As just about any ordinary 12-year-old girl from Soligorsk, an industrial city founded during the Soviet halcyon of the Khrushchev era, Oksana Samuylova looked through glossy fashion magazines and watched the world of haute couture through the blue flicker of a television screen. With genuine sincerity, she admired the beauty and grace of the models on her magazine covers, and spent all her small bills just about every calendar and poster that featured her idols Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford. She spent hours gazing upon their images, so bright, so beautiful, so unusual. The girl imagined their world, a place so far away from the potash factories of Oksana’s real world, and dreamed just a little about what it was like to be one of these glossy beauties smiling radiantly from a podium.
Years passed by, and Oksana followed this dream, finally arriving at the luxurious life of a model living in America’s Miami, collaborating from her Florida home with modeling agencies from almost every continent. She became Aksana Samy, the face that launched numerous advertising campaigns, and an idol for many other would-be models the world over. You’ve likely seen her many times in popular commercials, magazine covers, and on the catwalks of major fashion shows. It is difficult to believe that this mysterious and charmingly beautiful blonde is nothing more than any other girl who may have attended any run-of-the-mill secondary school in Belarus, and lived maybe in any concrete apartment block that a person might pass on any street in any city in the country. What path did she take to get to her “Mount Olympus” of the modeling world? By what glass slipper did she so quickly transform herself from a Soligorsk Cinderella to one of the world’s most beloved princesses not so long ago? She spoke about this and many other things in our interview.
I never, ever dreamed of being a model. I didn’t even think about it, as I never considered myself to be a beauty. In fact, I couldn’t say I was a very bright child. I was neurotic about a lot of things and I did not believe in myself. I felt that I did not deserve anything more than what I had. Everything in my upbringing and the environment around me instilled this in me. But at the same time, I knew that I was physically fit to model standards, with something close to a 90-60-90 body, and an okay height (177 cm) as well. This thought gave me no rest, and eventually I knew that it would be stupid of me not to try. Especially since I didn’t actually have anything to lose.
First steps in the modeling world
In school, I competed in the swimming team over a period of almost eight years. Whenever we went to a competition in Minsk, I devised in my head different ideas until I had a very definite plan of action. Finally, I seized a few spare minutes after one event, flew down the street to the dorm of a girlfriend from my hometown, took up her house phone and obtained from the operator two numbers for major modeling agencies in Minsk. The first number did not answer, but the second one did. I found myself speaking with a representative of the Tamara Model Agency, which kindly invited me to come to their office.
I was very worried. I even took my friend there with me for support. But at the Tamara Agency, I was met in a very friendly way, they appreciatively noted my appearance and height, and then promised me that they would call me back. I waited for a few months, but no one ever did. However, my friend saw an advertisement that asked for girls with certain parameters to come in to an audition for a large casting of models, the location of which was in the same building as Tamara. Instead of that agency, though, it turned out that NEXT Model Management Paris was there scouting for models to work for them. From among hundreds of young women who showed up for just this chance, they only chose three girls, and oddly enough, I was one of them. My happiness knew no bounds.
From the moment I was selected, I began my stormy preparation for the journey to Paris. I took English lessons, did a first shoot for Minsk’s Milavitsa lingerie company, took lessons on walking the catwalk, and so on. All this radically changed everything, including the amount of attention I was getting from the opposite sex. I really could not believe that all this was happening to me, but nevertheless, these changes forced me to take another look at myself.
Somehow, I always knew I would never stay in Soligorsk. I was always attracted by the civilized life of big cities, by the great opportunities that they offer. When I was a child, my mother and I would often go to Moscow to visit my aunt. The energy of that metropolis just fascinated me, and I liked everything about it: the size of the streets, the subways, the traffic, the architecture, and especially the people. I realized that I belonged to the city, and it was there that I wanted to live.
Coping with fear
Of course, there were many difficult moments I experienced in the modeling business. At the start, it was incredibly difficult to get used to living abroad. Imagine a very young girl from a small town in Belarus taking her first steps in Paris, with only bad English to get by on and no knowledge of the city. Every evening, I was given 5-10 addresses where castings would take place, and I had to find them on a map and arrive there on time using only the Paris Metro. Sometimes, it was that several castings would take place at the same time, and I had to devise a way to catch everything. Psychologically, it was very hard. I was in constant fear that I either would not have enough time to reach a casting, or I’d get lost, or someone would not understand me.
It was really hard to overcome the language barrier. At first, I lived with Russian girls and avoided contact with others. I knew that my English was very bad, and I didn’t want to look stupid because of it. After a couple of months, I was sent to Milan, and there I had no choice about the language I’d speak as all my new neighbors were from English-speaking countries.
In Milan, for the first time in my life, I started having problems with weight. I was just 16 years old. I never cooked much at home, but now my mother was far away and we had to eat whatever it was that came to hand. Most of what I ate were my favorite sweets, in particular Snickers bars that you could find anywhere and at affordable prices. As a result, I started to develop “cheeks,” and the agency immediately noticed. Not so subtly, they hinted that if I didn’t lose weight, I would be sent home.
For me, this was a huge stress. All my life, I did not know how to gain weight, and now I was having the totally opposite issue – I had to lose weight. Of course I did not want to go back home, so I had to go on a diet, any diet. I would sometime drink only water for weeks and not eat anything, and then I would eat almost everything. This subsequently adversely affected my health. Eventually, I learned to eat the right way, without limiting yourself. Today, my taste preferences are different and I prefer good and healthy foods. I even advise young models on matters of food so that they do not repeat any of my mistakes.
Many people believe that modeling is not real work, just entertainment. But on behalf of all models, I can say that it is truly hard work. First, before you become a successful model, every girl must follow a long and difficult path to overcome many obstacles. Second, a model is busy every day, to the very last minute: early out of bed, exercise or do yoga, go to castings, be photographed… it lasts for hours until late in the night. The hairdressers torment your hair, and then in the morning you are shooting or taking part in a show in a whole other part of the world. Catch your flight… overcome being tired… deal with malnutrition… it’s all exhausting, and of course all this affects your health. And you constantly need to look your best no matter what happens. Unfortunately, people see the photo, but do not think about anything that takes place before you even reach the front of the camera lens.
Another stereotype about models is that they allegedly lack intelligence. When I lived in Moscow, I studied in the Department of Sociology at the Russian State University for the Humanities. My degree was in Public Relations and Advertising, where I had a wonderful opportunity to prove to people that this stereotype is way off. Once we were asked to conduct a research project on any topic that interested us. I had always been interested in top models, so I chose for my theme: “Professional Choice of Female Models.”
My task was to determine the priorities of what was important for people in this profession, the motivation among girls for choosing this profession, and to compare these to existing stereotypes. As part of my study, I interviewed 10 models working in Moscow and abroad. When I asked about their education, I found that half of the girls had already graduated from university, and the other half were almost finished with studies in institutes of higher education, and some were already on their way to completing a second degree. Here, the facts speak for themselves. My personal observations show that many models are often distinguished by their knowledge and erudition, and many already speak several foreign languages.
As my main principle, I will not do advertising for alcohol and tobacco products, and I will not appear nude in “Playboy”-style magazines and projects. I refuse all such proposals, no matter how much money is at stake.
With time and experience, I became more discriminating about my work. The question is not even about money, it’s about how this work will be of interest to me personally. For example, if I got two offers, the first for a very large sum of money, and the second purely voluntary but closer to me and more interesting for me, I will choose the latter. For instance, I will never agree to shave or dye my hair for any amount of money for any advertisement. But I will happily work for free with a good professional photographer. It is not only about the experience, but also about having lots of fun and experiencing positive emotions.
At first, I had problems because of my B-C cup size. Most models have breasts that are almost size A, at maximum B. Designers create their clothes under these standards, in which I simply do not fit. Very often I had issues because of it and I would be weeded out before shows. I was very worried about this, but when I moved to Miami, where they film mostly swimwear, I learned that there are shows and shoots where my breasts would be more than welcome.
Work till retirement
I always thought that the age range in which girls model is very short, and that their careers typically end by age 23, if not sooner. But after spending some time in America, I completely changed my beliefs on this. I saw there a lot of models who are over 40, and they find work almost as readily as the younger ones. There is a huge market for women’s clothing, and companies often prefer to take a more adult advertising model that will suit the audience for the advertised product rather than a young and inexperienced girl who cannot really move in front of the camera.
Friends in Soligorsk
Unfortunately, almost immediately after I became involved in the modeling business, many of my friends moved away. Frankly, from among the friends I had in Soligorsk, there is almost nobody with whom I now talk to. I still communicate with only a couple people. It is interesting that almost all of my model girlfriends are in a similar situation. It’s sad that there are very few people in the world who can be genuinely happy for others.
Luck or hard work?
I believe that every person builds a life in the way that the person thinks or believes. I believe that in life, you can achieve anything. The main thing is to not be afraid of difficulties, do not fear making mistakes, dream, believe, and act. My story is the result of all these actions done together. And if a person wants to change life for the better, then that person should pursue a goal, no matter what, and to listen to nobody but that voice in the heart. It is very important that you believe in yourself and never doubt your abilities.