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SHANGHAI (Reuters) - 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, a consumer-to-consumer website similar to eBay where people can sell American board games, antique jade, and just about everything else imaginable. (mm.taobao.com/)
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 ($1,600) 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 modeling 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 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.
Another appeal for vendors is that they can find plenty of Asian models. Asian women are underrepresented among the world's supermodels, in part because few have the height to compete in an industry where 170 centimeters (67 inches) is considered short.
Earlier this year an Alibaba Group executive mused on Chinese microblogging site Weibo that the pretty models advertising items for sale might also be hired to deliver the goods in person to a buyer's home. An Alibaba spokeswoman said there were no immediate plans for such a service, but the firm might later revisit the idea.
Some traditional modeling agencies see Taobao's system as the way forward.
"We are searching online from this year and in fact we believe this trend will be the future," said David Lim, deputy chief executive of model agency Elite Greater China.
"China is the most important consumer market for many brands and definitely using Chinese models for their product promotion is natural."
China's e-commerce industry is set to become the world's largest by 2015, according to Boston Consulting Group.
Alibaba does not disclose transaction figures for Taobao Marketplace but its sister platform, Taobao Mall, which caters to larger businesses, is expected to see more than 200 billion yuan ($31.45 billion) worth of products traded this year, with clothes making up around 30 percent.
($1 = 6.3594 Chinese yuan)
Editing by Kazunori Takada, Emily Kaiser and Daniel Magnowski