There are precious few supermodels who arrive for photoshoots on time. Which is why we’re pleasantly surprised when Liu Wen ambles into Donna Karan’s quintessentially New York apartment — where we’ve arranged to meet her for a shoot and an interview — on the dot, even as a torrential storm rages on outside and floods have forced road and subway closures.
She’s dressed in a simple T-shirt, jeans and oversized sunglasses, the off-duty uniform of the modelling crowd. But despite the dreary morning, the 29-year-old also wears an affable smile on her face.
In an industry where supers have earned a notoriety for unwarranted tantrums, Liu’s down to earth attitude is part of the reason why the native of China’s Hunan province has made such inroads into the international modelling industry and become her country’s first bona fide supermodel. In the span of just under a decade, the willowy beauty has become the first Asian to be named the global face of skincare and cosmetics giant Estée Lauder, and the first Chinese model to walk the Victoria’s Secret runway. (“I had a lot of fun doing that show,” she says of the latter.)
Liu’s climb to international acclaim was built upon a foundation of hard work and, along the way, bolstered by a series of chance encounters. She’ll be the first to admit that her career was helped by more than a little luck and being “at the right place at the right time”, Liu’s success has certainly been hard-earned.
Growing up, the 1.78m-tall lass recalls hardly ever being called beautiful. But she delved into modelling in 2005 when her mother encouraged her to take part in a local competition, thinking that it would help to correct Liu’s hunched posture.
To Liu’s own surprise, she won, and the victory made her think for the first time that per- haps there was room in the world for the awkward teen, whose smallish eyes, prominent nose and pouty lips didn’t conform to traditional Asian standards of beauty. So she put aside her insecurities and made the bold move from her hometown of Yongzhou to Beijing, China’s capital, in pursuit of success.
In those days, she took whatever came her way. “When I first started out, I didn’t have many expectations. At that time, it was just a job,” says the supermodel, who speaks with an easy candour and is prone to child-like giggles. Two years in, she was talent-scouted by Joseph Carle, then the creative director at Marie Claire International, who was on the lookout for a new face with international appeal. That opened the door for Liu to the American fashion industry, propelling her to relocate once more to take her career to the next level — this time to New York, a city over 11,000km away where she didn’t speak the language and barely knew anyone.
Finding her feet — not to mention standing out — in one of the world’s fashion capitals wasn’t easy, but Liu’s unyielding grit and tenacity has helped her more than do that. It’s also kept her focused on her priorities in life in an industry notorious for its frivolity. “Even though modelling has given me a lot of privileges and benefits, I try to stay grounded, do my job well and let nature take its course,” she shares. “I would hate to be avaricious more than anything.”
Her view that modelling is “just a job”, how- ever, has changed. “After being in this industry for a substantial amount of time, I’ve begun to realise that [what I do] actually affects and influences a lot of people. My role goes beyond solely completing a job. I feel that it’s my responsibility to be myself and stay true to myself in order to set a good example and present a positive image to the new generation.”
That explains her quick smiles and ever-present bright demeanour. “Having good energy on set makes the job more enjoyable and easier,” Liu says. “After all, a relaxed, fun environment is the most comfortable for everyone to work in. And I have to say models do look scary and strict when they don’t smile!”
So what’s next for the supermodel, who’s already accomplished so much in the 12 years she’s been modelling and has made Forbes’ list of the world’s highest-paid models for the past four years? “At the moment, my goal is to model for as long as possible. And if I can no longer do that for whatever reason, I’d still want to stay in the fashion industry,” she says. “I will probably also explore other things... but for now I want to take it a step at a time and enrich myself, take up a class or maybe even try acting in movies.” It’s classic Liu – while she may have won the genetic lottery, she’s not relying on her looks to build her career on. Instead, the hardworking beauty is consciously choosing a tougher but potentially longer-lasting route to get where she wants to be: at the top of career ladder, but grounded in every other respect.
Article originally published on tsingapore.com.