Taipei is cheap, well compared to London it is. But I am a student again studying Mandarin at National Taiwan University . I wake up at 6.30 am (says the girl who never had to get up before 11.30 am in London), pack my apple in my bag with my books, hop on my bike and ride through campus to my daily three-hour class. I love the student life, but I began to miss having money. I decided it was time to earn some dollar. I was spending most of my scholarship allowance on good food, traveling and the odd night of indulgence. However, my dreams of a white sandy beach in the Philippines next year were diminishing as my bank balance declined.
My friend suggested I have a look for some modeling work. I am a lot closer to the ground than 5ft 10 but that is not an issue here. Yes, the joys of being a foreigner. We get stared at, sometimes overcharged, no one wants to sit next to us on the train. But our funny look gives us advantages. White skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair. Anything different from what they have is in demand to sell products for the West. So I decided to pimp my white self out and checked out what was there online. The first advertisement I encountered promised good pay (basically my whole month’s rent in a day) for a few pictures with a new product that was to be sold in Europe. I emailed my details with some photos and forgot about it.
A few days later I got a reply. The director wanted to meet me and discuss the shooting. Apparently, I had the job. I felt rather dubious, they had not even met me yet. I guess this was not going to be a professional gig, but the money was good for my little student lifestyle. I agreed to meet a man named Ron for a coffee near Taipei 101, the capital’s tallest building. I had nothing to lose, although maybe some dignity. I had done a commercial or two in China before. One involved me hanging off a rock face for hours blacked up with dreadlocks (my hair backcombed and matted), whilst the male models sat underneath and drank the local beer. Climbing and beer. Not the best message to send out. Though who am I to talk when a hip flask of whiskey makes those epic Welsh trad climbs seem doable.
Off I set one afternoon to rendezvous with Ron, who I hoped would not be a Taiwanese Ron Jeremy hoping to make a special film. I waited anxiously at the station. Finally, a bespectacled, wheezing little man came bounding over. Defiantly not Ron Jeremy but you never know. Nothing is as it seems in Taiwan. ‘Hi I am Ron’, he gasped revealing a row of very uneven and yellow teeth. We went for a coffee to discuss the shoot. Ron was rather excited and had wandering eyes. He showed me the script and product that I would be endorsing, a state of the art air diffuser for the home. He promised I could take all the clothes from the shoot and the product home with me. As I leaned away from him to avoid the stale smell of cigarettes I wondered if the vaporizer could be used for other purposes.
‘So that is ok. You will be a floating white angel goddess’. What, hang on. His words brought me back to reality. Ron then showed me the picture of a long white dress that I was to wear. ‘Sensual and beautiful’, he beamed. Oh god, this better be worth the money.
My wardrobe arrived by express delivery the day before the shoot, not DHL but Ron in his smoky car and yellow-toothed grin. ‘Let me know how they fit on the body’ he winked. I tried on the stale smelling outfits. Bright white trousers with a flouncy cream top. The long white dress was actually quite pretty but was slightly too big and being strapless this posed a problem. I was not having my dress fall down mid-shoot for Ron’s delight, so I fixed the thing myself with some dodgy stitching and prayed it would hold.
The morning of the shoot was torrential rain. Problematic as the main segment of the shoot involved me skipping through the woods in my white gown. Instead, we headed straight to the ‘motel’ for the indoor scenes. This motel was a warped Taiwanese equivalent of a love hotel. And it was odd. On the outside, it looked like a luxury hotel, but as we drove in (you could not walk in), there were just rows of garages with numbers on. ‘What the hell is she doing?!’ you may well be thinking. I had just met the crew; two directors, several cameramen and two females outside so I felt at ease. Kind of.
The room numbers/garages. Who said Romance is dead in Taiwan?
We were ‘room’ number 11. The garage door opened to reveal a parking space and a gaudy potted plant. I was about to take the stairs up when I was ushered to a lift instead. The sign inside stated maximum 110kg. Two Asians or one Westerner. Yes, each room has its own lift. One floor up. What kind of crazy, tacky decadence was this? As I entered the room I was taken aback by its size and open plan. I had been in a hotel like this in China. Which is another crazy story I shall save for my Grandchildren. Money at the expense of taste. There was a Thai style hut at the end in a shallow swimming pool, jacuzzi’s built into the floor, a bed with two complimentary condoms on the pillows and a jungle like structure that looked like something from the original film Journey to the Centre of the Earth. I had lived in Asia long enough to not be phased by such weird and wonderful things. It was freezing in there. But the show must go on and I went into the toilet to change as the room had no separate walls (story of my life!).
I started to think about the job ahead of me. I was uncomfortable, cold and would rather be in my bed watching Netflix, but I decided to act professional and the camera director was kind of hot. After shooing away one of the girls from trying to over straighten my hair, I caught sight of pages and pages of lines. I had assumed the shoot would mainly be still shots and a few lines mixed in, but no. I was to make a video of how to use the product, home shopping channel style. I approached Ron to ask him what the deal was. I had not been told I needed to learn lines. ‘You can read them no problem’ he replied. Anyone would know that if you read off a cue card it is obvious. ‘Are you sure?’, I questioned but was ignored as Ron disappeared out the window for one of many cigarettes.
Lights, cameras, product placements. I was good to go. As I sat under the bright lights I saw Ron having some kind of beef with the director. The director turned to me and asked, ‘You did not learn the lines?’. An embarrassed-looking Ron turned to me smiling, ‘She can read and memorize’. These lines which formed paragraphs contained words such as ‘nebulizer’ and ‘ions’. It was time to do some work. I had to read each cue card and memorize it in seconds, delivering them perfectly to the camera with a sickly sweet smile.
Lights, camera, memorise!
After 4 hours I got pretty good. I had to do it twice, one full body shot and one a mid range shot. My patience was thinning out and I was bored. To amuse myself I decided to slip in the word nipple instead of nebulizer. After 5 hours with no break, Ron called it time for lunch. What does he buy a vegetarian, a McDonalds Big Mac. ‘Think of the money’, those words started to seem less important in my mind. But we must be half way through. As I shared the homemade lunch of one of the nice female assistants, I was informed we were only one-third of the way through. The smudged marble floor fell beneath me. I wish I had brought that hip flask of whiskey with me.
The next scene involved me attempting to hop daintily on the stones of the shallow pool in my white dress. I had to trail my feet in the freezing water and ‘smile sweet goddess sexy’ as Ron put it. It was definitely one of those ‘if my friends could see me now’ moments. At least I was practicing my Chinese, communicating with the director about how to position myself and deliver the lines. As he was explaining how my dress should trail, Ron suddenly slithered over and went in to adjust it. Too much Ron! I shot him a look with all my London ‘U wot?!’ attitude, and he crawled away.
Me and Mr Lover lover himself. Ron
Asian girls have a whole catalog of ‘cute poses’. These annoy me, and they highlight the sense of submissiveness and fragility which is deemed as attractive in Asia. From what I have been told by Western guys out here, this is cute. Well, I am not cute. I can do pull-ups, I love getting dirty, and you would normally see me climbing on the rock than wearing make-up. Ron was perplexed as to why I did not want to do these poses. Dignity Ron? I made the valid point that these kinds of gestures, though popular in Asia, for the European market were frigging ridiculous. After a lengthy debate, Ron and the director managed to squeeze the below pose out of me. Yes. I did it.
The room’s phone kept ringing throughout this ordeal. Meaning we had to re-shoot the scene every time. Why did someone not just take it off the hook? Suddenly everyone started packing up. The director said cut. Done. We had started at 8 am, it was now 7 pm. Get me out of here. I wearily got up from my regal position. Ron came scampering over, his pug-like wheeze would soon be out of my life. ‘We are moving locations. Someone has booked the room. We still need to film the video demonstration and do voice over’. My heart sank. Ron promised me it would only take another hour. So off I was whisked to the director’s studio to finish the shoot.
Tired, hungry and sick of wearing cream and white I arrived at the director’s own studio. The studio had one of those white walls with no edges, giving the impression of infinity. No one got my joke that this would be a great space to do K in. To cut this already long story short, the next three, yes three, hours involved me being baked under the studio lights filming how to use the crappy vaporizer. As the shot was on my hands I popped on some Lolita-style sunglasses from the costume department to save my eyes from the glare. More time is more money became my mantra.
By 10 pm we were done. I politely declined the crew’s dinner invitation, trying not show I would rather be anywhere but with them. They were probably going to treat me to a Mcdonalds again. We were somewhere in the outskirts of Taipei, 45 minutes at least from the center and was wondering if I was going to get a taxi or have Ron to drive me home. Ron seemed to ignore this question. So I asked again in Chinese rather loudly. ‘I will drop you at the train station. I can not take you home as I will miss the dinner’. He wanted to drop me at the local station. I was so tired by this point I may have been rather blunt. Ron then agreed to take me to Taipei Main station. In the car, he thrust my pay into my hand in a little red envelope. ‘Ok?’ he beamed, his gnarly tooth peeking out from a lopsided grin. I had worked twelve hours so expected there to be twelve times my hourly rate. There was only nine. I counted again. How many hours did we do today?’ I asked him. ‘Twelve’ he replied suddenly looking at the road very intently. ‘You paid me for nine Ron’.
Ron pulled out the rest. ‘You want more?’. His sickly nice demeanor vanished and all I saw was a nasty little man. ‘No Ron, I want what I earned’. The rest of the journey to the station was in silence. I hopped out the car without looking back. Walking into the crowded station was pure relief. The lights, Ron, the vaporizer, all vanished as I made my way home in the big city. Would I do it all again?
No. Though my next job is to be a model for a life drawing class. Pimping is not easy in the world of a white girl.