updated 21 Nov 2013, 10:33
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Sun, Nov 10, 2013
Urban, The Straits Times
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Supermodel strikes a humble pose
by Leslie Kay Lim

Professing her love for the addictive British soap opera Downton Abbey, Chinese model Liu Wen says: "I love it when people speak in a British accent. It's very beautiful, like a song. Plus, the costumes and buildings in the show are so beautiful."

Chatting about TV shows, the 1.79m-tall beauty sounds just like any other 25-year-old. Unlike others her age, however, she is a successful international model.

Her face - with its sharp cheekbones and full lips - stares out from various billboards for major fashion and beauty brands, including Estee Lauder, Tiffany & Co. and Coach.

That ubiquity netted the New York City-based Chinese model a newfound status in August, when she became the first Asian to appear on's annual ranking of the highest-earning models.

"I was surprised," she says, after a short bark of incredulous laughter, in an interview with Urban in Hong Kong last month.

Liu came in at No. 5, with earnings of US$4.3 million (S$5.3 million), trailing British model Kate Moss at No. 4.

"I mean, I love my job and I enjoy it.

I don't think about how much money I made," says the Calvin Klein ambassador, who walked in the Calvin Klein platinum label's Spring 2014 show later that night.

Regardless of her claim, Liu has been in heavy demand since her international debut in 2008. The daughter of a construction worker was discovered at a model fitting in Beijing in 2007 by Marie Claire International creative director Joseph Carle.

She became the first Chinese model to walk for the Victoria's Secret lingerie show in 2009 and the first Asian face to front a global campaign for American skincare brand Estee Lauder in 2010.

"At the beginning, I didn't really understand," she says, of the significance of these pioneer moments.

"But later, I was like, wow," she adds, recalling a memorable moment at the John F. Kennedy airport in New York, when she saw her face on a giant Estee Lauder poster.

Now that she is a well-known name in the fashion industry, it is not about doing the most shows or saying yes to all jobs any more, she notes.

"When you're at a different level, doing the right thing is more important than doing everything," says the native of Yongzhou in Hunan province, on working with selected brands.

"I also want to support Chinese designers, such as London-based Yang Du," she says of the designer known for her cute aesthetic and knitwear.

"I'm really proud of my country and I think Chinese models and designers should support one another."

While she is now in a position to shine a light on upcoming talents, she rarely basks in her own limelight.

"At the beginning, I hated shooting, being in front of the camera and doing interviews. I'm still not good at interviews," she says, apologising for her lack of fluency in English.

Her spoken English, which is self-taught, is fairly easy to understand, thanks to time in New York and exposure to popular books and their screen adaptations, such as Gossip Girl and Harry Potter. Occasionally during the interview, she switches to Mandarin to clarify certain words or phrases.

Full of positive energy

Her humility and no-fuss attitude have enamoured her to those who work with her. Veteran stylist Johnny Khoo, 47, who worked with Liu on the day of the interview for a Prestige Chinese magazine shoot, says: "She's always so positive, whether it's on the streets of Paris or in a studio in Hong Kong. She brings this certain something, an energy, to everything."

He styled her previously for a L'Officiel Singapore spread three years ago.

At the Prestige shoot, she is in her element, thanking the assistants who help with the clothes and joking with the crew - her signature dimples on full display - about a pair of black trousers that are too long, even for her statuesque figure.

When the camera is pointed at her, however, she is focused, striking poses with the ease of an experienced model.

Asked whether she has any advice or guidance for fledgling Chinese models, she side-steps the question at first.

"I really appreciate that people look at me like an older sister, but I'm still learning too," she says, in reference to questions on modelling she receives on social media channels Weibo and Instagram.

"My advice is to just be yourself and enjoy that," she says finally. "Also, you work with so many different and talented people, so you will learn from them."

One industry figure she admires is 61-year-old French designer Jean Paul Gaultier. "Sometimes, at fashion week, we're like machines walking on the runway, but his show always has something special or fun," she says of Gaultier's joie de vivre.

"This year, he made models dance on the runway and made their personalities stand out."

Perhaps the only area of her life that is far from perfect is her love life. "No boys like me," she says in mock horror, before laughing. "Maybe because I look tomboyish? Even when I was a teenager, no boys said 'I like you' or things like that."

Her gruelling schedule may play a role.

"I travel so much," she says, mentioning a recent episode when she flew from New York to London twice in one week.

"Sometimes, I just want to stay home, watch TV and clean my apartment." In a separate interview later that day with Prestige Chinese magazine, she jokingly claims she is living the Chinese idiom, hui guang fan zhao, which refers to someone having a burst of energy before dying.

That said, she is unlikely to leave the business any time soon.

"I met Carmen Dell'Orefice at New York Fashion Week," she says, naming the 82-year-old American and one of the oldest working models. "She's still very beautiful. And I can't retire. I'm not ready to quit."

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