Timothy Greenfield-Sanders’ recent documentary About Face covered the first generation of supermodels, relating the stories of how they overcame drugs, racism, and the stigma of what was once a fairly disreputable profession, on their way to becoming the first fashion models to be household names. But an industry that was transformed at its highest level by the likes of Carol Alt and Jerry Hall is still—at least at the ground level—as corrupt and exploitative as ever. David Redmon and Ashley Sabin’s Girl Model documents the modeling business at its disquieting entry level by following a 13-year-old Russian girl named Nadya who’s recruited by a former model named Ashley and flown to Tokyo to begin her career. No one is around to watch over her except other teenage Russians already living in Japan—and occasionally Redmon and Sabin, whom Nadya pleads to on-camera when she can’t figure out how to get from the airport to her agency, and when she can’t get her cell phone to call home.
Girl Model tags along with Nadya as she fumbles her way from casting session to casting session, with no money and no way to talk to the people who are supposed to be paying her; and Redmon and Sabin interview Ashley, too, as she jets around the world and relaxes at her fabulous mini-mansion, talking about how much she hated her own days as a model, and how conflicted she feels about convincing these kids that some non-guaranteed payoff is worth the grind. Girl Model seems reasonably fair-minded about Nadya’s situation. On the one hand, the glamour of the big city—and the prospect of one day making the kind of money Ashley has—is an improvement on the tiny house and the cracked, muddy street where Nadya was raised. On the other hand, it’s grossly unfair for her to be bound to a contract she can’t read, which states that her employment can be terminated—and that she can be sent home in debt to the agency—if her measurements change even one centimeter. Girl Model shows that even though some models make big bucks, the global economy remains the same as it ever was: Those with nothing are seduced by the prospect of something, such that they hesitate to complain, lest they end up with less than nothing.