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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

'Red Stars' Rising in Fashion World

Marina Tikhonova walked through a muddy Moscow courtyard recently, knocked on a door with a discreet "Red Stars" sign and nervously awaited a verdict on her big dream: to become a model.

The letdown was swift.

"You have potential, but you will not be Cindy Crawford," declared Tatyana Koltsova, president of the Red Stars modeling agency.

But it's little wonder that Marina wanted to try. The success of Russians on international catwalks and the increasing prominence of glossy women's magazines has transformed modeling from an exclusive pursuit of a few priviledged women in Soviet times to one of the most sought after careers among young Russian women.

Nearly 20 Russians work as top models in Paris, including Diana Kovalchuk, who at age 14 won the Elite Model Look-96 contest, and Natalya Semanova, the 1994 Elite Model Look winner.

"Every 13-year-old who reaches the height of 178 centimeters imagines herself on the cover of Cosmopolitan, Elle or Harper's Bazaar," said Koltsova. "They see the dizzying rise to stardom of Diana and Natasha and they think it could happen to them, too. And it can." Koltsova's agency represented and groomed both models before they landed contracts with Elite.

Koltsova is confident that Russia will be a top producer of models because "the gene pool is so varied you can find any type of beauty." She said Red Stars has discovered such varying looks as the fair-skinned classic Russian beauty of Irina Bondarenko and the striking, strong features of Lyudmila Isayeva, who was the first Russian model to succeed overseas.

Russian women also enjoy beautifying themselves, and "have become better groomed and dressed in the past couple of years than Western women, despite their more limited means," said Koltsova, a tall blonde and a former model herself.

Kovalchuk's quick path to stardom is one reason so many girls yearn to become models. She was an ordinary schoolgirl in Kiev until her father took her to a local casting in February 1996, where a Kiev agency picked her up. In December, Kovalchuk won the prestigious Elite contest and has since been touted as another Cindy Crawford, whom she resembles.

Natalya Semanova was just 14 when she made it on the international scene. The alluring model with "the perfect face of 100 looks" paved the road for other young Russian models, said Koltsova. Semanova recalls that her adjustment to Paris was difficult. "When I started working, I was a real baby. During my first photo shoot I kept asking myself 'What am I doing here?' I have kept this photo and often look at it with a smile," she told the French magazine Top Model recently.

Her troubles are not unique. The models often suffer acute loneliness after being plucked out of a sheltered environment. Says Koltsova: "They often call me and say they do not want the clothes, the attention, the magazine covers. They just want to come home."

Russian models -- or at least their parents -- are levelheaded enough to realize the instability of modeling careers, Koltsova said. Russian top models usually speak at least one foreign language and most plan to attend a university. "Russian girls are more intellectual. They realize that a modeling career can be very short. Not everyone is Linda Evangelista. They want to make enough money to receive a good education in the West to go on to a stable profession," said Koltosova. Tatyana Zavyalova, a 1993 winner of the Elite Model contest, for example, wants to become a doctor.

Marina Tikhonova, the shy long-legged 15-year-old, learned in five minutes that she does not have what it takes. She will still pursue modeling, although with her eyes on closer shores. Her mother who accompanied her to Red Stars concedes that modeling won't hurt. "I still want my daughter to attend university, but I do not think that a modeling career will interfere with these plans," said Yelena Tikhonova. "It will give her confidence, teach her poise and grace -- qualities a young woman needs in life."