Catch 'em young: In HCMC, parents enrol 5-year-olds in modeling classes

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Children practice at a modeling class at Ben Thanh Theater in Ho Chi Minh City.

The woman has many calluses on her hands and dark smudges under eyes. A butcher, she works from 2 a.m. every day so that her 17-year-old son can attain his dream of becoming a model, a dream she herself was unable to pursue because of poverty.

Le Dinh Thuan's mother is among many parents in Ho Chi Minh City, both rich and poor, who want to put their children on the catwalk though the modeling industry has notoriety for being debauched.

"I've heard about scandals in showbiz, and I'm concerned," she admitted to Tuoi Tre newspaper.

"But you have to try to know how good you can be," the woman, who is in her 40s, said.

Thuan learns the ropes at a small modeling school near home.

Children from richer families go to Ben Thanh Theater in the downtown area, where leading modeling agency PL runs a class.

It opens two days a week at 6-7 p.m., and nearly 20 children aged between four and 11 attend.

They are taught to dance to music, walk in a straight line with hands on the hips and eyes up, and stop at certain points to pose.

The parents are proud that their children are attending the class. The mother of a 10-year-old said her daughter has been at the class for five years.

Another said her nine-year-old granddaughter appears in newspapers and TV shows.

The mother of a boy named Bum said happily that her son wanted to be called Kim Bum after his idol, a South Korean child star. The five-year-old Bum wears a sparkling earring in one ear.

While some girls are only enrolled by their parents looking to make them less tomboyish or shy, many children are actually allowed by their parents to take time off from school to attend these classes.

Tuyet Van, a stylist for Nhi Dong children's magazine, said: "Most parents once put schooling first, but many these days want their children to perform than study.

"It is important to them that their children appear in magazines."

He spoke about certain problems while working with the little models: most dislike tight clothes, become hungry or tired during a performance, and are spontaneous rather than rehearsed, requiring cameramen to cleverly capture key moments.

Another class at Ben Thanh from 7 to 8:30 p.m., this one for teenagers, has them wearing a lot of make-up and accessories and shorter tops and cutoffs. It has around 30 students.

While it is mostly fun for the younger lot, the teenagers are more stressed since they are closer to a possible modeling career and many have received offers they are unable to handle.

Some told Tuoi Tre they were asked to model in swimsuits and lingerie.

But it is a hard choice, especially with insiders telling them to grab the offers, and that the more they expose their bodies the faster they would become famous, they said.

Many young girls have indeed achieved fame that way.

Van, herself once a teen model, said it is easier for freelance models to reject lingerie offers, but those working for agencies have no choice since their employers have signed contracts.

Another stylist, who wished to remain unnamed, said: "Many customers want to hire teen models since they are young, fresh, and new.

"People are curious to see them in swimsuits and lingerie since there is something abnormal about it. They want to see how the teens deal with costumes meant for adults."

Teenage models' inexperience is offered as justification for paying them just a tenth of what older models get.

Many show organizers and cameramen also try to take advantage of this inexperience to lure them to hotel rooms, the teenagers said.

Nguyen Thuy Nga, director of the famous Elite Modeling Company, told Tuoi Tre: "Younger girls have more and better chances.

"But ... if you want to achieve quick and easy success, you have to offer something in exchange.

"Young people need their family's guidance and care to go on the right path to have a stable future."

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