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Golden Dreams, Broken Promises
March 23, 2013  | By Eric Gould

It's a bit of a Cinderella story: A young Siberian farm girl — one of a hundred girls auditioning for an international modeling agency — gets whisked off to Tokyo for her shot at becoming a fashion model. She is promised $8,000 in work; her family agrees and sends her off into the unknown.

As you might guess, it's not necessarily a happily-ever-after tale. On Sunday, March 24 at 10 p.m. ET (check local listings) the PBS series POV (Point of View) presents Girl Model, the story of aspiring model Nadya, as the final installment of its 25th anniversary season.

The 2011 film, by A. Sabin and David Redmon (Kamp Katrina, 2007), is a signature POV verité-style piece, a quiet, evocative work with the main players telling things from their point of view, without narration. While Nadya is part of the main focus of the film, equally up front is Ashley Arbaugh (right), the scout for the Switch Modeling Agency. She travels across Russia, her assigned territory, looking for young girls to send off to Tokyo. Tokyo is Arbaugh's main market of expertise. She knows Japanese taste, and understands what the Japanese market wants to see.

Apparently advertisers crave young, innocent, pre-adolescent models. Girls of 13 are told to say they are the marginally acceptable age of 15. Says Arbaugh, a former model herself, "the business is obsessed with youth. And especially, my business in Japan. You can't be young enough. And youth is beautiful. Because there's luminosity, something in the skin … and that's what my eye has been trained to see from Japan."

The switch here for Arbaugh is not just the title of the agency for which she works. As a young aspiring model she was taken to Japan in 1999, thousands of miles away from her family. She had little money, and found herself stuck in a country where she could not speak the language. Now she is charged with scouting new models and bringing them to the agency.

"I hated it, so much," she says. "I've never been so down. I remember there were days when I literally would stay in my apartment, and stay in my bed all day. I was so depressed. All I could think of was, why am I really doing this, what am I going to do with my life, when can I go home?"

Arbaugh's fate then is Nadya's today. Nadya (left) and the other girls are transported to Tokyo with the promise of glamour and money, but as the documentary reveals, their modeling contracts don't always produce. And the contracts, all written in the agencies favor, can be terminated immediately if the girls even gain one centimeter in the waist, hips or bust.

The girls, miserable, lonely and realizing that the "guaranteed" money might not be there after all, start to slip into debt to the agency, which charges the girls for everything from the pictures displayed in their portfolios and phone calls home to rent and food in hyper-expensive Tokyo. The girls joke that they have chocolates and biscuits, and those fattening luxuries will be their ticket back home. They can always eat to get out.

Girl Model starts and finishes with an ominous tone that suggests things can get much worse for young girls working so far from home. But the basic topic — the industry of youth-obsessed beauty — is tough and sobering enough.

Says Rachel, 23, another former model and shepherd for young girls in Tokyo, "who is to blame? We can't blame the girls because they're being sent. We can't blame the families, because maybe they're in need. Can we blame the agency that will take them on because there is a client that will take them? Can we blame the clients that pretend, or won't know, actually, how old they are? They all play blind, really."

Maybe the only part left out of Rachel's analysis, in the end, is the public — the ones paying for all those fashion magazines. Their eyes are wide open. And their thirst for youth is insatiable.

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