YVES Saint Laurent went to Russia first, in the mid-Seventies. He found what he was looking for - models with a difference. They had high cheekbones, strong features and a certain arrogance that made them stand out on the catwalk.

Years on, Russian models still do their bit on the catwalk for Yves Saint Laurent, but they are no longer a chosen few. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of young women are arriving from the East, from countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union or the Soviet sphere, from Russia, Latvia, Uzbekistan, Poland, the Czech Republic.

The big European and American model agencies are also sending their scouts east, hoping to find new girls such as Eva Herzigova, a schoolgirl from Prague who moved west at the age of 16 and now earns hundreds of thousands of dollars. They jump at the chance to move to the West because they believe they will make their fortunes. Paris fashion is their favourite destination in Europe. A British model agency boss explains it: 'It's simple. They think the streets of Paris are paved with Vogue covers.' In the United States, they will go anywhere. It is perceived as the land at the end of the rainbow, the land of plenty.

But Inga, 22, from Odessa, does not see it that way. She has been in Los Angeles for 10 months and is very unhappy. 'I don't like American people,' she told me in stumbling English. 'I love my country. I miss my country.'

We were talking at the agency for which she works. She had come in for a casting session where the stylist wanted her to try on a skimpy swimsuit. She did not like the idea one bit. Her boyfriend, a young Mexican, sat in the background, brooding, watching with an air of suspicion.

Inga was lucky. She had connections - a cousin on the west coast, who invited her and helped finance her trip to the States. Most young women do not have the means to travel outside Russia. So when model agency bosses from the West come on scouting trips, teenagers queue up at hotels in Moscow in the hope of a free air ticket (and a visa).

E J Steele, 31, a co-partner of Profile, one of London's most respected model agencies, was one of the first to make the trip to Moscow, in 1989. 'We arranged it with a Russian company, with the idea of maybe setting up a permanent office in Moscow. I realised very quickly that I was at a severe disadvantage as a woman. The Russian boys were sipping vodkas, slapping backs and flourishing pens. Every man from the Russian company wanted to be at the casting, for the voyeurism, watching the girls parading up and down in swimsuits.'

Steele had severe doubts, but she decided to try a second trip. 'That's when I found Lilia, who is still with us now. I remember there were a couple of girls who came over from Latvia on an overnight train. I felt they were being taken advantage of; they ended up that evening with a couple of guys from the Russian agency.'

Steele is now sceptical about looking for girls in Russia and Eastern Europe, but every other agency is still on the hunt. She picks up a phone, dials Paris. 'Bruno? Ciao, baby. Do you have any Russian girls? No? Ah, yes, Czech girls. Jean-Luc has been to Prague?'

Every model agency is always on the lookout for new faces. The agency headhunters dream of finding a future supermodel: a new Kate Moss, maybe, from the Urals rather than Croydon, who might one day earn them a fortune (agencies take a 20 per cent cut of the fees of the models on their books, a million-dollar earner is good news indeed).

But for every model that makes a fortune, there are hundreds who get nowhere. It is exceptionally difficult for them to get work permits or visas. The sensible or well advised give up, try something different, or return home. Others find themselves drifting into 'glamour' modelling (which often means topless or nude work), on the verge of a slippery slope that can lead to hostess and bar 'entertaining', go-go dancing and prostitution.

But the picture is not all gloomy. Debby Barry, formerly of Elle, now a freelance stylist working in London, says: 'The models I've used love their families and talk about them all the time, but don't be misled. Sometimes they might seem nave, but they are acute businesswomen. They are very sharp indeed.'

In Paris and Milan, however, there are teenagers speaking halting French or Italian or a few words of English, living together in flats on the wrong side of town; living in hope. Modelling can be a cruel business at the best of times; what can the future hold for hundreds of young women who head west with raised expectations. There are very few Vogue covers to go round, even on the streets of Paris.

I had to lose my swimming muscles

Alla Sheptunova, 21, from Latvia, is with the Wilhelmina model agency and lives in Los Angeles.

I DID not come here to model. I came to teach swimming and gymnastics to American kids at summer camp in Santa Cruz. I was a professional swimmer from the age of 13, champion in Latvia in everything; backstroke, freestyle. The pay wasn't so good - dollars 20 a week - but I came for fun. You know, back home it's every girl's dream to get out, to get to somewhere like this.

Afterwards I managed to stay on and work as an au pair until I met a modelling agent through a friend. I had to lose all my muscles from swimming when I started modelling. I went to Paris for a couple of months, and the only way you can get a job there is if you look sick. They want bones sticking through everywhere.

Paris is full of Russians. Every third girl seems to be Russian, but I have more of a Scandinavian than a Russian look. I've travelled a lot: Paris, Milan, New York, Miami. I didn't earn much in Paris, but I was working every day in Milan. The discipline of swimming has helped me; many of the models do not know what real discipline is - they cancel a dollars 10,000 booking because they don't feel well, or their boyfriend doesn't want it.

I make as much money in an hour as my mother makes in a year. She's an accountant. So I'm sending money home all the time to help, and I call once a week. I have my own car, my own place, it's great. I have dreams that all my friends could come here just to see everything.

It hasn't always been easy, though. I was crying for a whole year, you know. People are so different over here. They change their minds in one second. There are lots of fakes, smiling away and then saying awful things about you behind your back. It's easier for me now because I have learnt to accept it.

Maybe I go to America

Marianna Petrovskaya, 16, a City agency model, is from Moscow. She lives in Paris.

I WON first place in a photo-model festival, and then I was with an agency in Moscow, but I could not work there. It's impossible. There is nothing.

I am in Paris seven months. My mother came here for one month with me to look around. My father is a businessman. I write letters home every week.

I work for City for two weeks. Before, I was with another agency, which is too small.

I live in a flat with two models, one American, one Russian. You want to see Alla, too? She is at home in bed now.

I eat salads and lots of chewing gum. I do not eat butter with my bread. I like skateboarding, horse- riding and swimming.

Will I stay here? I don't know. I have not seen another country. Maybe I go to America.

Chauvinism here is almost non-existent

Lilia Kadirova, 21, from Uzbekistan, models with the Profile agency and is living in London.

I LEFT home in 1990 to study languages at the university in Moscow. A friend suggested I attend a model casting session in a hotel, where I met E J Steele from Profile in London. She asked me on the spot if I would like to go to Britain. There were lots of dodgy people looking for girls in Moscow for different purposes, but somehow it was easier for me to trust another woman.

It all happened very quickly, but I didn't have any doubts. I really wanted to learn English, and London is the best place to learn it. I stayed with E J for six months, but now I live with my boyfriend in Swiss Cottage. He's an art dealer. I met him nine months ago through a model friend.

I went back home at Christmas. You don't realise how bad it is when you are living there. People have an attitude problem. Nothing is possible without connections with the mafia or the right sort of friends. My parents, who are both engineers, were very upset when I came here. I had dropped out of university after only two months. They still think I wasn't right, but how was I going to survive? Basically, I know that it's exploitation, but it's very hard for a woman to make a decent living in Russia, unless you get married. And there's so much chauvinism, especially if you're pretty. I used to get followed on the street by men in cars.

I did a little modelling in Tashkent, when I was very young, for a local couture house, if you can call it that.

My father was strongly opposed to it. Modelling is a much more risky way of life in Russia. There are so many men hanging round fashion houses trying to pick up girls. I hate that sort of chauvinism. Here, the chauvinism is so mild that it is almost non-

existent.

The work is good at the moment, but it could be better. I did a wonderful job in Barbados for Options. It was absolutely gorgeous, and when I got back to London, it was pissing down with rain. But no, I won't leave. I don't think I will ever live in Russia again.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments