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Russian Life

The Beauty Hunter

Fifty percent of the world's top models issue from the former Soviet Union. Anton Alfer has to choose which girls will make it and which won't. Scouring the taiga for supermodels.

ANTON ALFER HAS A PROBLEM. Sunken into a red leather couch in a shopping mall in Kazan, 500 miles east of Moscow, he adjusts his eyes to the catwalk before him. He squints appraisingly at dozens of late-adolescent girls in bikinis, each of them tall, thin, beautiful…ripe. He watches as they promenade toward him one by one, watches as they stare longingly at him, timidly smile at him, twirl on his finger-twitch command and display what they have for him. And this is a problem, for from all of these, Alfer must choose.

Alfer is a model scout in the land of models, the exclusive representative for Elite Models in the former Soviet Union. This is rather like fishing for shortstops in the Caribbean cowl, or sounding the Siberian turf for the oil and gas that everyone acknowledges is there, just waiting to be found. Yet such gross abundance makes work all the more difficult for Alfer, for he must extract the physically perfected girl from the blur of those thousands who possess the sad disadvantage of simply being stunning.

Alfer is the one who calculates the bodily proportions, who perceives the faces, who gauges the level of ambition, combing Russia’s wingspan territory and imperial genetic collisions, proffering the glass slipper. He discovers the girls who will sprawl across the polished handbills of Cavalli and Versace, who will walk the plank for Dior and Valentino, who will join the militia of Russian and pan-Slavic models that has overtaken international fashion in the last decade, having shunted the unfortunate Brazilian ladies to a tumbledown and distant secondary position. “We have the faces,” Alfer says. “We have the look.”

Aliona Doletskaya, the editor of the Russian edition of Vogue, estimates that 50 percent of the top models in the world issue from the former Soviet Union. “Because of this high percentage, they have bagged some of the most prestigious campaigns,” she says. “Natasha Poly for Gucci and Gucci fragrance, Valentina for Ralph Lauren, and, until last season, Sasha P for Prada. On top of the quantitative effect, there is definitely a qualitative one—Russian girls are very good looking.”

The thesis is easily proven in Kazan, the thousand-year-old capital of Tatarstan, Russia’s predominantly Muslim province, where a mosque of turquoise-tipped minarets rises above the stone walls of the city’s kremlin. Close by, in the Mega Mall, even those gray shoppers captivated by the gifts of the food court ogle the beautiful girls as they elapse down the runway in next to nothing. Cold outside, it is warm in here.

There are blonde bombshells. There are smoky, black-haired Tatars. There are a few girls of the angular, praying mantis variety. There is the girl next door. There are large lips. There are bikinis delicately tied at the hips, clasped carefully between the breasts. There are acres of abdomen, dimples in special places, girls showing themselves to best effect, as they have seen on Fashion TV. And in the surrounding shoe stores and clothing stores, there are glossy come-ons, advertisements like recruiting posters, established models calling these girls to travel, money, opportunity abroad—a lifestyle of the imagination.

Alfer, meanwhile, exists in the model ether, employing well-practiced eye, scrolling through the several thousand model mug shots on his laptop, a Bluetooth clip blinking in his ear with reports from his deputies of more girls in other places. The words “Italian stallion” print across the chest of his faded blue T-shirt, which he wears beneath a black leather jacket. He runs a hand through his spiked, action-hero hair, and enters each girl, by the numbers they’ve been assigned, into columns of “yes,” “no,” or “maybe,” which he has penned atop the sheet of notebook paper balanced on his knee.

Several of the girls stride confidently down the catwalk, determined to gain notice amidst the mall ephemera and the lounge music that pipes loudly from the stage speakers. A few of the girls stumble on their high heels. Others continually adjust their bikinis. Many of the girls stomp around like shaft horses, in need of instruction in the way to move when all lights are on them. Many of the girls have arrived with their mothers, who wring their hands, who coach from the sidelines, who try to catch Alfer’s eye and somehow make the process personal. But Alfer’s eye does not stray.

Alfer is in Kazan as part of the annual Elite Model Look Russia competition, a dozen-city feeder tour for the international Elite Model Look, an event with more than 350,000 contestants from 50 countries. “This is the instrument,” he says, gesturing to the catwalk. “It is the tool to help us collect the girl.”

And after a time, a girl worth collecting appears on stage. She is tall—they’re all tall—dark-haired, in a salmon-colored bikini, and she strides resolutely along the runway. Karina Zykova, 16, drove a 12-hour slog with her parents from the distant village of Kungur. This is her first casting. “A lot of people keep telling me that I should try and be a model,” she gushes offstage, in a jumble of all of the other girls, the skin, the goose bumps, the nervous giggles. “We came to see if I had a chance. I want to see the world and meet lots of new people.” Life is still not easy in Russia, despite the country’s rising economic might. But alongside oil, gas, and metals, feminine beauty ranks as Russia’s top natural resource. Modeling allows many girls to escape a fate inevitably dark; Alfer serves as a conduit to the light.

He looks Zykova up and down, grinning slightly. To the untrained eye, Zykova looks no different from the rest. Pretty enough. But for Alfer, beauty is something beyond the visual recognition of the average man on the make. This isn’t romance. This isn’t even lust. This is business.

“Proportion is very important,” he says coolly. He explains that a female model must stand between 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-11, must measure between 34.5 inches and 35.5 inches around the hips, must weigh between 108 pounds and 117 pounds. There is more. “For a successful career, a girl must have three components,” he says. “Number one is looks—face and measurements. Second is charisma and personality, her character. Third is motivation. If one component is missing, she shouldn’t be a model.” Even in the business of exterior beauty, a good attitude goes a long way.

Alfer lives by a similar code. As he leaps on stage and takes snapshots of the girls against a backdrop littered with the Elite insignia, he is pointed, direct. When he calls out the numbers of those girls he has selected for the final round, telling so many pretty girls that they are just not pretty enough, his benevolent, mollifying voice tells those discarded that this rejection hardly seals their fate. “Giselle never won a modeling contest,” he says. And when he engages a few of the finalists one-on-one, he jokes, he grins, he draws them out and divines their attitudes.
“He has no negative energy,” says Olga Vasilieva, a model from Perm whom Alfer discovered in 2007’s Elite competition. She now models regularly in Tokyo and Paris. “He gives himself 100 percent to the job. Because of that, he’s really attractive: you can see he’s totally immersed in his job. And he is very effective. Before I met him, I had no future prospects. Now there are offers, new people. He’s helped me become somebody in this life.”

Alfer returns to the couch after getting a closer look at Zykova. “She has a chance,” he says. “Her legs are a little bit big. But she drove 12 hours to get here, so she has the motivation. She will have no problem improving.” Alfer chooses Zykova and one other girl to attend the Elite Russia finals in Moscow, and he strides toward the exit with several associates, his day in Kazan now done.

AS HE ROAMS FROM ONE Russian city to the other, Alfer’s radar remains live. He meets girls in nightclubs in St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk, he sees them in airports in Sochi and Rostov, he jumps from taxicabs when they flash before him on the talent-choked Moscow boulevards. In the last several years, Alfer has discovered more than two hundred models to work shows from Paris to Abu Dhabi, and dispatched more than 30 Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian and Baltic-state girls to legitimate careers in the West.

The West is where they must go. “There is no fashion industry in Russia,” he says. “All of the fashion is imported. In Russia, there are less than 100 real designers. In Italy, there are thousands of brands. And each brand requires models.” A successful, full-time model working in Moscow earns up to $20,000 annually; her opposite number in Europe and the U.S. can make between $50,000 and $100,000. The top models in the world earn $5 million and more per year.

For the many beautiful yet impoverished girls living throughout Russia, this is the dream. And of all of the many dozens of Russian women who have achieved the European and American catwalks since the fall of the Soviet Union, one woman stands above them all, crystallizing all aspirations—Natalia Vodianova, or, the “Russian Cinderella.” Twelve years ago, one of Alfer’s former competitors discovered Vodianova, then 15, selling fruit on the streets of Nizhny Novgorod, a city along the Volga. Vodianova has since become model royalty—acknowledged as one of the top handful of models in the world—and literal nobility, having wed an English earl.

It is Vodianova the girls see when who they’re really looking at is Alfer. Likewise, designers and agents and advertisers in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. see the same. Alfer is the channel. “Anton knows the style,” says Bernard Trux, a prominent Parisian haute couture show director, who has worked with the world’s top designers—Valentino, Jean Paul Gaultier, Christian Dior, Christian Lacroix—for 40 years. “Anton is not only somebody who will give you 20, 30 girls. He understands the look and the style.”

Alfer, 35, grew up in Samara, in southwestern European Russia, then relocated to St. Petersburg in 1989 to enroll in the computer science division of St. Petersburg State University. Alfer also studied fashion in school, and he began his professional life as a designer of women’s clothing. In the late-’90s, he created Russia’s first fashion website, www.moda.ru. It was through this portal, as European fashion houses began to realize the depth of the beauty pool in Russia and were looking for ways to locate new models, that Alfer made his initial contacts in the modeling business. After serving briefly as a scout for a Moscow agency, he hooked on as the Russian rep for Next, a major modeling agency headquartered in Paris. He shifted to Elite four years ago.

ALFER LOOKS THROUGH THE WINDOW of his office atop a tower along Moscow’s casino-choked Novy Arbat causeway. The red-light evening traffic slips by down below as Alfer’s girlfriend, Evgenia Eremina, 20, already a model when Alfer met her in a nightclub last year, prepares the hookah. Alfer calls Eremina “very good protection” against the models that would throw and have thrown themselves at him in exchange for his influence in the world of their professional aspiration. She shoots him an icy glance, pausing in packing the tobacco into the hookah. One of Alfer’s assistant’s, Sergei Rostovtsev, sits at a desk, editing a runway clip that will soon appear on www.moda.ru. It is getting on in the evening, but around here, it is beauty as business, open all the time.

The reason for that is what Alfer refers to as his “fashion media technologies,” an outgrowth of www.moda.ru, which now encompasses a dozen similar sites registered throughout the former USSR. Several years ago, Alfer modified another of his sites, www.model.ru, enabling prospective models to upload their own photos and vitals. More than 10,000 girls have done so. While these girls are not all of top model caliber, many of them are, and Alfer is able to view the photos and profiles at his leisure. This has altered his strategy, allowing him to see higher and farther than finding and managing the next big star. “I’m not concerned about breaking one girl,” he says. “My goal is to make an industry, a new form of procedures.”

Alfer unfolds his laptop, and there on the screen is what looks like a geological survey map of the former Soviet Union, a guide to the territory’s great renewable resource of beauty. Icons representing his websites dot the map, domains localized in Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Lithuania, and six other former Soviet republics. His plan is to attract the girls to his sites, allow bookers, designers, and other clients to view selected profiles, then remotely dispatch the girls to jobs throughout Europe, Asia, and the U.S.—all without the overhead and hassle of a traditional agency, or the man hours of traditional scouting.

“There’s no way to escape,” Alfer says. “Russian girls use Russian portals, Russian search engines. If they’re interested in being a model, they type ‘model,’ and my site is the first thing that pops up. This is a conveyor. You don’t need to walk the streets anymore, because all young girls are on the Internet.”

He lounges back on a daybed, smoking from the hookah’s snaked tube, satisfied with his plans. But Alfer’s life is not as leisurely as it appears. In Russia, even the business of beauty has its hazards.

Shortly after Alfer signed on with Elite in 2005, a man who toiled on the dark side of the flesh trade strongly suggested that Alfer supply him with fresh talent. Alfer declined the proposal, and shortly thereafter, he says, he returned home to find a strange man lurking in the vestibule of his residence. The man punched Alfer in the face. “This is so you will know who to work with,” he said. He then head-butt Alfer in the nose, bloodying his face, before fleeing into the evening.  

By all available evidence, Alfer has continued to play it straight, and he thus lives in the peril known to all Russian entrepreneurs. His most recent hazard concerns a 14-year-old model named Veronika Kushnareva. Alfer contacted her after discovering her on one of his sites and becoming captivated by her photos. He paid for cosmetic surgery to pin her ears, gave her a new name (Niki Kushe), and entered her in the final round of 2007’s Elite Model Look Russia, in Moscow. Elite’s Parisian representative chose Kushnareva as the winner of the competition. That is where the fairytale ended. “There is a lot of human risk in this business,” Alfer says, weightily.

As Alfer tells the story, a wealthy Russian businessman “befriended” Kushnareva and persuaded her family that modeling wasn’t in the girl’s best interests, that he could provide all of the financing that their lives would require. Alfer continued to push the girl toward modeling, and he soon began receiving anonymous threats over the phone. Instructed to keep his distance from Kushnareva, Alfer persisted in contacting her. Ultimately, he received a colorfully worded text message from an unrecognized number:

“Now we’re going to play hide and seek. You’re going to hide, and my people are going to look for you, and when they find you, they’re going to fuck you in the ass. You’ve made me angry, you public faggot. I haven’t been angry like this in a long time.”

Alfer shakes his head. “There’s a lot of shit like that,” he says. “All the time. With this work, my nervous system has become very strong.”

Now in order to safeguard his business, to ensure that he is running a model scouting operation and not a girlfriend service for Russian oligarchs, Alfer keeps a tight rein on the models he selects and supports. “He was always worried for us,” says Zykova, after the Elite Russia finals in Moscow. “There were many chances for men to approach us. But Anton was always protecting us.”

Alfer’s proprietary streak has not yet reached the level of one of Elite’s previous Russian reps, who assaulted the country’s top fashion photographer for refusing to use one of his models, sending the photographer to the hospital. All the same, whether it be predatory potential boyfriends or rival scouts, the threat of losing a promising young model is always there.

When Alfer repped Next, he discovered Irina Shaykhlislamova, a girl from Chelyabinsk. When Next balked at signing her, in stepped Georgy Dzhikidze, the scout responsible for finding Vodianova. Now known as Irina Sheih, Shaykhlislamova has appeared in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue the last two years, and is the international face of Guess.

Dzhikidze, known professionally as Giya, ruled the scouting market in Russia until 2006, when he died from a brain aneurism. Alfer’s competition now consists of four other full-time scouts. Considering the upside of the business—a scout usually takes a 10-percent cut on future wages or can simply sell a “mother agency” contract outright to an international agency—the competition between Russian scouts is unexpectedly collegial. “We all get along pretty well,” Alfer says.

By now, the lateness of the evening and the influence of the hookah find Alfer increasingly placid. He pulls his iPhone from his pocket, and begins scrolling lazily through the many photos stored on the device. “This girl, Nataly from Tallinn,” he says, pointing to the screen, where a girl curls herself seductively toward the lens. “She sent me her picture on model.ru.” He slides his finger repeatedly across the screen, flipping through scores of shots of perfect young women who stare back at him with desire—professional or otherwise, it is hard to tell the difference. Then he halts. “This girl, I met in the club; she’s from St. Petersburg.” He scrolls again. He stops at another picture. “This girl, she is very beautiful. But she’s not motivated. Her father is an Olympic champion.”

He whizzes through the photos, one after another, and the beauty of these young women begins to melt together. They could all be the same girl, the brain going numb in overabundance. It is a business. It is a conveyor.
Alfer stops once more, this time on a photo of Kushnareva, the one who got away. Kushnareva puckers her lips for the lens in an exaggerated sneer. “She looks like Linda Evangelista,” Alfer says. “She’s very fluent with the camera. She’s not afraid to look bad. She could be a really huge fucking star.” He pauses. “That’s why I’m upset. She’s born to be a model.”

Alfer smokes again from the hookah, running Kushnareva over in his mind. Like any natural scout of talent, for Alfer this is where romance lies—not in the girl, but in the discovery of the girl. “When you see a girl, you see the personality,” he says. “And when you see the picture, you see the look. And when you talk to her, you see the motivation—or you don’t see it.” Alfer smiles, the smoke of the hookah seeping through his teeth. “It’s voodoo,” he says.