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The first Chinese model to walk Victoria’s Secret, the first Asian model to make the Forbes highest-paid models list, massive billboards in Times Square – what’s LIU WEN doing so right? MARK GRAHAM finds out
SUPERMODEL LIU WEN, who is blazing a pioneering trail as the first Chinese model to front major campaigns by Western fashion brands, wants to be a Bond girl.
The New York-based Liu, 25, has ambitions beyond modelling, including designing her own line of clothing and a venture into acting – with her sights set on being one of 007’s gaggle of beautiful women. But that’s for further down the career road. Right now, she’s savouring her moment in the spotlight as one of the fashion world’s most in-demand models. She was recently in Asia to launch the latest lines by the bags, clothing and accessories brand Coach.
Liu is one of the faces of the American label and, in addition to modelling its products, has filmed a mini movie introducing viewers to her adoptive home, New York City. The film shows Liu in various Big Apple locations, telling how she made the meteoric rise from small-town girl in Hunan province to superstar model living in America’s most vibrant city. The most recent confirmation of her status was a giant Coach sponsored billboard in Times Square, featuring Liu with her trademark dimple-cheeked grin.
Yet despite all the razzmatazz, in person Liu is affable and modest, a non-stop bundle of smiling energy who’s happy to talk about anything and everything. It’s that outgoing personality, and total lack of affectation, that’s helped propel her to the top of the modelling tree, where she intends to stay for the long term. After that, Liu will doubtless be able to slide effortlessly into movies. As the Coach online video demonstrates, she’s an effortless performer, a total natural in front of the camera.
But had it not been for her parents, she’d probably still be living and working in out-of-the-way Hunan. Her mum and dad pushed her to enter a modelling competition, thinking it might help her confidence.
They were proved right, in a way that none of the family could ever have imagined. Since beginning her career some six years ago, Liu has notched up a series of groundbreaking achievements as the first model of Chinese descent to front global campaigns for major brands.
In addition, the 178-centimetre-tall Liu has participated in catwalk shows for all the significant fashion houses, in New York, London, Milan and Paris. In this exclusive and wideranging interview for Prestige Hong Kong, she talks about her life and, believe it or not, her boyfriend-free status.
The Coach campaign shows you guiding viewers and readers around your adoptive city, New York. How is your life there?
For me, coming to New York was like coming to Beijing for the first time. I felt alone – the city was so big, like Beijing, with a lot of people. I learned a lot and with Coach I’m honoured to be part of the brand.
New York has such good energy and it can make the dreams of young boys and girls come true, like for me with my modelling. If I had not gone there, I would not have had the chance to work with the best photographers in the world and the best companies, too.
I grew up in a very small town, Yongzhou in Hunan province, where there was no fashion, or acting, or anything, so when I first came to Beijing I thought it was beautiful. It was the same with New York, which is the most fashionable city in the world. It gave me the chance to work with Estée Lauder and as the first Chinese model with Victoria’s Secret.
Your English is fluent – and fast – especially considering you’ve only been speaking it a few years.
Living in New York it was very important to learn to speak English – I didn’t really study it at school. Every time I did an interview it was so stressful, it forced me to be a stronger woman. When I went to New York it was my dream that I would go to bed and wake up speaking perfect English! I’ve now lived there for three years and for fashion you have to speak English; the other models all have different accents, from Europe and Russia, so my accent is mixed from talking to them.
I do speak really fast and loud. When I call my agent at fashion week it’s always a rush, and when I’m in a rush I speak very quickly…de de de de de…and my agent once asked if I was angry with him and I said, “No, I always speak like this: fast.”
You’ve notched up a series of landmarks, as the first Chinese model to front campaigns for Victoria’s Secret, Estée Lauder and, now, Coach. Which means the most?
Well, if I hadn’t been a model I would not have got to do these things, so the event which probably means the most is entering that world, through the model competition, and that is thanks to my parents.
Why did they enter you for a modelling contest?
My mum and dad are very traditional Chinese and they thought it would help me be a stronger person, because when I was young I was very shy and was not in love with my body that much. When I was 18, during the summer holidays, they entered me. I didn’t think I had a perfect body and didn’t want to enter, but my mum said if you don’t enter you can’t win. I won in my hometown and then went to the national competition in Sanya, where I lost, which upset me! It was later that I got a chance to model – I went to New York and got a chance to work with a lot of amazing brands, including Coach. The idea of a coach and a princess appeals to me – ever since I was a young girl I dreamed of being such a princess!
It must be non-stop parties for a supermodel living in New York.
No, I’m a quiet girl when I’m not working. I live in the East Village, which is quiet, people can’t believe that I’m 25, a young girl, and think I must live in the West Village, but for me when I’m not working I like to be quiet, hang out with my friends cooking traditional Chinese food at my apartment. I like to go to museums such as Moma and the Met – there are so many in New York. I also like to go vintage-clothes shopping, but it’s not really cheap. I look at the quality and the style, which is what I’m focussed on as a model.
How would you describe your personal style?
My style is like New York: uptown, which is more classic, and downtown, which is more like tomboy and cool girl. I like to be comfortable. When we’re working, we travel so much and we’re always wearing very beautiful clothes, but in my real life I just want to be comfortable and slouch. Today, for example, I’m wearing a sweater and leather pants from Coach. It’s comfortable, especially for the plane. I like to wear a leather jacket as well. I think a bag is a very important accessory, and high heels. As a model you need a big bag to fit all the stuff in.
It must be a very glamorous career, a dream job for a young girl.
I think most girls think about the beautiful clothes, and being dressed up with makeup, and working with talented people, but they often don’t realise how hard the job is. You also have to make some sacrifices: for the past five years I haven’t been able to spend Chinese New Year with my parents because it’s the same time as New York Fashion Week. For me, the best part is the travel, but it’s also the worst part. Travelling gives you a chance to meet different people, and see different places, but you don’t always enjoy the moment. It’s usually just a couple of days and you don’t really get the chance to see the city properly. I always think that the airport is my apartment and the airplane is my bedroom.
Which do you prefer – runway, or shooting for magazines or advertising campaigns?
I can’t say which I prefer, as both are part of my job. At the beginning, I loved the runway because it’s so easy, you just work and then, “Bye,” you go after a couple of hours. But the worst thing is the fitting, which takes such a long time.
I like photo shoots because it’s a more personal thing. For Coach I did My New York Story, which is more like me as a real person and not a model – what I think about it and what is my style. Also I think editorial is more like an acting moment, you enjoy it. I also love runway because I like clothes – I don’t have to have them, but I do like wearing them.
It’s hard to walk down a street these days without seeing Liu Wen beaming down from hoardings.
Well, Coach is an iconic American brand in the world, and they do have huge big posters. I’m very honoured. I feel that I represent my country when my face is all over the world. I am a Chinese model living in New York and it’s about what this Chinese girl thinks of New York.
You and other Asian models are certainly blazing a trail.
It’s Asian power! I think for sure right now companies are interested in Asian culture and use a lot of Asian faces. I think the fashion in China is getting stronger and stronger.
What would your advice be to a young Chinese model just starting out?
People think it’s important to be beautiful, but that’s not so important. You have to have a personality and be unique – that’s how people remember you. Don’t think about it too much, always be yourself. I remember I was very shy at first. People ask me why I work so hard and I tell them it’s because I love my job.
I want to stay as long as I can as a model, but you can only do runway for so long. I want to stay in fashion in another way, possibly designing my own line with a brand, based on my inspirations. This is very important. I’ve learned a lot from smart and talented people.
Which individual has impressed you the most?
There are so many, but if I did have to pick one designer it would be Jean-Paul Gaultier. I love him – he’s a fun guy. I always remember the first time I did Paris Fashion Week, I worked with him and it was wonderful, he’s such a talented designer. The clothes are always fun, playful – like costumes. Sometimes he mixes the personality: it’s not just the model wearing the clothes, it’s the person.
Do you have any plans for an acting career?
I think modelling is close to acting and I hope that in the next five or 10 years I can do some acting. Working on this film for Coach was a start. I don’t want to be just a beautiful girl in a movie – I want to be a cool girl like in a James Bond movie. While doing Victoria’s Secret it was more natural for the European girls to be sexy. I learned from them. I think my sexy is different – mine is the cute way! I appreciate the fact that so many companies have supported me and Coach has given me the chance to be a real person on camera.
Which model, past or present, do you most admire?
Christy Turlington is my favourite. I shot with her for the H&M holiday campaign; I think she’s beautiful. Her body is amazing – she does yoga. She has a good heart and does a lot of charity things, she shares her love to everyone. Kate Moss has great personal style as well – this is very important.
Your mum and dad must be very proud.
My parents do not come to New York, but they’ve been to Beijing to visit and sometimes in China they come when I’m working. We went to Shangri-La, in Yunnan province, for a photo shoot. I’m not sure my parents exactly understand the fashion world, but they’re happy that I’m happy. They don’t care about the money, they’re just pleased that I’m doing great.
You must have lots of suitors…
There’s nobody in my life – this is very sad! Perhaps you can put it in the interview that I’m looking for a boyfriend; they can contact my agent! There’s a lot of travelling with my job, and I can’t say to a boyfriend, “Please wait for me, I have to go on a job.” For love you can’t find someone the next day; it’s life, it has to be the right person at the right time.