Model Minority: Into the Lives of VietAm Models

Asian Americans have the label “model minority” for good reason. We work hard, persist, and beat everyone at everything (or try to). Our  Tiger parents often came to America with nothing, but in a few years time, they established a home with educated children and a stable lifestyle.

Seeing that Asian Americans succeed in so many things – e.g. medicine, law, science, business, and other professional areas – why do we suck so badly in fashion and entertainment? In magazines, tv shows, and movies, I see a cake of Caucasian people, frosted with African Americans and Hispanics, and sprinkled with Asians and other ethnicities. What’s up with that, folks? I know it’s not because we don’t try hard. All my Asians in fashion and entertainment have outstanding work ethic, drive, and marketability.

To answer my questions, I interviewed two lovely Vietnamese American women who happened to be working models. They fall under the labels of model, minority, and model minority. What better candidates to explore why Asians aren’t the shit in media (yet)!

Meet Judy Ly. Growing up, she never thought she’d be a model, but somehow it “sort of fell into [her] life.” After competing in a Tet Pagent, she was scouted by local photographers in the VietAm community to do print work for magazines and fashion websites. With this exposure, she “fell in love with the idea of being able to transform [her]self into different characters.” Although she considers herself somewhere in between an amateur and professional, she has produced a lengthy portfolio with her experience in magazine publications (Viet Beauty, Long Beach Magazine, Vivid Magazine), look books (Maes Dresses, Tokidoki), and online stores (House of Diamonds, Anh Oi). And that’s not even her complete resume. Oh, and did I mention she works full time in marketing? Find out more about Judy on her website.

Meet Isabelle Du. Her interest in modeling stemmed at a young age. In a home video of her first birthday, her family laid out various objects representing different occupations, and whatever she chose would symbolize her career path. She chose a pen, but that was after staring down the mirror on the tray. Her first inkling of wanting to model professionally occurred when she came across the annual “Face of East West” contest. At the time she was more interested in writing an article for the publication. When that issue came out, it was her face blasted on newsstands and her article that appeared within. Isabelle competed in the Tet Pageant, after which she became more involved with áo dài fashion shows, filming áo dài segments for the local Vietnamese channel, and shooting for VietAm magazines.  Now a full-fledged model in Asia, she has worked in Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong King, and Vietnam. Modeling has led her into stunt work, voiceovers, hosting, emceeing, and acting. Check out her work on her site.

Their resumes obviously show their talent and drive. As with any up and comer, Isabelle “faced struggles simply as a model.” But being Asian American, the possibility to break through and shine has been harder. “I see castings for Western looking models all the time and of course I’m not what they’re looking for.  Only every now and then do I see castings for Asian girls making it more competitive,” she explains.

Likewise, Judy has found it difficult to break out of the VietAm modeling community and into mainstream media despite already booking plenty of non-VietAm gigs.

In the last few months, I delved into acting, and let me tell you the struggles in Hollywood are pretty much the same. Everyday I get about 50 email about various roles, so 1500 a month. Half of those roles are for Caucasians, and about 2000 people submit to each role. Out of those 1500, I probably get about 15 roles that specifically list Asian, and approximately 200 people submit. In other words 200 Asians submit to 15 roles while 2000 people submit to 750 roles. If you do the math, opportunity is obviously unequal and lacking for Asian Americans.

And now for a picture break. Don't Judy and Isabelle look stunning? Judy Ly (left) and Isabelle Du (right) in various wedding editorials

So, is it clear to say that the lack of opportunity has resulted in a lack of Asian Americans faces in media? I’d say so. Now then, what can we do to be more successful?

One option is to move to Asia. It worked for Maggie Q, Daniel Henney, and Wang Lee Hom! “I was told by my agency that my Pan-Asian look would be a better fit for the Asian market and I could build a stronger book to bring back to the States,” says Isabelle.

While I think it’s totally fab to move to Asian to amp up your resume, what if you want to focus in America or don’t have the resources to move abroad? Should we just accept under-representation? Or can we find a way to surpass the barriers built before us?

I have an idea… Let’s create material that involves Asian Americans. Become a leader that can make casting choices. Be a visionary who has a voice and can make it heard. The media gets it wrong all the time, and the only way to promote change and educate people is to tell your story.

Got a idea? Write it. Have some visuals in mind? Film it. Got a pretty scene in front of you? Photograph it. Expose your work and support the API fashion and entertainment community. How else are we gonna show off our tigerness in Hollywood and fashion?

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11 Comments

    1. That’s a horrible opening sentence. That implies that all Asians are good– and “non-Asians” are not so great. I’ve always hated comments like this. I would never want to be grouped as “Asian”– I’d rather be my own, and “Asian Americans are pretty much awesome at everything” implies that we’re not individuals and all the good are bad and all the bad are good– because we’re all the same. I’ve met Asians I respect, and I’ve met Asians I want to pound into the ground– obviously not because they’re Asian or not.

  1. I welcome your effort to provide insight on Vietnamese Americans in the modeling industry; however, I take serious issue from the first sentence–“Asian Americans have the label ‘model minority’ for good reason.”  A blanket assertion that Asian Americans are exemplary in “so many things” negates the fact that a lot of our Southeast Asian American brothers and sisters are not faring as well as what the model minority myth would like to depict.  When we lump the entire Asian American community into one monolithic entity and brand it as homogeneously successful, we lose sight of the fact that within this Asian American umbrella are many different ethnic groups that experience huge differences in socio-economic status, educational attainment, historical context, social capital, etc.  One suggestion I offer in order to “surpass the barriers built before us” is to stop subscribing to and start denouncing harmful stereotypes such as the model minority myth.

  2. First let me say that I am a photographer and I have worked with Ms. Ly a couple of times. I can personally attest that she is an awesome model and a real sweetheart to work with. I love Judy!

    If you substitute the word Jewish American for Asian American in this story is would read exactly the same way. What do Jewish Americans and Asian Americans have in common? Work ethic for one. Height challenged for another. Minority demographic status though is the most telling.

    The modelling world will mirror the target demographic. If a magazine or an advertisement is meant to target mainstream America…. well that mainstream is largely Caucasian. I’m sure this will change in another forty years or so, but in the meantime, if you are tall and slender and pretty enough to be a model, then Asia is probably where you want to be. It isn’t bigotry or racism, is it business.

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