Death of a supermodel

Ruslana Korshunova had conquered the catwalks before turning 21. So why did she end her life by throwing herself from the ninth floor of a New York apartment block?

David Usborne
Monday 30 June 2008 00:00 BST

Like every supermodel, Ruslana Korshunova had to grow up a lot faster than the rest of us. Plucked from her native Kazakhstan by a London fashion agency at just 15 years old, within just two years she was on the catwalks of New York and on the cover of Vogue. Her almond eyes and "fairy-tale" features had given her a life of almost instantaneous success that – we might imagine now – became overwhelming.

In some ways Korshunova was still a minor, at least in the eyes of American law. She would have turned 21 this Wednesday and thus finally been allowed legally to drink in any of the myriad bars in the lower Manhattan neighbourhood where she lived. But that milestone will never be hers.

As tourists milled past on Saturday afternoon, Korshunova plunged from the balcony of her ninth-floor apartment to the ground, tearing a hole in orange construction netting on the way to the pavement below. Witnesses described hearing a crack like a gun-shot or the thwack of a drum as she made impact.

It was 2.30 pm on an exceptionally sultry New York afternoon. The young woman with a full career already travelled and surely an even brighter one still ahead, died instantly, officials said. Although a formal police investigation was launched yesterday, there were no suggestions that her death would be treated as anything other than a suicide. There was no evidence of a struggle in the flat.

For now, however, questions about what might have driven the Kazakh beauty to extinguish her life were mostly answered only by speculation. There was no indication from police that they had found a suicide note. Friends reported that she had recently returned from a job in Paris and seemed to be "on top of the world". Yet there was one place where clues to a confused heart and torn soul were to be found.

Korshunova belonged to the internet generation for whom social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace can substitute for clubs, confessionals and therapist chairs. "I am so lost. Will I ever find myself?" she wrote on one site three months ago. "I'm a bitch. I'm a witch. I don't care what you say."

The fashion industry is not unaware that its stars, brought into the media glare at such young ages, face pressures they can barely cope with. Two years ago, after the death from starvation of the Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston, a campaign was launched to protect the young women from taking their quests for thinness too far. Fashion week organisers in Madrid, Milan and elsewhere instituted minimum body-mass ratios for girls on their runways.

But even girls who can handle the perils of eating disorders have other issues to deal with, most of them having to do simply with life coming at them too quickly. And some fight a kind of loneliness that cities such as New York can sometimes make more acute and which cannot be cured by dawdling on Facebook.

Korshunova's journey began back in 2003. Debbie Jones, a principal with the leading European agency Models 1, spotted her photograph in an in-flight magazine article. It was about Korshunova's efforts as a teenager in Almaty, Kazakhstan's largest city, to learn German. Ms Jones was mesmerised by her features. "She looked like something out of a fairytale!" she was to recall later. "We had to find her and we searched high and low until we did! She's really incredible, with feline features and timeless beauty."

Even before appearing in the 2005 New York Fashion Week modelling for Marc Jacobs, Korshunova had a portfolio to make her peers as green as her bright eyes. She had posed for the likes of Mario Sorrenti, Paolo Roversi and Willy Van Der Perre and appeared in campaigns for Kenzo, Clarins and Paul Smith. More recently, she modelled for Kenzo, Vera Wang, Nina Ricci, Donna Karan and Christian Dior. Her magazine covers extended from Russian Vogue to French Elle. British Vogue identified hers as a "face to be excited about," while some fashion writers dubbed her the "Russian Rapunzel".

"We're shocked and our heart goes out to her family," a spokesman for IMG, the US agency who had recently been representing her, said. A former boyfriend, Artem Perchenok, 24, told the New York Post he had dropped Korshunova off at her apartment in the early hours of Saturday morning after they had watched the Demi Moore film Ghost together. "She was a good person," he added, simply. A doorman in the building confirmed seeing her return and said that there was nothing to suggest she was unhappy.

A friend, Kira Titeneva, rushed to her apartment late on Saturday, still unable to grasp the tragedy. "We were talking on the phone last night," she said. "She loved life so much. She was an angel." A friend from the city in Kazakhstan where they grew up, she added that Korshunova "wasn't wild. She was never on drugs or anything." Another person, who said she was a friend, said the model had seemed "on top of the world," adding: "There were no signs. That's what's driving me crazy."

But there were signs on her blog. Not everything in her life apparently made sense to her. Her entries were alternately in Russian and English. Some seemed optimistic, while others were bleak. "Life is short, Break the rules, Forgive quickly, Kiss slowly, Love truly, Laugh uncontrollably," she offered in a short poem. "And never regret anything that made you smile." But in January she made this tormented entry: "It hurts, as if someone took a part of me, tore it out, mercilessly stomped all over and threw it out. My dream is to fly. Oh, my rainbow, it is too high."

Models who met tragic ends

The Brazilian model Ana Carolina Reston, who started modelling at 13, died in 2006 at the age of 21 due to kidney malfunction brought on by anorexia. Her diet had consisted only of tomatoes and apples. At the time of her death she weighed just six stone.

The American Gia Marie Carangi, considered to be one of the first supermodels, graced magazine covers in the 1970s and 1980s. After her agent died in her early 20s, she descended into heroin addiction. Later, she contracted the HIV virus and died of Aids, aged 26.

The American model Heather Bratton was featured on the covers of Vogue and other magazines was tipped as the next big thing. She was 19 when she was killed in a car crash in 2006.

The Irish model and socialite Katy French made numerous television appearances and courted controversy in the country when she announced that she supported a woman's right to abortion. In 2007, at the age of 24, she collapsed at a friend's house party after suffering brain damage. It is thought her death was caused by a cocaine overdose.

Charlotte Browne

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