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Idea #3: Poor models

I got this documentary about National Geographic photographers recently. This was the photo on the front cover:

Afghan Girl

Steve McCurry's "Afghan Girl"

It was basically the cover that sold the DVD to me. This photograph just grabbed my attention. And it seems I’m not the only one to have noticed. According to the DVD, after this photo appeared on the cover of National Geographic in June 1985, they received over 2,000 letters from people wanting to marry the “Afghan girl”, adopt her, or just find out her name. Unfortunately, the photographer Steve McCurry knew nothing about her, other than that she was an Afghan refugee, roughly 12 years old, attending a school in a Pakistani refugee camp.

What a bittersweet irony for the Afghan girl. World famous, with eyes that could advertise her way out of war and poverty in one photoshoot, but she knew nothing about it – just that one day a foreign man pointed a foreign object at her and clicked. Thankfully for her, at least, the man was an American with a camera, not a Russian with a gun.

This photo was my inspiration behind what I think is a great idea. As I just mentioned, if this girl could stir up such a buzz with one photo, she would be like gold-dust to advertisers.Β This got me thinking. Is “Afghan Girl” the only beautiful girl to have lived in the developing world? Obviously not. So it seems there is an opportunity. This brings me to today’s idea:

Idea #3: Create a model agency to discover and exclusively represent potential models from developing countries.

Actually similar things have been done before. Saatchi and Saatchi’s campaign for charity Coraid featured poverty-stricken Africans modelling luxury products:

Saatchi and Saatchis Coraid advert

Saatchi and Saatchi's Coraid advert

More controversially, designer Vivienne Westwood has also used gypsies to model her creations on a catwalk in Milan, and Vogue India featured poor models wearing top designer gear:

Vogue India - controversial use of poor models

Vogue India - controversial use of poor models

But I’m pretty sure the idea to create an agency whose business is solely based around poor models is an original idea. It’s also great in so many ways:

Poor models can be just as beautiful and more interesting

Take the Afghan Girl. The fact that an image of such beauty has emerged out of a humanitarian crisis makes it seem all the more beautiful by contrast. But it’s not just because she’s beautiful, it’s because she’s mysterious, she has a story – the picture engages you and sticks in your head. In short, it’s partly because she’s so poor that she makes such a good model.

And remember, models don’t really even have to be beautiful anymore, as Dove have reminded us through their series of Evolution videos, part of their “Campaign for Real Beauty”:

They don’t need special skills and they really need the money!

Gisele Bundchen - worth more than Afghan Girl?

Gisele Bundchen - worth more than Afghan Girl?


As long as you have a face, you can model. I’m not interested in hearing anyone that says otherwise. Also, you can make an absolute bomb. Top earning supermodel, Gisele Bundchen is estimated to earn $25m this year. These facts combined a) make me sick, and b) convince me that modelling is probably the perfect occupation for beautiful, unskilled poor people from developing countries. Considering that more than 3 billion people live on less than $2.50 a day, there are plenty to choose from.

A lot of the money will filter back to their home country

Let’s imagine the poor models are paid a similar wage to the celebrity supermodels we know and love. I’d say there’s a fair chance they’ll invest a lot of it in their home country. The poor model agency could provide advice on how best the models could use their newfound wealth.

Alternatively, the model agency could operate more directly as a social enterprise. Models could be paid a reasonable wage, and the rest of the money fed into development charities or projects of their choice. This would also help avoid the problems that could result from the models receiving too much money.

Advertisers stand to benefit

The fact that this is a totally new kind of socially-minded development-oriented model agency will in itself attract a lot of media attention. Some may also see it as controversial, although I’m confident that the consensus will be in favour of such an enterprise if the models are treated fairly (which is, of course, central to this idea). Advertisers who use the poor models will be subject to a lot more media attention than usual, and that is just what they’re after. Associated companies will also benefit from extra corporate social responsibility kudos for choosing poor models over rich models. And all these benefits will come at a cheaper price than using celebrity models.

From all angles, I think the poor model agency is a beautiful idea. I’m sure that any entrepreneur who set this up would make a lot of money, as well as a valuable contribution to international development. Unfortunately, though, if you’ve got your heart set on the Afghan Girl she’ll be getting on a bit now. In 2002, 17 years after the original picture was taken, National Geographic found her living in Afghanistan:

Click the image to read the article A Life Revealed

Click the image to read the article "A Life Revealed"

But there are plenty more fish in the sea. You just have to find them. And that’s another thing that makes the poor model agency a dream start-up – you just have to take your camera and travel around the world to find beautiful, poor models! (Let me know when you’re going – I might come.)

If you want to help young kids like the Afghan Girl right now, you can donate to the National Geographic Afghan Children’s Fund.

If you want to find out more about her check out these DVDs:

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