Chinese Models Ignore Rampant Sexual Harassment to Collect Higher-Than-Average Paychecks

Chinese models report that they are regularly sexually harassed on photoshoots. korabkova/Shutterstock.com

“Last winter during lunar new year festival, I had to shoot off firecrackers in the snow wearing nothing but red underwear,” Lin Naizi says with a small laugh, sitting on her bed in a comfortable Beijing apartment that she shares with another model.

At 28, Lin has found above-average success as a commercial model in China. She gets regular work despite being older than most models, and makes about 10,000 yuan ($1,560) a month, one-third of which she sends home to her family.

Foreign models have recently shared some decidedly unglamorous stories about their stints working in China. One American model’s essay recounted working long hours for little pay at strange gigs in remote places—such as playing the part of beauty queen at a fake pageant in Inner Mongolia. The piece also shined a light on stringent weight restrictions for models on contracts with agencies.

However, little is known outside China about the working conditions of local models. Lin says Chinese models face most of the challenges that foreign models encounter, such as long hours without breaks and pressure to stay thin.

The petite model also says that in her eight years in the industry, she has faced frequent sexual harassment while on professional photo shoots.

“One time a photographer said he needed to squeeze my breasts to check if they were ‘real.’ When I pushed him away, he shouted that I needed him because there are many younger and more beautiful models who could take my place,” Lin says.

Despite the risks, Lin feels lucky to make a living doing a job she finds, for the most part, enjoyable—and a necessity. Her mother died when she was young, so Lin’s wages help to support her father, aunts and uncles who live in a less-developed city in the northeastern Dongbei region where she grew up. Lin shows no hint of self-pity, as she feels that working hard to support her elders is her responsibility.

Most models’ incomes easily surpass typical earnings of millions of migrant workers from rural areas of China, who make an average monthly wage of 2,864 yuan (about $450). Many models also make more than the 4,695 yuan a month ($735) that urban employees earn on average per month, according to official labor statistics.

While Lin is too short at 5’3 to work the catwalk or grace the covers of glossy magazines as a fashion model, top models make upwards of 10,000 yuan per day. Lin also wouldn’t qualify to work at luxury car shows, where leggy women in scintillating outfits lean on new cars to attract the attention of buyers and media in glitzy showrooms for fees ranging from 2,000 yuan to 10,000 yuan per day.

Instead, she falls under the generic and lower-paid category of ping mian mo te (commercial models) who appear in product advertisements, websites, magazine spreads and clothing catalogs. Income varies wildly, from about 300 yuan ($47) to 1,500 yuan ($235) per day, according to China Radio International.

But it is rare for commercial models to find work every day, as competition is intense. The easy availability and relatively socially accepted use of plastic surgery in China also puts pressure on models who haven’t had cosmetic surgery to do so in order to gain an edge.

Others supplement their income with another, more lucrative, type of modeling.

Lin describes it as “Victoria’s Secret-style” modeling, also known in the industry as “glamour modeling.” At those shoots, Lin would pose playfully in seductive lingerie, expertly flipping her long shiny hair. The photos and videos appear in magazines and websites that feature erotic content.

“A few years ago, most of the jobs I was offered paid about 2,000 yuan an hour but now they pay 1,000 yuan a day. That’s ridiculous. But with sexy shoots, I can still make around 2,000 yuan an hour,” Lin says.

In addition to the higher frequency of harassment at these photo shoots, Lin says it can be dangerous to wear skimpy clothing outdoors when temperatures in Beijing can plunge to minus 20 degrees Celsius during the long winters. She tries to finish the work as quickly as possible, and insists on taking breaks to warm up.

After many years in the industry, Lin says she can take care of herself but is concerned for younger models who could more easily become victims of sexual assault or who are too inexperienced to negotiate fair pay and decent work arrangements.

Chinese model Liu Wen has found huge international success, but many of her counterparts back home have not been so lucky. Ovidiu Hrubaru/Shutterstock.com

Chinese model Liu Wen has found huge international success, but many of her counterparts back home have not been so lucky. Ovidiu Hrubaru/Shutterstock.com

Selena, a taller former model in her 20s who used to do higher-end fashion work, says aspiring models should know what to expect if they want to enter the industry.

“I was in the same position and I saw everything. Photographers can be assholes. But they don’t rape. They don’t force. They will cajole and sweet-talk and harass,” she says. “But it’s on the models to protect themselves, no matter how young you are. Don’t let anybody touch you and then regret it later.”

“Of course there are girls who are just innocent, and it makes me sick,” says Selena, who only gave her first name as she was worried about adversely affecting her new career. 

A spokeswoman from New Silk Road, a leading modeling agency in China, admitted that sexual harassment is a problem in the industry.

“But our company will only have professionals work with the models, so this kind of thing would rarely happen,” says the spokeswoman, who did not respond to a question about what the agency would do if a model does report sexual harassment or assault.

“Our models do accept work at underwear fashion shows and lingerie photo shoots, but beforehand, our managers fix all the details with our clients. And the models can always say no if they are not willing to participate,” she says.

Yet many models like Lin cannot afford to work with agencies. Quality agencies help models find work with reputable clients, but they take a hefty cut of about 40 per cent from payments.

When an assault happens, social attitudes that shame sexuality and inadequate legal protections means it is unlikely that a model would turn to police.

Sexual assault in China, like in many countries, is vastly underreported. There are also well-documented cases of corruption in the country, where powerful offenders such as government officials and police officers have tried to pay bribes to avoid punishment.

Freelance photographer Mark Ma says it is widely known in his profession that some in their cohort have molested models during photo shoots—and gotten away with it.

“We have power over models because one, we are mostly men; two, there are much fewer professional photographers than there are attractive young women who want to be models; and three, we tend to get paid a lot more than models do,” says Ma.

“I’m really conscious of this imbalance. That’s why I’m careful not to accidentally touch the models and if I need to fix their hair or clothing, I ask for their permission first,” says the Beijing-based photographer.

A possible reason for the lack of professionalism is that anyone with decent equipment can call himself a photographer, and companies can hire a photographer without knowing how to judge the quality of their work, Ma says.  

Models say it is also difficult for them to independently vet photographers since they usually don’t get the names of who they will be working with ahead of time.

The smaller stature of Chinese women rules many of them out for work in places such as New York, Paris and London where there are better protections for workers. Fashion models in China only need to be around 5’7 or taller, but fashion models in Europe and North America tend to be at least 5’9 or taller, according to Models.com.

Popular Chinese model Liu Wen, who had found success internationally and is the 14th highest-paid model in the world according to Forbes (making $7 million last year), is a statuesque 5’10.

Unlike their Western counterparts, Chinese models also lack the support of any formal labor union or advocacy group, such as the Model Alliance in the US and Equity’s Model Network in the UK.

Instead, they turn to informal communities on social media and mobile chat forums. On the popular Chinese blogging platform Weibo, there are hundreds of posts from models sharing stories about being underpaid, harassed or made to work long and grueling hours.

Some models have also used their blogs to warn other models about certain companies who they say have refused to pay them for their work.

But Shanghai-based fashion model Xiaoyan says there is hope that China’s growing fashion industry could translate into better working standards for models.

“The tastes of Chinese consumers are becoming more refined and they’re no longer only interested in the big luxury labels. They want to support domestic designers and see clothes modeled by people who look like them instead of by foreigners,” she says.

Indeed, China’s fashion market is expected to triple in size to become the world’s second-largest fashion market by 2020, according to a report from the Boston Consulting Group. This would be accompanied by a projected growth in the number of Chinese middle-class households by almost threefold to 140 million by 2020.

Lin says this surge isn’t likely to propel her into China’s upper middle class. Yet she is optimistic about her future.  

“I am almost 30 so I’m too old to keep modeling for long. But I’ve learned how to manage my own business and this makes me confident. I want to study design and open my own clothing store in Beijing,” Lin says.