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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

(continued from page 1)

Bornstein certainly has high hopes that the situation preventing Cuban models from working in the United States will change. "Anything Latin American is hot right now in the fashion world," he says. "And Cubans have a special look, a special style." Jared Paul Stern, who covers the world of fashion in a New York newspaper column, says that Latin American models in general have been quite popular, especially Brazilians such as Gisele Bundchen. "Latin American models tend to look healthier than those pale, bony Eastern European models," he explains. "Fuller figures and tan skin are making a comeback."

Bornstein admits that only a handful of the women (a number of whom are pictured in these pages) can be considered Cuba's supermodels. "They are the ones that get the best jobs," says Bornstein. "The big jobs are abroad, but we can organize it all from Havana."

No one would discuss how much a Cuban supermodel makes for a job, since the fees vary from acting in a new music video to a catalog shoot or magazine spread. But Bornstein says that they are paid comparably to other international models. In general, the lowest rate for fashion shoots starts at about $1,250 a day for a commercial job and much less for editorial work. But those fees bear no relation to the money paid to the world's top models, which can start at around $10,000 and go up into the tens of thousands for every day worked. Bornstein did say that fashion shoots are the most profitable. "Of course, they are not making the money a London-, Milan- or New Yorkñbased model might, but they will some day," he says. "It was the same with Miami not that long ago. There is huge potential here."

What Cuban models do make is divided with the government, a fact of life for almost all Cubans who gain permission to work overseas. But Bornstein argues that it's the same thing as workers paying taxes in any country in the world. "It's no different than anywhere else," says Bornstein. "It's just like models in the United States who have to pay taxes." He would not disclose the exact percentages that his clients must give the government.

Serious modeling in Cuba had humble beginnings. In the early 1990s, a restaurant called La Maison in the Miramar area of Havana held regular fashion shows for clients on selected evenings. It was simple fare. Models had to wear badly designed clothes from local designers in front of sometimes less than appreciative onlookers. But it was a start, and the godmother of Cuban fashion, Grisel Labrada, 36, did the best she could, scouting for local talent as well as organizing all the shows.

Eventually, she attracted some attention from European fashion scouts, and built an admirable client list of fashion firms and magazines by the late 1990s. She feels that modeling and fashion in Cuba recently has risen to a more professional level. In the past, work was primarily handled on a freelance basis where the women were hired by European-based agencies through Labrada. "They are much happier to be working with an agency in Havana," she says. "So they should do better work."

Bornstein said that one of the most refreshing aspects of working with the Cuban supermodels is their attitudes. "They are really appreciative of the work," he says. "They are easy to work with compared to other models. I found many other models, whether American, English or whatever, very difficult. They are used to everyone filling their heads with nonsense, so they can be difficult to work with. It's all fresh and easy here in Havana."

In late February, at the Fifth Anniversary Cigar Festival in Havana, a thousand people attending the gala dinner caught a glimpse of what the Cuban supermodels are all about. Before the supermodels hit the runway, the mostly European crowd was already entranced with the exhibition of Cuban beauty. Slinky Afro-Cuban, mulatto and Caucasian models strutted down the runway, which was set up in a government protocol house in the Siboney area of Havana, and the eyes of the diners were firmly glued to the women's every move.

The backdrop to the runway comprised large painted murals of tobacco plantations in the Vuelta Abajo, the legendary tobacco region of Cuba. It all seemed slightly surreal, looking at the tobacco scene and then at the hot Cuban models.

Some of the clothes were haute-couture designs from Christian Dior and Maurizio Galante as well as more simple efforts from Cuban designers. But the sense of anticipation in the crowd was high. "Wait until the supermodels come out," said Bornstein, a few seconds before they came onstage. "They are going to own this place."

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