Absent faces

By Janice Breen Burns
The Age
December 03, 2010
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SHIRLENE Lai Allison was heart-pumpingly pretty as a teen but, like most girls, she also agonised over a list of her imagined physical “imperfections”. Her ebony hair and dark, Asian eyes for instance. “I used to dye my hair lighter and wear green coloured contact [lenses],” recalls the 26-year-old model. Asian faces were virtually absent from her favourite magazines and films so the logical assumption could only be that her own was somehow “wrong”. She worries that nothing has changed: young Asian Australians still don’t see enough faces in fashion that reflect their own.

“Growing up, the media was completely saturated in Western-looking actors and models and that had a big influence on the way I perceived the ideal beauty,” she says.

A maturing Lai Allison did eventually ditch the dye and contacts and, testament to her swelling pride in those striking Timorese/Chinese features, she even signed up with model agency Giant. But new troubles have plagued her working life for the past eight years. “The main campaigns seemed to go to all the Western looking models and, if I was chosen, it would be of a supporting nature,” she says. “In fashion parades, I would usually be the only Asian; it was rare to have more than one.” At a photo session for this article, Lai Allison and three other Melbourne models — Jia-Li Woo, Jiin Kim and Danny Vuan — joked ruefully about their patchy professional careers. “I couldn’t make a living,” says Vuan, who makes more as a personal trainer than a model. He and the young women aren’t angry or harbouring a grudge. “It’s just always been like that,” says Lai Allison.

Like most Asian-Australian and other ethnic models, Vuan, Lai Allison, Kim and Woo can neatly plug a casting director’s whim for “exotic” or “off beat” elements in a fashion show or editorial, but pale, Anglo-Saxon chic is still the overriding ideal and it is those models who tend to dominate and get most work. “They’ll sometimes use the odd token Asian and African models for shows,” says Stephen Bucknall of FRM model management. (He says David Jones runs particularly open-minded castings which result in a salting of multicultural models in their shows.) “But, cross over to advertising; catalogues and campaigns, and a lot of people just are not bold enough to use them.” Bucknall makes a point of signing ethnic models to FRM but is constantly frustrated, he says, and even shocked at some reactions. “On numerous occasions when I’m sending a group of models in for castings I’ve been told, “We don’t use blacks or Asians, so don’t send them.”

Matthew Anderson, director of Chadwick models, says his agency, which currently has only one Asian-Australian model signed, reflects the commercial reality of supply and demand, which in turn reflects a culture stuck on one concept of fashionable beauty. “It’s so non-diverse here, it’s fascinating,” he says. “Think about it: you could look back to the migration we had after the Second World War, the 1940s and ’50s, but how many times do you see a model who looks obviously Greek, or Italian?” The waves of migration since, haven’t made a dent in our preferance for white Anglo models either, he says. ‘I have to be realistic. If a fabulous, tall Asian girl comes along, I have to think; ‘How much work am I really going to be able to get you?’ It could be cruel even to take them on.”

Despite the prevalence of Asian features among our tourist, international student and general populations, despite Chinese-Australians comprising Australia’s largest non-Anglo community, despite John So’s historic term as lord mayor of Melbourne and even despite Gerry Harvey of Harvey Norman’s confident prediction that an Asian will be elected prime minister before 2050, the absence of Asian faces in popular culture, and notably fashion, continues. Though avante garde media such as Yen magazine, whose current covergirl is Sydney-based Asian model Rachel Rutt, do carry an exotic torch of sorts for diversity, widespread change may only come with a dollar sign attached, according to Lauren Rosewarne, a political scientist and cultural studies lecturer at Melbourne University.

“Change usually only happens when there’s an economic imperative,” she says. For her book Sex in Public — Women and outdoor advertising”, Rosewarne photographed billboards for a year without encountering a single Asian face. But she is cynically confident this will change if market forces ensure it.

Last week, for example, Chinese supermodel Lui Wen was introduced by Estee Lauder as its first ever Asian “face”, representing a Pure Colour cosmetics collection. Other Estee Lauder faces include Liz Hurley, Carolyn Murphy and Constance Jablonski. Recently, Liu Wen and other Chinese models including Fei Fei and Ming Xi, appear to have banged the first cracks into fashion’s “bamboo ceiling” with bookings by risk-taker brands and fashion houses including Calvin Klein, Jean Paul Gaultier, Benneton and DKNY jeans. “Liu Wen represents the new face of global beauty,” said Aerin Lauder, the company’s senior vice-president and creative director, at Wen’s introduction in Beijing. She also pointed out that China is Estee Lauder’s fastest growing market, a fact that is true for every luxury brand in the world and which will fuel Rosewarne’s theory about the nature of cultural change. “I know it’s cynical, but there’s got to be a reason to change and that’s the reason; when it’s going to hit someone’s hip pocket.”