By Vito Echevarria | [url=http://www.CubaNews.com]http://www.CubaNews.com[/url]
During Cuba’s economic opening in the early 1990s, a multitude of European publications fawned over the island’s beautiful young women. Magazines began providing extensive coverage of the unspoiled beauties living not only in Havana, but in slower-paced provincial towns as well.
The ensuing tourism boom, with amateur fashion shows put together on short notice at various hotels and popular nightclubs like “1830” along Havana’s Malecon, simply reinforced the potential appeal that Cuban models would have overseas.
Sooner or later, someone was going to set up an agency specializing in such models.
Canadian businessman Dean Bornstein, who has extensive TV and film production ex-perience, runs The Havana Company, a multimedia production outlet with offices in Toronto and Havana.
Bornstein’s agency represents 75 Cuban models, some of whom have been able to get work overseas. His large crop of local beauties — ranging from blonde hair and blue-eyed types to dark and lovely Afro-Cubanas — are often willing to work for far less than their counterparts in New York, Paris and Milan. As he told Cigar Aficionado magazine last May, “the talent is all here, it’s just a question of packaging and marketing it.”
In the United States, the full-figured “Latin look” is now in vogue, thanks in part to Hispanic celebrity Jennifer Lopez. However, the embargo against Cuba precludes any possibility of Cuban beauties getting work with U.S. modeling agencies. That lack of competition from New York and Miami explains the success of Bornstein’s Canadian outfit.
Bornstein himself was unavailable for comment, though according to his company website, the firm conducts casting services for various Cuba-related projects including feature films, commercials, music videos, magazines, print advertising and fashion catalogs, as well as other film and print media.
The site also asserts that The Havana Company is in the process of setting up a database of Cuban actors and models, as well as musicians, athletes and extras for future projects that require them. As Bornstein told Cigar Aficionado, models lucky enough to land these assignments typically make around US$1,250 per day for a commercial fashion shoot, with an undisclosed amount going to the Cuban government.
Even for not-so-glamorous models, things aren’t so bad.
“You have very decent, very normal models in Cuba. You can pay them just $250 a day, said Christian Bengsch, owner of the German production company Take Me to Cuba.
“Their ‘connection’ gets a small cut of that money — the model keeps the rest.”
That ‘connection’ Bengsch refers to is an informal group of well-connected locals who use restaurants like La Maison in Havana’s Miramar district as a meeting point for models seeking work. Bengsch’s main Cuban modeling shoots were done for British and German catalogs.
“Last season, we did a big job with Mercedes-Benz,” he told CubaNews. “We had security. We had five or six models, top-notch. The [Mercedes] car for the assignment was flown to Cuba. A famous actor from Cuba was even involved.”
Although the fees paid by these agencies pale in comparison to the $10,000-plus per day fees common in New York or Paris, the money these models take home is still a fortune by Cuban standards — not to mention the international exposure and potential for more lucrative jobs, should they get visas to emigrate from Cuba.
As Bornstein said, the appreciation these models have for gaining such prestigious work influences the conspicuous absence of “prima donna” attitudes prevalent among U.S. and European models — a welcome change for talent scouts in search of new faces.
Bornstein’s website notes an interesting summary of modeling assignments and TV ads previously done in Cuba with Cuban fashion models. These include Omo detergent (for Danish TV), Nescafe (for Australian TV) and Axe body spray (for French TV).
Print ads shot in Cuba have appeared in Vogue, Elle, Marie Claire, Petra and Allegra magazines, and Spain’s Vanguardia newspaper, as well as catalogs for the Madrid department store chain El Corte Ingles.
Besides The Havana Company, a modeling agency called Habanatopia is now being formed. Founder Romulo Sans, a Spaniard, told CubaNews in a recent e-mail that he does not want to provide details for the time being.
As dynamic and catchy as it may sound for such modeling outfits to go to Havana and scout out attractive new faces on the cheap, there are some big negatives. These include bureaucratic red tape, a lack of infrastructure (which complicates production crews’ ability to process film and equipment) and the ever-present “police-state” environment.
These and other problems cut into tight deadlines, which are often not respected in Havana.
One prominent Italian photographer, Fabio Fasolini of Milan’s Studio FP, has worked with 20 to 30 Cuban models over the years.
Fasolini told CubaNews he’s found himself having to work around the island’s stifling police presence. “When I had problems with the Cuban government, I solved these situations alone,” said the photographer, who’s done shoots in Cuba for cosmetics maker Lancome and various European magazines.
Indeed, the local police usually suspects prostitution or other illicit activities when beautiful Cuban women are seen publicly with foreign men.
While photographers like Fasolini and modeling agencies have to grapple with local conditions in Cuba, the best hope for up-and-coming Cuban models is to travel to Europe to pursue their dreams.
Jean-Luc Brunel, owner of Paris-based Karin Models, did some photo shoots of Cuban models in the 1990s. He said that Europe is now the only alternative for these girls, due to restrictions stemming from the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
“They cannot come to the U.S. on a work permit,” he said. “America is 50% of Karin’s business. “Even for those who can go to America, the whole process is very long.”