PARIS (Reuters) – Free designer dresses, an army of admirers and $15,000 to stroll down a catwalk: no wonder thousands of teenage girls aspire to being a top model.
But at the haute couture shows in Paris, the leggy blondes in silk dresses who advertise a life of luxury are finding their world turned inside out by the economic crisis.
"Half price! It's half-price everywhere, in Milan, even in New York," cried Anna Chyzh, a 23-year-old from Kiev who had just changed out of a Stephane Rolland haute couture gown into jeans and was headed to the next show.
Like many models from Ukraine, Russia and the Balkans, Chyzh regularly sends money home to support her mother, a freelance interior designer who is having trouble finding work because of the downturn.
"She says, Anna, you have to help me now. So we have to work for Mum, we cannot refuse any contracts now," she added before disappearing in a swarm of equally blonde and skinny girls.
Shunned by scrimping shoppers amid rising unemployment and fears of a long, deep recession, retailers across the board have cut profit forecasts and marketing budgets.
Even larger luxury goods groups are feeling the pain. Richemont, the Swiss firm behind Montblanc pens and Cartier watches, announced earlier this year it saw no signs of a recovery after third-quarter sales missed forecasts.
Magazine publishers from Conde Nast, which owns Vogue, to Time Inc are seeing advertising sales dive, and the New York Times has said it expects sales to deteriorate further.
At the January fashion shows in Paris and Milan, a prime advertising opportunity for luxury brands, designers hired fewer models than last year. Models and agents are feeling the pinch.
At Premier Model Management in London, an agency that has represented Claudia Schiffer, clients who used to pay a daily rate of 3,000 pounds ($4,200) are now arriving with a budget of 1,500 pounds, director Aidan Jean-Marie told Reuters.
To weather the crisis, agencies are adjusting their mix of so-called "commercial models," who attract a steady stream of low-key jobs such as catalog shoots, and pricier "image models" who appear on catwalks and magazine covers.
"You need both sides to survive the downturn, but the balance shifts slightly toward the commercial models," said Jean-Marie. "The catwalk girls are not your day-to-day girls, they are anomalies, with measurements they had when they were 16 and still have at 18."
Karen Diamond, director at Models 1, the agency of supermodel Agyness Deyn, expects the full impact of the crisis to hit later this year since advertising budgets and show schedules are planned far in advance.
"Clients will go with established models rather than giving new faces a break, and it'll be tough for new girls," she said.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the arrival of the internet, modeling has turned into one of the most competitive and globalized job markets.
Today, a teenager from a tiny village in Eastern Europe, inspired by beauty pageants and television shows such as "America's Next Top Model," may e-mail her photo to an agent and find herself lifted to overnight fame.
But in general, the lucky few who secure an agent are still a long way from succeeding. Diamond said half of the models her agency hires do not make it to the next stage as their teenage bodies fill out, or they decide to focus on their education.
The ones who do reach the top -- not counting stars like Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell -- can make $500,000 a year.
Backstage at the Christian Lacroix haute couture show, such top models in pink puffball skirts, taffeta jackets and ruched dresses tower over a throng of stylists and photographers.
Minders help them cross the room on precariously high stiletto heels, make-up artists dab extra powder on their faces, assistants warn that the show is about to begin.
"Give me everything you got, baby!" a photographer shouts at a posing and pouting blonde in a froth of tulle.
The mood is exuberant, but some have secret worries.
"I'm having some doubt now because of this situation. We all do it for the money so if there is no more money, maybe I should go back and focus on my studies," said Georgina Stojiljkovic, a 19-year-old from Serbia with feline, scowling looks.
She put her degree in political science on hold a year ago to work full-time and shares part of her fees with her family.
"There is still more money in this than almost any other job. I earn more than my parents -- it's kind of sad, they went to school and have worked for years," she told Reuters.
Suddenly looking serious, she said the crisis may be a good thing if it forced her to finish her university degree.
Anna Chyzh, the Ukrainian model, hopes her friends in the fashion industry will help her find other work if the phone stops ringing.
Recruited as teenagers, with little experience in anything other than smiling at cameras, many full-time models interviewed at the shows did not have alternative plans but worried about work drying up.
Others said they had seen worse.
Talk of the downturn elicits a mere shrug and smile from Pablo Ballay, a lanky 23-year-old male model from Argentina at the Dior menswear show.
"A lot of models here are from Argentina, and when you live in that kind of country you live in a continuous crisis," he said backstage after the show. "So you see how well people live here and you say, what, this is a crisis?"