In July of 2008, I was just finishing up a two-month contract in Shanghai. Coming from a smaller city in Canada, and leading a somewhat sheltered life, the prospect of going to Shanghai on a modeling contract seemed exciting and novel. I can still recall my time there in vivid detail: our agency driver, Jackie, could not speak a word of English, but would smile enthusiastically at me and the other models each morning as we all climbed into the casting van. The mid-day breaks when I would buy my everyday staple: a carton of asparagus milk and tuna-filled rice triangles. I had never ridden a scooter before, but soon enough I was taking one everywhere — to friends’ apartments or the supermarket. I found it exhilarating zipping down the hectic Shanghai streets. But most of all, I remember the people that I met. Diana O’Brien was one of them.
Diana and I met through a male model and fellow Canadian at my agency. Although Diana and I were not close friends, being Canadian, we had this instant connection. Diana was 22, and having grown up in a small community -- Saltspring Island, British Columbia -- she said she’d always wanted to travel and see the world. Modeling gave her that very opportunity. In the evenings, we’d sometimes go to a cocktail bar in Xintiandi, a famous pedestrian district in the former French concession. Diana and I would always end up talking. She was humble, not haughty like some girls, and very outgoing. It’s comforting to meet someone from your home country when you’re abroad. In the foreign environment of Shanghai, I found in Diana someone familiar.
The agency was sending her to castings and jobs similar to what would be required of an escort -- being asked to entertain men in nightclubs, and dancing for private clients. Having worked in Milan, Diana had experience as a model and knew that something was very wrong.
After a little less than a month of hanging out together, my contract was ending, and I had to go to work in Osaka, Japan. On my last night in Shanghai, Diana and all my other friends came to wish me goodbye. I remember the evening well because I’ve thought of it so often in the intervening years. We were at an intimate little lounge where my friend Greg worked as a DJ. Everyone was dancing. There was a fireplace burning, even though it was summer, but occasionally we’d catch a cool breeze wafting in from the outdoor patio.
I remember Diana telling me she was not happy in Shanghai, and how excited she was to go home. Her agency, an outfit called JH, was sending her to castings and jobs similar to what would be required of an escort -- being asked to entertain men in nightclubs, and dancing for private clients. Having worked in Milan, Diana had experience as a model and knew that something was very wrong.
Diana seemed anxious, but she did not want to switch agencies -- by that point she had had enough. She was in Shanghai on a three-month contract, but because JH kept pushing her to do jobs that were not legitimate modeling work, Diana just wanted to go home. She told me that she’d purchased a ticket home, to depart in two weeks, as soon as her last scheduled job would be completed. I told her how happy I was that she’d soon be leaving Shanghai and going home to her loved ones. I remember her eyes watered as we spoke.
"See you in Canada,” she smiled. She gave me a big hug. "See you in Canada," I replied.
A couple days after I got to Osaka, I skyped with a few friends back in Shanghai. The news they shared made my stomach turn: Diana was dead. I was dumbfounded. Then I began to cry.
Diana came home to a man standing in her apartment stealing her things. Armed with a knife, he attacked her.
Diana had been on her way back to her apartment from a job that had ended close to midnight. As she climbed the stairs, she noticed the door to the model apartment was open. Walking through the doorway, she saw a man standing in her apartment stealing her things. Armed with a knife, he attacked her, and Diana tried to fight him off. But the man stabbed her, and as Diana ran out the door to seek help, she collapsed in the stairwell. There, the man stabbed her repeatedly.
Diana's flatmate at the time, another Canadian model by the name of Charlotte, found her body lying on the stairs. Charlotte immediately went for help, but by that point nothing could be done. Diana was gone. Diana's death attracted global media coverage at the time, then faded from the headlines.
Modeling jobs in any market can run into the late evening, particularly if the job requires travel. I know many models who have finished jobs late at night, myself included, and never had any trouble, though finishing at midnight is not a regular occurrence.
But Diana was in a different position. The kinds of jobs JH was booking her for often involved nightlife, and kept her out, alone, until the wee hours. Moreover, JH’s model apartment -- though located in the relatively safe area of the Changning District -- had a security gate that was often unattended. (My agency apartment was also in Changning, but it had a 24-hour security patrol at the front gate and a staffed lobby.) Had there been sufficient security, Diana’s murderer would have had less of a chance to get into her building in the first place.
Immediately following Diana’s murder, her Shanghai agency closed its doors. Its phone was disconnected, its site went offline. It vanished without a trace.
Upon hearing the news of Diana's death, out of curiosity, I looked up the website of Diana's Shanghai agency, JH. Frankly, it looked as sketchy as Diana had hinted. The site was covered with photos of models I knew for a fact were represented by other, better agencies, there was text that I recognized as copied from another agency’s web site -- even the layout was a direct copy of a much more reputable Shanghai agency, Esee Model Management. Immediately following Diana’s murder, JH closed its doors. Its phone was disconnected, its site went offline. The JH agency vanished without a trace.
It would have taken Diana's mother agency a few minutes, perhaps an hour at most, to do that research. All they had to do was go online. They were her mother agents; they were supposed to know the market they were sending her to -- for three months! -- and to make sure that Diana would be in trustworthy hands. At least they could have googled JH and compared its site to the main Shanghai agency websites. It took me ten minutes.
The motive for keeping Diana in Shanghai, despite her unhappiness, seems obvious: money.
As any model who has gone to China for work would know firsthand, most of the jobs in China are catalogue and are usually not by any means glamorous. Had Diana stayed and worked well, she could have potentially earned substantial sums for her agencies. To give you an idea of how things work, the Chinese booking agency usually takes a 40% commission from the model's net earnings while the mother agency takes 10%. The other 50% goes towards the model’s expenses. After these expenses, a model who works regularly and has a good season can make anywhere between $7,000-$10,000 U.S. a month. On those earnings, the model’s Chinese agency would be grossing over $10,000 in commission per month for handling the bookings and billings, while her mother agency would be netting at least $2,000 over the same period for doing little more than arranging the contract. China is unusual among modeling markets in that the potential payout is a very substantial amount of money for models. To make that kind of money in Paris or New York you'd have to be booking blue-chip campaigns or doing runway exclusives.
It is because of the money to be made that modeling agencies are coming up as quickly as the skyscrapers on Shanghai's skyline. In light of this, mother agencies and models must exhibit caution. Mother agencies need, first and most obviously, to do their research. Human life is not replaceable; Diana's life is not replaceable. You are sending your model to a foreign country to live and work. As such, it is your responsibility as their mother agent to ensure their safety and wellbeing. Most crucially, if a mother agent sends a model to other markets for a contract, it is that agent’s duty to make certain that the host agency is legitimate, credible, and reliable. There should be plenty of reputable agencies in a given market and mother agencies need to find the one that is best suited for a given model. What else are models paying for but that expertise and local knowledge? And if a mother agent is not 100% sure of an agency’s legitimacy, it should not send its models to work with that agency. Period.
Models need to know that it is your absolute right to read all contracts -- and to negotiate their terms -- as well as to ask questions.
Models need to know that it is vital -- not to mention your absolute right -- to read all contracts carefully (and to negotiate the terms), to ask questions, and to research the agency's reputation online. Research other agencies as well, and speak up if you don’t like the look of the one where your mother agent wants to place you. Ask around. And if there is no trace of the agency anywhere online or any reviews, it is better to steer clear. Even if you have the slightest inclination that an agency could be portraying itself inaccurately, it is best to err on the side of caution. There are plenty of other markets and other agencies out there. But unfortunately, not all mother agencies live up to their responsibilities.
I am very thankful for having a wonderful mother agent who has had nothing but my best interest at heart since day one. I encourage all models to foster a positive relationship with a reputable mother agent. Having a mother agent who knows the industry is important; a mother agent who has a genuine interest in not just your career success but your overall wellbeing is vital.
What happened to Diana could have happened in any market worldwide. She could have been killed in Tokyo, Cape Town, London, Milan, or New York. But she knew something was wrong and she wanted to go home.
Likewise, Diana could have been anyone. She could have been your friend, your daughter, your girlfriend. She could have even been you.
Although nothing can bring her back, I hope that Diana's story serves as an example of the possible dangers a model can face when greed hardens into negligence. The most basic expectation that a model has when he or she travels overseas for work is that his or her personal safety will be protected. Mother agents need to exhibit caution, care, and compassion when sending their models overseas. Every agent should ask, would I be okay with sending my child to work and live under these people’s supervision? If the answer is no, then it is not okay for you to send someone else's child either.