Plumes of hairspray create a suffocating fog over a group of fashion models waiting to be beautified in a room overlooking Tokyo's trendy Shibuya district. A full eight hours before Rei Hamada is set to grace the catwalk at Tokyo Fashion Week in a designer kimono, coffee is gulped and snacks munched between pit-stops for hair, nails and make-up.
"Before I started I didn't imagine modelling would be quite so hard," she tells AFP. "The runways and photo shoots look gorgeous but it's tough. It can be a bit chaotic and you do need a lot of self-control." As a conveyor belt of hair and make-up artists work on the models, celebrated designer Jotaro Saito pops in to greet the statuesque women carefully selected for one of the hottest tickets of the week.
"We look for models who can be kimono-sexy, kimono-elegant," said the Kyoto-based Saito, whose eye-goggling pieces can cost up to 30,000 dollars each. "We don't want the old geisha-style. A model must have confidence, worldliness, and know how to express her beauty. She has to have an awareness of her sexiness and eroticism. She's symbolic of the modern world, of modern style."
Hamada, 29, got her big break in the cut-throat world of fashion after finishing runner-up at the 2007 Miss Universe Japan pageant. She could easily have ended up following a very different career path had she not been spotted as a 13-year-old whilst the playing piano at a family wedding in Kagoshima, on the southwestern tip of Japan.
"I wanted to be a kindergarten teacher," she says as long, fake eyelashes are delicately glued into place to make her almond eyes seem bigger and rounder. "I came to Tokyo when I was 18 but it was a struggle to get work at first. I did think about quitting if I didn't make it pay by about 23." Now a catwalk veteran, she insists the job is more complicated than it looks.
"When you're young, you're just young and pretty. But when you get a bit older you have to think more about how to make clothes look beautiful," she says. "People think models are like this everyday but it's not true. You have to control everything in your daily life -- look after your weight, your body balance, diet, skin."
Keep your passions in check
"I have to take care not to lose my temper or get emotional," she added, referring to backstage pre-show tensions when stress levels can rise. "I have to keep my passions in check for the job I love. I cook healthy food to make sure my weight doesn't fluctuate -- last night I made avocado and raw octopus. But one good thing about the job is that I don't have to do my own make-up."
For some, models have a reputation for being a little scatty, a little unthinking. That stereotype was reinforced recently when superstar Naomi Campbell seemingly forgot to proof-read a Tweet and congratulated "malaria" after the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to human rights campaigner Malala Yousafzai. But Hamada says if anything, she over-analyses things. "I get nervous about stuff," she says as the call goes out for rehearsals.
"I can be on the runway and it should just be natural, but sometimes I worry about what else I need to be doing. I'm looking forward to today's show but I'll be a little nervous before it starts about how to express myself." Hamada, who has appeared in New York Fashion Week and in collections across Asia, says despite the cliché of models being high-strung and temperamental, claims she has never witnessed any backstage bust-ups or hissy fits in her home country.
"There's no fighting in Japan," she says. "They organise everything so well to make sure that stuff doesn't happen here." Hamada proudly waves the flag for Japanese fashion. "I've been to New York, Singapore, Hong Kong ... and I've always thought the Japanese ways are very subtle -- the hair and make-up artists are the best in the world. The fashion has its subtleties too and Japanese designers predominantly think about how to make the clothes wearable (for consumers). The thought that goes into it is amazing."
Saito's show is a smash hit and Hamada oozes poise as she struts down the runway, pausing at the end to let her eyes smoulder into the middle distance. But the moment it is over, the glamour vanishes and she's rushing for a taxi. "I've got to get rid of all this make-up and shoot off," she said. "I've got an audition. And another one after that."
Photos: Getty Images and AFP