Cover girls

A look at local modeling industry - the good, the bad, and the beautiful.

In his office in the futuristic-looking RamatHahayal industrial park north of Tel Aviv, Robert Ben-Shushan, founderof Roberto Models, looked over the application, his expression neutral.On the other side of his big desk sat Dina Brandell, 17, agood-looking, black-haired girl from Karmiel in a black jacket andtight jeans with a piercing above her lip. She was with her mother,Nelia, also dressed in black.

Ben-Shushan'scellphone rang. It was Moran Attias, his top model and possibly thecountry's No. 2 after Bar Refaeli, calling from Italy. "I'll try to puttogether a chunk of money from each one, tell me how much it costs," hesaid 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 herambitions are, and she says she's also a singer, then Ben-Shushan getsto 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'sa little problem," he goes on. "Actually there's a big problem. Theminimum height for a model is 1.75 meters. You're pretty, you could bean actress, but don't try for modeling because they don't hire shortmodels. You wouldn't have any advantage over the other pretty girls,only a disadvantage. But who knows, maybe another agency would tell yousomething different."

On the wall behind him are blown-up photos of fashion magazinecovers featuring Moran Attias and other models represented by Roberto,one of the five or six leading agencies in the country. On a displayshelf is a signed photograph of Ariel Sharon. In a corner stands aweight-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 thewalls and a coffee table heaped with fashion magazines, I ask Dina howshe feels. "Bassa [lousy], but not that much." She says she'sgoing to send her photos to another agency and see what it says."Everyone tells me I should try modeling," she says. Especially hermother, Nelia. "I also tried modeling when I was 17, in Tashkent. I'm1.67 meters, and they told me I wasn't tall enough, either," shelaughs. The Brandells are going back to Karmiel unshaken, ready to plantheir next foray into Tel Aviv.

Ben-Shushan's very rough estimate is that there are about 2,000female models in Israel who work at least from time to time and canlegitimately call themselves professional fashion models. As for thosewho work once in a blue moon or never at all - the wannabes - hefigures there are 10,000 of them or even 20,000. The closest thingthere is to an official statistic, and it's only for models under 18,comes from the Industry, Trade and Labor Ministry, which issued 3,003working permits last year, the girls receiving a slight majority.

Chances are, though, that the numbers are rising now that HodHasharon's Bar Refaeli has reached the symbolic top of the fashionmodeling 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 yourwildest fantasy," says Ben-Shushan. "She's beautiful, she's sexy. She'sgot it all. And she's dedicated."

The story is that Refaeli's mother, Tzipi, a one-timesuccessful model herself, pushed her daughter to the top. "I read thatwhen Bar was 15, her mother went into Pilpel [a fashion company thatstarred Refaeli in its ad campaign] and told them, 'Listen, my daughteris the most beautiful girl alive, you've got to hire her, and that'sit,'" said Sivan Siboni, one of Roberto's up-and-coming models.

There's a lot of admiration among local models for Refaeli'sachievement - and a little envy. "I wouldn't want to make it because ofmy mother and my boyfriend," said one model, referring to Refaeli'sconsort Leonardo DiCaprio.

There are Bar Refaeli, Moran Attias, Shiraz Tal, Galit Guttman,Miri Bohadana, Sheli Gafni, Shirli Buganim and a few other Israeli starmodels - those who fly all over the world to be photographed for adcampaigns and magazine covers, to strut down the runway in fashionshows and to make hundreds of thousands of dollars a year doing it.

"That's the dream that keeps all these models going," saysTzahi Vazana, a fashion photographer who's photographed "thousands" ofmodels from Sheli Gafni and Shirli Buganim to 14-year-old beginnersposing for their first set of photos - or "book" - to e-mail to agentsand companies.

"The money, the parties, the high life - that'sthe dream. And it doesn't come true," says Vazana. "Models usually workas waitresses or bartenders to make money while they're sending outtheir photos and going to auditions. Maybe once in a very long whilethey'll get lucky and make $300 or $400 for a day's work. Almost noneof them make a living from it."

Out of a thousand girls who e-mail their photos to RobertoModels in the hope of getting signed, Ben-Shushan says he'll chooseone. I ask how many Israeli girls who call themselves models earn aliving from it. "Two hundred," he figures, out of maybe 10,000 or even20,000. Asked how many active Israeli models are actually living thedream Vazana described, Vazana said: "Not more than 10."

ONE OF those 10, he says, is Neva Don. A sign of Don's success is the cover photo on the Turkish edition of Ellethat hangs in Roberto's lobby. A couple of weeks ago she was sitting infront of a mirror at a photographer's studio in an industrial area ofSouth Tel Aviv, having her hair styled and her toenails painted darkbrown for a photo session for La'isha women's magazine.

I'd met her earlier at Roberto's office, and even with myuntrained eye I could see that she's got something special, that she'smore than another beautiful face and body. At 24, an immigrant from theUrals, she looks like an idealized, Eurasian Pocahontas with wide,prominent cheekbones, big round eyes and a bow-shaped mouth. She moveswith languorous grace and answers questions with spontaneity andintelligence. I asked what she thought her image was, how people in theindustry saw her. "They say I'm sexy," she replied with an embarrassedsmile. "They say I'm like a chameleon - I change from being sexy to alittle girl in a second."

The photographer's studio was cluttered withboxes of shoes and racks of clothing. Some sort of techno music with anincessant beat was coming out of the speakers. Don was modeling theupcoming summer fashions of 24 Israeli clothing companies. With her inthe studio were the photographer, Nir Yaffe, a producer from La'isha,a hairdresser, a makeup woman and two assistants to keep all theclothes, shoes and accessories in order for Don to throw them on andoff.

Finishedat the mirror, she came out to the all-white set, quickly put on asafari outfit in a leopard-skin pattern, took out her gum and waitedfor the photographer's cue. "Yalla," he said, and Don startedposing. She changed positions rapidly with seemingly effortless grace.Her facial expression, which didn't change, seemed at once distant andvulnerable. She was a gorgeous, exotic mystery.

"Sababa," says the photographer. "Achla," saysthe woman producer. (The language in the fashion industry seemsdominated by various Arabic and Hebrew slang words for "great," alongwith 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 herhead no, going to the clothing rack to start quick-changing into abrown-and-beige summer shift with necklace, bracelet, bag andsunglasses.

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 downTel Aviv's fashion-mad Rehov Sheinkin. Since then she's modeled in NewYork, Paris, Milan, Barcelona, Cape Town, Los Angeles, Istanbul andother cities.

"There isn't as much professionalism here as there is overseas.In Israel the industry is very small, everybody knows everybody, sopersonal connections mean more," she says. Israelis are mainly copiers,not original artists, she adds - the artists work in the internationalfashion capitals and everyone else takes their cues from them. "Butthat's not just in Tel Aviv, that's also true in Istanbul, forinstance," she says.

Anotherdifference between Israel and the big leagues is work conditions. "InEurope, in America, you work as long as your contract says, it'sunheard 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 youdon't want to complain because word gets around, and you don't want areputation for being uncooperative."

Still, she says, "I like the work, it's pretty easy. It'sconvenient because everything's in Tel Aviv." Don won't say how muchmoney 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 canhelp out my mother and brother." What she doesn't like is "thehypocrisy, the flattery," and everyone's full-time obsession withlooks. "I should be happy with my appearance, but I'm always comparingmyself with other models, and this really kills my self-esteem. I haveto 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 revolvesaround food. I can't eat what I want, and I always have to tell myselfto 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 aboarding school for high-school kids from rough socioeconomicbackgrounds. According to Ben-Shushan, her hard-won maturity is typicalof Russian immigrant girls who've gone into modeling, and it'ssomething sabra models generally lack. Asked what sort of image Israelimodels have overseas, he replies: "Spoiled."

"It's well-known," he says. "Israeli girls are sobeautiful, and they want to conquer the world, but a week in a foreigncountry without their mother and they're crying to go home. The Russiangirls like Yeva aren't like that. They're very independent, they'reready to work."

When narrowing his eyes to make a point, Ben-Shushan, 39, looksa 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 Ibecame a scout for modeling agencies. I saw I was good at it." Lookingover a photographer's Web site, he "discovered" Agam Rodberg, then 13,who became one of the country's top young model/actresses. "We met andI liked her hutzpa - you know, 'I'm going to be a star.' She projects acombination of sweetness and sexiness."

MORAN ATTIAS had already made a name for herself in Italy whenshe met Ben-Shushan. "Moran has this confident sexuality - when shecomes into a room, she's immediately the center of attention." He alsodiscovered the popular singer Maya Buskila, one of his first talentim.

What does he look for in a model, besides beauty? "Some innerquality. It could be frustration, or wisdom, or confidence, orcraziness," he says. "Whatever isn't banal."

One good thing about Israeli models is that they don't lookanorexic. "The 'heroin chic' look doesn't go over here," saysBen-Shushan. "Israelis like girls to have big breasts and a nicebehind." 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 watchthat 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 blonds."

Don says that now that she's made it, her exoticlooks work to her advantage, but it wasn't like that when she wastrying to break in as a teenager. "We live in a racist country," sheshrugs, "and people here want the sabra, salt-of-the-earth type. But Ithink it's changing."

Ben-Shushanalso uses the word "racist" to describe Israeli tastes in beauty. "Youdon't see any Ethiopian models here, maybe one, even though Ethiopianwomen are really beautiful. I had one Ethiopian model but I couldn'tfind her any work. The fashion companies didn't want to take a chanceon her, maybe the public wouldn't accept it. They didn't even have tosay it out loud - everybody knows it," he says.

The issue of ethnicity goes beyond Ethiopians; the traditionalunderclass status of Mizrahim, especially from poor towns in the South,also marks the local modeling industry, he continues. A model must beable to handle rejection, which is an unavoidable part of auditioning,but Mizrahi models from the South "usually grow up with economicproblems, and they have an inferiority complex. They expect to getrejected, and when it happens they say to themselves, 'Well, I triedand I didn't succeed, it's time to get married.' Girls from the TelAviv area are more worldly, more prepared for this type of work. Thegap between North and South has been closing in the last few years, butnot much," he says.

And as for Israeli Arab models, there are hardly any. Robertohas one, Niral Karantinaji from Haifa, the only Israeli Arab who everapplied to the agency, says general manager Ayala Pinkweiss.Karantinaji has done pretty well for herself, appearing on the coversof several local women's magazines, as well as winning the competitionone 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'sAyalon Freeway, Ira Kiyanova, 23, a waitress from Haifa, is being madeup to be photographed for her photo book. She recently signed withT4You modeling agency, which was founded about 18 months ago by OfirVazana, 28, younger brother of photographer Tzahi, who will be shootingKiyanova'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 runsthrough her poses fairly smoothly. She seems to be enjoying herself.

"I've wanted to do this for a long time, a lot of people alwaystold me I should try modeling," she says. An immigrant from Kazakhstanliving on her own, she studied acting for a few months until her moneyran 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 andgetting accepted, Kiyanova signed what Ofir says is a standard contractfor models starting out - a one-year agreement in which she pockets 60percent to 80% of the money she makes and gives the remainder to theagency for finding her work. The models themselves pay for the photosession for their book - either by signing over to the agency theirfirst five modeling fees, however much or little they are, or by payingNIS 2,000 to NIS 3,000, says Ofir.

"The payment doesn't go to the agency - it goes to thephotographer, the makeup artist, the hairdresser and whoever else isinvolved in the shoot," he says. "Usually the models prefer to pay themoney because the first five modeling fees can easily come to more thanNIS 2,000 or NIS 3,000." He notes that T4You models do advertisingcampaigns for banks, retail chains, fashion catalogs and other majorclients. He says Kiyanova decided to pay for her book up front.

LAST MONTH the Kolbotek investigative TVshow did a story on the Tel Aviv modeling agency Kayitz Pirsuma'im, inwhich numerous would-be models signed by the agency charged that theywere promised work, but that after they paid Kayitz for their bookphotos, they never heard from the agency again. In response, KayitzPirsuma'im's attorneys said that many of the agency's models do workregularly, and that the reason the complainants didn't get jobs was notbecause Kayitz didn't promote them, but because clients just weren'tinterested 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 gullibleyoung people with impossible dreams. Ofir, who, like his brother, has areputation for honesty, says there's a lot of truth to the image. "Newmodeling agencies are opening up every other day, and others areclosing down just as fast, and a lot of them are in it purely forexploitation," he says.

Along with economic exploitation, sexual exploitation -especially of underage girls - is part of the industry's image, bothhere and abroad. Several models and other industry professionals saythey know girls who've been taken advantage of, or have heard suchstories. A model at Roberto, Oriah Zriyan, says that when she was 16and 17, she was asked three times by different photographers to bareher breasts. "The listings for those jobs didn't say anything aboutnudity. I was just starting out and I felt uncomfortable telling themno - they were all in their 30s or 40s - but in the end I said no, andthey dropped it," she recalls.

Zriyan, 19, says the same thing happened to her the previousweek at an audition for a client. "The listing didn't say anythingabout nudity, and the client asks me to take off my blouse. For anaudition? Why? I told him no. These days I'm more confident aboutsaying 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. Shemakes no bones about what she likes best about her job. "Getting thecheck!" 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. Idon't need plastic surgery."

About sexual exploitation, she says one limitingfactor 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 positionfor sexual coercion, she corrects me. "They're not 'characters.' Theycould be anybody you have to deal with," she says. "It's not that allthe men in the industry are like that, not at all. But they're not sorare, 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 theChild, he hasn't received a single complaint from a minor or parentabout sexual exploitation in the modeling industry.

"That's not to say it doesn't happen," he cautions, "only thatit's not reported. But whether there's more unreported sexualexploitation of minors in modeling than there is in school, or onsports teams or dance groups, or in any situation where an adult hasauthority 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 aclimate in which grown men can think of adolescent and evenpreadolescent girls as fair sexual game. "This isn't accidental, it'sdeliberate," he says. The purpose is not to promote sexual abuse ofminors, just to promote the sale of clothes.

Yet another dangerous social problem that's associated withmodeling is drug abuse. "It's true - there are a lot of drugs goingaround," says Don. "Everyone knows that the drug of the fashionindustry is cocaine." She's heard of several models who ruined theircareers, and not just their careers, with drugs. "You have to be strongto stay away from it in this business, to try it once and decide that'snot what you want," she says.

Still, for all the dangers and false hopes, the modelingindustry holds an irresistible attraction for endless pretty younggirls (not to mention handsome young boys). "Often it starts when she's12 or 13, and her mother keeps telling her how good-looking she is, howshe should could make it big as a model, and her uncles tell her thesame thing, and her schoolmates. These girls get brainwashed at a veryyoung age," says Tzahi Vazana.

Theappeal of modeling is more purely egotistical than that of acting ormusic, which offer opportunities for artistic expression even toperformers who don't make much or any money at it. "There's no artistryor self-expression in modeling. The girls who go into it are lookingonly for the money, the fame, the glory and the lifestyle," saysVazana, adding that when they're out of earshot, fashion models areoften referred to by industry hands as "mannequins."

Yeva Don is aware of all this, and while itdoesn't please her, it doesn't get in her way, either. "You have tokeep your feet on the ground and not get caught up in all thebullshit," she says. "I manage very well." In fact, the only regret shemight have about choosing this career is that she didn't get seriousabout it earlier - that she spent her teenage years going to highschool, passing her matriculation exams and serving in the IDF insteadof trying to get to Paris.

"If I'd done things differently, I could have been furtherahead than I am now," she says. "The only way to really make it as amodel is to go all out from when you're 15 or 16." She wants tocontinue modeling as long as clients will hire her. "There are a lotmore 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 beatis booming as Don goes through her poses, now wearing thebrown-and-beige shift. The woman producer has an idea and comes ontothe all-white set to show her. "Try this," she says, making the motionof running. Don, in high heels, does the motion, then does it again asphotographer 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 fromthe run-of-the-mill fashion model is that "she has a feel for how theclothes look on her body, she knows how to show them off. There's notmuch to learn as a model - Yeva probably learned everything she couldin her first six months. It's something you either have or you don't."

In his office in Ramat Hahayal, Ben-Shushan is going overanother page of details, this one about Sapir Burgil, a pretty, busty16-year-old from Beersheba who's sitting in a tight top and jeans nextto her father, Itzik.

"How tall are you?" Ben-Shushan asks.

"1.65 meters," she says.

Sapir tells him she takes singing and dancing classes inBeersheba, and that she's signed up with two different modelingagencies - 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 doingwith your eyebrows is a crime, you have to be natural. But modelingisn'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'repretty doesn't interest anyone. You have potential. Let your eyebrowsgrow. Work hard, we'll see if you're serious, then send me yourmaterials again in six months."

In the lobby, Sapir says she feels "okay, a littlediscouraged." But she's going to do everything Ben-Shushan told her todo. Her father Itzik isn't discouraged at all. "Robert knows what he'stalking about, he's not one of those khapperim, I heard onlygood things about him," he says. If Robert wants to see his daughter insix 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."