The story of a Mekong Delta girl turned Ho Chi Minh City madam forces country to take another look at its oversexed modeling industry
Vo Thi My Xuan crowned at a Mekong Delta beauty contest in 2009 (L) and in a nude photo she released recently as a freelance model. She was allegedly running a lucrative sex ring involving models and beauty queens, getting a 60 percent cut on their earnings, which ran into thousands of dollars.
As a little girl, Vo Thi My Xuan sold lottery tickets on the streets of Soc Trang, a rural province in the Mekong Delta.
Her life changed at 24, when she won the 2009 South Mekong Beauty Pageant. Following her win, she moved to Ho Chi Minh City to begin a model career which led her to the sex industry that could earn her US$4,800 per day.
Last Sunday, police placed her under arrest for running a high-end prostitution ring that employed models and beauty queens in her adopted city.
Police say the women charged up to $2,500, while Xuan told them some customers paid as much as $25,000 for a three-day tour to Singapore.
Sixty percent of all profits went into the pockets of the former beauty queen and procurers. Representatives of the South Mekong Beauty Pageant say they plan to revoke her crown.
Before she got sucked up into the jet set, Xuan made a living as a tour guide in Hoi An. When she entered the competitive modeling world, few took note of her. So she chose to make herself known by releasing racy photos of herself posing half-nude or clad in lingerie.
"I have a beautiful face, a perfect body, why should I hide them?" she once said, according to news website VietNamNet. "I belong to the gender that is most revered for beauty, so I want people to see that in me."
In an effort to raise the value of her escorts, Xuan secured cameos for them in films "” so they could be introduced as "actresses."
She also sent her girls to big cafés and clubs so she could call them "singers" and entered them in small pageants so they could be called "beauty queens."
Tran Quang Mai, a bar girl and a tea room emcee whom police say connected Xuan to wealthy clients, has also been arrested.
A third alleged procurer, actress, model and HCMC beauty queen Tran Thi Hoa, whose stage name is Thien Kim, has not been arrested since she is pregnant, media reports said.
Kim was the one who brought Xuan into the sex trade, Nguoi Lao Dong quoted the police as saying.
Nguyen Huu Dat, a driver for an event organizing agency who often drove models and actors, has also been arrested for pimping.
Le Quang Tuan Anh, a famous make-up artist known as "˜Kevil' Le, was taken in for soliciting models and actors to work for Xuan and 40-year-old Mai.
Le, 27, who studied in South Korea and Singapore, has worked for all the top magazines, fashion brands, and shows like Vietnam's Next Top Model.
The ring organizers could face between six months and five years in prison, if convicted.
Police say the ring's stable of beauties included 22-year-old Le Thi Yen Duy, a Mekong Delta beauty queen crowned in 2010, Jenny Phuong who was expected to participate in an upcoming version of the southern beauty contest, and Nguyen Thi Minh Nhai, a make-up artist but better known as model Ngoc Thuy of PLModel, a leading company in the field in HCMC, according to Nguoi Lao Dong.
Most of the girls have their own rich patrons who would give them at least $1,000 a month. But that money is only enough for cosmetics, and they need more to buy houses and cars and send home to their parents, Tien Phong newspaper quoted them as saying.
Xuan said most of her clients are media tycoons who could promote the women's careers. The four customers arrested in the act last Saturday have been identified as HCMC property investors.
Modeling in crisis
Just two weeks ago, police busted a similar prostitution ring operating out of luxury hotels in Hanoi and HCMC.
The ring employed Hong Ha, 23-year-old model who has featured in several Vietnamese movies and appeared in advertisements for local and foreign fashion brands.
Ha, who claimed to be working for leading modeling firm Elite, earned $1,000-1,500 per session, according to police.
On Monday, Lao Dong ran a story in which several industry experts described the latest instances of prostitution as an inevitable feature of a luxury-obsessed industry that, at the end of the day, doesn't pay very well.
Nguyen Thanh Long, director of PLModel, said his models earned an average of VND4-5 million ($200-250) a month.
Thuy Hanh, a manager at Elite said her models earn VND30 million ($1,440) a month on average.
Long and Hanh have denied employing any models caught involved in the recent sex rings though.
Xuan had told reporters she earned VND10 million ($480) a month from modeling.
Famous designer Van Thanh Cong said it's understandable that some models sell bodies given the industry's exorbitant expenses.
"With around VND30 million a month, models without extra income from acting or commercials cannot afford Hermes of Louis Vuitton bags," Cong told Vietnam Cable Television in a recent interview.
"This creates an underbelly within the industry," Cong said.
The recent high-profile arrests reminded many people in the field of Trang Tran, a model who went public two years ago with allegations that many of her contemporaries were prostituting themselves to earn extra income.
Trang Tran suffered broad criticism for speaking badly about her colleagues, but the model said "I did not consider them colleagues, I never knew them or was on the same catwalk with them," according to Vietnam Cable Television.
According to Trang Tran, most of the models who fell into the sex industry were not famous or successful. "I never heard famous models involved."
She advised members of the media to be pickier about designating someone a model or an actor.
"A lot of models work hard every day, performing and posing for photos only to share a job title with some girls who come out of nowhere and release pictures of their breasts."