipei, Shanghai, Kuala Lumpur, to name a few) of the Far East. It’s exposed me to a ton of different cultures I never would have experienced otherwise. I learnt a lot about myself in the process and, best of all, I was able to work with some of amazing creative teams. Plus, I’ve made some great friends along the way.
There are a lot of downsides to modeling, and living in a model apartment is a big one. Until I began traveling abroad, I never shared a room with anyone. When I ventured out to Europe for work (these past few years, I’ve been based in London), I always found my own accommodations without the help of an agency. It’s only when I’m on contract in Asia that I begrudgingly agree to live in the dreaded agency apartment.
It seems like an agency apartment might make life easier (there's no apartment-hunt in a strange country where English isn’t the first language), but the reality is that it just makes for a lot of crazy experiences.
To be totally fair, most of the models I’ve lived with have been perfectly respectable and the apartments have been fairly decent (if a little cramped). Apartment drama usually happens over dirty dishes left in the sink or when someone “accidentally” drinks someone else’s milk.
I have never lived in a model apartment that had an infestation problem (cockroaches are common in warmer Asian climates, and I know some models that have had problems with bedbugs and mice). My agency in Shanghai has a massive apartment, with a cleaning lady that comes every day. In Kuala Lampur, our apartment had a small gym and a swimming pool in the complex. But these are exceptions and life sharing two bathrooms between 10 girls can be tedious. The best way to describe model apartment living is that it’s one part boarding school, one part summer camp, and one part "Big Brother."
Almost all model apartments in Asia that I’ve lived in have had a set of rules, however, some agencies aren’t as strict with them as others. Typically, smoking isn’t allowed inside (sometimes enforced, but not often), alcohol can only be consumed by those of age (never enforced) and drugs are strictly prohibited (no comment). Girls who are underage aren’t allowed to go to nightclubs and must be home by midnight (HA!); no physical fighting allowed (put in place after that one time two girls duked it out over the dishes…); all conflict must be resolved using the English language (i.e., NOT Russian or Brazilian Portuguese); and if you break a door, clog the toilet or smash the blender you have to pay for it out of your earnings.
If the apartment is co-ed, or the agency has a separate boys apartment nearby, there is sometimes an implied rule about boys not being allowed in girls rooms, however, it’s more of a gray area.
In the past, I've shared a room with a fellow Canadian male model and, truth be told, he was probably the best roommate I’ve ever had. Most models prefer living in co-ed apartments anyways, as having testosterone around to balance out all the estrogen makes for healthier living. It’s also safer having strapping, young men escort you to the grocery store, corner shop or nightclub when the sun goes down.
When I was living in Kuala Lumpur last year, I shared a connecting bathroom with two other girls and three Brazilian male models in our agency’s apartment -- one of them happened to have been a Mr. Brazil candidate before he started modeling. It was normal in the morning to wake up to Raphael rapping along to 2 Chainz while showering (“At least he’s learning English,” I told Marcella, my Dutch roommate), or Lucas listening to his weird hymn music before bed (Marcella and I suspected he might have been part of a cult back home.)
Bruno, the former pageant contestant, quickly became my good friend; I’d lend him makeup remover and zit cream, and we’d go for runs together around KLCC center when life got stressful.
“You know, you’re really pretty,” he told me one day, as we were on our way to a casting. “You look good without makeup on. Some girls I know, models, they look like shit without, it but you look really good.”
“Oh, gee, thanks,” I replied, leaving out the whole part where I had spent 40 minutes in the bathroom before we left the house, perfecting my no-makeup makeup, with about 20 different beauty products.
I’ll never forget the first model apartment I ever lived in. It was my first time traveling to Asia and I had signed on for a three-month contract in Seoul, South Korea. I shared a two-bedroom apartment, bathroom, kitchenette (ovens are not common in Asia) and minuscule “living area” with four other girls -- three beds in one room and two beds in another.
And while the location in trendy Gangnam was great, the apartment was tiny -- far too small to accommodate five teenage girls. I’m fairly certain the room containing the three beds was meant to be the apartment’s living room, and the agency just decided to make it a second bedroom and cram three single beds in. More girls in town, more money for the agency, right?
It was probably the smallest model apartment -- or any apartment -- I’ve ever lived in. I was lucky this happened on my first trip abroad and I didn’t know any different at the time. I was charged 800 USD per month (deducted from my expenses, of course; this is also another way agencies all over the world make money off their models, through model apartment rent) to share the double room with another Canadian model -- a room smaller than my parents' closet back home. Fortunately we both got along, and my first stay in a model apartment was fairly uneventful.
Representing, booking and hiring models of legal age is a huge issue within the industry worldwide, but especially so in Asia, where the cutesy kawaii look is largely popular. Dozens of underage models travel, live and work alone every single year in Asia, with little adult supervision during their downtime.
I’ve lived with 14-year-olds, and have met girls traveling as young as 13. Some have left high school or are studying by correspondence, while they work full-time, learning English on the fly and striving to keep an Asian sample size (0-2).
Occasionally, parents will accompany their teenage children abroad. (This is mostly common practice with North American models who are under the age of eighteen.) But, from my experience, many agencies in Asia find it irksome to accommodate parents, even if they are paying out of their pockets for a bed in the model apartment. That’s one less bed available for an earning model, and nobody likes having a stage mom around (although all the parents I’ve ever met abroad have been lovely).
Some agencies do have a manager or a booker living in the model apartment with girls for extra supervision, especially if they tend to bring in a lot of girls under the age of 18. But that doesn’t stop typical model-teenager shenanigans -- building forts in the living room with the spare bedding, stealing a fire extinguisher and spraying it all over the hall, and writing on the bedroom walls -- from happening.
When I was in Taipei, Taiwan a few years ago on contract, almost all of the girls were under the age of 19. That’s not unusual for that market, but some of the antics the girls got up to were down right weird.
I came home one night from a job, absolutely exhausted after shooting 200 outfits in the span of nine hours. There was some commotion and giggling going on in the hall outside my bedroom, but I ignored it and I plucked zillions of bobby pins from my hair. There was a knock on my door and Staci, an eighteen year old Russian model (who, to this day, is one of the sweetest girls I’ve ever met) came into our shared room.
“Laura,” she said, pronouncing my name as “Loooooraa”, like so many of the Russian/Ukrainian/Belarus girls do. “Do you know how to…” she started making a motion with her right thumb and forefinger onto her left bicep.
“Staci, I’m really tired,” I replied dismissively, not up for a game of ESL charades. “Can you pull up Google translate on your computer if you don’t know the words in English?”
“No,” Staci replied, looking frustrated. “I mean…” She shouted back towards the hallway in Russia and two other girls came in. Olga, another seventeen-year-old who had arrived the day before from Ukraine, came into our room with a couple of other Eastern Bloc girls and a loaded syringe in her hand.
What. The. Fuck.
Staci and Olga now had my full attention. “What is that?” I ask slowly, sitting up.
All of the sudden, there’s a lot of jabbering in between the group girls (all in Russian, I presume), myself understanding absolutely nothing except how strong my phobia of needles really is.
“She… She needs injection,” Staci finally said over the other girls, stammering a bit in her broken English. “Do you… can you… administer?” The girls all went silent and looked at me.
I tried to find my words and put together a coherent sentence that Staci and the other Russians could understand, while simultaneously wondering how I get myself into these kinds of situations.
“No. Nope,” I finally replied, my eyes fixated on the unidentifiable liquid inside the syringe.
“No, Staci, I do not know how to administer an injection.”
“So, you cannot…” More injection motioning made towards her left bicep.
“No. I absolutely cannot.”
I’m tempted to shout something along the lines of what Staci had said, "HOW THE HELL WOULD I KNOW, OF ALL PEOPLE, HOW TO ADMINISTER AN INJECTION??? And what is that needle doing here anyway??? How did Olga get it into the country??? Did I mention I have a phobia of needles??? GET THAT THING OUT OF MY SIGHT NOW!!!" But all I did was sit there in silence as the girls left my room, trying to make sense of what just happened.
In the end, I think Staci was the one who gave Olga her injection.
I eventually did piece together that Olga had been diagnosed with some kind of thyroid disorder (or, maybe, diabetes?) a few days before leaving hometown for Taipei, and didn’t have a lot of experience administering her medication without help. I was quick to inform the girls the following morning that, from now on, everyone should know how to administer their own medication before leaving their country. But, really, shouldn’t her parents be the ones on top of that?
I didn’t bother bringing it up with the agency. Nobody was breaking any apartment rules, after all.