Top Model Ling Tan
Considered to be the world's first internationally recognized Asian supermodel, Malaysian born Ling Tan was a pioneer in the industry who launched her modeling career in the early 1990s at a time when there were virtually no Asian models in the American and European fashion industry.
Ling was considered, by some, in the Malaysian fashion industry to be too "Chinese looking" to be a success! Despite this, Ling was the winner of the Malaysian section of the 1994 Asian Model Search contest. She was not expected to win and it was a big surprise when her name was announced. She later went on to be the first runner up in the international finals.
Her big break came when she was discovered, while waiting for a friend in a hotel lobby, by an advertising executive. Ling then appeared in an ad campaign for Tiger Beer. These commercials propelled Ling to success and she became the hottest modeling sensation in Malaysia. The producer of the commercials was a Mandarin speaking New Yorker, Danny Wolf, who became Ling's boyfriend, and career advisor. Ling moved to New York in November 1994.
She broke stereotypes and barriers in a world dominated by Caucasian models and was able to land top ad campaigns for Armani, Prescriptives, Guess, Wolford,Daryl K, Bruno Magli, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales, Pantene ProV, YSL, Gucci, Old Navy, and Banana Republic, and walked the catwalks of top couture houses such as Zang Toi, and Givenchy, and continues to model. Here Asiance sits down with Ling to delve into her experiences in the fashion industry.
ASIANCE: How did you get started in the modeling industry
Ling: I started in Malaysia. I did a TV commercial for Tiger Beer. I didn't drink alcohol or smoke. It’s funny because I always get beer or cigarette advertisements. I was in the hotel lobby and they were looking for a new girl, and they asked me to go to the casting for the commercial and it became a very famous commercial in Southeast Asia.
ASIANCE: How were you discovered?
Ling: I was in the hotel lobby watching the high tea fashion show and the television casting crew from LA spotted me and asked if I wanted to do the casting. They were looking for a new girl after the television commercial came out. I also met Zang Toi in Malaysia who was doing an Asian model search from all over Asia- 12 countries and I was representing Malaysia. Zang Toi told me to come to NY because it’s a capital of fashion. I came a month later and he put me on the runway- this was November 1994, when NY fashion week was right after Paris. It was my first fashion week! I got off the plane and did the show right away. I saw IMG and got signed.
ASIANCE: Since then you have lived in NY?
Ling: I arrived and the next day was Halloween. I thought, “Wow this is so cool!” Everyone dresses so crazy. I didn't know it was a holiday. We don't celebrate it in Malaysia.
ASIANCE: Did you always want to be a model
Ling: No, I wanted to be a designer. My mom is a tailor. I always ask her to copy clothes from Armani, my favorite designer. Malaysia always has fashion TV, like Style with Elsa Klensch, Fashion TV. I actually went to fashion school in Malaysia and know how to cut the clothes.
All the designers now use a lot of Asian girls, as compared to before when they would use 1 Asian girl and 1 black girl.I think I opened the door for Asian girls who come to the West for their career.
ASIANCE: How do you think the industry has changed for Asian models?
Ling: From when I started until now, it’s very different for Asian models especially the last five years. All these American and European brands opened their flagships in Beijing and Shanghai, so it’s completely different. All the designers now use a lot of Asian girls, as compared to before when they would use 1 Asian girl and 1 black girl. Now they use a lot of Asian girls for every show. I think I opened the door for Asian girls who come to the West for their career. Before it was only me, Irina Panteva and Nadia at the time, only 3 girls. My sister Ein, also came to NY and has done a lot of advertising.
ASIANCE: What has been some of your favorite campaigns?
Ling: I did the Emporio Armani fragrance.
ASIANCE: What do you want to do after you’re finished with modeling?
Ling: I always liked fashion and food. I love art. I go to galleries all the time, so something in art, fashion or food.
ASIANCE: What kind of foods do you like?
Ling: Asian food. I'm always on an Asian diet. Monday I would have Indian, Tuesday I'd have Japanese, Wednesday I would have Malaysian, Thursday Korean food, Friday Vietnamese food, Saturday Thai food, and Sunday Chinese dim sum. Always Asian, and there are a lot of choices in NY.
ASIANCE: Do you think there are a lot of opportunities for Asian models?
Ling: Definitely. There is a lot of demand for Asian models.
ASIANCE: Do you think there's a certain look they are going for?
Ling: They are always going for your personality instead of the plain stone faced look. It was so boring. Now it’s your personality and the most important thing is to be yourself.
ASIANCE: What kind of challenges do Asian models face
Ling: English. Many don't speak English. It’s so embarrassing. When the client asks you for something and they don't understand, it’s so embarrassing. You really have to learn English the first day.
ASIANCE: If there's anything you could change in the fashion industry what would it be?
Ling: I used to think it would be better if all the designers could do the shows in one place instead of travelling to Milan, Paris, NY. It’s so much travelling, so much pollution, everyone goes from one place to another. It’s a lot of money spent on travelling. Why not do everything in one place? But it’s impossible. The design houses and studios are in different cities, so it’s not going to happen. It’s very stressful because all the same people are travelling to each city and all the seats are taken.
ASIANCE: How often do you go to Malaysia?
Ling: I went for 4 months over Christmas at the end of November until March and then I spent the summer there. I came back for Fashion's Night Out and then to walk Zang Toi's show.
Russian Glamour, December 2007, Photographer: Tony Notarberardino