In his office in the futuristic-looking Ramat Hahayal industrial park north of Tel Aviv, Robert Ben-Shushan, founder of Roberto Models, looked over the application, his expression neutral. On the other side of his big desk sat Dina Brandell, 17, a good-looking, black-haired girl from Karmiel in a black jacket and tight jeans with a piercing above her lip. She was with her mother, Nelia, also dressed in black.
Ben-Shushan's cellphone rang. It was Moran Attias, his top model and possibly the country's No. 2 after Bar Refaeli, calling from Italy. "I'll try to put together a chunk of money from each one, tell me how much it costs," he said in his quiet, confident voice. "Give me some options... Moran, I've got somebody here, let me call you back... Think about dates."
"I'm sorry," he tells the Brandells, then asks Dina what her ambitions are, and she says she's also a singer, then Ben-Shushan gets to the point.
"You're aware that you're a little short." Dina, who's 1.65 meters tall, and her mother take this in.
"There's a little problem," he goes on. "Actually there's a big problem. The minimum height for a model is 1.75 meters. You're pretty, you could be an actress, but don't try for modeling because they don't hire short models. You wouldn't have any advantage over the other pretty girls, only a disadvantage. But who knows, maybe another agency would tell you something different."
On the wall behind him are blown-up photos of fashion magazine covers featuring Moran Attias and other models represented by Roberto, one of the five or six leading agencies in the country. On a display shelf is a signed photograph of Ariel Sharon. In a corner stands a weight-and-height scale.
"So that's it," he says nicely enough, and the Brandells thank him and leave.
In the lobby, where there are more Roberto cover girls on the walls and a coffee table heaped with fashion magazines, I ask Dina how she feels. "Bassa [lousy], but not that much." She says she's going to send her photos to another agency and see what it says. "Everyone tells me I should try modeling," she says. Especially her mother, Nelia. "I also tried modeling when I was 17, in Tashkent. I'm 1.67 meters, and they told me I wasn't tall enough, either," she laughs. The Brandells are going back to Karmiel unshaken, ready to plan their next foray into Tel Aviv.
Ben-Shushan's very rough estimate is that there are about 2,000 female models in Israel who work at least from time to time and can legitimately call themselves professional fashion models. As for those who work once in a blue moon or never at all - the wannabes - he figures there are 10,000 of them or even 20,000. The closest thing there is to an official statistic, and it's only for models under 18, comes from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, which issued 3,003 working permits last year, the girls receiving a slight majority.
Chances are, though, that the numbers are rising now that Hod Hasharon's Bar Refaeli has reached the symbolic top of the fashion modeling industry - the cover of Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit edition, which came out February 11.
"Bar Refaeli is a combination of the girl next door and your wildest fantasy," says Ben-Shushan. "She's beautiful, she's sexy. She's got it all. And she's dedicated."
The story is that Refaeli's mother, Tzipi, a one-time successful model herself, pushed her daughter to the top. "I read that when Bar was 15, her mother went into Pilpel [a fashion company that starred Refaeli in its ad campaign] and told them, 'Listen, my daughter is the most beautiful girl alive, you've got to hire her, and that's it,'" said Sivan Siboni, one of Roberto's up-and-coming models.
There's a lot of admiration among local models for Refaeli's achievement - and a little envy. "I wouldn't want to make it because of my mother and my boyfriend," said one model, referring to Refaeli's consort Leonardo DiCaprio.
There are Bar Refaeli, Moran Attias, Shiraz Tal, Galit Guttman, Miri Bohadana, Sheli Gafni, Shirli Buganim and a few other Israeli star models - those who fly all over the world to be photographed for ad campaigns and magazine covers, to strut down the runway in fashion shows and to make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year doing it.
"That's the dream that keeps all these models going," says Tzahi Vazana, a fashion photographer who's photographed "thousands" of models from Sheli Gafni and Shirli Buganim to 14-year-old beginners posing for their first set of photos - or "book" - to e-mail to agents and companies.
"The money, the parties, the high life - that's the dream. And it doesn't come true," says Vazana. "Models usually work as waitresses or bartenders to make money while they're sending out their photos and going to auditions. Maybe once in a very long while they'll get lucky and make $300 or $400 for a day's work. Almost none of them make a living from it."
Out of a thousand girls who e-mail their photos to Roberto Models in the hope of getting signed, Ben-Shushan says he'll choose one. I ask how many Israeli girls who call themselves models earn a living from it. "Two hundred," he figures, out of maybe 10,000 or even 20,000. Asked how many active Israeli models are actually living the dream Vazana described, Vazana said: "Not more than 10."
ONE OF those 10, he says, is Yeva Don. A sign of Don's success is the cover photo on the Turkish edition of Elle that hangs in Roberto's lobby. A couple of weeks ago she was sitting in front of a mirror at a photographer's studio in an industrial area of South Tel Aviv, having her hair styled and her toenails painted dark brown for a photo session for La'isha women's magazine.
I'd met her earlier at Roberto's office, and even with my untrained eye I could see that she's got something special, that she's more than another beautiful face and body. At 24, an immigrant from the Urals, she looks like an idealized, Eurasian Pocahontas with wide, prominent cheekbones, big round eyes and a bow-shaped mouth. She moves with languorous grace and answers questions with spontaneity and intelligence. I asked what she thought her image was, how people in the industry saw her. "They say I'm sexy," she replied with an embarrassed smile. "They say I'm like a chameleon - I change from being sexy to a little girl in a second."
The photographer's studio was cluttered with boxes of shoes and racks of clothing. Some sort of techno music with an incessant beat was coming out of the speakers. Don was modeling the upcoming summer fashions of 24 Israeli clothing companies. With her in the studio were the photographer, Nir Yaffe, a producer from La'isha, a hairdresser, a makeup woman and two assistants to keep all the clothes, shoes and accessories in order for Don to throw them on and off.
Finished at the mirror, she came out to the all-white set, quickly put on a safari outfit in a leopard-skin pattern, took out her gum and waited for the photographer's cue. "Yalla," he said, and Don started posing. She changed positions rapidly with seemingly effortless grace. Her facial expression, which didn't change, seemed at once distant and vulnerable. She was a gorgeous, exotic mystery.
"Sababa," says the photographer. "Achla," says the woman producer. (The language in the fashion industry seems dominated by various Arabic and Hebrew slang words for "great," along with English-Hebrew jargon like "talentim," "bookim," "directim" and "scouterim.")
The photographer and the producer look at the photos on the digital camera. "You look maksim [great]," the producer tells Don. "You want to see?" Don shakes her head no, going to the clothing rack to start quick-changing into a brown-and-beige summer shift with necklace, bracelet, bag and sunglasses.
She lives in Tel Aviv with her boyfriend, who's also a model. "He's not one of those Barbies. He's not famous yet, but he will be," she says, sitting in jeans and a low-cut top in an office at Roberto. Back in the Urals, she was sent to modeling school when she was 12. (Israel has no modeling school; here it's only learned on the job.) Soon after making aliya with her mother and brother, she was "discovered" at 16 by one of those scouterim while walking down Tel Aviv's fashion-mad Rehov Sheinkin. Since then she's modeled in New York, Paris, Milan, Barcelona, Cape Town, Los Angeles, Istanbul and other cities.
"There isn't as much professionalism here as there is overseas. In Israel the industry is very small, everybody knows everybody, so personal connections mean more," she says. Israelis are mainly copiers, not original artists, she adds - the artists work in the international fashion capitals and everyone else takes their cues from them. "But that's not just in Tel Aviv, that's also true in Istanbul, for instance," she says.
Another difference between Israel and the big leagues is work conditions. "In Europe, in America, you work as long as your contract says, it's unheard of to ask someone to work more than, say, a half-hour extra. Here, they may keep you four hours overtime without paying you, and you don't want to complain because word gets around, and you don't want a reputation for being uncooperative."
Still, she says, "I like the work, it's pretty easy. It's convenient because everything's in Tel Aviv." Don won't say how much money she earns, but will allow that she makes "achla kesef [great money]. I can work one day and relax the rest of the week, I can help out my mother and brother." What she doesn't like is "the hypocrisy, the flattery," and everyone's full-time obsession with looks. "I should be happy with my appearance, but I'm always comparing myself with other models, and this really kills my self-esteem. I have to look perfect. It's completely psychotic," she says.
"I worry that if I don't watch myself, people are going to say, 'Look, Yeva gained weight, Yeva's got a pimple.' It can lose you a job. I have a slight tendency to put on weight, so my whole life revolves around food. I can't eat what I want, and I always have to tell myself to stop."
When does she eat her last meal of the day? "No later than 5 p.m."
Don made it on her own, starting her career while attending a boarding school for high-school kids from rough socioeconomic backgrounds. According to Ben-Shushan, her hard-won maturity is typical of Russian immigrant girls who've gone into modeling, and it's something sabra models generally lack. Asked what sort of image Israeli models have overseas, he replies: "Spoiled."
"It's well-known," he says. "Israeli girls are so beautiful, and they want to conquer the world, but a week in a foreign country without their mother and they're crying to go home. The Russian girls like Yeva aren't like that. They're very independent, they're ready to work."
When narrowing his eyes to make a point, Ben-Shushan, 39, looks a little like Robert De Niro. He founded Roberto Models 11 years ago. "Before that I had a grocery store in Tel Aviv. It didn't go well, so I became a scout for modeling agencies. I saw I was good at it." Looking over a photographer's Web site, he "discovered" Agam Rodberg, then 13, who became one of the country's top young model/actresses. "We met and I liked her hutzpa - you know, 'I'm going to be a star.' She projects a combination of sweetness and sexiness."
MORAN ATTIAS had already made a name for herself in Italy when she met Ben-Shushan. "Moran has this confident sexuality - when she comes into a room, she's immediately the center of attention." He also discovered the popular singer Maya Buskila, one of his first talentim.
What does he look for in a model, besides beauty? "Some inner quality. It could be frustration, or wisdom, or confidence, or craziness," he says. "Whatever isn't banal."
One good thing about Israeli models is that they don't look anorexic. "The 'heroin chic' look doesn't go over here," says Ben-Shushan. "Israelis like girls to have big breasts and a nice behind." This can be a bit of a problem when they work overseas, though. "We like to eat in this country, so the models have to watch that they don't get too big in the behind."
Ethnicity is another distinctive feature of the local industry. "Everybody is attracted to what they don't have," says Ben-Shushan; Israelis, generally being dark, like to look at blondes.
Don says that now that she's made it, her exotic looks work to her advantage, but it wasn't like that when she was trying to break in as a teenager. "We live in a racist country," she shrugs, "and people here want the sabra, salt-of-the-earth type. But I think it's changing."
Ben-Shushan also uses the word "racist" to describe Israeli tastes in beauty. "You don't see any Ethiopian models here, maybe one, even though Ethiopian women are really beautiful. I had one Ethiopian model but I couldn't find her any work. The fashion companies didn't want to take a chance on her, maybe the public wouldn't accept it. They didn't even have to say it out loud - everybody knows it," he says.
The issue of ethnicity goes beyond Ethiopians; the traditional underclass status of Mizrahim, especially from poor towns in the South, also marks the local modeling industry, he continues. A model must be able to handle rejection, which is an unavoidable part of auditioning, but Mizrahi models from the South "usually grow up with economic problems, and they have an inferiority complex. They expect to get rejected, and when it happens they say to themselves, 'Well, I tried and I didn't succeed, it's time to get married.' Girls from the Tel Aviv area are more worldly, more prepared for this type of work. The gap between North and South has been closing in the last few years, but not much," he says.
And as for Israeli Arab models, there are hardly any. Roberto has one, Niral Karantinaji from Haifa, the only Israeli Arab who ever applied to the agency, says general manager Ayala Pinkweiss. Karantinaji has done pretty well for herself, appearing on the covers of several local women's magazines, as well as winning the competition one season on Hadugmaniot ("The Models"), the Israeli version of the America's Next Top Model reality show.
At a photographer's studio in an industrial area near Tel Aviv's Ayalon Freeway, Ira Kiyanova, 23, a waitress from Haifa, is being made up to be photographed for her photo book. She recently signed with T4You modeling agency, which was founded about 18 months ago by Ofir Vazana, 28, younger brother of photographer Tzahi, who will be shooting Kiyanova's book.
"Just relax, have a little fun," Ofir tells her. "Look straight at the camera, and keep your lips slightly parted."
Red-haired, slim and shapely, clad in green-and-black underwear, Kiyanova runs through her poses fairly smoothly. She seems to be enjoying herself.
"I've wanted to do this for a long time, a lot of people always told me I should try modeling," she says. An immigrant from Kazakhstan living on her own, she studied acting for a few months until her money ran out. Now she's studying to pass her high school matriculation. Other than modeling, she has no plans. "I'm not doing it for the money. I hope it'll be my career, but if it doesn't happen, that's okay, too," she says.
After sending photos to T4You, coming in for an interview and getting accepted, Kiyanova signed what Ofir says is a standard contract for models starting out - a one-year agreement in which she pockets 60 percent to 80% of the money she makes and gives the remainder to the agency for finding her work. The models themselves pay for the photo session for their book - either by signing over to the agency their first five modeling fees, however much or little they are, or by paying NIS 2,000 to NIS 3,000, says Ofir.
"The payment doesn't go to the agency - it goes to the photographer, the makeup artist, the hairdresser and whoever else is involved in the shoot," he says. "Usually the models prefer to pay the money because the first five modeling fees can easily come to more than NIS 2,000 or NIS 3,000." He notes that T4You models do advertising campaigns for banks, retail chains, fashion catalogs and other major clients. He says Kiyanova decided to pay for her book up front.
LAST MONTH the Kolbotek investigative TV show did a story on the Tel Aviv modeling agency Kayitz Pirsuma'im, in which numerous would-be models signed by the agency charged that they were promised work, but that after they paid Kayitz for their book photos, they never heard from the agency again. In response, Kayitz Pirsuma'im's attorneys said that many of the agency's models do work regularly, and that the reason the complainants didn't get jobs was not because Kayitz didn't promote them, but because clients just weren't interested in hiring them.
Here and abroad, the modeling industry has an image of being filled with khapperim - fly-by-night operators, ripoff artists who take advantage of gullible young people with impossible dreams. Ofir, who, like his brother, has a reputation for honesty, says there's a lot of truth to the image. "New modeling agencies are opening up every other day, and others are closing down just as fast, and a lot of them are in it purely for exploitation," he says.
Along with economic exploitation, sexual exploitation - especially of underage girls - is part of the industry's image, both here and abroad. Several models and other industry professionals say they know girls who've been taken advantage of, or have heard such stories. A model at Roberto, Oriah Zriyan, says that when she was 16 and 17, she was asked three times by different photographers to bare her breasts. "The listings for those jobs didn't say anything about nudity. I was just starting out and I felt uncomfortable telling them no - they were all in their 30s or 40s - but in the end I said no, and they dropped it," she recalls.
Zriyan, 19, says the same thing happened to her the previous week at an audition for a client. "The listing didn't say anything about nudity, and the client asks me to take off my blouse. For an audition? Why? I told him no. These days I'm more confident about saying no, but still, I have this feeling that I'm not cooperating, that I'm not doing my work. It's stupid, I know."
A golden-haired, blue-eyed, happy-go-lucky girl from Ashkelon, Zriyan will be on Channel 2's upcoming Project Runway, a copy of an American reality show with a fashion modeling theme. She makes no bones about what she likes best about her job. "Getting the check!" she laughs. She makes no bones about her niche as a model, either: "I have a full bust, full lips, a good nose, a good behind. I don't need plastic surgery."
About sexual exploitation, she says one limiting factor is that "so many of the guys working in the industry are gay." But when I ask about the sort of "characters" who use their position for sexual coercion, she corrects me. "They're not 'characters.' They could be anybody you have to deal with," she says. "It's not that all the men in the industry are like that, not at all. But they're not so rare, either."
INTERESTINGLY, DR. Yitzhak Kadman, the country's leading activist against child abuse, says that in the 20 years since he founded the National Council for the Child, he hasn't received a single complaint from a minor or parent about sexual exploitation in the modeling industry.
"That's not to say it doesn't happen," he cautions, "only that it's not reported. But whether there's more unreported sexual exploitation of minors in modeling than there is in school, or on sports teams or dance groups, or in any situation where an adult has authority over young people - that I don't know."
What Kadman does maintain is that the fashion industry "sexualizes" very young girls to sell clothes, thus helping to create a climate in which grown men can think of adolescent and even preadolescent girls as fair sexual game. "This isn't accidental, it's deliberate," he says. The purpose is not to promote sexual abuse of minors, just to promote the sale of clothes.
Yet another dangerous social problem that's associated with modeling is drug abuse. "It's true - there are a lot of drugs going around," says Don. "Everyone knows that the drug of the fashion industry is cocaine." She's heard of several models who ruined their careers, and not just their careers, with drugs. "You have to be strong to stay away from it in this business, to try it once and decide that's not what you want," she says.
Still, for all the dangers and false hopes, the modeling industry holds an irresistible attraction for endless pretty young girls (not to mention handsome young boys). "Often it starts when she's 12 or 13, and her mother keeps telling her how good-looking she is, how she should could make it big as a model, and her uncles tell her the same thing, and her schoolmates. These girls get brainwashed at a very young age," says Tzahi Vazana.
The appeal of modeling is more purely egotistical than that of acting or music, which offer opportunities for artistic expression even to performers who don't make much or any money at it. "There's no artistry or self-expression in modeling. The girls who go into it are looking only for the money, the fame, the glory and the lifestyle," says Vazana, adding that when they're out of earshot, fashion models are often referred to by industry hands as "mannequins."
Yeva Don is aware of all this, and while it doesn't please her, it doesn't get in her way, either. "You have to keep your feet on the ground and not get caught up in all the bullshit," she says. "I manage very well." In fact, the only regret she might have about choosing this career is that she didn't get serious about it earlier - that she spent her teenage years going to high school, passing her matriculation exams and serving in the IDF instead of trying to get to Paris.
"If I'd done things differently, I could have been further ahead than I am now," she says. "The only way to really make it as a model is to go all out from when you're 15 or 16." She wants to continue modeling as long as clients will hire her. "There are a lot more pluses than minuses in this work," she says.
For a very, very select few, maybe one out of a hundred, that's probably true.
In the photographer's studio in South Tel Aviv, the techno beat is booming as Don goes through her poses, now wearing the brown-and-beige shift. The woman producer has an idea and comes onto the all-white set to show her. "Try this," she says, making the motion of running. Don, in high heels, does the motion, then does it again as photographer Nir Yaffe shoots her in midair. "Sababa," he says. Her facial expression unchanging, Don does motion over and over as the photographer snaps away. "Magniv [great], Yevoush," says the producer. "Sof haderech [the greatest]. Achla, boobie."
During the break, Yaffe tells me that what sets Don apart from the run-of-the-mill fashion model is that "she has a feel for how the clothes look on her body, she knows how to show them off. There's not much to learn as a model - Yeva probably learned everything she could in her first six months. It's something you either have or you don't."
In his office in Ramat Hahayal, Ben-Shushan is going over another page of details, this one about Sapir Burgil, a pretty, busty 16-year-old from Beersheba who's sitting in a tight top and jeans next to her father, Itzik.
"How tall are you?" Ben-Shushan asks.
"1.65 meters," she says.
Sapir tells him she takes singing and dancing classes in Beersheba, and that she's signed up with two different modeling agencies - including Kayitz Pirsuma'im, the subject of the Kolbotek story. "They cheated us," she says of both agencies.
Ben-Shushan tells her to stand in the middle of the room, to turn to one side, then to sit down again.
"Look," he says, "you're a pretty girl, but what you're doing with your eyebrows is a crime, you have to be natural. But modeling isn't for you - it's not that you're not pretty, you're just too short. Go to the Beersheba youth troupe, tell them I sent you, study acting. You have a beauty like Agam Rodberg's, but still, the fact that you're pretty doesn't interest anyone. You have potential. Let your eyebrows grow. Work hard, we'll see if you're serious, then send me your materials again in six months."
In the lobby, Sapir says she feels "okay, a little discouraged." But she's going to do everything Ben-Shushan told her to do. Her father Itzik isn't discouraged at all. "Robert knows what he's talking about, he's not one of those khapperim, I heard only good things about him," he says. If Robert wants to see his daughter in six months, he figures that's a very encouraging sign.
"I drive her to all her classes, to all her auditions, wherever she has to go, I'm there," he says.
"You've got to be," says Ben-Shushan, striding past in the lobby.
"Six months," Itzik calls after him. "We'll be seeing you."