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The Chinese modeling agency that represented a 14-year-old Russian model who died after Shanghai Fashion Week has denied allegations that she was overworked and exhausted. The death of Vlada Dzyuba in a Chinese hospital on Friday comes a few years after reports of the harsh conditions under which models work in second tier markets, such as China, including long hours, highly unbalanced pay rates (most of which goes to the models’ agencies), and extremely strict measurement requirements.

According to reports from the Agence France-Presse in Shanghai, Dzyuba, who despite being just 14 years old was legally permitted to work as a model in accordance with Chinese law – which categorizes modeling as “cultural work” and an “exceptional industry,” thereby, permitting minors to work – fell ill last Tuesday. She was taken to a Shanghai hospital, and ultimately, placed in intensive care, where she died the following morning, just two weeks short of her 15th birthday.

The Siberian Times has reported that Dzyuba died of meningitis compounded by severe exhaustion after “a grueling fashion show in Shanghai.” Dzyuba’s mother, Oksana Dzyuba, told the Times: “[Vlada] was calling me, saying, ‘Mama, I am so tired. I so much want to sleep.’ It must have been the very beginning of the illness.” The late model’s parents currently “cannot afford” to fly their daughter’s body home and so, her ashes will be transported to Russia in a month.

“Slave Contract”

“We feel sorry that we lost an angel,” ESEE Model Management said in a statement this week. The Shanghai-based agency further pointed out that Shanghai Fashion Week ended on October 18, and Dzyuba became ill six days later, while on another assignment. This appears to be in conflict with what Australia’s News.com’s report, which states that “Dzyuba collapsed into a coma after a 13 hour day,” including “a 12-hour fashion show in Shanghai.”

It is unclear at this time what brand is associated with the multi-hour fashion show.

ESEE’s founder, Zheng Yi, told the state-run Global Times that the model had worked a legal eight hours a day during the entirety of her contract. “Dzyuba had 16 different jobs during her two-month stay in China, she had regular breaks while working,” Zheng stated on Sunday. “Most of her work was completed within eight hours. Her workload was moderate compared with other models.”

Denying reports that Dzyuba was working to fulfill a “slave contract,” Yi said, “Modeling work is not manual labor after all, just shows and photo shoots and making poses, and there are breaks.”

The Global Times quoted a representative for Shanghai Fashion Week as saying it was investigating the incident, and cited a medical report saying Dzyuba had septicopyemia, a type of blood poisoning.

“No one expected this to lead to such consequences,” Elvira Zaitseva, the head of Vlada’s modeling agency in Perm, Russia, said in a statement. “We are now reaping what we have sown.”

Second Tier Markets

Paris-based conglomerates Kering and LVMH – the parent companies to Gucci, YSL, and Balenciaga, and Louis Vuitton, Dior, and Givenchy, respectively – have turned their attention to the well being of models in the recent past, aiming to improve working conditions. In New York, the Council of Fashion Designers of America in New York has long upheld a health initiative for its members, for the purpose of keeping models safe.

Nonetheless, the realities of working as a model, particularly for young, non-native speaking individuals, are often remarkably grim.

Fashionista ran in a lengthy article by Meredith Hattam, in 2014, entitled, “My Life Working as a Model in China,” in which Hattam – an American and 24-years old at the time – detailed her several month stint in Beijing.

During this time, Hattam worked “under an illegal tourist visa, [a] commonplace [occurrence] in Asia’s modeling industry.” She writes, “Models are told by their scouts to say they’re visiting on vacation.”

Most of the jobs lasted for “nine hours a day, requiring last-minute travel and hotel stays,” Hattam wrote. None of them are optional; “if a model denies even one job, she may lose her contract and her apartment. She can’t work elsewhere, because she’s a tourist. And if her family or agency refuses to support her, she doesn’t have the financial means to get home.”

Hattam and her fellow models’ living situation? A “shabby, dorm-like apartment, [which] consisted of four bedrooms (two baths) for the 13 of us [most of whom were in their early teens]. When we arrived, I found I had no bed – only a stained, faded couch covered in a fake Gucci blanket, for which I was charged $500/month. As a model, inflated rent and poor living conditions are unfortunately industry standards. Rent is charged as part of your expenses and later deducted from any jobs you may (or may not) do – which is what makes booking them so important.”

Reflecting on one job, in which she worked more than 8 hours a day as an “ambassador for the Chengdu International Auto Show,” Hattam says she was “paid $3000 RMB ($200) per day, 40% of which goes to our agency, 10% to our scout. The rest of the money will pay for our expenses. By the time we leave China, we’ll have earned nothing at all.”

“Money-wise, hourly rates can be higher [in China] than most first-tier markets,” and easier to break into than more in-demand jobs in New York or Paris, per Hattam, “this means that clients are often excessively strict with the pace of your work. One model from my agency in Guangzhou was hospitalized from exhaustion after two months of frenzied 15-hour days. While in her hospital bed, her phone vibrated with scolding texts from the agency: she was missing her jobs and costing them money.”

Hattam noted that The Model Alliance’s founder Sara Ziff, “who worked [as a model] in Tokyo, was hospitalized thanks to a relentless schedule.” Others “have committed suicide over the years. Ruslana Korshunova in 2008. Daul Kim in 2010. [In 2014], a Brazilian model named Camila Bezerra jumped to her death in Guangzhou on New Years Day. She was 22 years old.”

In short: The experience left Hattam “feeling powerless over [her] schedule, body and life.” And “while these events took place in China,” she states, “unstable working conditions, often involving underage models, are common in all markets.”

UPDATED (November 1, 2017): As reported by the New York Times, “Russian authorities in Perm announced that they were starting a criminal investigation into whether Vlada Dzyuba’s death was caused by neglect … The inquiry could shed light on why ‘a child who has not reached 14 years of age found herself abroad, who it was that brokered her contract, why she did not have the documents that provide medical support,’ said Anna Kuznetsova, the children’s rights commissioner for the Russian Federation, at a news conference in Vladivostok.”

The paper further notes, “One red flag that has caught the attention of authorities: Ms. Dzyuba did not have health insurance, though her contract with Esee Models, the management company in Shanghai that hired her, stipulated that she should have enrolled before her arrival. Her lack of insurance may have kept Ms. Dzyuba from speaking up about the pains she was experiencing.”