I notice Samara Johann halfway down the street. Her long, teased hair bounces with her stride and even at this distance her wide smile seems to brighten the gloom of the overcast autumn day. She waves cheerfully in my direction and I notice other men in the area glance at me in obvious jealousy.
As she presses an immaculately made-up cheek to mine in greeting, it feels like the wings of a butterfly have grazed the side of my face. “They look heavy,” I remark. “You get used to them,” she smiles, fluttering the sort of eyelashes that wouldn’t look out of place on a model at the Rio Carnival. This is somewhat rather fitting.
Samara left her native Brazil six years ago to come to Nagoya and work in a factory. Though she is half Japanese she couldn’t speak the language and was not entrenched in the culture, and so settled into the large Brazilian community that is centred around the city’s manufacturing industry. However, when watching a live show of a visiting Brazilian hip-hop artist, she was snapped by a local photographer, which lead to an approach from a modelling agency.
It didn’t take long for her to find work, but she was still raw, having only limited experience in Brazil. Her first shoots were nervy, but as she was working with fellow Brazilians in her native language she was able to relax into her role. An added bonus was that afterwards she was given the opportunity to peruse the results, and see what she could improve on.
“A lot,” she laughs, with typical self-efficacy.
From those early shoots she understood that, if she wanted to make a go of modeling as a serious career choice, she would have to put in a lot of hard work. She enrolled in a modeling school to improve her technique, a step that had reaped near immediate rewards.
“It was then that I started to get more and more work. I made contacts through the school and the more people I met, the broader my network became.” Still, however, she was unable to quit her factory job and model full time. “When I started out there were not many modeling jobs for gaijin, especially in Nagoya. I did events and trade shows, and I did some Brazilian TV, doing whatever I could on my days off from the factory.”
Moments after I meet Samara she is draped across a tree as a group of photographers rotate around her snapping, adjusting lights, requesting poses and all manner of emotive expressions. She finds time to laugh and smile as lights are changed and new positions are requested, and though she accommodates each instruction with ease, to me it looks like hard work.
But it is this attitude and unquestioning dedication that means her services are in such high demand.
“With some girls you can see boredom, they aren’t enjoying themselves, and between shots they express that,” explains Paula Kondo, make-up artist for Alex Santos Photography Studio, Samara’s clients for the day. “But not with Samara. She works so hard, but all the time she is professional. I never have a problem with her, and we have been working together for many years.”
Today, I presume, must be harder than others, as the studio is holding a workshop for photography students, and I feel that working amongst amateurs must be particularly tough, however Samara bears it all with good grace. Besides, she tells me, at least they are speaking her language.
After a chance conversation with a friend two years ago (modeling, like many aspects of life, is heavily dependent on a combination of contacts and luck) she was introduced to a Japanese modeling agency. Though she was concerned that perhaps her age would count against her, feeling she had nothing to lose she went for an interview. This attitude paid off as a month later she received a commission for a store catalogue, but it was not as straightforward as it seemed.
“It was very hard for me. Firstly because I didn’t speak much Japanese, but also because the style and way to work was completely different from the Brazilian way. They had a drawing of the exact pose and expression they wanted me to do. I needed to make it exactly that way, they wanted me to be like Japanese, and that wasn’t easy.
“And there’s no stopping. It is just business, business, business. We might eat, but we don’t stop. Sometimes I thought they didn’t like me, and not understanding everything they said made me so nervous, I almost cried! But still, I had to smile, they want you to be cute, they want you to be perfect. But after that I realised that’s just how the Japanese work. Once I understood that, and once I gained a better understanding of the language, it became better. Now it’s fun. It’s so tiring, but I like it.”
Paula explains that it can be quite challenging for gaijin to find work with Japanese companies as there tends to be a specific aesthetic that they are looking for. While much of western photography, Brazilian in particular, focuses on the strength of the model, with heavy make-up and overt sexuality, much of the Japanese style surrounds cuteness and levity, something that Samara confirms.
“I have introduced many of my friends to agents, beautiful but they have wider hips, a bigger bust. I am part Japanese so maybe that’s why I have the body. If you don’t have the Japanese shape, particularly in Nagoya – maybe it’s different in Tokyo – the clothes won’t fit you.”
But that doesn’t mean that you should give up. There are many more opportunities for gaijin than ever before, but if you want to be a model, she tells me, you have to work hard. You have to start up your portfolio and take classes. You have to try to learn Japanese. You have to meet more people, make contacts and widen your network.
“Most of all don’t think it’s impossible.”
There is a short break in shooting, and as Paula touches up her immaculate lips, a stylist manages the twists in her hair, and the students continue to snap away, circling us with such speed that it dizzies me into forgetting my own questions, Samara notices the hubbub surrounding her little more than the oxygen in the air.
“I was a gaijin and I didn’t know anything. But I tried and then it happened. If you want it, you have to try, because anything is possible.”
And with that her short break is over, she hugs me goodbye and she is whisked away at dizzying speed for a further six hour grueling shoot, and I am left, once again, with the sensation of a butterfly grazing my cheek and fluttering away towards the lights.
Samara’s tips for getting into the modelling industry
• Take classes. No matter how much of a natural you are, a little more education can take you a longer way.
• Organise a professional portfolio. You could be the next Kate Moss, but no one will take you seriously if you have nothing more than a few selfies on Instagram. There are plenty of photography studios who can do this for you. Research them, look at their previous work. Find one that suits you.
• Find an agent. Your agent is extremely important as they will connect you to your potential clients. You will be able to find many online, but again do your research and do it well. Who have they worked for? Who are their contacts? Who are their clients? There are plenty of charlatans out there, so be cautious and be vigilant.
• Network. Hunt out fashion shows, restaurant openings, anywhere that there may be a camera. Talk to anyone and everyone, tell them about your work, your experience. You never know who the next person you speak to will be. They may be your big break!
Images by Marcio Miyoshi