China's child modelling industry booms amid controversy
Beijing – Manicured children strut down the catwalk at a Beijing fashion show, one of thousands of events driving huge demand for child models in China that insiders warn leaves minors vulnerable to physical abuse, 12-hour days and unrelenting pressure from pushy parents.
The kids’ apparel market is growing faster than any other clothing sector in the country and was worth more than US$40.5 billion (S$56b) in 2018, according to Euromonitor.
This combined with the rise of “kidfluencers” sponsored by brands to promote products on social media is spurring greater demand for young models – but experts warn of the heavy cost of pursuing such deals.
“If children don’t listen to the parents, then I think hitting them is quite standard,” said Lee Ku, founder of Le Show Stars modelling school.
In an industry where minors can earn 10,000 yuan (S$1,977) a session, Lee added that violent behaviour from parents was not unusual on shoots.
Child models sometimes go through more than 100 outfit changes in a session, often working from morning till night.
But mental health experts warn it is not just physical exhaustion they have to contend with – there may be long-term emotional implications.
“Children from the age of zero to six are mentally developing, they need a lot of exploration and freedom,” said child psychologist Gong Xueping.
“At work, the child model will deliberately show a lot of different expressions... but this is contrary to the child’s own feelings of the moment. This limits the development of both emotional abilities and more complex psychological abilities for children, so I think it’s a very bad choice.”
But there remains no shortage of parents interested in pushing their children into the profession.
Founded three years ago, Le Show Stars was one of the first modelling schools in Beijing, where customers pay up to 800 yuan for a private one-on-one lesson.
Four-year-old twins Yumi and Yuki Xiao are not yet professional models but for nearly two years they have been taking classes where they are taught how to pose and pace the catwalk in the hopes that they can break into the industry.
Like many other parents, their father Xiao Liang says he initially enrolled the two in child modelling to build their self-confidence, but after Yumi and Yuki showed interest they started to invest more time and money into building a possible child modelling career path for them.
Occasionally, the twins are paid to model seasonal fashion lines for big brands.
“I think they are one of a kind. Firstly, they’re twins, and they’re also boy-girl twins,” said Mr Xiao. “They also like it, which is why we are giving them this opportunity. I think they have a natural advantage over other kids.” - AFP