Image via Emily Burgherr, YouTube.

Next group, forward”

Click. Click​. Click.

Six black heels shuffled across the wooden floor of the ballet studio. The heels were all size 7, slightly scuffled. They weren’t washed that often, since they were owned by the modeling agency. No one from the Volgograd region could afford their own heels, so it was better than nothing. The wearers of the shoes were 56 kilos heavy and no shorter than 173 centimeters, as one had to be tall to be picked. These girls were fifteen years old, tops. Inna was fourteen and a half. They tottered forward to face the scouts, trying to hide the discomfort they felt behind the cake of their makeup. Their hopeful mothers had spent the week’s salary to buy the makeup for them. Sway the hips, keep the elbow curved and look straight ahead with a dangerous look. Inna’s coach, Kahlya, always used the word “dangerous.” Inna didn’t really understand what it meant to look dangerous but Kahlya had been a Siberian favorite across Southeast Asia and Europe. She claimed that she walked in Paris but Inna wasn’t so sure. She worked with Kahlya on Mondays and Wednesdays after school at 4:30 p.m. for group lessons and on Friday mornings before school at 7 a.m. for a private lesson. It was on Fridays when Kahlya told her inappropriate stories about piercings in private places and boys she met overseas.

“Placards out.”

Inna lifted her sign to cover her exposed stomach. Her other hand remained on her hip. She hoped no one noticed, but her black bra had a small frayed thread that hung down on the left side, touching the first visible rib below her breast. It was good to be able to see the ribs when you turned to the side.

Inna ​Gandalf. 14 ½. 175 cm. 53 kg. Tolyatti, Volgograd.

Her sign stated the same facts as the two girls’ to her right. Three more waited their turns a few paces behind them, and three more behind them. There were almost a hundred girls here today as this was one of the biggest showings in this region of Siberia.

“My name is Inna Gandalf and I am 14 ½ years old. I am 175 centimeters tall and 53 kilograms. I am from Tolyatti and I like to go swimming,” said Inna in broken, accented English.

The Parisian scout lifted his head from his clipboard when he heard her age. Most of these girls were only young enough to model in the Asian continent because of Europe’s child labor laws. She was only 18 months from being 16 years old, when she would be allowed to work legally. Inna had long brown hair and big chestnut eyes. She stood with one foot a few inches in front of the other and had it pointed about 30 degrees to the left of its companion. Her pose showed taut, strong calves that led upwards to a right-leaning hip with a dainty hand placed on top of it. The hand looked graceful but not relaxed. Kahlya always told her to be more relaxed, but how could she not be nervous? This was the biggest showing Inna had been to and a real chance to get signed by a modeling scout.

The scouts were sitting in plastic chairs at a table facing the girls. The table was littered with dozens of pictures and papers with foreign words scrawled on them. Another scout, the Mongolian one, stood and stepped forward with his tape measure. The Mongolian was a short, rounder man with a mustache that seemed to span from ear to ear. He was covered in a distinct fur that seemed to be something like an amalgamation of brown and red foxes. Approaching Inna to measure her waistline proved a sharp contrast; the furred, mustachioed man and the tall, skinny and nearly naked Siberian girl one-fourth his age.

“Sixty-five centimeters” he announced, pulling the measuring tape away and turning to face his fellow scouts. He said it without any emotion in his voice, reciting a fact about her as if she were one of those brown-and-white speckled hens that Inna’s father brought home for Friday dinner from the Tolyatti market. Each hen was the same size, but each was speckled differently. Inna and her sisters liked the ones that were mostly white with only a few brown speckles around the neck and head of the bird. These looked the most beautiful. Her father thought this was stupid, since all of the hens tasted the same.

Sixty-five centimeters was too wide for the Parisian who pushed his glasses back up his nose and returned to thumbing through headshots of the girls to come. His glasses were the kind that only a man who wanted his friends to believe he was well-read would wear. The Mongolian, too, was uninterested and returned to his place next to the three South Koreans. Despite the initial lack of enthusiasm, a man from Laos and a man from India liked what they saw enough to put Inna into the next round. Each stepped forward with a small colored marker and initialed her sign. This meant that they would split the cost to get her modeling pictures taken before deciding if she was worth a trip abroad for gigs in Asia. Inna wanted the French scout to sign her sheet—she had heard amazing things about warm, buttered croissants and warm, twinkling Parisian nights—but was happy to have any scouts find her worthy of getting her professional pictures taken. Her only prior experience was a few shoots before in Burlevska, a big town with a shopping center about a 90-minute drive from her village. But even Lucya, her older sister, had been selected to model coats in Burlevska. This was a big deal for her. Obviously every girl at the show wanted an American scout to initial her sheet, but an American rarely showed up to the Volgograd region of Siberia. Today was no exception: there was no modeling scout from America. Apparently the Americans tended to stick to Moscow hotel rooms. Inna pictured them thumbing through their new Blackberries, smoking local cigars and waiting to hear about a rising big name from their compatriots before contacting her agency about buying out her contract.

She flashed her white teeth at the Indian and the Laotian men, careful not to reveal the slightly twisted tooth that worried her ceaselessly. The tooth was in the top half of her mouth, four teeth to the left of her main left incisor. The Gandalfs probably could have afforded a few months of Invisalign but Tobias, Inna’s father, refused to get it for her. Tobias was a modern enough man to see the benefits of dropping the iron curtain but was to his core a firm believer in the value of buying only what is necessary. Tobias Gandalf made steel before the collapse and now drove for a cab company based in Burlevska. A few years ago, on some Saturdays, Tobias gave them a ride to the mall and let them walk around for a few hours while they tried on lipstick samples and waited in line to demo the Nintendo game. Inna was too old for that now. She had already tried every lipstick and knew where to find the little mushroom token to beat the demo level.

Cognizant that she was still on display for the scouts, she quickly returned to her original pose, staring straight ahead while the two girls next to her, Anna and Nika, were evaluated. Anna was fatter than Inna so she did not receive any initials on her sign. Inna hoped that Nika would not receive any initials either so she could be the only girl in her row to be noticed. However, a local agency, Dolevya, saw something in her. After giving her breasts a bit more scrutiny, one of their scouts initialed her sign.

After almost five minutes of standing motionless in front of the scouts Inna’s back began to ache, so she was relieved when the hostess shouted,

“Next group, forward.”

She and her young row mates, turned 90 degrees, gave a little “thank you” wave to the scouts for their time and walked back across the ballet floor.

Click. Click. Click.

Photo via

The wooden floor of the ballet studio was clearly worn from years of little Russian ballerinas tip-tap-tapping towards the promise of success. Ballet companies were even harder to get into than modeling ones. The studio had waist-high wooden bars that protruded a few inches from the mirrors around the room. Inna was shivering a little, now that the excitement was behind her. The cold Siberian air crept into any building in this part of the country, regardless of the density of the walls. She scanned the floor for where she had put her clothes and backpack but was met with a sea of black objects. There was no changing room or hangers or anything so the floor seemed buried in many black furry coats and black backpacks. The coats adorned the floor and though initially they were probably all folded neatly and tucked against the wall, in the time that Inna had waited in line and been evaluated many seemed to have unfolded and started to snake their way to the middle of the room as if they were trying to escape the ballet studio.

Inna thought that maybe her cousin Renata danced here, but she couldn’t remember. She had never been to her cousin’s recitals but Renata always complained about how cramped this studio was. Inna knew that Renata lived about 30 minutes away in the suburbs of this city, Samara.

Ahead of her, Nika was bending down to pick up her clothes. She bent over at the waist, letting her jet black hair fall over her face. Her legs stayed upright and were pencil thin. Nika turned her head a little to look back at the scouts. It looked like she wanted them to see her butt or something, but Inna could have been wrong. They weren’t looking. Inna found her stuff a moment later and she bent over to pick up her jacket, though not as elegantly. She snatched up her hand-me-down Gosha Rubchinskiy puffy coat and wrapped it around herself.

She was becoming more and more excited about the initials on her sheet and certainly wasn’t thinking about making herself look presentable. Kahlya would be furious to see this slouchy behavior. Kahlya said that those in the modeling industry were always watching and that she had to look and act her best at all times to become famous like Lucia Waldorf or Tasha Somorovski. But she had her chance now and she would not let herself or Kahlya down. Or her parents and sisters, too. Well, not really her father, Tobias; he didn’t really care. And not really her older sister, Lucya, since she would like nothing more than to see Inna trip over a satin gown during a taping of Siberia’s Next Top Model or accidentally pee a little bit when accepting a rose after winning the swimsuit competition in Medlevka. Inna had neither been on Siberia’s Next Top Model nor made the cut to get into the swimsuit competition in Medlevka, but if she had, Lucya would no doubt wish these misfortunes upon her. Still crouching, she picked up her black leggings and the sweater she already wished she had put on before her coat and stuffed them into her backpack. She straightened back up to the sound of her lower spine making short popping noises. Inna removed the heels, making a conscious effort this time to do so gracefully and. Eight centimeters shorter now, she twisted her body left and right and heard a few more satisfying cracks in her back.

Photo via

“I heard you can make a thousand United States dollars a week working in Japan,” said Nika to a girl next to her. “My cousin told me that her friend was put in a hotel that had three restaurants inside of it. She stayed for two months and ordered room service every morning.”

“She must not have been able to send much money home, then!”

“No, I suppose not. Anyways, she got to see the whole city of Tokyo and model for a bunch of different companies. Shampoos and lotions and these little tiny orange ball things that are only used in that country. She didn’t know what they were but it’s not like she could ask them to explain. Even though she was not good enough to model clothes, my cousin said she got another contract and has been able to model abroad for almost a whole year now.”

“I’d love to go to Japan.”

“Apparently the Japanese are very cute and polite. Her agency even let her go to a special garden where she took the most beautiful photos. I would show you but they’re on my cousin’s phone,” said Nika to the girl.

Inna started pulling on her boots.

“Where is your cousin modeling these days?”

“Well when she turned 16 she went to Germany for a few weeks before she returned home for no reason and would not tell her family why. Her agency made her use her salary to pay for her flight and then took the rest to pay them back for not finishing the tour. She does not model anymore. I believe she did not have the strength to model like I do.”

Nika continued, “I think after I have my photoshoot with Dolevya they’ll realize that I will do well and maybe send me abroad. I’ve been dieting well, skipping breakfast and only eating Griebnoy and lime-infused water and my coach says that I’ll photograph well.”

“Congratulations on getting your signature. Your parents will be very proud of you,” said the girl. The girl’s sign was packed in her bag—no longer around her neck—so Inna suspected that the girl did not get any signatures today.

“Thank you,” replied Nika, parroting back a line she had said many times to many scouts. “I have been waiting for this chance for many years. My mother wished that she could be a model when she was younger and now I will be able to try what she could not.”

Inna slipped on small black woolen mittens, covering her manicured red fingernails, and walked toward the studio exit.

“Next group, forward.”

Inna walked through the exit, dumping the scuffed heels into the bin near the door where they would remain until next month’s event. She shut the door silently behind her before heading down the black cast iron staircase that cascaded downward from the second-floor studio. She walked quickly, eager to tell her family the exciting news. At the base of the staircase, she turned to face the line of humming small black cars and mothers waiting impatiently for their daughters. Light snow was falling across Samara onto the ugly cement sidewalks and roads. The snow also fell on the collection of cars as wisps of smoke from their impatient engines puffed through tailpipes in little puffs like the way Tasha Somorovski smokes during her interviews with E! Online. She scanned the row of cars looking for the odd one out. A stained, dark yellow taxicab, one of the last in the row, hummed along with the rest of the cars. Maybe the other parents would think that someone of importance had sent for her in a cab. She walked to the backseat door of the car, skipping over the front row passenger door. She tugged at the door lightly, as Kahlya would have wanted her to do. Frost had sealed the door shut—or perhaps it was that the door was just old. She gave it a yank and it opened to reveal old black leather seats and a sign attached to the plexiglass separating the backseat row from the taxicab driver.

Tobias Gandalf. Born 1950. Certified 1999. Tolyatti, Volgograd.

“Hello, father. I did well today.”

She stepped in and closed the door. Tobias looked into the rearview mirror at his daughter and saw a hint of black bra strap. She was 14 years old, but looked to him like the women he saw in the magazines he bought from the sidewalk stand in downtown Burlevska on his lunch break. Tobias did not say anything and started to drive. He was a man of few words, which his customers appreciated. They drove past thick buildings made of brick and cement towards the edge of Samara. Square windows with metallic bars dotted each building—four across and seven high. Buildings were not allowed to be taller than seven stories. Both Gandalfs stared straight ahead, one thinking of the past and one of the future.

At the city limits, a policeman was stopping each car to collect a toll for the construction of the roads. Tobias was not sure if this policeman was authorized to collect tolls or was just a conman. Tobias had little say in the matter. He could request to see the requisite government papers but he had seen this man on his drive into Samara and was also tired. He leaned across the open front seat and cranked the lever that rolled down the window of the old cab. He dropped a few small coins into the outstretched palm of the policeman.

“Next car, forward.”

That night, Inna lay in her trundle bed falling asleep. Lucya snored in the bed above her attached to the trundle. They used to trade off who got the regular bed at the beginning of each month. Inna remembered how they would argue for hours about whether the switch would happen on the last day of the previous month or the first day of the new month. The side each sister took depended on who currently was in the regular bed. Now that Lucya was helping their mother at the factory sweeping up the loose threads and discarded spools, she was too tired to fight. Inna let her have the big bed because it was not as fun to have the big bed when there was not someone to fight for it with.

Inna’s stomach grumbled a little and she pulled her bedding a bit higher above her shoulders. She tried to imagine what her photoshoot would be like: who the photographer would be, what beautiful clothing she would get to wear. She thought of herself lying gracefully across a red velvet couch in a black dress. The photographer would position his camera by the arm of one of the couches. She would lift her head and look at the camera directly, like a mermaid coming up for breath. Her belly would be face down and her legs upward crossed behind her and her elbows resting comfortably in the couch with her palms supporting her angled face. Her ribs would be hidden but she would still practice what Kahlya had taught her. She would be different from the other girls, not like Nika’s cousin. She would be dangerous.

“Relax, girl, smile!” The photographer would say as he pressed the button on the top of his camera.

Click. Click. Click.

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