When Irina Pantaeva grew up in Siberia, she dreamt about owning a pair of Levi's. Now, she's the new face of Levi's - and supermodeldom beckons
LEVI'S JEANS have always been marketed worldwide along with generous helpings of Americana. In Britain, advertising for the brand (which since "Laundrette" in 1985 has been the work of the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty) has kept the focus firmly on the US. The pioneer girls in the Mid-Western creek; the swimmer in the Califor-nian pool; the transvestite in New York - all have sold a slice of State-side, along with the indigo dye, rivets and famous double-stitching. Even in Japan, where Levi's racked up total sales of $3bn last year and has cornered 20 per cent of the Japanese jeans market, Western models have been chosen to promote the brand because they look "All-American".

Back home, however, Levi's wants to change this image. Photographer Albert Watson and Stephen Wille, art director of Levi's US advertising agency, have chosen Irina Pantaeva to promote the Levi's Silver Tab brand. She is about as far away from the milk-and-honey American girl next door as her name suggests.

Irina is Russian and, at the age of 22, old enough to remember the black market in Levi's jeans that thrived under the Soviet system. But Irina never actually owned a pair as a teenager, because she doesn't hail from Moscow, or from any other relatively accessible Russian city. She's from Ulan-Ude, a town near Lake Baikal in Siberia - and she's an Esk-imo (her own description - she says the politically correct word "Inuit" has yet to reach her home town).

Why has Levi's chosen someone with oriental looks? Not for politically- correct reasons, but for economic ones: the fastest-growing consumer market worldwide - both in America and beyond - is Asian. In 1991, Asian-American buying power represented $35bn, and that power is growing all the time. One of the reasons for this is that a new breed of second-generation Asians in Amer-ican cities, whose parents have worked in convenience stores, scrimping and saving for their children's education, is now emerging in the US. Armed with their MBAs, sporting designer clothes and driving smart cars, they aspire to own exactly the same scents and cosmetics as any other high-earning Americans in their age group.

Katie Ford is chairman of Ford Models, Irina's agency, and is confident that Irina will be the first Asian supermodel. "The Asian population of the US has exploded. The second generation has arrived with its huge earning power, and advertisers are acutely aware of this. Add to this all the changes in boom-time Asia and the fact that Western influence is declining now. Women there want to see more Asian faces. Irina has star quality, and photo- graphers love her..."

Until two years ago, only a handful of oriental models had hit the big- time: China Machado in the Sixties, Tina Chow and Arianne in the late Seventies. But these three were seen mainly as "exotics". Today, there is a score of increasingly mainstream high-profile Asian faces in the West: Navia Nguyen, an American whose mother is from Saigon; Jenny Shimuzu, a Japanese American with buzz-cut hair and bold tattoos; Yui, a Thai teenager who is now getting top-level work in the West; and Stephanie Loup of Bangkok, who won the first Asian megamodel contest, held on the Pacific island of Guam.

Big league advertisers now admit, off the record, that when it came to signing black faces 20 years ago, they were slow off the mark. Although the first black woman to appear on the cover of US Vogue was Beverly Johnson in 1974, and Iman was an early supermodel in the Eighties, it was not until 1992 that Veronica Webb signed a contract with Revlon and Lara Ogilvie signed with Cover Girl. Yet African-American buying power represented $218bn in 1991; had the cosmetic giants moved quicker, some of this money could easily have found its way into their coffers. Instead, small, independent cosmetics companies formed by black women gained a toe-hold in a tough market place, the most famous example being Iman's own hugely successful line, which was launched in conjunction with JC Penney. The beauty giants don't want to make the same mistake this time around.

But the big players are aiming beyond the Asian-American market. In the vastly wealthy Pacific Rim, the people of the prospering economies of Japan, Thailand, Taiwan and China are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the notion that products should be sold to them via white-skinned, caucasian-featured people. Retailer Joyce Ma has already established a designer fashion chain of shops that rivals anything in the West, and Donna Karan has now established links in Asia, where the glossy magazine market now includes Hong Kong Elle, Singapore Vogue and Joyce Ma's pan- oriental Joyce magazine (the slickest of the lot).

IRINA has already done phenomenally well. In little over a year, she has found herself on the catwalks of Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Anna Sui, as well as in front of the cameras of all the leading photographers: Irving Penn, Steven Meisel, Peter Lindbergh and Albert Watson among them. This is partly because of her own personal qualities - looks not specific to any race - combined with unusual height for an Asian - but also because of what she represents. Photographers in the several-million-dollars-a- year bracket have a big say in what models they shoot for big advertising campaigns - and there are no campaigns bigger than those for Revlon, Cover Girl, Estee Lauder and the like. None of these has an Asian model under contract, and most of them, it is rumoured, are currently eager to sign up an Asian Claudia Schiffer or Cindy Crawford. Irina Pantaeva is expected, in the not-too-distant future, to be signing on a dotted line for a cosmetic contract worth between $800,000 and $1m.

IRINA was 16 years old when she won the local beauty pageant in Ulan- Ude. It was during the golden dawn of Perestroika, that brief period in the late Eighties when beauty competitions - which have since been discredited - seemed to celebrate the multi-culturalism of the new Russia. In the audience at the pageant was a talent scout for Studio Gorky, the now-defunct Russian equivalent to Disney, who was searching for an unknown to play the princess in a film called The Travels of Hadza Nasredini. Irina secured the part, as well as her ticket out of Siberia. Shortly afterwards, at an all-Russia beauty contest in Moscow - which she failed to win - she was spotted by a photographer, Roland Levin, a Latvian Jew and political exile on a brief visit to Moscow. They met, fell in love, and before going back to America, he invited Irina to join him and wrote her the required letter to get a visa.

Things turned out to be more complicated. "I took Roland's invitation to the ministry in Moscow," recalls Irina, "but they said, 'You must apply from your own home town.' " She travelled the 3,510 miles home, only to discover that "they had never seen such a paper and they said they would not give me a visa." Irina had no option but to abandon the idea. As telephoning Roland in America was not an option - "It is impossible to get an international line from Siberia" - she headed back to Moscow.

When she arrived there, she was cast in the first-ever fashion show in Red Square, organised by Pierre Cardin. Spurred on by the glamorous reputation of Paris, she applied for, and was eventually granted, a tourist visa to visit the city. When Irina got there, despite the restrictions of her visa, she tried to work as a model, but met with little success. She was determined, however, not to go home. When her visa was about to expire, she decided to try to secure an American one, despite warnings that her Russian passport would make this virtually impossible.

But if there is one thing Irina Pantaeva has, it is dogged persistence. At the American consulate in Paris, she was told to go back to Moscow and apply for one from there. "Listen," Irina told the officials, "Moscow is not my town." When the consulate guards were sent to move her outside, she refused to budge. "You are men and I am a woman," she told the startled guards. "You are not allowed to touch me. I want to go to America." She didn't move for three hours.

Eventually, Irina's name was called and there followed long and elaborate questioning by the American consul. She fielded so many questions about her life "that eventually I said, 'Listen, we can go somewhere else and we can sit down and I will answer all your questions about my life, but please, let me go to America.' I think the consul got tired first." The visa was granted.

One of Irina's first American assignments proved fateful. Just after she arrived, she was thrilled to be cast in a fashion show for Anna Sui. As she walked down the catwalk, her image came into focus through the lenses of the hundreds of photographers packed into the show tent. But one of them stopped dead in his tracks. It was Roland Levin, the photographer she had met in Moscow. To cut a long story short, they married soon after.

But despite her new-found success, Irina retains a healthy cynicism for the American way of life. "It is too well done," she says. "Americans don't have to use parts of their brains; they just push a button. In the place I grew up, to get some food, you had to make some effort. In America, they will even tell you what to eat..."

"Irina is a very special, unique woman who reflects what is now the rich fabric of American life. She is the classic Levi's girl," says Stephen Wille, the campaign's art director, with no trace of irony. Irina's husband finds hilarious the notion of a woman from the camp of a former socialist enemy being paid to promote a quintessentially capitalist American brand. "There is nothing more American than a Russian Eskimo," he jokes. !