The Lost Girl

Article excerpt

Byline: Peter Pomerantsev; Pomerantsev is a television producer and nonfiction writer.

Why did a supermodel at the top of her game--hauntingly beautiful and only 20--kill herself in 2008? A filmmaker describes his three-year quest for clues, and answers.

"I heard a thump. I thought a car had hit a person. I turned around: a girl was lying in the road."--The words of a witness

June 28, 2008, 2:30 p.m. Water Street, the corner of Wall Street, in Manhattan. A headache-making-hot, New York high summer. A Saturday, the bankers are away, the street is empty--apart from the dead girl in the middle of the road. Police report the deceased is a Russian supermodel. Ruslana Korshunova. "Her death is a suspected suicide by jumping from the building site next to her ninth-floor apartment. No signs of a struggle detected. No alcohol or drugs in her blood or urine. She left no note. She was 20. She landed 8.5 meters from the building."

8.5 meters? That's not a fall. That's a leap. That's almost flight. The supermodel didn't stand on the ledge and take a step off. The supermodel took a run and soared.

There are models and there are models. There are the lanky androgynous clones, the perfect coat hangers for catwalk collections. And then there are the Ruslanas. The ones who stand out. Their proportions are not perfect, their catwalk work limited, but they become the faces that define a product. Ruslana was famous for being the face of a "magical, enchanting perfume" by Nina Ricci. You might remember the ad. It's in the style of a fairy tale. Ruslana, in a pink ball gown with bouncing curls and wonder-filled eyes, enters a palace room. She gasps with teen excitement: in front of her a magical tree, at the top a glistening pink apple. She climbs the tree, reaches for the apple--

Ruslana seemed to have everything. Why this dismal end? The answer to that question would lead me on a three-year journey, as I researched material for a documentary, through New York, London, Milan, Kiev, and Moscow, into the life of that shiny, lonely tribe: the world's top models. On the way I found more deaths among Ruslana's friends, more attempted suicides, until ultimately I arrived at the most unlikely of destinations in the former evil empire.

Water Street is at the tip of the Financial District, where office blocks meet the East River. In the evenings it's dead, just clerks in pall-bearer black suits hurrying home. Ruslana's apartment is a rare residential building on the street. Few families live here, just the tired foot soldiers of globalization: a Central Asian wool trader, a Malaysian Ph.D. student. Jobbing models hand the place down to each other. Ruslana was the last. There are few personal belongings in Ruslana's rented rooms. The Egyptian porter remembers that she traveled all the time, never had a proper home.

Ruslana's journey ended here. Where had it begun?

Tatyana is a modeling scout. She sees thousands of girls a year; maybe three will make it to the top. The former Soviet Union is her territory. More than 50 percent of the world's top models are from the region: many girls see it as their best chance for a decent life. In 2005 Tatyana was flying home from a beauty pageant in Almaty, Kazakhstan. She had seen no girls of note, a disappointing trip. She flicked through the in-flight magazine, browsed through a random article about Amazons. And then she stopped. A photo of a girl. Amazing. The photo itself was in dubious taste: a semiclad waif in tribal garb, posing like some cross between Lolita and Mowgli in a jungle of plastic trees. But the girl herself--she was amazing. Her blue gaze went on forever, so powerful and deep that everything, Tatyana, the plane, the clouds, seemed to be caught inside it: small toys suspended inside this young girl's gaze. Wolflike, she stared out from her Siberian ancestry: the taiga, Baikal, snowy wastes.

Tatyana had visited every modeling agency in Almaty--how could she have missed her? …