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Posted June 12, 2003 by publisher in Cuban Culture

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BY LYDIA MARTIN | .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) | Miami Herald


FORMER CUBAN MODEL: ‘I remember the bureaucracy could be terrible,’ said Ivelin Giro Robins. AL DIAZ/HERALD STAFF

On the cover of June’s Cigar Aficionado: The Supermodels of Cuba. The way the magazine tells it, they’re not only lookers, they’re also low-maintenance. No Linda-Naomi-Kate attitude to contend with in the land of the Cohiba, the conga and the ration card.

‘‘It’s all fresh and easy here in Havana,’’ Dean Bornstein, whose agency represents 75 Cuban models, says in the magazine. But as much as Cigar Aficionado raves about the modeling scene, Cuba’s no picture-perfect paradise.

A few years ago, the fashion industry descended. Now, the same players point to endless red tape, a lack of infrastructure (which makes it difficult to process film and rent equipment) and the U.S. embargo as the reasons behind its disenchantment with the island.

‘‘In order to be fashion-oriented, you need a certain amount of freedom. But everything in Cuba is state-controlled,’’ said Jean-Luc Brunel, owner of Paris-based Karin Models, which has offices in New York and South Beach. “There are hundreds of other beautiful places . . . where you’re not stopped by the police every five minutes.

“If Cuba got it together, Miami would not exist.’‘

Back in the mid-1990s, the fashion world, forever seeking the latest in Decay Chic (these are the same people who fell all over themselves to capture the quaintness of a down-and-out South Beach), jousted for elbow room in front of every unspoiled seashore, crumbling cathedral and trudging tail-fin jalopy. But the very same people who not long ago declared Havana was happening are now calling it a has-been.

‘‘Cuba was very popular five or seven years ago. But now it’s overexposed,’’ Italian fashion photographer Fabio Fasolini said from Milan. “And in the last two to three years, it’s become too expensive. The [Hotel] Nacional was $40 a night when I started going. Now it’s $300. I liked the spirit of Cuba, but now it’s like Miami. Very commercial. They don’t even dress like before. They dress like they’re in Miami Beach.’‘

Four years ago, Fasolini shot a Lancme campaign in Cuba. He also shot there for Italian Vogue, Elle and Marie Claire. Now the work has pretty much dried up, he said.

‘‘There are beautiful beaches in Cancn, too. And it’s less expensive than Cuba. And everything works. Phones, electricity, water’’ Fasolini said.

But, some say, eventually all that will change. ‘‘The day Castro comes down and Cuba opens up, there will be a big boom. It just has to be easier to work there,’’ said Christophe Nouet, a French photographer who has been shooting in Cuba since the early 1990s. In 1999, he shot a campaign for Romeo y Julieta cigars with famed Cuban photographer Alberto Korda, whose credits include that ubiquitous image of Che Guevara.

There are no readily available numbers on the fashion production business in Cuba, but many speculate that if it weren’t for restrictions—from Cuba and the United States—the scene would explode.

‘‘Cuba today is somewhere near where the U.S.S.R. was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the fashion industry was discovered,’’ said John S. Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council in New York. In 1996, Miami-Dade County collected $120 million in fees for still photography, according to Jeff Peel, director of the Miami-Dade Mayor’s Office of Film and Entertainment. The numbers steadily declined to $85 million last year, because of a prohibitive exchange rate on the dollar, steep permitting fees and hotel rates and a backdrop that simply got overused.


Cuba could have been more of a contender, but too often, projects get aborted at the last minute because it takes so long to get permits and work through the system.

‘‘I remember the bureaucracy could be terrible,’’ said Ivelin Giro Robins, who in the late 1980s became the first big name in modeling to come out of Cuba since a beauty named Norka graced international magazine covers in the 1960s.

‘‘There were some catalog shoots I was ready to do and never did because the teams had to leave. In fashion, everything is money. You can’t just wait and wait,’’ said Ivelin, who now lives in Miami and is married to local developer Craig Robins.

Says Brunel: “I was traveling through the island with one of Cuba’s most important architects. And when we got to a hotel on this beautiful beach, he was told he couldn’t stay there. He had to sleep in the lighthouse next door because only tourists are allowed.’‘

For all of Cigar Aficionado’s frothing about the models in Cuba, the fact is that it’s only a few who find steady work, and fewer who get to travel outside the island for fashion shows and shoots.

‘‘There are 20 to 30 decent models, and that’s it,’’ said Christian Bengsch, who owns Take Me to Cuba, a German production company. “The very good models, they either find an agency in Europe to sponsor them or they find a man somewhere to marry them. But they never come back.’‘

Models, like others who represent Cuban culture abroad, are not free to travel without getting permission from the government, often a circuitous task that can take months.

They may be desirable, but the rules make them unreliable. In the jet-setting fashion world, it’s key to be able to pick up and go to the next job.


Castro daughter Alina Fernandez Revuelta, who now lives in Miami, did some modeling in the early 1980s, before models on the island were allowed to travel and before they had access to dollars.

‘‘Things may be tough for Cuban models today, but they’re much better than they used to be,’’ Fernandez said. “Before 1994, . . . if you were caught with one dollar, you could go to jail. Foreign photographers came to shoot you, but they paid you in pesos. . . . I was paid something like 25 or 50 pesos for the day, which is like one or two dollars.’‘

For all of the limitations, those who believe it’s only a matter of time before the Cuban scene skyrockets already are plotting for the future.

‘‘If Cuba were to be liberated, there would be a growth there that would be phenomenal,’’ said modeling agent Irene Marie, one of the first to get in on the South Beach scene. “There would have to be an infrastructure built first, but I’m very familiar with building infrastructure. There wasn’t much of one when I opened on the Beach in 1989.’’

  1. Follow up post #1 added on December 06, 2004 by Glenn Tucker

    I am a young fashion photorapher with a, limited budget from Bermuda, I am visiting Cuba for the first time and I am looking find contact numbers of modeling agents to give models somw work for a couple of days if anybody can help me you can either call me at 14412928416 or email me back at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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