Image: Diana OBrien
David Fierro  /  AP
Diana O'Brien of Canada went to China hoping to model. Instead, she was asked to dance at bars. After two weeks, she wanted to go home. Before she could, she was killed.
updated 7/11/2008 4:56:49 PM ET 2008-07-11T20:56:49

In the two short weeks the 22-year-old Canadian model was in Shanghai, China, she found only disappointment, and then a violent death during a robbery.

The seemingly random murder so soon before the Olympic Games has shocked a city that prides itself as China's most modern. It also raised questions about a freewheeling fashion scene that lures growing numbers of young foreigners — who find some job requests require no posing for the camera.

Days after Diana O'Brien's body was discovered, police in Shanghai said Friday they had arrested 18-year-old Chen Jun. Police said Chen confessed to following her into her high-rise apartment, robbing her and killing her when she tried to fight him off.

The slaying embarrassed police, who waited two days after O'Brien's body was found to release a statement — a brief two sentences — about her death.

The murder was a blunt ending to O'Brien's unhappy stay in China, where her modeling dreams met the reality of Shanghai's often unregulated industry. The same city that hosted Salvatore Ferragamo's 80-year retrospective this spring also has foreign models, some just teenagers, dancing in bars and promoting alcohol.

The details of O'Brien's death remain unclear. The Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto reported she was stabbed and found in a pool of blood in a stairwell, with a trail of blood leading from her apartment.

Suspect allegedly found with belongings
Her body may have gone unnoticed for hours. The police report said Chen entered her apartment Sunday night and that the first emergency call did not come until about 5:30 a.m. Monday.

Chen was found Friday with a laptop and other items from the apartment, police said.

O'Brien, who came from a small community outside Vancouver and was described by friends as outgoing, had been homesick and uncomfortable with her work in Shanghai.

"There were few modeling jobs. 'Why don't you be a hostess?' as they put it," said Barry Kazakoff, a friend in her hometown of 10,000, Salt Spring Island. He said O'Brien planned to cut short her three-month contract and return home early but was waiting to do one last modeling job.

The little-known Shanghai-based modeling agency that brought O'Brien to China and arranged her housing and security, JH Model Management, has disappeared. Its Web site was taken down Tuesday, and a young man at its listed address, an apartment, said he didn't know of the agency or O'Brien's case.

Wang Jiwei, an official in the news department of Shanghai's Public Security Bureau, declined to answer questions Friday. Canada's foreign affairs department did not immediately respond to a telephone request for information. Her father, reached by phone in Canada, also declined to comment.

'A free spirit, but not a risk-taker'
O'Brien, who had been modeling for three years, almost didn't go to China because she was worried about losing her boyfriend — but her recent modeling work in Milan, Italy, motivated her to go, Kazakoff said.

"She was a free spirit, but not a risk-taker," he said. "She wanted to see the world, and the way to do that was to step out of her comfort zone and be a model."

O'Brien was expecting runway work but quickly faced requests to dance at bars to attract customers and work corporate parties.

"She had talked about it not being what she wanted to be doing — she doesn't drink, and it didn't really fit into her profile" said longtime boyfriend 32-year-old Joel Barry, speaking from his home in Salt Spring Island.

"She wanted to come home. We're in the summer here and we're on a dock on the lake and there's a lot of love between us and I guess China is just smoggy all the time. ... She was extremely homesick."

O'Brien's modeling agency in Victoria, Canada, released a statement denying she had been asked to dance in bars.

"She often said it was a dream come true for her and wanted to travel the world with her career," the Barbara Coultish agency said. "She told us that she was happy in Shanghai and enjoyed the agency, the city and her roommates."

Others in Shanghai's modeling world said they thought the murder wasn't connected to O'Brien's work, but they worried about the risks to aspiring models drawn to the city's growing fashion scene.

Little oversight of modeling industry
"So many agencies send girls here without really knowing," said Marion Dorel, a former model from France who spent 13 years in the business in China. "Be careful, clients can ask for weird things — to sleep with them, to sleep with their clients, to go to karaoke. Of course you can say 'no,' but it's not a nice situation."

One Shanghai casting call asked for models to strip to their underwear and jump on a trampoline while being filmed, said Jeremy Stockton Johnson, a fashion photographer who said he also has been asked if models are available to strip at parties.

Worse cases include agencies that take away a model's passport or withhold payment until the end of a contract.

"You could run a modeling agency out of your apartment with a cell phone," Johnson said.

The city's Agent Committee, under the Administration of Industry and Commerce, said more than 1,800 "entertainment agents," including modeling agents, have passed a test to be qualified. But there's no further oversight, people in the industry said.

"So far, the problem with China's modeling industry is that there's no strict regulation," said Wang Yiqun, a professor of modeling at Donghua University in Shanghai.

But models and agencies say the local industry is quickly leaving its past behind.

Where backpackers and English teachers made up a large number of the modeling gigs even a half-decade ago, about 70 foreign models are now contracted to local agencies. The foreigners bring in about one-tenth of the estimated $14.6 million the local industry makes a year, according to Johnny Zheng, the director of Esee Model Management, one of Shanghai's largest agencies.

O'Brien's death has motivated some in the industry to take security more seriously. A few hours after Friday's arrest, Sarah Feng, owner of TiModels, sent a text: "We're hiring a pro trainer to design and teach a self-defense workshop for all of our models as part of the response to the tragic event."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments