Ticked off: why we shouldn't be putting Asian models in a box
Crystal Ngo might not be someone you’d typically place as a model. Not because she isn’t tall, willowy, and confident; nor is it because she isn’t sartorially savvy. In fact, Crystal ticks all these boxes. The reason why Crystal isn’t your ‘typical’ model, is simply because she is Asian. And unfortunately, Asian models aren’t the norm. In a 2016 survey conducted by The Fashion Spot, it was found that 78.2% of models featured in spring adverts were Caucasian, while only 4.0% were Asian. While this seems low, it was actually an increase from 2015 figures; slowly but surely, we can see change happening.
During this year’s New York Fashion Week, Claudia Li debuted her Spring 2019 collection, with all thirty-five models who walked being of Asian descent. In an interview with the Huffington Post, Li, who was born and raised in New Zealand, mentioned that she wanted to “highlight the diversity and uniqueness” among Asian-American women, a group that is often erroneously considered monolithic in the fashion industry. Li also highlighted that there “is no single way to ‘be’ an Asian woman”, calling out the industry for often trying to check a box. “‘We need an Asian girl for our show.’ But what kind of Asian girl? A Filipino girl? Singaporean? Chinese? Korean? ‘Asian’ doesn’t mean one thing.” Michelle Lee of Allure, who put three Asian models on the cover of the magazine’s Hair Issue in June, echoes these sentiments: "If you had a grouping of 20 models, there are a lot of people right now who still think that by putting one person of colour within that mix, 'Oh, great, I've checked off the diversity box!' It's like, 'I've got my one Asian girl. We're all good.' [...] A lot of people think about East Asians, but then it's like, 'Wait, but where's your South Asian representation?'"
Although born and raised in Perth, Crystal’s parents are Vietnamese. Growing up in an area with a small Vietnamese community, most of her friends at school did not share the same cultural background, and she had only her cousins for cultural familiarity. As a result, at school Crystal felt insecure, recalling that being Asian “felt like a joke”. “My friends used to tease me about my appearance, about being Asian… I learnt to just take it on the shoulder and feel like an outcast”. In her late teens, at the encouragement of family members (“You’re tall for an Asian girl!”), Crystal entered several national modelling competitions, and while she made it to the final rounds, she lost confidence and thought she had no chance because all the other entrants were not of Asian descent. “I thought that if I didn’t get to state finals, I wouldn’t make it [as a model], especially because all the other girls were Caucasian. After that, I thought, ‘This isn’t for me’.” However, when she was twenty, Crystal decided to chase her dream. “‘I thought, ‘I’ve always wanted to model, not for anyone else but myself, and just the idea of being a model sounded so sick... Becoming a model has helped me to become more confident in my cultural heritage. Honestly, it’s been the best decision of my entire life.”
That being said, the journey hasn’t been completely easy, breezy, and beautiful. According to Crystal, a lot of companies and clients - if they want an Asian model at all - usually prefer casting ‘lighter-skinned’ models as that is the ‘look’ that is depicted as ‘Asian’. “[In this industry], if you’re darker-skinned and you’re Asian, you’re just kind of something else. I was told that a lot of markets don’t go for my ‘look’ because firstly, I’m Asian, and secondly, I’m a darker-skinned Asian.” It can be frustrating for someone whose job relies mostly on appearance, where breaking into international markets is hindered simply because of ethnicity and skin colour. Crystal mentioned that she has even been told not to stay in the sun for too long to prevent her skin tone from becoming too dark, thus decreasing her chances of being cast. “A girl who is blonde and Caucasian will usually get more jobs, because they’re such a versatile look and there are so many of them - they’re plain, like a blank canvas, whereas I am a certain ‘look’. I’m also not that ‘high-fashion’, which is more like pale skin, stick-thin, fragile - I’m just not like that.”
Having a unique look can be both a blessing and a curse for Asian models; a model’s job is to make a client’s clothes or product desirable, so, according to Crystal, usually clients like working with models who are versatile so that they can create whatever they want with them. It’s ironic that there appears to be a lack of diversity in representing ‘Asian’ models, a “model minority” that is, in fact, very diverse. Claudia Li continues to echo this in her interview with Refinery29: “It's about representation within Asian women — there are so many different types of us, and we haven't been represented in a diverse way… Within the community of Asian women, we are diverse. It's time to break free from that singular definition of Asian beauty.”
Crystal has come a long way since her high school years, and has learnt not to take her looks so seriously (which, in light of her having a job that revolves around her appearance, is admirable). “For me, [getting into modelling has] opened my mind because I’ve realised that yes, appearances are good, but I would much rather take care of my mental health. I used to worry about modelling so much when I was first getting into it, like “Why aren’t I booking those jobs like those girls? People will either love you or hate you; not everyone’s going to think that you’re pretty, everyone has a different perspective, so you either have to accept it or suffer as a result.”
While there are still many steps to be taken before the fashion industry can be truly considered as diverse, it’s promising to see models like Crystal, designers like Claudia Li, and actors like Gemma Chan (who made it a point to wear only Asian designers on the red carpet while promoting Crazy Rich Asians) proudly sharing elements of their heritage rather than shying away from it, embracing it as a strength rather than as an Achilles’ heel. It’s a reminder to the fashion industry that Asians aren’t just boxes to be ticked off, but a diverse group with a rich variety of cultures that all deserve a seat at the table.
Crystal’s advice for Asians Between Cultures struggling to accept their physical appearance? Have more confidence in who you are. “I would say Asian features - flat nose, slanted eyes - used to make me feel insecure, and I just want younger people now to understand that all those things… your friends will want that later on. You being different is unique and amazing, and if you don’t know this now then you’ll know it in the future. I just want them to know that they’re beautiful as they are now and that being unique makes you even more beautiful.”
About the contributor
Emmelyn is an advocate of handwritten notes with a love of continuous learning. When she’s not curating and creating content for THE ABC ISSUE, you can find her sampling various varieties of tea, searching for new music to listen to, or cuddling her dog. (Or all of the above).