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The New Supermodel Supermarket : Since the Fall of the Wall, Scouts for the World's Top Modeling Agencies Have Found Eastern Europe to be a Treasure Trove of Looks That Kill--and Sell.

August 27, 1995|Scott Kraft | Scott Kraft is The Times bureau chief in Paris. His last article for the magazine was about French filmmaker Jean - Luc Godard.

Midnight at the trendy Transylvania Club in Bucharest. In the downstairs Dracula Room, plates of meat-stuffed grape leaves have been cleared away by solicitous waiters, backing out the door as is the Romanian custom. A new bottle of local Cabernet Sauvignon is opened. China cups of coal-black coffee arrive.

Dominique Caffin places 16 Polaroid photographs of young Romanian women on the red tablecloth in front of her. An international scout for the Ford Models agency, this Frenchwoman is, at 38, respected throughout the industry for her keen eye and her successful searches for models in Eastern Europe. For every statuesque woman yearning for fame, fortune and a ticket to the West, Caffin is the dream maker.

This day she is tired. She's been on the road for three weeks. Estonia. The Czech Republic. Slovakia. Bulgaria. Several thousand faces. Six "maybe" models. And now Romania.

She gazes at the photos, the finalistas in the first Romanian Supermodel of the Year contest. Each has been hand-picked by Giani Portmann, co-owner of a Bucharest modeling agency, during a grueling, 3,000-mile, 10-city casting call across Romania.

Portmann, chain-smoking thin cigarettes, already has chosen her favorites. But she keeps them to herself, watching nervously.

"Adina," Caffin says. "She is very pretty, very pretty, this Adina. Brigette ... special. Simona ... I like Simona."

"She's magnificent, but there is one problem with Simona," Portmann says. "Her chin is too sharp."

"That's terrible," says Caffin. "Her profile? That's terrible. But I adore that face."

Next. "Ioana ... that's a beautiful face."

Caffin pauses. "To tell you the truth," she says, "I'm extremely surprised. They all have the ABCs. They are tall, they have good bone structure and they have great bodies. It's unbelievable. Bravo!"

But the cutting must begin. Monica is too poorly proportioned. Ana's mouth is too small. Lumenitza has patchy skin. Bianca has an elongated torso, "a low rear end; that will never work," Caffin says. Finally, just two photos remain--Ioana and Simona.

"I love this Simona," Caffin says. "This is what I look for. It's a cover image. You can't cut her chin?"

Portmann shakes her head sadly.

"And this Ioana," Caffin says, "she is magnificent. How old is she?"

"Fifteen and a half," Portmann says.

"She can be a winner," says Caffin. "She is very Ford. We have to think of Eileen Ford, you know, and this one is perfect for the agency. She has the graine de star ." The seed of stardom.

Two nights later, on June 10, in the velveted, old Victoria Casino Theater in Bucharest, in front of a television audience of 10 million Romanians, Ioana (yoh-ANN-ah) Delcea, 5-foot-8 with thick, dark hair, becomes the first Romanian Supermodel of the Year. Simona Haragha, chin and all, is the runner-up. Both pack their bags for an escape to the West, and the big time.

"Ioana is a classical beauty, and with such big eyes," Caffin says later, explaining the decision that baffled many Romanians in the audience, who prefer a mature, voluptuous look. "So elegant and graceful. And mysterious. We have to see what people say about her nose. But if it's a problem, we'll do something about it."

But, Portmann warns, "it's not enough that she be beautiful. That, yes, of course. So many are beautiful. But can she handle it in the West?"

*

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the crumbling of communist governments in Eastern Europe opened a new market for Western entrepreneurs. They charged past the mortar, opening McDonald's restaurants and Coca-Cola franchises. They installed Otis elevators and IBM computers. They sold Estee Lauder perfume and Panasonic television sets.

Those developments did not go unremarked in the world's top modeling agencies in New York and Paris. Who could imagine the number of beautiful faces and prominent cheekbones hidden, like diamonds, in the remote villages of more than 20 countries? New places, the scouts knew, could only mean new faces.

In fact, Dominique Caffin was already there. Working for a small Paris modeling agency, she had made her first face-hunting trip behind the Iron Curtain in 1988. The hotels were (and still are) grimy. She sometimes needed bodyguards (and still does). Visas were difficult to obtain. There were few fashion magazines and most of the successful local models were over 30, advanced old age in this business.

But it was all worth it. On that first trip, to Prague, she found Eva Herzigova, 16, and Daniela Pestova, 17. Herzigova is now the fashion plate for Guess? and Wonderbra, as Pestova is for Victoria's Secret. She also appeared this year on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine's swimsuit edition. Now they fly on the Concorde, skip to Paris and Milan and earn well over $1 million a year.

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