Child modeling in China is one baby-booming business. With the casual dismissal of any “child labor” mention, the seduction of the limelight blinds common sense as it leads many a parent to submerge their offspring into the adult world of fashion retailing. Ni Dandan writes for The Sixth Tone.
Temper Magazine’s Trending segment casts a net upon all that is throwing tantrums within the world of China Fashion across a variety of global sources. This very necessary segment makes for a collection of largely non-Temper Magazine-original content dipping its toe into the deep indigo-dyed pool that is the ocean of Middle Kingdom fashionable astonishment.
This time around, we acquaint ourselves with the trending work hour trials and toy story tribulations of China’s child model, courtesy of Ni Dandan for The Sixth Tone.
With catwalks, camera posing and modeling events catering to your every kiddie fashion retailer need, hundreds of thousands of child models in China have been swept up by the wave of the nation’s booming e-commerce industry. China’s labor laws do not cover the industry, given that — at least in the eyes of the parents, agencies, and studios involved — a small child posing in a cute outfit does not constitute child labor. Additionally, there are no industry regulations that guarantee a minimum wage or limit the number of hours a child can work in one day. Moreover, engaging a child between the highly impressionable ages of 2 and 7 years old in the “adult world” might damage the formation of their personality and cognitive ability.
Ni traveled to Zhejiang Province, East China, to investigate this story of “toys and tiaras”.
At 2 o’clock on a Thursday afternoon in March, when most toddlers at Hangzhou’s Kid Castle bilingual kindergarten are taking a nap, one bed is empty. Its owner, 5-year-old Huai Miluo, has taken another leave of absence and is spending the entire day pursuing her career in child modeling.
Between photos, the angelic-looking Miluo scribbles a drawing on a cluttered dressing table while assistants see to her hair and prepare her next outfit, the fourth of dozens she will wear over the course of the day. She has the air of an industry veteran. It makes sense — she’s been modeling clothes for online fashion outlets for eight months now, a significant stretch of time given her tender age.
But Miluo — one of hundreds of thousands of child models in China swept up by the wave of the nation’s booming e-commerce industry — doesn’t hide her frustration at missing out on the playtime that is normally a staple for children her age. “I prefer my kindergarten because there are a lot of toys there,” says Miluo. “But my mother brought me here.”
“Here” is Catfree Kids, a photography studio in Hangzhou that specializes in child modeling. The large room in which the day’s photo shoot is happening is populated with an odd collection of uninviting props. Instead of the toys back at her kindergarten, she is surrounded by a broken washing machine splashed with yellow paint, a wooden cupboard, a simple dressing table, a couch, and a computer desk. Miluo — who also goes by the nickname Lele, literally meaning “joy joy” — grows impatient after hours in front of the camera, and she retreats to a corner when she’s finally had enough.
Miluo’s mother, Tan Cuidong, maintains that her daughter’s modeling is just “another type of fun” and likens it to any other extracurricular activity. Tan, 32, also hopes that the experience will be good for her daughter’s development and instill her with confidence.
But there is another motive: Child modeling in China can be highly lucrative. One month after Miluo became a child model last year, Tan quit her job as a fashion designer to ensure that she and her daughter were in a position to accept any job offers that came their way. Now, Tan says, the money Miluo earns modeling — she can model around 50 outfits in one day and gets between 50 and 80 yuan (around $7-$12) per outfit — constitutes a considerable subsidy for the family’s expenses, more than enough to cover Miluo’s 10,000 yuan-per-semester tuition fees at the kindergarten.
China’s child modeling industry began to thrive in 2014, and there are already hundreds of thousands of parents like Tan who are passionate about turning their children into stars, either on the catwalk or in front of the camera posing for clothing retailers. Almost 150,000 families have entered their children in a catwalk contest scheduled for May, organized by the China Children Model Association — which, in addition to organizing modeling events, aims to regulate a market that is beset by agencies with little regard for the well-being of the child models.
Zhang Peng, the association’s secretary-general, estimates that child modeling agencies in China number in the thousands. “While some bigger ones might have started to consider making efforts to regulate this market, smaller agencies are struggling to survive,” he tells Sixth Tone. “For them, making money is the main concern.”
China’s labor laws do not cover the industry, given that — at least in the eyes of the parents, agencies, and studios involved — a small child posing in a cute outfit does not constitute child labor. There are also no industry regulations that guarantee a minimum wage or limit the number of hours a child can work in one day.
Miluo regularly spends up to eight hours in the studio, and for her recent photo shoot, she ends up working for 11 hours. The temperature outside is around 3 degrees Celsius, and Miluo, modeling summer skirts, is sneezing by the afternoon despite the air conditioner running in the room. Wearing a thick down coat, her mother tells her to concentrate on the shoot and follow the photographer’s instructions so they can get the job done quickly…
Care to find out what went on behind Miluo’s modeling mayhem scenes and see how those other pretty kiddies fare in this ambitious model-mommy market? Read more of Ni’s report right here, on The Sixth Tone!