Asia’s Elite Corps

Is there a global 'face' for female beauty? If so, it isn't Asian, say the heads of several Asian modeling agencies. As the Elite modeling agency gears up for its talent search in Singapore this weekend, only about one-fifth of the contestants are Asians. "There may be more and more Asian models," in the future, says the managing director of Carrie Models, which has offices across Asia, "but they will not make it big like Claudia [Schiffer] because they are not blonde and do not have hazel eyes." The head of Elite in Asia agrees, "'A white model has a better chance of winning. For an Asian to win, she has to be international enough to work all over the world, and appeal to all markets." His counterpart for the US and Europe disagrees, though, arguing that ''Rejecting the possibility of an Asian face winning is absurd… If the Asian girl is the best one with the right height, skin, hair, you name it, if she has it all, she will win." – YaleGlobal

Asia's Elite Corps

For all the headway Asian personalities have made in the movie and modelling arenas, why are the chances of an Asian winning in the Elite Model Look practically non-existent?
Suzanne Sng
Thursday, November 6, 2003

OF the 65 girls in the Elite Model Look contest being held here on Saturday, 12, or almost one-fifth, are Asian. But the chances of any of them winning it are slimmer than their waistlines, say industry insiders.

'There is always a chance, but the chances are not good,' says Mr Calvin Cheng, Elite Model Management's head for Asia Pacific.

'A white model has a better chance of winning. For an Asian to win, she has to be international enough to work all over the world, and appeal to all markets,' he adds.

'This is not a beauty pageant. It is not just about looking good.'

What looks good, of course, is subjective.

In 1991, Lyn Wang, then 23 and one of Singapore's top models, flew to New York for the contest, and was struck by how Asians were discriminated against.

'The whites are very prejudiced against those with yellow skin,' she recalls. 'The way they look at beauty and the way we look at beauty is also very different.'

But she concedes that things have changed somewhat. 'Last time, if you got into the top 10, it's a very big deal. Now, Asian girls can get into the top three,' she says.

Still, Ms Linda Teo, managing director of Carrie Models, which has agencies in Singapore, Hong Kong the Philippines and China, reckons it will be a good 10 years before there is an Asian Claudia Schiffer.

'There may be more and more Asian models, but they will not make it big like Claudia because they are not blonde and do not have hazel eyes,' she says, matter of factly.

Vivian Lim at local modelling agency Phantom Management says: 'We can only hope. It is very hard for an Asian model to win international contests.'

Mr Gerald Marie, Elite's president for the United States and Europe, disagrees: 'Rejecting the possibility of an Asian face winning is absurd.

'It's always a possibility. If the Asian girl is the best one with the right height, skin, hair, you name it, if she has it all, she will win.'

Even though there has never been an Asian winner in the 21-year history of this international modelling event, he adds: 'We have never seen an American winning in the past 17 years either.'

Elite's director of scouting Michaela Goddard, who has been in the business for 13 years, says that while height (at least 1.75m), a proportionate body and fresh skin are the basics, 'the most important is the sparkling personality'.

However, she admits that in the past, the eyes of talent scouts were trained mainly on American and European girls.

Which was natural: These two regions alone accounted for 87 per cent of Elite's turnover in 2001.

The British talent scout, who discovered models like Canadian Shalom Harlow and American Trish Goff, says colour is not on her mind when she trawls the world looking for fresh faces.

Rather, it is a girl's ability to walk into a room with a hundred others and 'capture the attention'.


ONE recent example of a Singapore model who has done this is Serene Chew, 24. Based in New York, she has been working in Paris, London and Milan for the past three years.

Noting that the levels of professionalism in these fashion capitals are much higher, both in fashion shoots and on the runway, she has to work hard to prove herself.

The clotheshorse, who commands US$20,000 (S$34,828) to US$50,000 for a day's work, still practises her catwalk all the time, whether she is at home in her Choa Chu Kang HDB flat or at her New York apartment in Brooklyn. 'No matter how different we look and how difficult it is, there is always a niche for us,' she adds.

'Having an Asian face can be a fantastic advantage, especially for a big advertiser who understands that the market is so huge in Asia,' says Mr Marie, one of the judges of the finals.

'L'Oreal is already there. And let's not forget Charlie's Angels, with an Asian face replacing a black face. Asia is the future of modelling and fashion.'

As the head of Elite, which has 35 agencies worldwide, including eight in Asia, he wants to open two more in the region and increase the number of Asians in its stable of 750 models.

At the moment, there are only a handful of high-profile Asian girls in its books, including Malaysian Ling Tan and her sister Ein, and Chinese beauty Zhang Jing.

The small numbers are repeated at other international agencies who represent names like Devon Aoki, Tanabe Ayumi and Singapore girl Nora Ariffin.

While some, such as Elite's Mr Cheng, are banking on the 'stereotyped Lucy Liu look', others say a variety of Asian faces from the different ethnic groups in the region will provide more diversity in the future.

What Asian models have going for them, too, is that 'their culture gives them depth of character, and they have great family values, which set them apart', says Ms Goddard. This, she explains, gives them a valuable network of support away from their home ground.

Brimming with confidence, Mr Marie says: 'The door is already open. Two or three very high calibre models from Asia will walk through it.

'And the door will never close again.'

We'll see what happens on Saturday night.

Putting S'pore on the world map

THE broadcast of the Elite Model Look 2003 will go out to 300 million households via stations such as France's Fashion TV.

Audiences in Singapore could be among the first to watch the one-hour programme, which will air on Channel i on Nov 25 at 9pm.

Subsequently, it will be sold to TV stations around the region. This is the second time the contest has been held in Asia, the first being South Korea in 1995.

More than 60 hours of behind-the-scenes footage have already been shot by an 18-man camera crew from local production house Spinergy Communications.

They include shots of the girls arriving at Changi Airport, cavorting on Sentosa's beaches, strutting along the Esplanade and nibbling on satay.

'This is good publicity for Singapore, definitely,' says Mr Michael Cheah, Spinergy's business development director.

Originally planned to be held in Morocco, the international contest was shifted to Singapore when its organisers were approached by the 'very persuasive' Singapore Tourism Board, says Elite president Gerald Marie.

The finals at the Singapore Indoor Stadium on Saturday is a by-invitation-only affair.

STB's media relations manager, Ms Tracie Yeo says: 'Our aim for supporting this event is to use this high-profile modelling event to publicise Singapore as a premier destination. We are not looking into pulling in huge numbers for visitor arrivals per se.'

She declined to reveal how much it cost the STB to sponsor the event here. The event is part of STB's seven-month Singapore Roars tourism recovery campaign, which aims to get four million tourist arrivals by the end of the year.

The 12-day event has attracted more than 1,000 arrivals, including 64 models. The entourage includes parents of the teenage models, chaperones from Elite's agencies worldwide, as well as show organisers and crew from Hong Kong.

Talks are already underway for next year's venue, and according to Mr Marie, there is a one-in-three chance that it will remain in Asia.

He says: 'Elite is expanding very much into Asia, and we're not the only ones.

'The fashion world is growing tremendously in Asia and we have to move fast.'

Marie, France's body line

FAMOUS, or infamous, for not getting out of bed for anything less than US$10,000 (S$17,414), supermodels are becoming extinct.

The days of Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Claudia Schiffer, Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford are numbered, admits Elite president Gerald Marie.

'The era of supermodels is very much ending,' says the 53-year-old Frenchman, who jokes that he has been in the industry for 53 years.

From a booker in Paris almost 30 years ago, he rose rapidly to become one of the most powerful men in the business when he partnered Elite founders Alain Kittler and John Casablancas in 1985.

As one of the top agencies internationally, the Elite brand name has been built up since 1972, and has launched the careers of the likes of Crawford and Gisele Bundchen.

Turnover for 2001 was more than US$80 million, but rivals like DNA and IMG International also fight for the same pie, if not the same girls, as each competes to get the best ones.

Mr Marie played Svengali to ex-wife Evangelista, who was married to him for six years before they divorced in 1993. He is now married to top Russian model Irina Bondarenko, 24.

'In the past, there were few models, few fashion designers, few fashion editors, maybe 10 photographers. They lived together like a family,' he says.

'Now there are a lot of possibilities and we don't have the time to organise the growth of models as before,' he adds.

On average, a model can only work for four years in the fickle world of fashion, he estimates.

'Someone more intelligent than me once said, 'Fashion is so ugly that we have to change it twice a year',' he quips.

Copyright @ 2003 Singapore Press Holdings.