By Johnny Cotton and Marie-Louise Gumuchian
PARIS/LONDON (Reuters) - Amid the chaotic last minute rush typical of a catwalk show, a teenager sits quietly backstage as a hairdresser styles her.
Living a life many young girls around the world dream of, Sofia Mechetner is opening the Paris fashion show of one of the world's most famous labels, Dior.
She is 14 years old, an age some feel is too young to be working in a cutthroat industry.
"I feel ready and I am not alone, I am being looked after, closely," the Israeli model said. "They are treating me really nicely here ... They help me. So the fact that I am 14 years old is not really an issue."
Mechetner, who used to help her mother clean houses to make ends meet, was catapulted into the limelight in July when she opened Dior's haute couture show wearing a sheer white dress.
Her appearance drew criticism and stirred the debate on where to draw the age line in fashion, an industry often criticized for using skinny models.
"Before she started with Dior, she was cleaning houses with her mother. So if she is not too young to clean houses, I don't think she is too young to walk on a show," Mechetner's agent Rotem Gur said.
The use of young models in fashion is not new. Kate Moss was scouted at 14 while Naomi Campbell was 15.
Celebrity offspring have also modeled young - Romeo Beckham, son of soccer player David Beckham, starred in a Burberry campaign at 12.
However there have been industry moves to make changes, notably during the biannual catwalk shows. Designers contracted to London Fashion Week must use models aged 16 or over. New York has similar age guidelines.
"In Italy we don't use models under 16," Carlo Capasa, head of Italy's Fashion Chamber, said.
In Paris, the focus this year has been health, with France passing a law banning excessively thin models.
"I think you should start modeling at 18," British model Neelam Gill, 20, said. "I cannot imagine going all around the world on your own. It would be so much pressure."
Dior has not publicly commented on Mechetner's employment and other maisons have also used teenage models. Lily-Rose Depp, actor Johnny Depp's 16-year old daughter, models Chanel eyewear.
"That's the way people want to see (clothes). The public wants to see them on girls like this. They can identify even if it's not the same age group," designer Karl Lagerfeld said. "That's the girls of the moment. Fashion is about the moment."
(Reporting By Johnny Cotton in Paris, Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Milan, Alicia Powell in New York and Basmah Fahim and Jane Witherspoon in London; Editing by Tom Heneghan)