It may seem like the Victoria Secret fashion show this week featuring Taylor Swift in a negligee would be the splashiest news in the modeling world. But in reality, a 9-year-old girl from Russia dubbed “the most beautiful girl in the world” is generating quite a bit of buzz and stirring controversy.
Moscow-born Kristina Pimenova, who started modeling when she was a toddler, went viral recently. She has been featured in Armani Junior and Roberto Cavalli Junior campaigns, sporting kids clothes that cost several hundred dollars.
There is a new generation of elite, pint-sized supermodels-in-training, modeling some of the most glamorous names in luxury fashion. Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs, Lanvin Paris are all rolling out lines tailored for kids and spawning a competitive and lucrative niche for a few lucky kids who have that certain je ne sais quoi.
One of those veteran models here in the U.S. is fifth-grader Violet Knobel, age 10. She has done it all from photo shoots to runway walks -- and she’s in high demand. Violet pulls off both low-key lines just as well as haute couture. She most recently posed in a Target holiday catalog.
There’s a certain risk that comes with putting a child model out in front of the camera. Kristina Pimenova shares her photo shoots with her more than 300,000 Instagram followers and two million friends on Facebook, which sometimes attracts disturbing comments.
Today, her mother, Glikeriya Pimenova, is hitting back at the haters, telling the Daily Mail in an interview, "You must think like a pedophile in order to see something sexual in these pictures, so it is time for you to see a doctor. ... I am certain in my mind all her photographs are absolutely innocent. I have never asked her to take this or that pose."
Marlene Wallach, who heads up New York City-based child modeling agency Wilhelmina Kids & Teens, which represents Violet, said her company has zero tolerance for anything not age-appropriate for her clients and “will pull the kid from the set” if a shoot seems too sexy.
“We represent children models. We do not represent children who are trying to be adults,” she said.
Violet’s mother, Melanie Knobel, a former model herself, said she wants nothing to do with ad campaigns that are over-sexualized.
“If I ever walked onto a set and it was like that, we would be gone so fast ... Wilhelmina would pull them so fast their heads would spin,” Melanie said.
Successful child models can command up to $1,500 per day for photo shoots and pull in a six-figure salary annually.
Violet said she plans to use the money she earns for a scholarship to college and a house. "And if I get a scholarship, which would be amazing, I would use it to travel," she said.
Her mother works in public relations, but also helps manage her daughter’s career, and her father is a firefighter. Both parents say they teach Violet to save well beyond the 15 percent the State of New York requires by law to be put into a trust for a working child.
Another Wilhelmina client is 7-year-old Wolfe Jin, whose portfolio boasts spreads for J.Crew, Macy’s, Kohl’s and Joe Fresh.
“This was my dream to be a model,” Wolfe said, adding that he begged his mom to allow him to start modeling a few years ago.
Wolfe’s mother Jin Ah helps shuffle her son from one gig to the next, arranging meals and tutors in between. Wolfe would be in the second grade by now, but is being tutored at the third-grade level.
“I do all of the math, science, nutritional education,” he said.
Not every child is cut out to be a model. Marlene Wallach of Wilhelmina said brands want children who are smart, well behaved and have a burning desire to be in front of the camera.
“It would show in the camera if they didn't want to be there, whether it's a commercial or a print ad, you would see it in their eyes,” she said.
Violet’s mother said Violet could quit modeling any time she wants, and she’s a girl with a lot of different ambitions -- she said she wants to grow up to be a photographer. But like Violet, Wolfe is enjoying the limelight for now, and having a career with a paycheck -- he even has his own checking account.
Both Melanie Knobel and Jin Ah admitted that having a professional child model means a lot of unsung work for them, but they keep going as long as their children still want to model.
“Sometimes you get tired,” Melanie said. “[But] being able to have a child in the car with you for several hours a day where there’s no one to disturb you, you get to hear all the things that happened in school and who did what and where.”
“You have to be on time. ... You have to get there, make sure that he's ready -- you know, he's brushed his teeth,” Jin Ah added. “This is a commitment between you and your child. Number one, your child has to want to do it. If they don't want to do it, and you're pushing them, I don't care how cute your kid is, it's pointless.”