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Road of super model Liu Wen [Copy link] 中文

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Post time 2012-4-1 14:41:16 |Display all floors


Slipping into a pair of blue Marc Jacobs pants in the back of a rented van in Yongzhou, China, the model Liu Wen was feeling an unusual degree of jitters. Changing clothes on the go is standard practice for models shooting on location, and she liked the look: “It’s tomboy style,” she said. “I feel it’s my style.” And under most circumstances — long travel, bad weather, unexpected wardrobe glitches — China’s first bona fide supermodel has a reputation in the industry for being gracious and professional. But as the van pulled up to her old middle school, she peered worriedly out the curtained windows at a waiting crowd: hundreds of frantic teenagers in white uniform jackets, spitting images of her recent former self. “It’s getting crazy here,” she said. The students were chanting, “Liu Wen, Liu Wen” and were armed with cellphone cameras and notepads for autographs, eager for the return of their school’s most famous alum. “I’m not that big a celebrity,” she said. “I’m just an ordinary person.”

At 24, Liu is not so far removed, in years, from her time at Yongzhou No.3 Middle School. She grew up in the southern province of Hunan, most famous as the birthplace of Mao Zedong and as a powerhouse of domestic pork production. Back then in Yongzhou, population 5.7 million, there were “no fashion stores, not even fashion magazines,” she said. “Our sense of the outside world came mainly from South Korean soap operas.” About the only widely recognized Western brands in town were Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s. Her modest five-story school has long open-air corridors leading to cramped classrooms lined with old-fashioned blackboards. On the walls hang portraits of Chairman Mao, Vladimir Lenin, William Shakespeare, Hu Jintao and other inspirational figures. In winter, to conserve electricity, students and teachers wear coats inside to keep warm.
It was, in other words, hardly fated that a girl from China’s pig country would go on to become, as Liu has, the first Asian model to be the global face of Estée Lauder, the first Chinese model to walk the Victoria’s Secret runway and one of the most booked Asian runway models in the world. She has learned to wear stilettos (“I never wore high heels in my hometown”) and taught herself English. She moved to Beijing and then to New York City. Perhaps the only thing that remains the same is that she is single. “I have never had a boyfriend,” she told me. “In my school days, everyone thought I’m too tall for a Chinese girl. And now, I travel so much. Maybe in 2012.” It was her first time home in more than a year, and she was reflective about how her perspective had changed. “Twenty-four is still young in New York, but in Hunan most of my friends are married.”


For the most part, Liu takes mind-boggling change in stride. Perhaps this quality, more than anything else, defines young Chinese people today. But somehow contemplating it all, compressed into a single instant, felt overwhelming. Yet when she stepped into the shrieking crowd, shaking hands and answering questions, the anxiety wore off. “I feel like here is home,” she said. “It’s been a long time, but it still feels very warm.”
In a little room upstairs, Liu had lunch with several of her old teachers, surrounded by laminated posters of beach scenes and palm trees — exotic places few of her peers have seen. With the heating off, everyone huddled around a circular table in sweaters and dark jackets, save for the principal, Mr. Liu, who wore a gray suit with a purple tie for the occasion. On the table was a plastic dish full of sunflower seeds. The teachers uncorked two bottles of red wine, a treat, and offered rounds of toasts, standing up and clinking glasses in the style of a Chinese banquet. Liu, who does not drink alcohol, raised her cup of green tea and offered a personal motto: “Be a good student and enjoy your life. You never know the future.”



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Post time 2012-4-1 14:42:54 |Display all floors

Certainly Liu’s success rides largely on her looks

“I often use the word ‘sharp’ to describe her,” a casting director for Victoria’s Secret, John Pfeiffer, told me. “She’s not a soft, delicate beauty. But she has that very indefinable ‘It’ factor, full of presence.” That she defies the stereotype of the spoiled, immature mannequin has also helped her. (“After our first meeting, she sent a handwritten thank you card; it was charming,” Aerin Lauder remembers.)

Yet her rise is due in equal measure to the extraordinary moment in China’s history from which she emerged. When Liu was born, in 1988, the daughter of a construction worker, many of the brands she has modeled for — Dior, Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier — were unknown in the country. Beijing was then a sea of bicycles, and thick coal dust in the air darkened both shirt collars and the sky. China’s per capita annual income was just $704

(last year it was $5,184), and only a sliver of the population could afford such luxuries as skin creams and handbags.

With roaring economic growth every year of her childhood, Beijing was transformed by the time Liu moved there in 2006, as an 18-year-old aspiring model. No longer a wasteland of sleepy state-owned department stores, the capital was throwing up stadiums, shopping malls and car dealerships. At the same time, the city had become a magnet for China’s young dreamers — artists, writers, designers, punk bands, models.

It was into this energetic new world that Liu stepped one November morning after a 20-hour train ride from Yongzhou. She had come alone, clutching two suitcases full of warm clothes and snack foods her mother had packed. That fall, she had won a modeling contest in Hunan; her victory gave her the idea that modeling might be a career, but in no way assured success. She insisted that she’s “not pretty, pretty, pretty by Chinese standards — big eyes and small nose and mouth.” She had come on a leap of faith.

In her first apartment, which she split with two other aspiring models, she began to pile up fashion magazines, at least 2,000 by her own estimate. Many, like Vogue China, had only recently printed their first issue, catering to a new class of urban Chinese consumers whose spending on cosmetics alone has leapt from $24 million in 1982 to $168 billion in 2009.

In 2007, Liu was discovered at a Beijing fitting by Joseph Carle, then a creative director at Marie Claire International looking for models to whom both Western and Chinese women could relate.
Soon she was appearing in those magazines she’d been hoarding, and by 2008 she’d walked for Burberry in Milan. The next year she moved to New York, knowing almost no English. “I could only smile and say, ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ ” she recalled. But she learned quickly with the help of Broadway shows, “Gossip Girl” and by comparing Chinese and English versions of the Harry Potter books. And she found a new look in vintage stores, a concept little known in China. Over Skype her mother asked her: “Why would you buy that old stuff, when you can afford new?”


Back in Hunan province, Liu posed at the ancient Yuelu Academy in Changsha, under a misty gray sky. Taking an optimistic view of the drizzle, she repeated an old Chinese saying: “Rain brings riches.” At that moment, a group of Chinese tourists wandered through the impromptu set, trailing a woman with a microphone clipped to her collar: “Ladies and gentlemen, this way.” Had she not become a model, she had planned to enter a local vocational school to become just such a tour guide. Now the crowd paid little attention to the tall slender woman wrapped for warmth in a blue parka. Only one young girl stopped and stared. Turning to a friend, she whispered, “She is so beautiful.” Liu warmed to the familiar lilt of Hunan dialect.


In the van later, barreling between the Changsha and Yongzhou, she curled up across two seats and caught up on sleep. Outside, the light had faded; the view through the window soon changed from city — new hotels and high-rises — to rolling fields where farmers toil with spades in small plots still untouched by modern farm equipment. It felt a little like traveling back in time, although both worlds, the ancient and the hyper-modern, exist in China today. And Liu has learned the art of slipping between them.

At about midnight, the van pulled up to a rest stop near a Sinopec gas station. There were several large trucks laden with construction materials or oinking pigs, their drivers sleeping in the cabs. Liu and members of the crew wandered into the 24-hour convenience store and strolled down its brightly lit aisles. She picked up a bag of chocolates and a red sugary concoction labeled “Wang Zai Milk Drink.” A bit nostalgic, she said with a sigh, “It’s my favorite from my teenage years.” And then, though half asleep, she had the good grace to offer to translate between Mandarin and English, between the drowsy Sinopec store clerk and the black-clad New York makeup artist. “Yes, we have chips,” Liu said. “Shrimp flavor or cheese flavor?”


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