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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?”