Finding Fabien

A supermodel is born – by Jon Rechtman


My career as a model started the way all good stories begin: I was walking down the street, minding my own business, when I was propositioned by a slim young Chinese woman with impeccable English, in a snazzy white dress and an attitude to match.

"You're perfect," she said, looking me up and down.

"Well, you've only just met me," I said. "But you're remarkably perceptive."

She ignored this, frowning. "Where are you from?"

"America," I said. "Where are you from?"

Again she ignored me. "I'd like you to call my boss. He is French. I think he would like to meet you. Here is his number," she said, handing me a soap-colored business card. "Please give him a call this afternoon. Tell him Angela gave you the card. Will you be in Chengdu for long?"

"About a month, maybe more."

She frowned again.

"Well, give him a call anyway. This afternoon. His name is Fabien."

And then she left, tossing her hair with a flick of her delicate, imperceptibly hairy wrist.

I bought a popsicle and sat on a bench to study the business card. The back had a snazzy logo with the letters “WMA” and a website address. The front read “Western Modeling Agency” and  "Fabien Marc – Chief Agent/President/Model”, with an office address and phone number. And there, in the lower-right corner, was a full-color head shot of Fabien.

The popsicle trembled in my hand. I sat unmoving and unaware of time or space, paralyzed by the stunning good looks of the man that gazed back at me. Seductive, knowing, beckoning – cobalt eyes and stubble on a finely-sculpted chin, an irresistible come-hither aura projected at unseen women that would flock to his tanned, muscled body like iron filings drawn to a man-shaped magnet. Hearts captured with a gaze, orgasms induced with an expertly boyish wink. This was not a man, no, but a fanciful creation of the divine, a flesh-and-blood tribute to God and GQ.

I pulled out my cell phone and dialed the number on the card.


Two days later, on a hot afternoon downtown, I waited for Fabien at the south gate of Chengdu university. We had arranged to meet there and go back to his office nearby to "discuss the business" and "measure the model." In addition to being a heartthrob, I discovered on the phone that Fabien spoke an adorable brand of pidgin English.

I waited, perspiring heavily in the searing Sichuanese sun. Instead of my regular tank-top and shorts, I had dressed to impress with a pair of heavy black jeans and a button-down collared shirt. I was as uncomfortable as in-laws and sweating like guilt. I looked again at the business card, at Fabien's face, and felt a twinge of panicked excitement, like a high-school sophomore waiting for my prom date. He arrived on a motorcycle.

Blue chopper, white pants, navy shirt, purple shades. Silver chain. Hair gel and cologne. I discovered what the linguists already knew: the word "suave" is derived from French.

"Hello," he said. He looked me up and down as if I were a child, a mouse, an insignificant bug. "You are probably the Jon."

I tried to act cool and American. "Yeah," I said, pausing to take a James Dean drag on an imaginary cigarette. "You're Fabien, huh?"

"I am the Fabien. Hello. We will go to my office. Get on the back of the bike, yeah?" Was he mocking my “yeah”?

Five minutes later we pulled into a nearby apartment complex and climbed three flights of stairs, arriving at a door with a plaque: Western Modeling Agency. Fabien pulled out a ring with two keys, tried one, cursed, then tried the second, opening the door. "I live my house in the apartment next after the office," he muttered, cocking his pretty head down the hall. "Often the keys I choose wrong."

We entered the office, and I blinked hard. It was like someone had tried to imitate an expensive art gallery in Miami Beach using nothing but catalogue sales from Ikea – lots of white space with bright-colored, angular furniture and lamps that curved like snakes. From an adjacent room, European hip-hop played softly on computer speakers. The air-conditioner hummed like Zen. I discovered what the art historians already knew: "Art Deco" is derived from French.

Fabien led me into the other room, which consisted of a desk cluttered with papers and photographs, an assortment of bright pastel chairs and a comfy-looking sofa in zebra print. On the wall there was a poster of Fabien posing shirtless with a Chinese girl in his arms. I chose a pink-lemonade colored chair and sat down.

"So first I will tell you about the Western Modeling Agency,” he began. “If you want to be the model, you must know my company. Yes," he said, choosing his words carefully, “it is the most foremost modeling agency in the Chengdu city, probably in the Sichuan. If you want to be the model, you must know the Western Modeling Agency, because my company is the only one that is good for Westerners."

Before I could respond, he veered into the hypothetical. "Maybe you are on the street, yes, maybe you are on the street today, and a man, a Chinese man, says to you: ‘Oh you for my commercial please be the model! I will give you the money, here is the 100 kuai!' Maybe that will happen, yes? But I say no! I say you are the Westerner – the Westerner!" He beamed at me like he was saying the name of his child. "I say you are not worth the 100 kuai, you are worth the 1,000 kuai! You are worth the 3,000 kuai!"

I nodded sagely, letting the wisdom of his words sink in.

"Now," he said, narrowing his eyes and flashing me a winning smile. “It is time for you to answer the questions."

My anxiety and intimidation had vanished by this point, replaced by a playful amusement. Fabien, pretty as he was, seemed silly now – a nice-smelling man with a fondness for definite articles.

"First question. Why do you want to be the model?"

It was a tough one. I didn't know why I wanted to be the model, and I didn't know what motivations the model was expected to have.

"Vanity," I answered. "Ego tainted with a subtle insecurity."

"Vanity," Fabien repeated, looking worried. He had no idea what the word meant. He paused, looking down at a piece of paper in front of him, perhaps hoping it would offer a definition. Finally, he looked back up at me brightly.

“Second question: Are you confidence?"

"Oh I'm confident, baby,” I said, figuring he'd like that. But Fabien only smirked. Your confidence is shit, that smirk said. It is merde compared to my confidence. I loved this guy.

"That's good," he said. "The model must be very confidence. But he must also be” – he paused for emphasis – “he must also be the photogenic!"

I nodded again, and he was pleased that I knew this word. "So," he said to me, "How do you look in the camera?"

As a matter of honest fact, I look terrible in almost every photograph that's ever been taken of me. Regardless of the location, lighting or lens, I invariably appear stoned, angry, salacious, sickly or dead. I most definitely am not the photogenic.

"I'm the photogenic!" I said enthusiastically. "I look great in pictures! Especially in China for some reason. Something about all the tea I drink here – it's really good for the skin, you know."

Fabien seemed satisfied. He got up from the desk and took a little roll of measuring tape from a drawer. It was time to measure the model. He measured my waist and shoulders, and entered the information on a sheet of paper. He asked me for my height and weight.

"Five feet, eleven inches," I said. "About a hundred fifty pounds."

He stared at me blankly. Fabien wanted meters and kilos. He also wanted the European equivalent of my shoe size. I had no idea how to calculate any of these numbers, and we finally had to resort to standing side by side, foot by foot, estimating the relative differences. The entire process was very demeaning.

"Okay," he said when he'd filled out all the spaces on his sheet. "You are good."

That was a relief. Measuring the model had been a lot harder than discussing the business, and I was glad it was over. "I think you will be the okay model, probably," Fabien concluded. "Now you must sign the contract."

He produced two stapled sheets of paper with WMA masthead and the company slogan: "WMA give you the opportunity style to make the fashion difference."

The contract was fairly simple. I, THE MODEL, agreed to work exclusively for THE AGENCY in return for which THE AGENCY would create a photo-portfolio of me to show to THE CLIENT. When THE CLIENT selects THE MODEL to feature in an advertisement or fashion show (THE MISSION), THE AGENCY would negotiate the price and take thirty percent as commission.

I signed it immediately. Fabien signed too, and we shook hands, promising to be in touch in the next week to arrange a photo shoot. Then Fabien showed me to the door.

"Goodbye, the Jon," he said. "Have the really nice day, okay?"

"You too, Fabien," I said. "I'll see you the later."

I never saw him again.

Many years have passed, but I still think of Fabien, and always with a smile. I still have my copy of the contract and business card, which I used to carry in my wallet so that his handsome face would never be far from my ass. If I'm ever feeling sad, I think of him lying on a fuzzy rug, straddling a motorcycle, or simply standing there, shirt open, a smirk on his lips and seduction in his eyes, his stubble fine and grey and deliberate, like pencil rubbed carefully on an artist's paper pad.


Jonathan Rechtman is a Chinese-English simultaneous interpreter based in Beijing, specialising in international conferences and bar mitzvahs