Baltic Babes: The Hardest Working Models (City Paper 12/04)

On a recent morning in the down-town Tallinn offices of Estonian Model Agency, better known as EMA, the pace was tempo furioso. While agency co-managing director Katrin Rannaväli feverishly worked the long distance phone lines in one corner of the cluttered, magazine cover-lined working-cum-prep space — “No, she’s not available; yes, she’s available” — in another corner partner Margit Jõgger was having a pep talk with the latest EMA prospect to zoom off into the international fashion slipstream, a rosy-cheeked, doe-eyed blonde named Ruja. For Ruja this was D-Day minus one. She was due to fly to Paris the next day.

A New Face, as they are called in the beauty business, the 18-year-old Estonian high school student had done but one local shoot for the agency when she was tapped to go to Paris. “I am sure she will be fine,” said Jõgger, like a nervous mother about to pack her daughter off to university. “I am sure of it,” she said, turning to the bright-eyed hopeful, who happily returned her smile, as the phone continued to trill in the background. “She’s got what it takes.”

Jõgger should know. She and Rannaväli have been picking and fielding Estonian lookers on the international fashion circuit ever since 1992, when the dynamic duo founded Estonia’s first post-Soviet model agency, not an easy feat at the time, when the peoples of the newly-liberated Baltic states had other things on their minds besides fashion. The two were responsible for producing Estonia’s first bona fide international model, the formidable Iris Teiter, now retired from the hurly-burly of the fashion world.

According to Jõgger, demand for Baltic beauties — or Baltic Babes, as some of them like to call themselves — is definitely on the rise. “Things are definitely popping,” said Jõgger, as she returned to coach her waiting charge.

Jõgger’s upbeat tone is mirrored across town at the sleek, new offices of EMA’s leading competitor, Baltic Models, the agency which both represents and is owned by Estonian supermodel Carmen Kass. “Business is very good,”agrees Eva-Kristina Mill, who manages the agency along with Katrin Meier.

Of course, we like to think that we” — meaning the Baltic states in general — “have the most beautiful girls in the world, but that is not for me to say. Anyway, I don’t like comparing girls from one country or one part of the world with another,” declared the 22-year-old. No doubt Mill’s precocious poise and confidence derives from the fact that she is a former model herself — as is her colleague, Ms. Meier, a common situation at agencies in the region.

But it’s not just our looks,” said Mill, earnestly. “Our girls, from Estonia, as well as Latvia, have the right attitude about the business. They’re not dreaming about becoming a supermodel from day one.” Certainly an interesting remark for one to make in light of the fact the agency is owned by one of the world’s mega-models.

Basically, our girls just want to work,” said Mill, leaning forward for emphasis. “And correspondingly they are easy to work with. They’re down to earth. They have the right attitude.”

Models from the region do work harder,” contends Kristine Kalnaja, a Latvian journalist who covers the style scene for the Latvian teen magazine, Avene. Like Mill and Meier, Kalnaja, a former model, has seen the business from both sides of the klieg lights.

Unlike Mill and Meier, Kalnaja isn’t shy about comparing the virtues of models from the Baltic countries with those from elsewhere. “Nature and heredity have been very kind to girls from the Baltic,” said the avowed Baltic Babe booster. “So many of us are fortunate to have naturally blond hair, or green eyes, or blue, or grey,” said Kalnaja. “And let’s not forget good teeth,” the model-turned-journalist said evenly.

But, she continued, echoing Mill’s remarks, “That’s not why models from the Baltic states have an edge in the beauty business. It’s because they work harder than most girls from other countries. It’s because they treat it like a business, not a hobby, or a sport, or a game, or a stepping stone to international stardom, even though a couple like Kass and so forth inevitably do become stars.”

Showing admirable ecumenism, Kalnaja concedes that Estonia, with its three leading model agencies — EMA, Baltic Models, as well as Beatrice Models, the agency shepherded by veteran Tallinn celebrity clotheshorse Beatrice — is first in the business of exporting Baltic Babes.

The loyal Latvian is quick to point out that her own country is coming up fast, thanks in large part to the growing reputation of Natalie Models, the well-stocked, highly regarded agency run by Erik Meisans, who took over the agency founded by his late wife. “Natalie represents more than a hundred models and New Faces,” according to Kalnaja, who writes frequently about Natalie. “Just as Latvia won the Eurovision contest after Estonia, so we are intent on winning the worldwide beauty sweepstakes! And we will!”

According to Kalnaja, Lithuania is still a distant third in the Baltic Babe-stakes. “The attitude towards beauty and fashion in Lithuania is more industrial,” said Kalnaja. “The whole business is less developed. It’s not really a business there, at least not yet, although they certainly have beautiful women, too.” Kalnaja’s contention is borne out by the fact that Baltic Models recently closed its offices in Vilnius (a development about which both Mill and Meier are diplomatically mum).

Kaia Kont-Kontson, one of the hard-working, if not yet mega-famous models in Baltic Models’ stable, is a good exemplar of the level-headed, down-to-earth attitude ascribed by the above. “I enjoy modelling,” said the dazzling and modest 23-year-old brunette, one of the agency’s dozen or so steady earners. “But at the end of the day, it is just a job.” A relative latecomer to the modelling business, Kaia stumbled into the profession, as it were, after she was asked at the last minute to appear in a fashion show for a designer friend. Soon enough, she too was winging her way to Paris and Milan and Tokyo and the other stops on The Circuit. Three years and hundreds of flights, shows, and shoots later, Kaia is now a veteran.

And she still has her head screwed on straight. Like the practical Estonian she is, Kaia is already preparing for life after the footlights by studying to be a clothing designer. In the meantime, she is happy to stretch her lucrative moment in the couture sun for as long as she can.

In addition to the Estonian and Latvian models working internationally, some prefer to work locally, with perhaps half a dozen models sharing what work there is to be had in Tallinn and Riga. One of the more established “locals,” as they are called, is Sirly Tillman, who is also represented by Baltic Models. Like her colleagues on the international circuit, Tillman, who has done campaigns for Kaubamaja and other Tallinn stores, has a no-nonsense attitude towards her profession, as well as why she and the few other other successful “locals” are more successful than others.

We have so many pretty faces,” said the flinty Tillman, who is also an interior designer, as she went through her paces on a local beach for the writer-photographer. “It’s important to have the right attitude, to know how to smile.” Whereupon she flashed a very genuine, and very professional, one of her own.

Meanwhile, back at EMA’s offices, the agency’s newest prospect, Ruja, was chomping at the bit. Her imminent Parisian sortie was the first time the Estonian teenager had ever visited a Western European country, no less worked in one, but she didn’t seem fazed at the prospect. “Everything will be okay,” she said confidently. Were her parents worried about her? “Everything will be okay,” she repeated, like a mantra.

And somehow, one felt, she would.

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