Mehmet Hassan Interviews Xeniya She — Lithuanian Fashion Model Reveals All About Her Experiences Of The Fashion World.
Two days of solid rain precedes today’s pristinely clear afternoon, and as Xeniya Sha walks towards me, a strong wind blows at her blonde hair loose beneath her Compton beanie. Through the central London crowd her eyes light up in recognition, sparkling against the light, they belie an innocence and gentleness.
We meet on the grounds of St. Paul's. Xeniya’s porcelain skin is blemish and makeup free and a decoratively loose knit cream top casually reveals her black vest beneath. Spring is in the air. Days are feeling hotter and brighter, Xeniya explains to me her first modelling job was representing spring. Unbeknownst to the competition organisers, as their youngest entrant.
Persuading her parents to consent, evading submitting proof of age, and tearfully forcing the casting director’s hand to the point of complicity, Xeniya continued through the competition. “I had to lie about my age, which was very cheeky. The minimum age to participate was 16 — I was 14, turning 15 - no where near!”
Various campaigns and competitions followed. Aged 16, she become the face of G Shock watches, and moving from her native Latvia, she eventually signed for Perfect Model Management in London when 19. Yet the image of industry professionals fraternising with underaged models is difficult to shake.
I ask her about the seedier side of the industry — under age models clubbing, mixing with adults without an assigned chaperone, uncomfortable castings, shoots that blur the line between art and porn. She cuts in to state that male predators are unavoidable. “The sexual part of it? Yes, of course it’s there.
“Lets just face it, where there are beautiful women, there’s always gonna be male appetite. The truth is that most of the time guys don't care about the fact that the girl is very young, and they just go ‘agggregghhhh, I want this toy’, without understanding the consequences that they may ruin an impressionable persons life.
“You have to understand that we are dealing with humans,” implying that the range of human flaws and strengths present in the fashion world are but a microcosm of society in general. Yet the industry does itself no favours.
“I don't know what happens right now, but it happened in front of my face,” describing the blasé attitude to open drug use during the earlier days of her career. The spill over to ones career seemingly inevitable and the pressure to join in immense, where decisions on career progression were at stake: “If you weren't doing coke with the bookers, there was a big rumour that you might not be pushed in the agency.” A fact that rang true where Xeniya saw models lacking talent, or being not that good looking, progressing more swiftly. A shaped eyebrow rises to the statement.
A brutal honesty spills out of her as she lays bare the cold facts of bookers making side deals with club owners, models plied with free drinks to decorate clubs, and “be nice to the owner”. Here, Xeniya nods to me and makes a face that such behaviour was routine.
Xeniya underscores the importance of having appropriate support — a strong moral compass installed early — to navigate through the myriad choices open to an agency signed girl. Moral and technical choices, where posing in lingerie early could bar you from the top fashion and couture houses. Xeniya has navigated such choices and has numerous publications to her name. Crossing between commercial and the avant garde, her style is a well studied form.
Yet the fast paced nature of the industry curtails such creativity. Time to build chemistry between model and photographer is pressured. Trust plays a great deal towards the creative aspects of this interaction. Xeniya describes the intimacy involved with each others movements, where it is important to let go and give into the moment being captured. “You can have the most beautiful position, with the hands and legs, but if the face is not right; you can’t edit the face and you have these scary big eyes.
“I had some hideous shoots. In the beginning you blame the photographer, and then you take back and think, ‘why is it happening, why are the others not doing that?’
“The less I stressed, the more we get along, the more I have a chance to understand you as a human and how you work, and adapt to your style.”
The learning curve is steep, you discover your weaknesses, but you improve because of its personal meaning. One is compelled to push to the highest standards when the craft is a cherished aspect of ones life.
We move to a quiet bar along the Strand, Xeniya has a whisky and lime.
Standards are key. We discuss the current trend of diversifying model types, “There is more opportunity for being individual and be a little bit more pretty or quirky. The face should be different, it bring variety and it represents the people around, but we can’t be compromising the standards.”
I get the sense that Xeniya yearns for the days of old, where calling yourself a freelance model would be unheard of and would invite derision and laughter.
“You couldn't be called a model if you weren't signed by an agent.” I press her that this might be a good thing, but she cannot hide her indignation. She disagrees citing that standards have dropped and people have forgotten that to be a model meant you had to be a certain shape and measurement, “People would laugh at you. Nowadays, you can be a freelance model, which is like weird to me or an Instagram model — what the fuck is that?”
I put it to her that this has democratised the industry and normalised the expectation on female body image to a more natural shape. Yet she volleys back the ball: “Do you think everybody can be a ballerina?” Her large brown eyes stare widely at the suggestion.
Perhaps there is truth to this, but coming from a near six foot tall model with flawless skin and features cut to the bone, I suspect to many will be hard to swallow. Elitism exists in other industries too. Law and medicine sift out the very best to join their ranks; however, this rankles with the general public when describing an industry that is perceived to be solely concerned with superficial beauty.
“You have to be realistic with yourself, it’s just not for you. And it's not the end of the world. Not everyone should be or can be a model. Not everybody can be a dancer or a singer or a painter. You just don't have that talent, live with it, find yourself in other ways.”
She cites this as a wider problem within western society, that because you desires something you therefore deserve to have it. “You just have to understand when the word no comes in, and it’s life. Every single girl wants to be a model. But to be a model you have to have physical attributes and you need to have the creativity. Lets face it, not everybody has that package.”
Social media platforms such as Instagram are cited as unhealthy contributors to this yearning for the attainment of unrealistic body shapes and lifestyles. Fame, beauty, youth, personal fortune, expose the insecurities of society and the inequality that exists in life. An idealised world view through fashion distorts reality, and can be missed by the most vulnerable in society.
Tapping her immaculately kept lilac nails on our table, she repeats values three times when I ask what enabled her survival through the industry. One’s worth should be derived from internal beauty, from internal attributes, regardless of superficial attributes.
“The fashion sector — like any other sector — shouldn't be dictating our lives. But the problem is that we allow the fashion sector to rule our lives and perceptions of people. It is really easy to create this artificial worthiness — could it be fashion, could I be other things? If within yourself you are insecure you gonna always feel unhappy.”
Xeniya’s matter of fact approach is a serene breath of fresh air. Looking cross the dimly lit lounge, I get the sense that Xeniya is a model very much in control of her career, and most importantly, her life.