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Rough road to the runway

Publication Date : 18-10-2012


One evening during the recent Paris Fashion Week, a statuesque Asian girl with short, cropped hair walks into a quaint cafe on Boulevard de la Madeleine. She is 45 minutes late for her interview with Urban.

Dressed in a chic all-black ensemble, Singapore model Vivien Ong waltzes into the cafe, places her Balenciaga bag on a chair and apologises profusely: "Sorry, the show started later than I expected. I rushed out as soon as it ended and did not even have time to remove my make-up."

All is forgiven.

Just one hour earlier, she had walked alongside top models Anja Rubik, Cara Delevingne and Qin Shu Pei for popular fashion label Paul & Joe's spring/summer 2013 runway show.

Although the 20-year-old looks visibly exhausted, she still turns heads when she walks into the room.

While most of her Asian contemporaries have delicate, feminine features, she has high cheekbones and a strong, almost masculine, jawline.

It is these things that Caroline Issa, executive fashion director of London-based fashion glossy Tank Magazine, says sets her apart from the rest of the Asian models.

"Vivien's androgynous look is refreshing for an Asian model. It is almost like working with a chameleon because you know you can mould her any way you want," she says.

Back in the cafe, Ong says with a sigh: "It is hectic during Fashion Week because there are hundreds of models vying for a spot in the line-up.

"We get about 13 castings a day and you have to plan your route for hours each night because the timing is very tight."

Clients are also known to call you back at the last minute for fittings.

The day before, she had received a call from the casting directors of Paris-based Japanese label Junko Shimada just one hour before the fitting for the show.

"You must always have your portfolio, high heels and map with you," she says.

Growing up

Raised by her accountant mother - her father died when she was six - the elder of two children did not always want to be a model.

"My dream was to be a writer or a journalist. So, this passion for modelling really came out of nowhere," says Ong, who holds a diploma in communications and information design from Republic Polytechnic.

She stumbled onto the profession after winning The New Paper New Face competition in 2010.

"One of my friends wanted to take part that year and asked me to go along with her, so I did," she says.

While her friend made it into the top five, Ong took the crown.

Despite her win, she struggled for about a year to find an agent to represent her. Some said she was not edgy enough while others said they did not see any potential in her.

Ong, who is single, recalls how a certain agent had rejected her point blank, saying her size 2 frame was "too fat" to be a model.

"It was definitely a big blow to my ego. But I learnt not to take things to heart. Different people have different ideas of what works."

But the episode did get her started on a gym routine. She also started swimming regularly and became more conscious about her diet.

She adds: "I realised that my lifestyle could be improved. Before, I barely worked out and I ate whatever and whenever I wanted."

While she is more toned and healthier now, Ong, who is 1.78m tall and weighs 47kg, is smaller than the average model in Paris and Milan. During fittings, some designers found her current size 0 frame to be "so tiny" - and not in a good way.

"Because I am too small, my agency in Paris decided to bump up my measurements on my composite card. I think I've busted that myth about reed-thin models being the favourites as I now need to gain a bit more weight."

In Singapore, she was eventually introduced to Carrie Models by top home-grown model Sheila Sim, who was one of the judges for the competition and is represented by the agency.

Ong then landed her first cover and fashion spread in Urban last March for a package on spring/summer 2011 trends.

However, belonging to the same agency as Sim has its drawbacks.

Ong, whom Urban highlighted as one of the 10 new faces to watch in July last year, is often compared to the 26-year-old.

"Initially, it was such a huge compliment to remind people of someone who is already on top.

"I am very grateful to her, but after a year or so of modelling, people were still drawing similarities between us, and I thought I must be doing something wrong. I mean, we both have distinctly different features, lifestyles and personalities."

She has learnt to take these comments in her stride.

Overseas, she has done commercials for Pepsi in Shanghai as well as a print advertisement campaign for Vitasoy in Hong Kong. "These jobs may not be as big as the ones I get to do now but they were great building blocks for my career," she says.

Paris stint

Since moving to Paris last month for a three-month modelling stint in Europe, Ong has signed with NextModel Management, one of the leading agencies in the world which has big names such as Karlie Kloss and Arizona Muse on their books.

She says: "I think I got here at the right time. The European market has opened up a lot and new Asian faces are the 'in' thing now."

In the last three weeks, she has walked for seven runway shows in Milan and Paris Fashion Weeks, including Vivienne Westwood and John Richmond.

This makes her Singapore's biggest runway modelling export in decades.

In the 1980s, former top model Hanis Hussey, now 47, walked for Yves Saint Laurent in Paris. Former Singapore model Ivy Chng, now 47 and a Hong Kong-based model-booking agent, walked for Missoni and Versace in Milan in the 1990s.

What Ong is especially proud of is having walked for the Vivienne Westwood show.

"It's been one of my favourite brands since I was 14. So, I told myself that I will not let anything go wrong during casting," she recalls.

"I saw her put a post-it note on my show card and I immediately started doing somersaults in my head. It's always a good thing when they put a mark on your card. It means they are really interested in you."

Meeting Dame Westwood in person, she adds, was something she never thought would happen. She was given a personal fitting by the designer herself.

"She didn't speak to me though and I was too stunned to say anything. I really thought I was in heaven, Now I can strike something off my bucket list," she says, laughing.

She has been booked for the cover and fashion spread in Elle Vietnam. Then on Monday, she flew to Reggio Emilia, in northern Italy, to shoot her first international lookbook campaign for Italian casualwear brand, Nioi.

Making it to the international runways has opened more doors for her.

"I've received encouragement and positive feedback from people back home. I have also received a number of requests for interviews from magazines."

Not surprisingly, she has also received calls from industry insiders who used to snub her.

She says: "I'm suddenly getting text and Twitter messages from these people asking how I am and when I'm returning to Singapore."

There are other high points as well.

She takes out her mobile phone and scrolls through her text messages.

Smiling to herself, she shows a "thank you" message from Eri and Philip Chu, the designers of London-based Hong Kong label, Ground Zero, who tell her how amazing she was during their show in Paris.

"So sweet, right? It may be stressful and can get competitive sometimes but it's these little things that make it all worthwhile."

So what's next for the Singapore model in Paris?

"I definitely hope I can walk for Jil Sander and Dior someday for Paris Fashion Week," she says.

"I also really, really pray that I can walk for Helmut Lang during New York Fashion Week. I love his style and what he does with his clothes. And Alexander Wang, for sure. Actually, I love so many labels I always pray that I can conquer them all eventually.

"I guess I am still a greedy Singapore girl who is also kiasu."


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