Ugly World of Modeling: Drugs, Rape, Predators, Isolation

Young model's death unveils the soul-destroying underbelly of fashion.


July 2, 2008 — -- One eyewitness at the scene of model Ruslana Korshunova's plunge to her death in New York City told the tabloids that her blood-splattered body looked beautiful -- "even lying in the street."

The green-eyed, baby-faced girl -- just four days shy of her 21st birthday -- was, in the end, just a commodity in a city of hundreds of stunning models, many of them immigrants.

Even though police ruled Korshunova's death a suicide, and friends claimed she was "on top of the world," blogs from Britain's Daily Telegraph to the Los Angeles Times circulated theories that the Russian mafia had killed the highly paid model because she wanted to leave the fashion industry.

But the mob -- which has been linked to kidnappings and shakedowns of rich Russian National Hockey League players -- may be only one of the many dangers in the predatory world of young models.

That world, say industry insiders, is a pressure cooker populated by a nefarious cast of self-serving agents, promoters and photographers.

"The industry has a see-no-evil approach," said "Tatiana," a 19-year-old model who writes the anonymous "Modelslips" column for

"Another model told me she'd already heard a stylist on a shoot talking about how unfortunate the [suicide] was in the same tone of voice he used when he talked about another model's 'tragic' recent weight gain," she told

Korshunova, nicknamed the "Russian Rapunzel," followed a typical career path for eastern Europeans -- leaving home at the age of 15 and sending money to her poor family back home. She even bought them a house with her earnings.

While still in her teens, she had graced the covers of Vogue Russia and Elle Paris, and had been featured in ads for DKNY, Vera Wang and Christian Dior.

"It's really tragic," said Noel Ashman, a big player in New York's nightlife scene and owner of the Plumm. "Everyone wants a piece of them."

"The girls get preyed on by everybody, and everyone has their own agenda," the former promoter told "Most come from other countries, from small towns and have never been here before."

Judging by poetry Korshunova had posted on social networking sites, the Kazakhstan-born model was likely a "very young girl who has discovered that romance often fails to live up to its promise," according to Tatiana.

Just hours before jumping from her ninth-floor balcony, Korshunova had spent the evening with her former boyfriend watching "Ghost" -- the bittersweet story of a woman who reconnects with her dead husband.

The lithe, doe-eyed model was a schoolgirl in 2003 when a senior booker at Models 1 agency saw her face in an in-flight magazine story about a German language club in Almaty, Kazakhstan.

"I saw her by chance, and she looked like something out of a fairy tale," Debbie Jones told British Vogue in 2005.

Her life was anything but that, according to Ashman, who had himself left home at 13 to work the "kids" party scene in New York.

"It's a very tough thing to be a young model," said Ashman, now 38. "They are hit so young, and their life span is so short and they are pushed into the adult world at a ridiculously young age when most kids are in junior high school."

These often-naive models are surrounded by "predators," according to Ashman -- from neighbors in cramped agency-provided apartments to promoters, photographers and agents.

"I have certainly been around them my whole life and dated them," he said. "Most that I know have had some experience with someone trying to rape them -- a client or a photographer."

Many of these teens -- at 6 feet tall in provocative outfits -- look like mature adults and grow up in a city without the oversight of parents.

"They are thrown into the lion's den, and their agents become their parents," said Ashman. "A couple of them have parents who stay with them, and they are the healthier ones."

The agents "try to make money off them," he said. "If they want to get booked for jobs they don't mind the girls flirting with a client. They turn a blind eye." made calls to major model agencies like Ford and Elite in New York City, who refused to comment for this story.

Jezebel's Tatiana told that three girls share her one-bedroom apartment, paying $325 a week each. The agency refuses to pay for their $20 a month Internet access.

Though she never knew Korshunova, the model said she was familiar with the "depersonalization and loneliness of this profession and its outright miseries.

"People don't realize how lonely and isolating this job can be," she said. "No agency wants a successful girl, who's earning bank on lucrative cosmetics and perfume campaigns, out of commission for any period of time, so there's little incentive for them to help her face any problems or issues she might be having, healthwise."

Patrick McMullan, CEO of an agency that has photographed Korshunova and hob-nobbed with international models for more than two decades, said young girls in trouble have nowhere to turn.

"In New York it's easy and hard to be cool and in and to be young and hot," he told "It's hard to be up with that and to be 20 and over the hill and need support."

"It's easy to get depressed in this business," said McMullan. "There are real highs and lows. If you have an issue it's more pronounced. You are burning the candle and see people talking about you. She was doing well, but sometimes that's not enough."

Those like McMullan, who followed her career, had watched the model lose weight and wondered if she had dabbled in the drugs that plague so many supermodels.

Friends said Korshunova had a stomachache before her death, a small complaint, but in this high-pressure world, "one little knot is the book on the shelf that makes it go down," he said.

An autopsy is still underway and police have only said that some prescription pill bottles were found in her apartment with Russian labels.

Modeling is hard work, according to McMullan -- getting up early and often staying late to work with photographers on "fun shots" for their portfolio that might boost their careers.

"You have to get up and have a good personality to be photographed and be political and know the editors to be on top of the game," he said.

"You have to be social and friendly with everybody or else they don't want to work with you," said McMullan. "You can't miss an appointment or you become known and they won't send you out."

"Models can be very emotional and they are treated like meat a lot -- like a commodity -- and that takes your soul away," he said. "People around you like you for what you look like and not who you are."

And, notes McMullan many models abuse drugs like cocaine and have poor eating habits to stay thin. "Often girls take pain relievers to keep from getting hungry, and coke gives them energy when they drink," he said. "And the Russian girls can drink them all under the table."

"They don't want to gain weight, and there's the stress of not eating and working hard, drinking coffee and sometimes they are into cocaine, particularly if they drink a lot, to balance it all out."

Korshunova may have needed help, but had no family guidance, according to McMullan. "You feel like you don't have anyone to lean on."

"I see a lot of models and some of them are so waiflike that a mean comment could blow them away," he said. "They don't have enough life experience. They grow up too fast and they are missing a lot of their childhood."

McMullan's son Liam, who at 20 works in dance clubs as a musician, is surrounded by these child models -- some of them as young as 13, who arrive in packs with their promoters.

Like ordinary adolescents, these models straddle a fragile emotional world between childhood and adulthood. And sometimes what leads them to suicide seems incredibly banal.

"Her boyfriend probably left her," he speculated. "And there was probably a lot of vodka involved."

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