RS: guitar loop, vocals
Jessica Daumen: violin
This deeply disturbing film has been described as unflinching. That isn’t entirely true. If filmmakers David Redmon & Ashley Sabin hadn’t used a light touch, leaving it to the viewers to read between the lines; and if they hadn’t repeatedly intervened on a young girl’s behalf, this film would be too horrible to watch. This documentary brings its audience to the edge, where innocence ends and prostitution/pornography begins. This is the world of human trafficking, under the pseudo-legal guise of the modeling & fashion industry. Girl Model is an unforgettable look at the catastrophic consequences of modern global capitalism; boldly documenting a misanthropic world-wide industry, that is hopelessly beyond any nationalist reform measures.
“Top models are not only beautiful & charming, but also rich!” –Anonymous model-casting emcee
The star and inspiration behind this searing expose’ is Ashley Arbaugh, one of the film’s tragic heroines. Arbaugh approached filmmakers David Redmon & Ashley Sabin with the idea in 2008, and supplied personal archive footage dating back to her modeling career ‘birth’ in Japan, 1998. Girl Model took extraordinary vision and courage on everyone’s part to make. In it, Ashley Arbaugh brings the filmmakers up-close-and-personal to several of the girl-modeling industry’s leading figures. The camera points at them, in live settings, and we get to hear the private thoughts of industry veterans and young aspiring models. Hard questions and hard truths are often evaded, deflected, rationalized, and justified; all in the pursuit of money. It is cruel & ugly portrait.
Arbaugh’s personal accounts, both now and in her past, are riveting in their intensity and distorted beauty. Her personal style is subtle elegance and she is fascinating & beautiful, whether it is back in 1998, or in the present. She is afflicted with multiple psychological disorders. Not coincidentally, she is also an industry-respected expert on beauty.
In the film, Ashley Arbaugh is introduced as a ‘model scout’. She does this to avoid her modeling ‘death’, the point in every model’s career where they are no longer desirable for fashion advertising, due to their age. As a scout, she now gets to pick the models, giving her a measure of control, which is as much a relief as it is enjoyable to her.
Ashley remembers hating her model ‘birth’ fifteen years earlier, often asking herself such questions as:
“Why am I doing this?”
“When can I go home?”
“What am I really going to do with my life?”
She describes being depressed, some days not even getting out of bed.
In the film, she has been contracted by the girl-modeling industry’s biggest entrepreneur Tigran, to deliver beautiful, innocent-looking 13-year old girls to Japan. As her train rolls through the Siberian night, Ashley admits she has no job description, and that basically she can use any means necessary, with all expenses paid. She does this with the lying promise of a modeling career that pays thousands of U.S. dollars, where success always happens, and nobody ever goes into debt.
Tigran introduces himself as a modern-day biblical Noah, which just happens to be the name of his modeling agency. Tigran claims to envy Arbaugh as she boards the Trans-Siberian Railway to begin her assignment. These young girls are sought out in the poorest & most isolated parts of the world, and will have no chance against Ashley’s experience & smile, along with the industry machinery behind her. Tigran is too successful & too old for the train rides now, but he has fond memories of the back-and-forth motion, the young girls, and the toilet room.
Nadya, from a poor village in Siberia is one girl Ashley picks out. Her apparent new-found success has given her struggling family great hope. Her father has plans to expand their meagre house, on the earnings Nadya will make as a model in Japan. Nadya’s mother is unable to express any of her real worries & fears to her daughter, at any point in the film. Thus, Nadya is lured to Japan unable to speak or understand the language, or even know where she is geographically on a map. This metaphor of losing oneself, is strikingly drawn out later by the filmmakers.
In fact there are no modeling jobs available for “fresh faces” such as Nadya, because she has “no experience.” These young girls, specifically sought out for their innocence of look, are set up for rejection at casting after casting, with reasons such as, “I’m looking for a more cool & stylish type.”
Of course everyone knows that no 13-year old could possibly be “cool & stylish” by mainstream fashion standards. The whole premise of the castings become absurd.
At Tigran’s casting, the girls hold up cards for the video camera that have their age, measurements, and a line for some that reads, “No style”. He appears to be insidiously laughing at these naive waifs. These photos & videos are widely distributed to those who are interested in thirteen-year old girls.
Ashley Arbaugh discusses the industry-wide obsession with youth, conceding its beautiful qualities, but finishing with this exasperation: “You can’t be young enough!”
She describes looking deep into a young girl’s eyes; to see her innocence, age, and experience. Ashley’s presence as a woman gives her valuable credibility with the girls, most of whom have heard whispers of corruption in modeling. Her job is reassure and to lie to them. It is the only way she can be successful in her business. It is understood if she doesn’t deliver the girls, she will be replaced with someone who does.
The young girls in the film are flown alone to Tokyo, and intentionally not provided with basic & affordable modern necessities, such as a phone to call home. The idea of these agencies is to cut the young girls off from their support, meaning their family & friends; so they fall into a state of desperation & hopelessness, which makes them vulnerable to accept prostitution as a career. They are constantly being victimized, driven to tears and emotional breakdowns. Nadya & her roommate Madlen (also age 13), receive only the barest minimum living assistance from their contracted modeling agency. They are charged living and transportation expenses, as they are shuffled from casting to casting, almost always leaving without a job. Nefariously, the agency has “day-to-day” contract clauses that allow them to terminate for: weight gain of 1cm in the chest, waist, and/or hips; sun exposure; swimming; changing hairstyle; etc…
Madlen is introduced, with Nadya observing her on a cell phone speaking to her mother. She is describing how she wasn’t picked up at the airport; not knowing where to go or whom to call. Nadya eavesdrops with great interest and uneasiness, as she is reminded of what happened to her earlier in the film, when she arrived in Tokyo. It wasn’t an innocent mistake on the agency’s part; nobody who signs a girl-modeling contract, ever gets picked up at the airport!
Ashley phones Tigran; she’s booked 6-7 girls, out of 30. She gets a commission on each girl.
Here are a few of her thoughts as the train rolls into the night:
“The business of modeling is not something I’m passionate about.”
“It’s based on nothing.”
“I never like to think of myself as an ex-model.”
“I’m having a hard time remembering my first flight to Japan. I remember walking into my agency and meeting Masako, my booker.” [she then winces and looks away]
The “booker” who receives the models in this film, is introduced as Messiah. He immediately appears uncomfortable & agitated on camera. Ashley gets a commission from him, too.
Arbaugh succinctly describes him: “Messiah is 40, and the girls are 13. Messiah owns Switch [Modelling Agency]… He loves models.”
[her face winces to tighten her smile, as she looks away, to mask a painful truth she can’t express]
This truth is: It is the profound mental sickness of wealthy & powerful males around the world that create this black market, to which she is catering.
There is a cutaway, to mass photocopying of Nadya & Madlen pictures w/ info. The girls have no idea who sees these pictures. Madlen vents her frustration in the car, “[We have] many, many questions, but they don’t answer…Disgusting.”
Rachel, a 23-year old model with 5 years experience, explains the realities of modeling very clearly:
“A lot of the time you don’t know where your pictures go. They are sold by the agency to a magazine, and the models are kept in the dark, so the agencies don’t have to pay them. You have to really be on top of everything, and at 13-years old she won’t be. She’ll be like. ‘OMG, I’m going to Japan! I have all these jobs booked! I’ll make all that money each week!’; but they don’t know, they are not getting those jobs”, adding sadly, “They’ll just take advantage of her.”
Ashley in Japan, 1998, at age 18:
“This whole place is hurting me too much. Even if I do 10 jobs in the next two weeks, there won’t be any money for me by the time I cover my expenses!”
These home-video scenes where she films herself, are among the film’s most powerful and haunting sequences. The viewer is to reasonably presume she is drug-addicted at this point, therefore it becomes necessary to understand why? Perhaps it is because she is an 18-year old girl being overworked, underpaid, and generally exploited; in a business with dehumanized working conditions such as forced prostitution & anorexic weight standards, as the industry norm.
The viewer can see, hear & feel the mental illness & insanity creeping in on her.
“I don’t even like looking at the magazines, I mean I do, but it’s all the same stuff, all the time.”
“Anyone who does it [modeling], must be an idiot”
The sequence then skips ahead to a disturbing discussion she’s having with a female friend:
Friend: “Girl, what happened to you in Tokyo? What’s this ‘twister taking you away?'”
Ashley: [disturbing Joker-like smile into the camera]
Friend: “Is it really worth it?”
Ashley: [turns her head sideways to the camera, widens her eyes and raises her eyebrows in affirmation]
Ashley’s favorite spot in her present Connecticut home is in her bathroom, where she has a hidden compartment of chopped-up photographs. There are also pictures she took of other people, under tables; feet & hand gestures, without their knowledge. This becomes a parallel to the girl-models, who don’t know where their photos end up.
[Ashley holding horizontally cut-up model photos, trying to match the legs with the bodies again]
“Hey, does that work?.. That works!.. Doesn’t it?.. Oh no, it doesn’t work… Wait…it almost works!…This is the same bathing suit… that fits that… it just doesn’t… if I had it on a tripod…”
What we witness on film, is a breakdown of healthy proportion-recognition and pattern juxtaposition; a common symptom of Anorexia Nervosa.
Madlen: [crying into the phone to her mother] “I wish I had stayed home!”
Nadya: [crying into the phone to her mother] “I just want to endure this, and get back home!”
Madlen starts eating again, and is soon sent home due to weight gain. She owes Switch Modelling Agency, thousands of dollars for her expenses.
Nadya convinces herself it’s not so bad, and carries on. The film ends informing the viewer that she was sent to China & Taiwan, and is still in debt.
Ashley Tokyo 1999:
“I’m so obsessed over money…A lot of times when I’m modeling, I get so scared…A lot of things that I have done, that are so bad, and I try to play it off like I’m so good…Maybe I’m really not good at all.”
Ashley in the present:
“I really do care about them, but I don’t feel inspired to tell these girls some big truth, about how this amazing business is going to fulfill them, and change their lives forever..”
“[It’s a] very tough business.” [more wincing]
She describes how girl-models are led into prostitution:
“They’re selling their bodies to the camera, so therefore they can rationalize selling themselves to men if they can’t get modeling work.”
“Some models present themselves sexually in their photos. They get placed with modeling agencies, but they get placed in other places too.”
“It’s just normal to be a prostitute…for them…maybe it’s easier than being a model.”
“In a lot of countries, prostitution isn’t a bad thing.”
“I don’t really acknowledge it exists.”
The filmmakers attempt to interview Messiah from the back seat, while he is driving through Tokyo:
Interviewer: If Tigran [Noah] and you [Switch] and Ashley are making money, why aren’t the girls getting paid?
Messiah: We can’t make money from new models. They need more pictures and experience…
Interviewer: So why do you bring them in?
Messiah: Hmmm…the client…they need new pictures. They don’t have enough pictures, right?
Just replace ‘client’ with ‘johns’, and ‘pictures’ with ‘young prostitutes’; and it makes sense.
That is the last we hear from Messiah in the film.
Nadya’s ‘DVD Casting for Clients’ is briefly shown near the end. She is dressed in adult clothes and make-up, in a way that can best be described as sick. Veteran model Rachel’s earlier words seem to linger, “If you use a 13-14 year-old girl, you did not want the shape of a woman, really.”
When Nadya finally finds her picture in a magazine, she’s wearing a large hat over her half her face. Only her mouth is visible.
She softly bemoans, “I can’t see what’s happening.”
Everyone who is making money in this film is a psychological manipulator personality. They all also suffer from powerful addictions, with severe personality disorders.
The rub comes when you ask yourself, “Is this true in other, or possibly all, big industries?”
A serious answer is revolutionary.
Ashley in the present: “I’d be happy to be 4 months pregnant, but this thing is growing inside of me, for no reason.”
“This thing” is a 15-cm fibroid tumor, an ovarian cyst; an ectopic pregnancy she will have surgically removed from her abdomen. We get to see photos, specimen bags, and the incision scar.
Ashley describes it post-operatively as, “a cyst full of hair…the doctor said he had never seen one with so much hair. So disgusting, OMG!; my egg splitting on its own.”
She then affirms, “I want a baby. I have these organs, it’s what I was born to do.”
Instead Ashley’s life only allows her the baby dolls she purchased years ago at a dollar store, which she keeps under her bed.
She has a boy & a girl.
She tells us she had three, but she dissected one.
This film is where beauty & tragedy collide.