China doll

A Canadian model brings glamour to the East.

Tracey Grebinsky could be the girl next door. A slender five-feet, seven-inches tall, with short blond hair and blue eyes, the 28-year-old Regina native is, by most North American standards, at least conventionally pretty. But launching a modelling career is difficult in Canada where there are many slender, blond, blue-eyed women–and many who are taller. In China, though, Grebinsky is exotic. White skin is prized in the Middle Kingdom (cosmetics often contain whitening agents) and her face and figure have appeared on magazines, billboards and television, both in commercials and dramas. In a country that has grown ravenous for western-style commercialism, Grebinsky has been one of its first and most successful representatives, posing for such clients as Canon cameras and Pierre Cardin, as well as many Chinese brands. Recently, she was featured on banners for Heirsen Jewelry in Beijing's largest shopping mall, the Oriental Plaza, dressed as an angel wearing diamonds.

After four years of pioneering opportunities for foreign models in Beijing and Shanghai, Grebinsky is now a veteran, and an eyewitness to the growing pains of an industry that is still in its infancy. If Milan is an A market for modelling, and Spain a B market, she says China is still considered a C market–but it's starting to get a lot of attention. “Just like every industry in China right now, it's developing so rapidly,” she says. “And the amount of work that's happening is phenomenal. It's going to be very interesting to see what happens in the next two years.”

As China has opened its doors to the world, advertising media have rushed in. With a population of 1.3 billion people driving what could be the 21st century's defining global economic boom, China has an advertising market worth US$34.3 billion, according to U.K.-based Zenith Optimedia. Ken Koo, a Canadian design and branding guru who opened an office in Shanghai last fall that is affiliated with Montreal-based ad agency Cossette Communications Group, has seen a dramatic improvement in the sophistication of Chinese advertising. “A lot of advertising in China right now is made with an imported image,” says Koo, “whether you see J.Lo representing Louis Vuitton or you see a Brad Pitt billboard. A Chinese brand may want to do the same thing.” It's not just fashion and cosmetics, either, but cars, real estate, food, beverages, household products–anything that could benefit from the perception in China that foreign products are of higher quality. Says Koo: “That's why Caucasian models are desirable, because it gives an instant import image, even if it is a local product.”

Much of the change has only occurred in the past few years. When Grebinsky started, in 2001, very few professional models travelled to China for work. If a Chinese advertising campaign or a fashion catalogue called for a foreign face, it was often just an attractive westerner working or living in China that had little or no modelling experience. That's how Grebinsky was discovered: on a two-month visit to a friend in Beijing from Vancouver, where she was working as an esthetician, she met Rainbow Gao, a former Chinese model who was running a small agency. Gao (who goes by Rainbow because it's the English meaning of her Chinese name, Tianhong) offered to help Grebinsky find work. On a whim, the Canadian said yes. A month passed, she says, “and then all of sudden, bang! I was booked solid, modelling and acting. Two months ended up being just over a year, and I got hooked.”

Today, Grebinsky is making a transition from model to mentor: Gao hired her to help manage the growing demand for western beauties. Gao founded Baystar Model Management in 1998 as an agency for foreign models, and now has a Shanghai office and a penthouse office in Beijing. Baystar represents 31 male and female models exclusively in China, but since 2000 has brought in some 450. Using contacts at other agencies around the world, Gao flies in some 20 to 30 models a month, puts them up in in Beijing or Shanghai and covers living expenses. Any more than that, and there isn't enough work. “Foreign faces are easier to photograph from each angle,” Gao says. “A Chinese face is really flat.” And, she adds, local models still lack confidence. “Foreign models sell some of the brands more successfully.”

Grebinsky, who is continuing to model, has been one of Gao's most successful clients. Even now, as more international professionals compete for work, Gao says Grebinsky is one of her most requested faces. One key to her success: her height. Chinese clothing manufacturers request models under five-feet-nine, and on average, Gao's models are slightly taller than that. Between January 2002 and February 2003, she did 30 catalogues, three TV shows, two commercials and two runway shows. Last August, Grebinsky worked just nine days, but booked 10 jobs. “They just want qualified people, and now,” she says.

A big market for foreign models is clothing catalogues, which designers publish to market their seasonal lines to retailers. Gao says there are 10,000 clothing design firms in China; when the government began cracking down on copying western brands in recent years, many local firms created their own. One strategy is to use designs from New York or Italy, Gao says, and create a brand name that sounds foreign. Using an international model plays up that angle. The average day rate for a catalogue shoot is 8,300 yuan ($1,250). If a model works a lot, she can make 10 times that in a month. It is rare that she loses money. “There are a lot of people who come to build their [portfolio],” says Grebinsky. “Before they go to Milan, they can come to China, get a lot of pictures, and go.”

But few westerners are cut out for life in China. Although modelling is often a transient profession, in the past two years, Grebinsky says she knows of only three out of some 120 foreign models who came to work in China who are still there permanently. “Some people crack, some people fight, some people just go home,” says Grebinsky. It's easy to feel small and insignificant in places as crowded and chaotic as Chinese cities. “People go through a lot of personal growth here because it's such a different country than what they're used to,” says Grebinsky. “It's a matter of understanding the pattern to the chaos, finding your place amongst it.” She has her own love-hate relationship with China. “I will have the best day and the worst day of my life in one day. As crazy as it is, for some reason, I love it. It makes me feel like I'm living, because I feel those emotions every day.”

Although Grebinsky says she gets paid less than what a top model would command in New York or Milan, her income still provides a very high standard of living. She and a friend share a modern apartment that has two bedrooms and a study for 5,500 yuan ($830) a month in Sanlitun, a trendy area of Beijing that is home to many embassies. With her new job, she is working 50 hours a week, although it doesn't seem very taxing to her. “I'm choosing which beautiful people can come and hang out with me for the summer,” she says. “Is that work to you?”

It is definitely better than what Grebinsky encountered when she first started modelling. China did not have a structured industry like in the West. Formal binding contracts didn't exist. Work came by word of mouth, and there were many middlemen along the way. Makeup artists didn't know what good makeup was, photographers struggled with lighting. Grebinsky never really knew what rate she was being paid versus what others got for the use of her image. Some days she would pose for two eight-hour catalogue shoots back-to-back. She persevered, and drew upon 16 years of dance training to perform for the camera.

Although the modelling industry is becoming more professional, with standard contracts and fewer shady operators, Grebinsky warns models en route to China that it's still not the same as in North America or Europe. “If they're coming here expecting Milan, they should just go to Milan,” she says. Castings, for instance, take longer than in the West because there are often groups of people making decisions together, and the Chinese haven't developed an eye for foreign supermodels yet–foreigners all look the same sometimes. A confident, positive attitude is key. “They rely a lot on how the model makes them feel, rather than the way the model looks,” she says.

With her new role at Baystar, Grebinsky expects to stay in China for at least another couple of years. “It's getting more and more exciting here,” she says. “I've put in too much of my soul to miss it. I've been trying to leave this place for four years. I've finally just given in.”