By Mughni Che Din

Memoirs of a Model: Ling Tan Shines in Our March 2024 “Memories” Issue

Exploring the remarkable odyssey of Ling Tan, the celebrated supermodel who rose to prominence in the ‘90s and pioneered a path for Asian talent in the fashion world.

In an atmosphere charged with anticipation and nostalgia, we find ourselves with the legendary Ling Tan, Asia’s first supermodel. Currently residing in New York, her visit marks a poignant homecoming—her first since the onset of the global pandemic.

The atmosphere on set is alive with excitement and reverence, as crew members and creatives alike recognize the significance of working alongside a figure who has graced countless international runways and magazine covers and has been a trailblazing force for Asian representation in the global fashion industry.

Tan’s presence is a fusion of international allure and local charm. As cameras flash and stylists flurry around her, she carries an air of professionalism attributed to years of experience working as a model at all the major fashion capitals. Yet, her interactions are tinged with the warmth and familiar characteristics of her Malaysian upbringing. 

During the brief interludes between shots, the atmosphere on set transforms. As the bustling photo shoot momentarily subsided, Tan, enveloped in the calm serenity of these pauses, shared the compelling story of her journey as a model. 

Each anecdote she offered was a glimpse into a world that many dream of but few experience. Tan recounted her early days in Kuala Lumpur, where her initial steps into modelling were marked by youthful enthusiasm and the uncertainty of stepping into an unknown world. The Malaysian-born supermodel took us through her bold decision to move to New York, a move that wasn’t just a change in location but a leap into a vastly different cultural and professional landscape.

Her story began in Kuala Lumpur, far from New York’s fashion extravagance. “In 1994, I decided to try my luck in New York City. Moving to the Big Apple during New York Fashion Week was a leap of faith,” Tan shared, reflecting on her bold move to pursue a modelling career in one of the world’s most buzzing fashion capitals. 

Tan reminisced about her debut and initial challenges, “I met Zang Toi in Kuala Lumpur during the Asian Model Search contest. He suggested I try modelling in New York City. When I first moved there, I didn’t have an agency. So, navigating the city, especially with language barriers and without the convenience of today’s technology, was a real challenge.” She described her break into the industry with a sense of nostalgia, “After walking for Zang Toi, IMG signed me right away. It was a big move, leaving my family back in Malaysia; but I had nothing to lose and everything to gain.”

With no social media or internet, navigating the city and its casting calls was challenging, especially as a minority and non-English speaker at the start of her career in the ‘90s. “Back then, a significant part of a model’s job was to attend ‘go-sees’, which were appointments with agencies and clients—the primary way for models to get noticed and secure jobs. Unlike today, where smartphones, Instagram, and other digital platforms make it easier for models to showcase their work and connect with potential clients, models in the ‘90s relied heavily on these in-person meetings to make an impression and build their careers.”

She fondly recalled the significant influence of the late Ivan Bart, a renowned figure in the fashion industry known for shaping the careers of iconic models like Gisele Bündchen, Kate Upton, and Kate Moss. “Ivan Bart was the first model agent I encountered at IMG Models,” Tan shared with a sense of reverence. “Back then, Asian models were a rarity in the industry; they could be counted on one hand. Ivan was a true visionary who had a profound impact on my life. He saw potential in me at a time when diversity was limited. His belief in my abilities and his guidance were instrumental in helping me navigate the complexities of the fashion world.” 

Tan’s career has been a mosaic of encounters with the most talented individuals in the fashion industry—photographers, directors, makeup artists, and more, each bringing their cultural backgrounds and skills. Working with iconic figures like Mario Testino, Steven Meisel, and Richard Avedon, Tan admitted she was unaware of their reputation and fame at the start of her career. Recognising the need to deepen her understanding of the industry, Tan dedicated herself to learning. “I made it my mission to familiarise myself with the fashion world. I spent countless hours in libraries and bookstores, poring over fashion literature and magazines,” she said. Furthermore, she found watching Fashion TV an invaluable resource for gaining insights into the industry’s dynamics and trends.

Her experiences with designers like John Galliano and Thierry Mugler taught her the art of embodying different characters on the runway, a skill that has defined her career. However, Tan says that her most memorable moment was the Yves Saint Laurent farewell show back in 2002. “The show was held at the Forum of the Centre Pompidou where the designer’s favourite models showcased his most iconic creations in a celebration of a forty-year career. It was truly an honour to be part of that fashion presentation,” said Tan.

When asked about the person who inspires her, she cites Somali-American Iman as a model she deeply admires. “Iman’s grace and remarkable adaptability within the fashion industry have been a constant source of inspiration for me,” Tan revealed. She elaborated on how Iman broke through significant racial barriers in a predominantly white-centric industry with her poised elegance and trailblazing spirit. “Seeing Iman thrive in an environment that was not as diverse or inclusive as it is today convinced me that I, too, could carve out a successful path in this realm.”

Tan highlighted her love for the creative process when questioned about what she enjoys most in her modelling career. “The aspect I cherish the most is the opportunity to collaborate with incredibly talented individuals,” she shared. “Meeting people from diverse backgrounds and cultures around the world enriches my experience.” Tan believes that this dynamic environment is not just about showcasing fashion but also a platform for personal and professional growth. “Being surrounded by such creativity and diversity sharpens my skills and allows me to learn and evolve as a model continuously,” she reflected. 

In these shared moments, Ling also reflected on the evolution of the fashion industry, particularly in terms of diversity and inclusivity. She spoke about the barriers she faced as an Asian model in the early days and how gratifying it is to see today’s industry embracing a broader spectrum of beauty. “It wasn’t easy, but I knew I had to keep my head in the game to succeed as a model,” she mentioned. “We have made positive progress, but I’d like the industry to embrace more diversity in body types, ethnicities, and ages. Promoting a healthy work environment and fostering inclusivity and equality are essential.”

Fast forward to today, Tan’s lasting impact is especially felt worldwide, where her achievements have inspired a generation of aspiring models. She has shown that it is possible to transcend geographical and cultural barriers with perseverance and adaptability, bringing global attention to the richness and diversity of Asian fashion and talent. 

As she approaches her 50th birthday this year, she stands as a living testament to the adage that age is just a number. On set, she seamlessly transitions from the whimsical charm of a feathered dress by Khoon Hooi to the bold statement of a body-hugging latex ensemble by Balenciaga. In each attire, Tan embodies a chameleon-like versatility that defies age-related stereotypes, showcasing a breadth of styles effortlessly. 

Tan’s enduring presence in the competitive, youth-focused fashion industry is a resounding testament to the evolving attitudes towards beauty and age. Her continued prominence at the forefront of fashion, captivating audiences with her varied and timeless looks, not only underscores her innate charisma but also indicates a significant shift in the industry. There’s a growing appreciation for maturity and depth, moving away from traditional norms. This is exemplified in her recent engagements, like the Lunar New Year campaign with Self-Portrait and her striking appearance in the Bottega Veneta Autumn/Winter ‘23 show in Beijing. Through these high-profile projects, Tan actively challenges and redefines global beauty standards, proving that allure and appeal are timeless qualities transcending age.

On her enduring success in the modelling industry, she admitted: “I don’t follow any particular diet or a stringent workout routine. While it’s true that I don’t book as many jobs as I did in my earlier years, I consider myself immensely fortunate to have a career spanning over three decades. The amazing people working tirelessly behind the scenes have made this journey possible. Their support and collaboration have been instrumental in shaping my career and bringing me to where I stand today.” 

Ling candidly spoke about the less glamorous side of modelling, “The industry is rife with challenges like last-minute job confirmations and the uncertainty of job cancellations. Models must be adaptable and resilient, managing uncertainties while maintaining professionalism. The fashion industry has evolved tremendously since then. The couture process, for instance, used to involve models wearing multiple outfits in one show. Now, it’s typically one outfit per model.” 

Tan revealed an alternative path rooted in her early interests if not for her successful modelling career. “Before I ventured into modelling, I was immersed in studying art and design,” she explained. “Had I not become a model, I envisioned myself pursuing a career in design.” Tan’s connection to the fashion world has deep familial ties. “My mother, a talented seamstress, was my gateway to the fashion world,” Tan recalled fondly. “Growing up, I was always surrounded by fashion magazines. I would spend hours flipping through them, captivated by the designs. I often asked my mother to recreate the beautiful dresses I saw on those pages.” This early exposure to fashion and design influenced her career choice and nurtured a lifelong passion for the industry.

On returning to Malaysia, Tan observed, “It’s amazing to see the progress here. The modernisation and the thriving fashion scene are truly impressive. I’m proud to see Malaysian designers and models making their mark internationally. It’s a testament to the creativity and drive inherent in our culture,” she added. 

As the shoot winds down, she imparted some sound advice for those aspiring to follow in her footsteps. Reflecting on her journey, she emphasised the importance of dedication and adaptability. “I’ve always believed in the value of hard work, embracing the opportunities that come my way, and learning from each experience,” she said. “This mindset has been pivotal in opening doors for me and guiding me to where I am today.” Tan also highlighted a practical aspect often overlooked in the glamour of modelling: financial wisdom. “Additionally, it’s crucial to be mindful about saving money. This industry can be unpredictable, so financial discipline is key,” she advised, underscoring the importance of practicality alongside passion in building a sustainable career in modelling.

Photography: Chee Wei
Creative Direction & Styling: Ian Loh 
Hair: Ckay Liow
Makeup: KF Bong
Art Direction: Shane Rohaizad
Styling Assistant: Sarah Chong
Photography Assistant: Szen Cheah