The poverty of the male modeling industry forces many into prostitution
Male models say they usually have 30-50 percent of their payment taken by the modeling company that recommended them to the show. Photo courtesy of Tuoi Tre newspaper.
Hoang Phi quit his job working at a Mekong Delta television station to enroll in a modeling course in Ho Chi Minh City.
Phi was overwhelmed by his life in the new city: the glamorous outfits, the stories about big fashion shows, the knowledge his modeling classes provided him about this new world. That was 2009.
A year later he won the national modeling competition Model Star 2010 but he soon learned that success in the fashion industry, and all the glitz and glamour that comes with it, is usually short-lived, and comes with a heavy price.
Phi told the Tuoi Tre recently that his course had given him just enough experience to act in commercials. The training course took up only six hours a week, just enough time to relay basic knowledge about how to walk in a show and how to pose in front of the camera.
"Each of us had to learn by ourselves how to have a personal style," said the model, who was hired to walk some small shows a few months after graduating from the modeling course.
Phi said he was confused about his future as there seemed to be too few shows and too many models.
He took any job he could get based on his looks. He was a model for fashion catalogue photo shoots and a hotel receptionist.
But he said that he quickly ran out of money because he had to spend most of it on trendy clothes and special foods. He wouldn't eat on the street for fear it would ruin his skin and/or physique.
Phi said food ate up almost all his income and as a result, he didn't have enough money to buy the kinds of new and stylish clothes needed to make the right impression.
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He had to rely mainly on business opening parties, in which new establishments mainly restaurants and bars hire models to walk mini catwalks for their grand opening event. The job wasn't high-end fashion, but at least he could earn VND300,000-800,000 (US$14-38) for just a few hours work.
"Waiting for fashion shows, you will starve to death," said a male model who only wished to be identified by his initials T.Tr.
"For every ten fashion shows, only three need men," he told the Tuoi Tre.
Thanh Nghiep, a 23-year-old IT graduate from HCMC, suffered the same problem. Following his dream, Nghiep would spend days and nights practicing his walk in his room in front of a small mirror, using music from his cell phone.
But most meals were instant noodles with eggs and a banana.
"There were times I wanted to quit because there was so much pressure," Nghiep said.
Besides the financial pressure, Nghiep had the social pressure of rumors that he had slept with fashion show owners and directors in order to get jobs at their events.
According to many male models, such rumors are indicative of an ugly truth: becoming a successful male model has a lot more to do with relationships to powerful people in the industry than it does with looks or talent.
It's "who you know and who you blow" for these young models, many of whom have been forced to depraved lows in order to land an invitation to a big fashion show, or to receive a higher paycheck.
To many insiders, it's not the most popular or suitable model that wins the part, but the one with the most "friends."
Usually, male models have 30-50 percent of their payment taken by the modeling company that recommended them to the show, the model said.
"Some people have 70 percent of their payment taken away but they dared not complain out of fear they would not be called next time," said T.Tr.
Vu Duy Hung, winner of the Elegant Man title at Mister Vietnam 2010, said there is no specific price for freelance models.
The models have to be introduced by a middleman, who decides how much they are worth. Desperate male models tend to accept any price, Hung said.
Class A male models are paid between VND1.5-3 million a show, class B VND700,000-1 million and class C VND200,000-400,000, he said.
A class A model receives five invitations a month at most. These are earned by a lot of hanging out with famous models and show organizers to make acquaintances, which usually means going to bars until 2 or 3 a.m.
Hung said the "sleeping with someone" rumor is not totally groundless.
An insider once advised him that "If anyone offers to promote you or help you get known, try to please them with whatever they want, don't be shy," he said.
Vo Thuong, a popular stylist among HCMC male models, said male models can easily become famous if they learn to entertain designers and show organizers, or rich and influential people.
"There's a designer who considers male models his jewelry or toy collection," Thuong said.
He told the Tuoi Tre that male models can easily turn themselves into such toys as their job requires money for elegant clothes. He said that their sponsors can be women, but are usually gay men.
"Modeling is an honorable career if people do it seriously and morally," the stylist said. "As male models are usually respected less than female models, the men need strong educational and cultural foundation in order not to succumb for rich sponsors."
One model said those models who have fallen have done so by choice.
"There's no obligation in this relationship. One party slaps money on the face of the other and the other party turns their face to take the money slap," said the model identified only as T.T.
Modeling career ends at age 27, said the model. "So I told myself not to do anything regretful for short-term glamour."
Besides voluntarily succumbing to the industry, many models have fallen victims of more predatory benefactors.
A male model who asked not to be named said that when he first began his career, he agreed to perform on a catwalk at a small bar in HCMC. He only realized that was an exclusive gay event when he arrived.
He said he was forced to walk the runway scantily clad and had to allow large groups of men grope him.
Another model, now a leading figure at famous HCMC modeling company PL, said he once agreed to pose half-nude for advertising photos.
During the photo shoot, he was asked to remove all his clothes as the stylists said they had to find the best part of his body.
Soon after that, his completely nude photos were posted on a gay website.