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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 2)

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.

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."

One after another, the models energetically strutted and swaggered down the catwalk -- Carla Paneca Fernández, Dayrein Aba Estevez, Yamila Coba and Yoandra Suarez Borrego. Their entrance electrified the room. The audience, both men and women, stared in awe. They vigorously applauded for each woman.

A 5-foot, 9-inch brunette, Paneca Fernández was obviously the crowd's favorite. A former Miss Model of the World, the 23-year-old carried herself with a sassy sophistication that would have easily been the right attitude for walking down Fifth Avenue in New York or New Bond Street in London. The black crepe, off-the-shoulder top with an above-the-knee, pleated, black see-through silk skirt (all Dior) fit her body like a Tiffany's gift box holding a perfect five-carat solitaire diamond ring. The crowd roared with approval as she spun on the end of the catwalk and strolled back to the entrance.

"It was as if we were not in Cuba," said one American who attended the fashion dinner as he smoked a Romeo y Julieta Churchill. "I have never seen anything like it before on the island."

This is just the beginning, according to Bornstein. The supermodels are now organized in Havana and eager to work. And, as Veltri in New York says, the world is ready for them. The women are ready, too.

"We are proud to be Cubans, and we believe that we have something different to offer the fashion world," Paneca Fernández says a few hours before the show in Bornstein's office in Old Havana. "Why would someone want to go to Miami and use models there when they can have the real thing in Havana?"

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