The film opens with the all-too-familiar phalanx of half-naked girls, young Siberian women in cheap bikinis, bare limbs exposed to harsh florescent lighting and even harsher judgment. A pretty woman, a modeling scout by the name of Ashley Arbaugh, stands at the end of a stage, next to other discerning adults. In front of 13, 14, and 15-year-olds, they make their decisions openly and with a quiet ruthlessness that the industry is known for: She already looks 25, Her hips are too wide, We’ll have to put her on a diet. The girls, rejected, nod their heads and silently move away, left to deal with the psychological rubble. There is, however, one lucky girl who Arbaugh takes a particular interest in, Nadya Vall, the willowy blonde with doll eyes and the long, undyed hair of a very young girl. Lucky Nadya looks like a model. Lucky Nadya will go to Tokyo. Lucky, lucky Nadya.
In a Hollywood blockbuster, this would be the introduction of a darker rags-to-riches tale, where the American modeling scout pulls a young girl from her rural shack in Siberia and out of obscurity. In this movie, everything goes well for young Nadya, and she looks back on this casting — imbued with a wistful, humbling nostalgia — as a pivotal turning point in her life. Life, however, is all too often the furthest thing from a Hollywood blockbuster, and what transpires over the course of this documentary is a look into the shadowy corners of a much lauded and little known world.
For her part, Ashley Arbaugh knows all too well the inner workings of fashion. She herself used to be a model in Tokyo, where the girls she scouts are sent. Very early on, you get the sense that Arbaugh is like the farmer sending their herd to slaughter, with enough conscious to be racked with guilt, but not enough to set them free. In this, she is a tortured person, bound to an industry by a long history, as damaging to her emotional well-being as it has been beneficial to her bank account.
Nadya Vall, however, will not revel in the financial success that Arbaugh has obviously had over the years. Though promised an $8,000 contract of guaranteed work in Tokyo, Vall books hardly anything. She and her roommate sit at the cheap kitchen table of their horror of a model’s apartment, alternating between eating chocolates and crying into their phones about not working and wanting to come home. Both of them return to their respective countries indebted to their agencies for over $2,000 – a far cry from the visions of bounty presented to them in the film’s opening.
Very few films have ever been able to accurately capture fashion’s darker side. Writers rely on chic clichés about cocaine abuse and eating disorders and rock stars, which, frankly, in our society, are practically lauded as aspirational goals. To its credit, Girl Model is none of these things. Girl Model is that brutal combination of outrageous opportunity, conflicted success, pulverized hope, and a terrifying loneliness. It tears the beautiful, glossy cover off of the world, revealing its contents as a great many things, lucky – in the traditional sense — not being one of them. — Jenny Bahn