East meets East – Slavic models in Singapore

?Eastern European models seeking to build an international career are making Singapore their first stop in their Asian tours. FashionBrain finds out why.

Head backstage at any fashion production in Singapore, and you are likely to see a group of beautiful Caucasian youngsters chatting about Prague and pierogis. Now you’d be forgiven for thinking that these jet-setting catwalkers are insouciant twenty-somethings, but the truth is most of them aren’t even old enough to buy a pack of cigs legally in Singapore.

These teens are here because Singapore is fast gaining a reputation as a fantastic stepping stone for ambitious models who are dead set on becoming the next Giselle. A cover on the Singapore edition of Harper’s Bazaar might be exactly what they need to persuade Prada to sign them up. And after that, it’s goodbye to your hick one-cinema-only small town in Slovakia and hello New York – bright lights, big city and all that jazz.

That’s exactly what happened to Kristina Chrastekova, an Elite model who came to Singapore for a three-month 2000. Kristina C, as she is now known worldwide, was featured in all the major fashion magazines here, including Elle and Harper’s Bazaar. Having built her portfolio here, she then headed off to New York where she took Madison Avenue by storm, becoming the first model to be the face of both Prada and Miu Miu in the same season.

Inspired by rags-to-riches stories like Kristina’s, other beautiful Eastern Europeans are heading to Singapore in the hopes of getting their careers a glamour makeover. It is the natural destination for those looking to build a strong portfolio since some of the best photographers and stylists in the region are based here.

Valina KuchtováCelebrity photographer Geoff Ang agrees. “Singapore has a very big pool of talent all the time – we’re like a hub for Asia,” he says. “Models like making us their first stop to build a strong book, then they travel on to Bangkok, Hong Kong, Korea and Japan.”

Another attraction for models is the opportunity to work with Western fashion brand names like Chanel and Gucci, which would give them more designer cred when they head to fashion capitals like Paris and New York.

“It’s definitely easier to make money in Asia than in Europe,” says 17-year-old Valina Kuchtová. “Here there are many jobs and not many models, while in Europe there are many models and not many jobs.”

Celia Teh, founder and head of Elite Models in Singapore agrees. She often approaches attractive local girls to consider modelling, but most of them turn her down. “There are not enough good local models,” she says, explaining why her agency has started flying in models from Eastern Europe.

A model since the tender age of 14, Valina says that modelling has been her ticket out of the land of hardship she grew up in. Hailing from a small town called Litvinov (population 20,000) in the Czech Republic, she says she wants a better life than most of her peers. “Litvinov is in the country,” she adds. “It’s very poor.”

In the Czech Republic, only about two out of ten people her age have jobs, and most of her friends in Litvinov are either building their career stacking shelves in supermarkets or toiling away in the village’s nearby chemical factory.

“Most young people finish school and find that there is no job for them. It’s very difficult to find a job in the Czech Republic, especially after what just happened,” she says, referring to the recent flood that all but destroyed the city of Prague. “It’s really bad, everyone is really depressed. It was a disaster for everybody.” Even her model agency, Unique One, located at the city’s centre, had to shut down for a few weeks after the flood.

Michal Derara

All the models we interviewed agreed that Singapore is a lucrative gig for them. “I get paid more here than in the Czech Republic,” says 22-year-old Michal Derara (above). He adds that modelling offers him and his peers a glamorous life that’s a welcome escape from ravaged Prague. The same goes for 18-year-old Veronika who echoes Michal’s sentiments. Modelling affords her – a young girl from the village of Topolcane (“we’re very small, not rich”) – the chance to see snazzy locales and exotic destinations like Taiwan, Greece, Madrid and Milan.

For Valina, the greatest difference between Singapore and her hometown is that “Singapore is very big. It’s hard to find things.” Still, she tries as much as she can to take buses to get around even if it means getting lost often. “As a model, I get paid much more than my friends at home; about 10, 20 times more, but I’m trying to save money,” she reveals. Her ambition is to save enough to study fashion in a university in Italy so that she can fulfil her dream of becoming a stylist.

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Much of Valina’s time is spent in Asia where she has worked for the likes of Chanel in Taiwan, Harper’s Bazaar in Hong Kong and Elle in Bangkok. Suffice to say, her job keeps her away from home most of the time.

“It’s difficult for my mother. She’s proud of me but she’s also sad that I’m not that little girl anymore. The younger girls in high school, they bitch about me. They say that when I’m abroad, I live like a prostitute, that I sleep with the designers. But my mother says that’s because they’re jealous.”

She adds that she’s always faithful to her boyfriend, a soccer player she met in Hong Kong. Though she’s only 17, all the travelling she’s done and having had to fend for herself in many ways has made her wise beyond her years. “I don’t really get along so well with teenagers my age. I find it easier to talk to my friends who are older, who are starting jobs and having their own families.”

So what is it about Eastern European models that makes them so successful in Singapore? After all, Caucasian faces are everywhere. Models from the United States and Australia land on our shores every day, each as gorgeous as the other.

“They tend to have darker features, brown eyes, dark hair,” says Celia, which makes them slightly more identifiable to an Asian audience as opposed to say, a blonde bombshell.

Kenneth Goh, fashion editor of Elle in Singapore, adds, “Their mix of fairness and darkness in their features makes them look slightly exotic and they have the advantage of looking both European and pan-Asian at the same time.”

Photographer Geoff Ang agrees. “They have a look that looks good even when they’re not posing,” he explains, adding that he likes photographing them just standing or sitting casually, in a very incidental style. “I like their angelic quirkiness”.

Ultimately, what makes the Eastern European models stand out is their professionalism. “Work attitude is everything,” says Calvin Cheng, Elite’s head of the Asia-Pacific region. “You look at models, and they all look like clothes hangers.” At the end of the day, there are a vast number of pretty faces out there and what gives one model a competitive edge over the plethora of others is a professional work attitude.

Elle’s Kenneth Goh is of the opinion that stylists in Singapore find it easier to work with Eastern European models. He quips: “The Australian and US models are used to special treatment abroad, so our more casual approach to shoots surprises them. No air-con location vans, no director’s chairs, no special catering. We simply don’t have the budget to spoil them!” In this regard, Eastern European models who come from humbler backgrounds don’t have such high expectations of glitz and good food.

“They don’t complain and are easy to work with. They’re very professional, don’t throw tantrums, and don’t get too friendly like the Aussie girls who keep going, ‘let’s have a drink after the shoot’.”

That’s one example Kristina C has set for her fellow Slavs: in the cut-throat world of fashion, making it big means assuming some model behaviour.

The article originally appeared in Twenty4Seven