Being a model in Vietnam: a girl's dream, a father's nightmare
Ho Chi Minh City, Nov 1, 2006 - A few years ago, 21-year-old Hien Nga spent a lot of her time crouching in the mud, helping her parents tend their rice paddies in the Mekong Delta. Today, she has traded farming for fashion.
The girl from a small village outside southern Ho Chi Minh City is living what many in communist Vietnam consider to be an impossible dream -- she has been plucked from obscurity by talent scouts and is working as a model.
"I dreamed of becoming an actress while watching movies on TV," she says. "I love being a model and wearing satin dresses. It is exciting and fun -- there is no pressure like there would be at an ordinary job."
Nga once worked as a receptionist in the former Saigon, using her wages to pay for her studies in social sciences. Everything changed when she met Tran Thanh Long, who runs the city's top modeling agency Professional Look.
Soon thereafter, the 1.72-metre (5'6") Nga hung up her loose-fitting cotton blouses and trousers. Now, she wears silk and sequins.
Her fairytale is the talk of the village.
"When I go back home for Tet traditional new year holidays, some girls ask me for advice about becoming models themselves," she says.
Nga's path is not an easy one to follow, but it is one that is now within reach.
Vietnamese society, bound by both communist doctrine and Confucian beliefs, is opening up at a rapid pace -- not only to the global economy, but also to Western ideas about beauty and fashion.
In Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam's economic capital and the country's most dynamic city, being a model is now considered a real job.
"Ten years ago, there was no fashion industry in Vietnam. Teenagers used to dream about becoming actresses," explains make-up artist Nguyen Kieu Thu, who works both in film and fashion.
"Nowadays, they want to be models and expect that when they turn 25 years old they will become actresses and then singers," she said.
"Actually, they dream three times more."
But the emergence of modeling as a bona fide profession has not been without a few bumps along the way.
Even if Vietnam's teenagers have no worries about strutting their stuff on the catwalk, some of their parents are wringing their hands in dismay.
"Parents are alarmed because they imagine that being a model means seducing men," explains model Anh Thu, 24, who was discovered by Professional Look at a high school beauty contest.
The 1.71-meter, 49-kilo (108-pound) Ho Chi Minh City native with perfect teeth and shiny black hair cascading down her back to her waist is one of Vietnam's best-known models. She has even worked for a few foreign labels.
But her start in the profession six years ago was not easy.
"My father came to look for me before a fashion show and brought me back home immediately," she recalls.
"Once a girl is grown up, she is expected to get married, have children and take care of the house. She is not supposed to go out all the time and wear sexy outfits."
The perception that models are women of less-than-stellar repute is one largely created by Vietnam's media, which is entirely state-controlled when it comes to politics, but easily swept up in the thrill of a lurid tabloid scoop.
"Every time a girl who pretends to be a model takes drugs or goes out with a mafia guy, the media say that all the models do the same thing," says talent scout Long.
"Long legs, short on ideas -- this is the nickname given to models in the press," says fashion designer Ngo Thai Uyen.
But despite the large number of women who are serious about the profession, she does admit that "lots of models consider this job as a way to get famous quickly and find a good husband".
Those in the industry here are now trying to strike a balance between flighty teenagers seeking fame and serious women looking for a dash of adventure.
Nguyen Bich Ngoc, 20, falls into the latter category. The daughter of a Hanoi private businessman, Ngoc was signed up for training by the Vietnamese arm of the Elite modeling agency, one of the world's top recruiting firms.
Every two months, up to 100 young women apply to be part of the Elite program.
"Being a model was a dream but I don't see it as a long-term career. Once I become a businesswoman, I will stop being a model," she says matter-of-factly.
Ngoc is probably wise to follow her other career aspirations. Few Vietnamese models will ever stride down the world-class catwalks in Paris, Milan, London and New York, as they are not tall enough to make the cut.
Only four girls have so far been spotted by foreign modeling agencies, experts say.
The rest will work at home, where the top 10 women make between 500 and 1,200 dollars a month -- more if they manage to win an advertising contract. Beginners working for local agencies start at 180 dollars a month.
The salaries may seem meager, but they are significant in a country where average monthly income is less than 60 dollars.
In December, the Vietnam Model Award 2006 -- the first in the country -- will be organized in Ho Chi Minh City, with a first prize of 50 million dong (3,100 dollars).
"This is a good signal to bring modelling as a career in Vietnam to a more professional level", said Nguyen Thu Trang, director of TAF communications and event company, an organiser of the event.
She said a national models association will be set up to streamline and regulate the industry, and ensure it a "brighter future".
The steep odds against becoming the next Kate Moss or Gisele Bundchen are not stopping Vietnamese women from chasing their dreams, and Professional Look plans to launch evening modeling classes to satisfy increasing demand.
Models like Anh Thu say public opinion is slowly shifting.
"Some parents call us to train their children. They are sometimes only four years old," she says.
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