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The Supermodels of Cuba

An elite group of Cuban high-fashion models are gracing magazine covers and appearing in commercials around the world.
From the Print Edition:
Cuban Models, May/June 03

Cuba is a land associated with music, sports, cinema, art, literature, architecture and, of course, cigars. Mention these subjects in the context of the Caribbean island and no one blinks an eye. They represent a positive association for Cuba in the minds of nearly everyone around the world, regardless of their politics. These national treasures have a romantic allure not duplicated anywhere the world: a uniqueness that speaks to the diverse heritage and culture of Cuba.

The world may also be on the verge of another realization, that Cuba has some of the world's most beautiful women. A small group of Cuban supermodels are traveling the world, working major fashion shows as well as posing for advertisements and doing fashion shoots for publications that are mostly located in Europe. They are making their mark in a global fashion industry that surpasses $160 billion in sales worldwide every year.

Cuba has always had a reputation for beautiful women, a vibrant mixture of Caribbean, African and European blood. But the idea of exporting one of the island's greatest assets has only recently come into vogue. It's also a key piece of evidence that Cuba is opening up to the world, creating new economic opportunities that savvy businessmen are capitalizing on in a number of industries. What's more, they see the country's cultural resources as equally valuable currencies, just like the more traditional exports of sugar or cigars. Finally, the world is discovering what English author Graham Greene once observed: "Living in Havana was like living in a factory that produced human beauty on an assembly line." Why shouldn't the island promote one of its most obvious riches?

"The talent is all here, it is just a question of packaging it and marketing it," says Canadian Dean Bornstein, the president of The Havana Production Co. Through a subsidiary of his Toronto-based company, he represents more than 75 of the island's hottest models, including a handful who work overseas. Bornstein recently established offices in Havana for his company, which is already on its way to becoming the premier film, television, music and fashion production company on the island. "We can do it all right here in Cuba and we don't have to go anywhere," he says.

Bornstein hopes to do for Cuba's best models and its fledgling fashion industry what Ry Cooder did for the island's music over the past five years. Few people had ever heard of The Buena Vista Social Club, or Compay Segundo. But today, in the wake of Cooder's excellent documentary and the film's soundtrack, the band and its key guitarist and vocalist have become household words. Dozens of other Cuban musical acts, from the salsa kings Los Van Van to the jazz and hip-hop star X Alfonso, have signed with record companies around the world. They have even toured the United States under cultural exchange programs with the U.S. government. Until recently, such programs were unthinkable due to the trade embargo against Cuba, but that's all changing. Bornstein is in discussions with a major international fashion company to design and produce a line of Cuban clothes, and that too, should add to the panache of the local industry.

According to Bornstein, Cuba's supermodels have never officially worked in the United States, due to difficulties associated with the embargo. This could change in the future, but he said that for now, it's legally impossible.

Trudi Tapscott, the bookings editor of fashion shoots at Vogue magazine in New York, says, "It's a problem for us. European scouts are welcome to go to Cuba. I'm anxious to see it open up, just as I was for the Iron Curtain to fall. We're just in an unfortunate situation." During the Cold War, Tapscott says, agencies found ways to get beautiful models out into the West to work. "If a great Cuban girl walked through the door, we'd jump on it. Five years from now, maybe two years, things will be different, I hope," she adds.

Tapscott also says that beauty standards in the fashion world have changed in the last few years, moving away from a more waifish Eastern European look to the more full-figured Latin look, a trend that favors the Cubans. "A healthy body image is better for everyone. Leaders like Jennifer Lopez will help change that," she says.

Annie Veltri, the president of T Management, a modeling agency in New York, is also quick to praise the Cuban look. "They are beautiful, beautiful girls. I would absolutely use them if they came walking through the door," Veltri says. "But it's just too difficult. We don't even scout there. We can't go there. And it's just too hard to go through the full sponsorship thing to get them a visa to work here. I mean, I can't even go there legally. So, we don't really think about them." Veltri adds that she knows the European agencies do scout in Cuba.

Despite the de facto prohibition on the Cuban models working in America, many have already found work in Europe, particularly in France, Italy and Germany. And in the coming months, Bornstein says that many of the supermodels will be working in Cuba on a range of projects, from a spy thriller pilot for television in both Spanish and English to fashion shoots with various clothes companies as well as catalogs and magazines.

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