June 28, 1999 12:00 PM

Laura Saxe of Walla Walla, Wash., looks very, very American, and very, very clean, which has made her very, very popular with Chinese soap manufacturers. Two of them, in fact.

It all began six years ago, when Saxe, now 30 and a graduate student in agronomy at the University of California at Davis, was studying in the city of Chongqing, China. Told that a local company was looking for a model for its packaging, Saxe agreed to pose for a fee of $1,125. “It was because they wanted a foreign face,” says Saxe of her modeling session for the makers of Sonsy soap. “They hadn’t even seen me.”

Soon, Saxe’s face appeared on store shelves and billboards all over Sichuan province, and Sonsy’s sales soared. Then last July a second company lifted her likeness for a new brand of soap, Bomei, featuring the very same picture. “Chinese people believe that if it looks like a foreign product, it’s better,” explains Bomei’s unapologetic deputy general manager, Cao Yu Zhou.

Though such copycatting isn’t unusual in China, a court awarded Sonsy $1,125 in damages. Saxe plans to get on with her studies—specifically, soybeans—and seems unfazed at being an icon of cleanliness. “I’m the last person you would think of on a soap box,” she says.

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