Behind the Veil of Glamour: The Life of Foreign Models in China

Behind the Veil of Glamour: The Life of Foreign Models in China
Aug 22, 2013 By

Editor’s note: The following article, which first appeared on, follows a couple of foreign models based in Guangzhou, illustrating their reasons for coming to China, glimpses of their daily routine and their opinions of the modeling industry in China. Far from leading a glamorous lifestyle showered with designer brands and money, many foreign models in China actually have a pretty tough time. From lack of legal documents to working for days on end, this article offers a tiny glimpse into the lives of the foreign faces that grace Chinese billboards.  

They’ve got graceful figures, blonde hair and blue eyes; they’ve got smoky eyes and turn heads wherever they go. They wear the latest fashion or sport the most expensive accessories; they can be seen at busy malls and luxury hotels, on magazine covers and at glitzy events. They are beautiful, fashionable and inspirational to many young girls – they are of course models.

But the reality is that being a model is far from easy. Fame and money doesn’t just fall into their laps.  Some foreign models in China are blessed in that they had adequate luck and talent to live a life many would envy. However, the majority of foreign models live a life similar to most other underprivileged workers in China’s cities, with some living in inner-city dwellings where a third of their income is spent on rent and the daily diet consists of a bowl of dumplings and a bottle of coke.

Models have to travel across the country for work, rushing about within unfamiliar cities. If they want to find a job on their own, they often have to travel to remote areas of the city, taking numerous subway lines and buses and sometimes even hitching a motorbike ride to get to their destination. They are often under immense pressure. Once they sign a contract, many times the official salary is not enough to live on let alone to raise a family so many models find part-time jobs on the side to make ends meet. They frequently have to wear summer clothes in the middle of the freezing winter, posing for shots for eight or nine hours a day. And in the summer, they’re wrapped up in layers of winter clothing and expected to look comfortable and at ease.

60% of foreign models work illegally

Before they arrive for work in China, foreign models must get a valid work and residence permit. In reality though, most end up getting a three month tourist visa and work illegally. After three months they pack up and leave.

According to one industry insider, the modeling industry is extremely tough. “Regardless whether it’s a client or an agency, they constantly want to see new faces. Therefore, none of them are willing to issue the correct paper work.” 60% of all foreign models working in China are reportedly illegal and living under the constant fear of being caught and deported.

Some make 30,000 RMB a month; others not so much

“You think our job is really exciting and that we live luxurious lives. But in reality I have to travel to three or four cities in one day which is very annoying, or do promotional events that I think are horrible – that’s just the job,” says Russian model Nadya at a commercial event in Dongguan.  At the beginning, modeling work gave her confidence and money but over time, it started to swallow up her time and energy. Now she considers herself lucky if she can even squeeze one hour into her day for doing things she genuinely likes like listening to music or taking photos.

Nadya is not the only one who feels like this. Joy from India complains about the irregularity of their work routine and the lack of standards in the industry.  They also feel like they have no security in their jobs. Joy comes from a big family in India. Her mother is unemployed and the whole family relies on the father to sustain the five children. After finishing high school, Joy couldn’t continue her education and ended up working in a bar. It was there that she was spotted by a model agent. “The agency was very small and didn’t offer professional training or professional agents. The modeling industry in India is not developed but my family needed support and there was no way of making money there”. After speaking to a friend Joy decided to leave India for Guangzhou. “There is a big market in Guangzhou and many job opportunities when a new season begins because many brands want foreign models to advertise their new lines.”

Working for 34 hours straight

In the make-up room, Nadya is sitting in front of the mirror caked in make-up. Under the light however, Nadya’s fatigue still shines through. “I worked three shows today and have just come back from Shenzhen. I haven’t had time to remove the make-up from the last show. I’m so sleepy and tired. I don’t even get five hours of sleep a day.” While Nadya sits, the hair stylist fiddles with her hair. Nadya’s blond hair looks dull and dry from all the straightening, curling and dying it’s been through; but after generously applying  hair spray it suddenly looks fresh and shiny again. A few minutes later she gets called to get ready to come on stage. This is her first time appearing on a TV show. Despite not liking commercial events, Nadya thinks such gigs could be good for building up her profile and becoming more recognizable. Only when everyone knows her, can she slowly start transitioning into the fields she really likes like singing or designing.

Joy on the other hand doesn’t care too much about fame. She just wants to earn more money. She doesn’t care about only having five to six hours of rest each day. “Three shows in one day is nothing,” Joy says. “I once worked for seven consecutive days and didn’t rest for 34 hours.”

Modeling in China changes lives

Nadya is half Russian, half German. Before her fifth birthday, Nadya enjoyed a comfortable family life – both her parents loved music and her father would play guitar while her mother sang along. But things changed drastically for the family when the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90s. “Many people found new opportunities after the collapse but not my family. We just became poorer and poorer.” Nadya’s father then took to the bottle and became depressed and violent. Her mother couldn’t handle it and left, but died of cancer when Nadya was 14.” Nadya lacked confidence and didn’t think she was beautiful. There was nobody in her life to prop her up. “I couldn’t see a future in Russia,” says Nadya. “In Russian ‘Nadya’ means ‘hope’ so I had to find the hope within me and change my life.” When Nadya was discovered by a model agent, she immediately seized the opportunity.

It was only after moving to China that Nadya discovered she could be liked and that people could be so friendly. “I found confidence here. I found myself and changed who I was. You could say that Chinese people’s acceptance and love made me love myself and become a better person. China is my second mother and father.”

In contrast, for Joy modeling in Guangzhou has mainly changed her family. “My life here is pretty much the same as in India, but I make more money here which has improved the lives of my family members. My brother is going to school, my sister can wear beautiful adornments and my dad now has a massage chair.” Joy says she has to get as many modeling jobs as possible. The more people know her, the more likely people will hire her. She knows a lot of models, many who come from good backgrounds and have the privilege of travelling and working at the same time. But joy can only look at these people with envy. “I want to use the time other models spend on travelling to get extra work.”

Because 50% of her income goes to the model agency, Joy doesn’t have much left over at the end of the month after paying for daily expenses. “My income isn’t stable. In a good month I can earn 10-20,000 RMB, while other times I may only make a couple of hundred. Most of the time though, I earn 2000-3000 RMB. My family wants to build a house so I have to earn more.”


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Keywords: foreign models in China modelling industry in China


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I want to work as a model

Jun 10, 2022 18:46 Report Abuse



Diversification is the key to turning a sour situation sweet. Many people have their struggles. Complaining will not get the problems that many face solved. I feel for anyone who is in a situation involving a blindsided contract or furthermore the promise of glitter concluding to the reality of gloom. Reservation and working with clever maneuverability is a key factor for models getting placed in positions where they are sought after. It's who you know and how to utilize the connections one has that yields results. This is the case in anything... but what do I know... I'm just stating my opinion...

Sep 03, 2013 13:57 Report Abuse



expatlife26, I hope your online character doesn't reflect your real-life counterpart. You should really show more respect to the country you live in and its people. Numerous times you've made derogatory remarks about Chinese women and provided a lot of stereotyping and generalizations that seem quite unfounded. You seem like a very bitter person and maybe it's time for you to take a good hard look at yourself and what you've become. Just some friendly advice. And no, I'm neither Chinese nor a woman!

Aug 30, 2013 12:35 Report Abuse



Ah, the classic "attack is the best defence" move. I made a comment about your remarks and you immediately strike back by asking me how long I've been living here, trying to get on top by showing you have more experience and knowledge. Mmmm. Nice one son.

Sep 03, 2013 14:51 Report Abuse



I wasn't trying to attack you or your point of view, I was just curious. When I first got here I feel like I made a lot of excuses for people's behavior so hey I might have written the same thing.

Sep 04, 2013 10:32 Report Abuse



I just wasted two minutes of my life reading this article and another 30-seconds writing a response. Oh...such a boring life I have!

Aug 29, 2013 20:47 Report Abuse



I will never get back the time I wasted reading this article. All foreigners must obtain a valid working visa before working in China. Hundreds of foreigners work illegally and many doing jobs that would actually benefit the future development of the country like teaching and encouraging investment. A model cannot complain about having to work 34 hours straight if that is what she signed up for the same way a farmer cannot complain about having to plough a field at midday. It is what it is. Working or living in a new country will always change someone's lives. This article was meant to bring its readers to sympathize with foreign models. Why should they? These are the same women who shout at service workers and look down on everyone who doesn't have the 'blonde' hair and blue eyes. Although it is true that the Chinese are mentally wired to consider these traits as the essence of real beauty, I don't see the reason why these 'models' can't act humbly and show some decency and respect, especially when they know that back in their native countries, most of them aren't even considered average looking. At the end of the day, money is more important to magazines and agencies so even if you have the palest blonde hair and piercing blue eyes, if you're not talented and smart enough to handle you affairs and your rights, you will be passed over and cheated. No use looking for pity afterwards.

Aug 25, 2013 12:59 Report Abuse



Probably should have mentioned this before but I'm a girl.

Aug 27, 2013 16:24 Report Abuse



I see where you are coming from. Me and my girlfriend are foreign ESL teachers in Shanghai (kind of it's own "bubble" I suppose) and I think we have a much better standard of living than we could possibly have in either of our countries for the time being. This is especially considering that the work we do is really not demanding- we get overtime just for teaching more than 69 hours per month, which is more than enough for the living standard- we have a luxury apartment, though not close to downtown. I wish sometimes I had a better paying job and could live in my home country again, but I think for now we are doing pretty good for ourselves and the economy everywhere else in the world just kind of sucks. I have a Master's degree in Education and a BA in French and Linguistics and still don't know what kind of job I could get back home, but eventually I want to do a PhD and become a professor of applied linguistics, which is similar to the field I work in now. I think it's bull that people don't consider teaching a real career (usually stuck-up business-oriented republicans who think they are god), and I have realized it truly is evil to overly compare yourself to others all the time. Well, that's my ramble, thanks.

Aug 28, 2013 02:21 Report Abuse



Go to Ghana and other African countries like Zambia and find out how many chinese people work without visa's. I dont even want to bring up the issue of Chinese "illigals" in the States, Australia, etc. Actually China has the biggest population of people who work as "illigal workers." Learn to pick out the stick in your eye before talking about the log in another persons eys. Stop hating on foreigners

Sep 03, 2013 11:37 Report Abuse



In China only the blonde haired and blue eyed are considered intelligent...even worthy...

Mar 13, 2015 03:45 Report Abuse



Not attractive girl come to China, and start feeling beautiful. Why just beacause they have blonde hair. Meanwhile no body back in their country would consider them beautiful. Chinese think if you havae blode hair blue you are pretty! I have seen alot of ugly Russian girls doing this here in China, taking away jobs from the pretty Chinese girls who are worthy of this.

Aug 22, 2013 13:11 Report Abuse



Idiot. Foreign models are hired, because they are not and do not look Chinese.

Aug 22, 2013 15:07 Report Abuse



There is no need of name calling!!!! You sound offended, so you must be one of them!!!

Aug 23, 2013 10:53 Report Abuse



I agree with guest. The Russian models I have seen in China are absolutely disgusting with personalities to match their foul looks.

Aug 23, 2013 14:17 Report Abuse



I'm a little late here - @expatlife26 I'm falling off my sofa laughing at you. You live in China, yet state: Chinese people are "just kinda boring." Describe a 5000 year old culture as "chinese cultural bullshit." Depict anyone who has the audacity of liking local women in China as people with no ambition: "...a preference for Chinese girls STRONGLY correlates with a general lack of ambition/success in life." And then go on to say any one who doesn't choose White women over Chinese are shallow: "For the most part, guys who have a choice would almost always choose a russian over a chinese girl if they are just being shallow." "Have a real job and they'll be all over you." Comparatively, I'm sure your job and more importantly your wealth is nothing to people in the developed world. It sounds like you're living in China, a place you openly disdain, bragging about working at mediocre job that is outside of the teaching industry so you can talk Russian models who couldn't cut it the first world, am I right? "Hell no Nadya, I'm not an English teacher and I hate China! So you wanna make out?" LMFAO Go home ;)

Sep 10, 2013 12:02 Report Abuse



Alright, great response. You're right that instead of "mainland china bullshit" instead of "chinese cultural bullshit" because China does have an interesting historical culture which you can see in many elements of the diaspora and in other chinese societies...but not really here. Maybe you know a lot of interesting, well-rounded local people with good values, personally I haven't met many and I have made the effort. Maybe you know some young ambitious foreign investment banker types who are exclusively interested in dating a 'traditional' non-westernized chinese girl, I don't know anyone like that. I didn't say I was rich or wealthy, just that i'm your average ambitious young western career guy. In my experience, the foreigners who come here and 'make it', almost exclusively are the ones who hold the western lifestyle in high regard (as do the chinese for that matter, you don't see successful chinese trying to "live more local" do you?) Do you know anyone who is teaching out in a small city, married to a 'traditional' girl who is fending off good offers from banks and interest from beautiful women with a pointy stick? If that person exists I haven't met them. Do what makes you happy...i mean that. but choices have consequences. If someone in their 20s starts settling for less in terms of aspirations they start digging themselves a hole that it gets harder to climb out of every day. Lastly, that "if you don't like china go home!" mentality is nonsense. You can not like everything about a place but still be taking something positive long-term from your experience. Personally I am already looking for that killer six-figure job back home. It'll probably take another year or two to have the necessary experience, but i'm on that track. Do you honestly want to live in china forever?

Sep 11, 2013 08:57 Report Abuse



Haha yeah it's very deffecult to by ugly ) wish you to be happy and lucky )

May 16, 2016 12:14 Report Abuse



everyones life is hard. Study and do a real job. Models become old and then get no jobs anymore unless they are famous. But many don't wanna realize this... Complaining about a hard job? Common you can be totally brainless as a model. Others (like me) also travel around frequently and working 12h a day 6 hours a week but those have much more responsibility

Aug 22, 2013 08:52 Report Abuse



Thank you for your opinion . Wish you health and luck )

May 16, 2016 12:15 Report Abuse