Models Nicole Vos, 19, and Brandon Waarbroek, 28, at a club in Beijing. Image Credit: Keith B. Richburg/The Washington Post

China's next top model may well be a blue-eyed Canadian blonde named Nicole.

Nicole Vos, 19, has been modelling in Canada for four years and was doing runway shows for Toronto Fashion Week when "my agency one day just told me that I'm going to China". Now just halfway through her three-month contract in Beijing, Vos has been photographed for catalogues, magazines and commercials.

"I love it here!" Vos gushed. "I definitely want to come back!"

Vos isn't alone. Western models, it seems, are everywhere these days in the People's Republic of China — on department store display advertisements, in catalogues for clothing brands, on billboards, in commercials and on the runways at fashion shows.

They are blue-eyed American and Canadian blondes such as Vos, sultry Eastern European brunettes and hunky male bodybuilders with Los Angeles tans and six-pack abs. Even the mannequins have Western features.

It may seem incongruous that a country of 1.3 billion people — roughly half of them female — would have to import models. Or that designers and clothing brands would want to use blondes and redheads to market to a nation of black-haired consumers.

But the use of foreign models has been growing in China's fashion industry, as brands jostle to be known as yangqi, or trendy — literally "foreign-style" in Mandarin Chinese. The alternative, using only Chinese models, is interpreted as making the brand come off as tuqi, or countrified.

"It's all relatively new," much like China's fashion industry, said Angelica Cheung, editor of Vogue China. "It just reflects the growth of the fashion industry. It needs a variety of girls now. If it is a local Chinese brand, they want to show their clothes look good on Westerners, especially brands that want to sell overseas."

Other factors include the relative lack of professional training among Chinese models, Cheung said: "They are very wooden, or they don't have any experience responding to the camera." Western models, often with more professional training, come with a certain attitude and, in the end, it is all about selling attitude as much as clothes and watches.

Ou Haibin, head of the Yuanjin Modelling Agency in Shenzhen, said 20 to 30 modelling agencies in China use foreigners, and 300 to 500 Western models are in the country during any given month, almost always on contracts of up to three months.

"My clients feel that their products will look international if they use foreign models," Ou said, so they are willing to pay higher fees, about a third to a half higher than those for Chinese models.

Then there is the matter of the Chinese sense of what constitutes beauty in a globalised world. "The foreign models' faces are much more three-dimensional," Ou said. "They look nicer in pictures."

How much the models make depends on their workload. Natalia Tydir, 25, from Ukraine, said in her best month she made about $7,440.

Other models said a good haul from a three-month contract might be $10,000 to $30,000. But the models must pay back expenses, often including the cost of the flight ticket to Beijing. Many models live together in apartments. Tydir started out in a two-bedroom with five other models and a single bathroom, paying $878, before moving into another place with one roommate.

And many, such as Tydir, come from Eastern European countries, where opportunities are fewer. Tydir said she was teaching at the university and tried modelling and acting in Ukraine when she learned about modelling in China.

Jezlan Moyet Decator, 22, was modelling in Los Angeles when her "mother agency" told her there was a talent scout from Beijing. "We sat, we chatted for maybe half an hour," she said. Two weeks later he sent her a ticket to Beijing.

The scout was Mike Chen, originally from Las Vegas, who said he usually brings over 10 to 15 models each month. And he knows what type of models will make the cut for his clients in Beijing.

"In the summertime, it's usually blondes," Chen said. "For the winter collection, it's more likely they want brunettes." Brunettes photograph better in furs, he said. He is not big on height and prefers a fuller figure. Most important, "it's all about attitude."

Brandon Waarbroek, 28, is one of the few male models on the Beijing circuit. He was an instructor at a Southern California gym and doing some modelling when Chen sent him to China. Now he is planning to return, to learn Chinese and maybe even go into business here. "I love China," he said.

But the models' life here is far from easy. Most complain about working longer hours than in the United States or Europe. There's often no lunch, or just a bag of McDonald's hamburgers dumped on to a common table. If they gain weight, they can get shipped home before the end of their contract.

The language barrier has created mishaps. Tydir understood she was going on a shoot once but had no idea where. She ended up on a 10-hour train ride to Inner Mongolia in freezing weather, wearing only T-shirts and flip-flops and without an overnight bag. But most said China was the new "in" spot for modelling.

"If you can get rid of all your insecurities, you can model in China," Waarbroek said. "The strong people survive."