Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Looking Good From the Cradle Up

Resting her hand on a jutted-out hip, 11-year-old Yana Dombravskaya says she's working to be like Cindy Crawford.

"She's beautiful and so elegant, and she's everywhere!" Yana exclaimed.

Yana is one of about 40 youths attending what is perhaps Moscow's only modeling school for children, Model Show, which aims to turn young faces into cat-walkers and cover shots. Learning poses, expression, acting, singing and how to put on makeup, the children -- who range in age from 4 to 14, and about 80 percent of whom are girls -- prepare to show off the latest styles in upcoming fashion shows or to catch the attention of prospective advertising representatives.

"These kids are individuals and shouldn't be copiers, shouldn't repeat what they see in the ads in magazines and on TV. We are interested in the kids developing their own face, developing their own identities as men and women," said acting teacher Sergei Goppen, 31.

The school, founded a year ago in an apartment building on Ulitsa Marshala Rybalka by pageant show producer Alexei Karakulov, trains the children for show business and help find them work.

Some have already started working. One girl will be smiling for Hershey's chocolate for $200, a very low fee, said Karakulov. Others are eager to work, but few advertising firms and television companies know about Model Show, he said.

"It's hard to get the word out there. That takes advertising, and that takes money," said Karakulov, 30. The school's revenue from tuition now goes toward teachers' salaries and school props such as clothing and music. Parents pay 300,000 rubles (about $60) a month for classes which last up to five hours on Saturday and Sunday.

Although the children are striking adult poses, they should never forget they're just kids, Karakulov said. "While we are training, we never pretend that the kids are anything but kids. We say, 'Let's play grown-ups,' or 'Let's play avant-garde.'"

Goppen added: "Show business is tough, and a lot of the kids, especially the young ones, don't understand exactly what they are doing. They just know they are having fun. But we see that a student has potential and talent, we talk to the parents about it and together we all push that child. There is a lot of stress involved."

Vladimir Gindikin, a Moscow child psychiatrist who teaches at Moscow's Academic School of Professional Psychology, remarked: "It can be narcissistic, but it depends on how it's taught. It's always a bad thing to make children into wunderkinder but it can also be very helpful. It can help children who are shy, indecisive or even paranoid, and help them to develop their own identities and freedom of movement. Of course, parents do try to live out their dreams through their children, but that happens at every school."

The parents, who downplayed the money aspect, said they believe Karakulov and his staff of three teachers can offer their children something new and valuable for living in a changing Russia.

"In our historical socialist experience, there was nothing special about the different sexes, and all refinement and training was lost," said Galya Korshunova. She enrolled her daughter, Angelika, 7, in the hopes that Angelika will find her femininity -- and find work as a model. "It doesn't matter what her age is. It's important that my girl feels like a woman, and that she feels strength in that."

Olga Mikhailichenko already believes her 10-year-old daughter, Natasha, will not be a supermodel. "She won't be tall enough. But she could learn the manners and style of a real woman. A real woman is smart, slim, tall and elegant."

Parents and teachers may not be pressuring the children, but the kids nonetheless are clear about their goals. They all say they'd like to be the next Cindy Crawford or Claudia Schiffer. "These classes and teachers are fun," said Maria Svetova, 11. "I look forward to these classes all week, to learn acting, to learn expression and to learn to be beautiful."