Lauren Tsai Gets Real About Her Identity

Model, artist, social media darling and reality TV star. But will the real Lauren Tsai please stand up?

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When I first arrived on set to meet Lauren Tsai, it was halfway through this photoshoot and everyone, including Tsai’s manager, was taking their lunch break in the studio. Tsai, however, was cloistered in the dressing room by herself. I needn’t be told the unspoken rule; the implication was easily read in the way the crew glanced at the shut door — Tsai was not to be disturbed.

However, five minutes after my arrival, Tsai came out of the dressing room for a bathroom break. In person, the breakout reality star appears much younger than in pictures. “Model” Tsai exudes cool beauty and moves with calculated grace; “real” Tsai behaves the way a 19-year-old would — slightly awkward, a little shy, but friendly and eager to make a good impression. Tall and lanky, with her hair slicked back, she broke into a cheerful smile as we shook hands, and appeared far from the aloof “It” girl portrayed on social media.

In elementary school, Massachusetts-born Tsai had her first taste of modelling, when her 14-year-old sister was signed with IMG and she followed her sister to an audition in New York. Although the experience inspired her to want to model as well, she put it at the back of her mind and didn’t pursue it until several years later, when she was 15 years old and did a short exchange trip to Hiroshima, Japan, for six weeks.

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“I discovered Japanese fashion magazines, and all the girls around me were saying, ‘You should try modelling here in Japan!’ so I applied to an agency online,” she recalls candidly. A couple of “embarrassing” and “really bad blurry photos” taken with the Photo Booth programme on her laptop later, she got a call-back from a Tokyo agency, and made the decision to return to Japan the next summer to work as a model.

“From a practical standpoint, Japan is a much better market for me to work in because I’m not 5’10” (approximately 179cm), I’m not like a super chopsticks-looking person which is what the standard is like for New York or Europe,” Tsai explains. “When I was reading the [Japanese] magazines, it seems like the definition of what a model was in Japan was more of being a personality. They would talk about what they did over the weekend, or the kind of fashion they like. And I thought, wow, it’s crazy that everyone knows their names because in the US, no one knows who anyone is, besides the Victoria’s Secret models.”

Getting signed on as a model in Japan was the easy part for Tsai, but booking jobs proved to be harder. “I was the only part Asian girl in my group of models, and in Japan, there is a big market for white models,” she says. “It was hard for me to book jobs because the clients who came to my agency were looking for white models. Clients always told me things like, ‘Oh, she’s too Asian, she’s too short.’ And for two years it was like that.”

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By the time her senior year in high school came about, Tsai was ready to call it quits on modelling and to focus on her first love — art. Being an artist, according to her, was something she always wanted to be since she was a baby. However, modelling and a teenager’s pursuits of wanting to make more friends and going out had taken precedence over art during high school, and it was not until graduation that it “hit” her that art school was where she really wanted to go.

“I got everything together, I drew, and I made my entire portfolio within one month,” she says. “I know everyone else had been working on [their portfolios] since sophomore year, so I thought there was no way I am getting into an art college.” However, despite her reservations, she did get accepted into several art colleges.

“And then it hit me again, that I don’t feel like going to college right now,” she continues. “So, I decided to take a gap year. Just one year to do what I want to do, then I will do what I’m supposed to do, which is college.”

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During her gap year, Tsai decided to cash in all her chips by moving to Tokyo and attempt to be a full-time model. “Then, I was on Facebook and I saw this audition sheet, and there was this new reality TV show looking for fun, easy-going, talented, single people, aged 18 to 30,” she says. “Well, I am single. So, I applied for it.”

Despite the audition sheet not mentioning anything about what show was about, she went for the first round of auditions, which she described as “the scariest thing ever”. “It was this big white room with one chair, and I was told to tell them about myself!”

The show turned out to be “Terrace House: Aloha State”, the second season of Netflix’s collaboration with the Japanese “Terrace House” franchise, set in Hawaii. The premise is simple and not wholly original: three young men and three young women stay together in a beautiful house, a la UK’s “Big Brother”. The catch, however, is that all interactions are unscripted. The viewer is the fly on the wall, watching how relationships and alliances are formed organically amongst the six housemates as they go about their daily lives and careers.

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“It seems like the exact opposite of the thing that someone like me would do, to be on a reality TV show,” Tsai says. “Because American reality TV shows are crazy and dramatic, and everyone is super confident and funny, but I’m not really like that. But it was my gap year, and I wanted to do something crazy and I thought, that’s it. Being on a reality TV show is the crazy thing I’m going to do.”

Crazy indeed, for a self-professed introvert. “The biggest challenge was to not think about how people are going to react, and to act natural,” she says. “With modelling, you have to try and fit multiple images if you want to book jobs, like commercial, or high fashion. But with reality TV, they want you to be there because you are you. It’s harder, because when you get criticised for the way you are on reality TV, they are criticising you personally, but when you get criticised as a model, it’s just superficial things like, ‘Oh, they thought I was too ugly.’”

Fans of the show would recognise Tsai as the first person to enter the house, but for Tsai, the initial experience was extremely uncomfortable. “The way the show works, on the first day when you walk into the house, you don’t know if you’re going to be the first one there, or the last one,” she explains. “But I walked in the door and it was empty, and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I am the first person. What do I do?’ And there are camera guys all around so I tried to act natural. It’s so awkward!”

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Her awkwardness in front of the camera has not gone unnoticed by the fans, and her presence on the show had been described as “standoffish”, “nervous” and “isolated”. However, it also endeared her to fellow introverts, as Tsai has found out. “I think it’s because I lack the typical reality star personality, which was why people felt like they could relate to me,” she says. “There are a lot of awkward people on the internet. I am one of them too.”

Being on the show worked out for the best for Tsai. Upon leaving the house, modelling jobs once denied her began pouring in. Amongst others, Tsai has walked for Dolce & Gabbana, appeared on the pages of Nylon and has a featured video on Hypebae.com, fronted campaigns for Uniqlo and Adidas, and most recently, the face of Lumine, a multi-label concept just launched in Singapore.

When I asked her whether she ever felt like her multi-cultural background had affected her career, Tsai grew serious. “I felt like I couldn’t find my identity for such a long time growing up in Massachusetts,” she says. “I look Asian, I was the Chinese kid along with my sister. There were other Asian people there too, but I was lucky enough to say that with my parents and the society I was in, I never felt like I have to be aware of the fact that I was Asian, it never mattered. Moving to Hawaii,there was a great mix of people and I definitely felt at home there. And when I’m working in Japan, I’ve never wanted to feel like [my ethnicity] matters, but at the same time, I don’t want to turn away from who I am."

“There are definitely times when I felt out of place, or wondered who I am. Like, I’m not Chinese-Chinese, or white-white, but I tell myself, it’s okay, you don’t have to be either. You can just be you.”