Tian Yuan Yuan is China`s top Internet model, a title she earned by promoting products from skin-tight leggings to rabbit fur bags through online shopping site Taobao Marketplace.
Tian is one of 35,000 models who pose for virtual storefronts on Alibaba Group`s Taobao.
With little to differentiate between more than 6 million electronic storefronts, models like Tian have become the main attraction. Taobao ranks the girls based on sales of the products they pitch, as well as their popularity among vendors and fans who can vote on the website. Sellers can then make an online booking to hire a girl to pose with their product.
"A good model is important for sales," said 22-year-old Tian. "Both your facial expression and body language should match the style of clothing. For example, I will move and pose gently with office dresses, while I act cool in American style clothes."
The leggings she modelled sold some 14,000 units in a single month. She also helped shift more than 6,000 rabbit fur bags.
The models can make as much as 10,000 yuan a day, a far cry from the five-figure payouts top supermodels bank for a photo shoot, but a healthy sum considering average per capita full-year income for urban Chinese was just 21,810 yuan in 2011.
Alibaba is not alone in offering logistical support to small online businesses. EBay Inc, for example, owns online payment service PayPal that helps small vendors accept credit card payments. But Alibaba`s models-for-hire service is unusual in that it does back-end jobs such as photography as well as being a platform that supplies the models themselves.
A Taobao store owner can use the free platform to search for models by price or look, or even by specific body part such as hands or legs. Models classified as "Japanese" or "Korean" tend to look younger while "European" and "American" models have more Caucasian features.
"I used to rely on models provided by modelling agencies but because each agency has only a limited number of models, it couldn`t meet my business needs," said Huang Shanlei, who sells lingerie on Taobao Mall.
Working the "office lady" look
Working with Taobao models was easier because most of them were free agents with fewer restrictions on the types of assignments they could accept or on how the photographs from a shoot could be used, Huang said.
Model Li Qiqi poses for different stores back to back on most days, sometimes in more than 200 outfits a day. With big doll eyes, she describes her look as "Korean office lady".
"If you model on Taobao, you focus on the specialties of the outfit and the features of the outfit. You make sure you don`t block it when posing," said 24-year-old Li, a Shanghai native.