Model Ethel Fong fights stereotypes on her way to the top

This article first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar Singapore, the leading fashion glossy on the best of style, beauty, design, travel and the arts. Go to harpersbazaar.com.sg and follow @harpersbazaarsg on Instagram; harpersbazaarsingapore on Facebook. The May 2022 issue is out on newsstands now.

Thirty-three years after she hung up her modelling boots, Ethel Fong is back in front of the lens, working it as though no time has passed at all.

As she nails shot after shot, outfit after outfit – be it power suits and Le Smoking tuxes or cropped, jewelled jackets and sequinned hot pants – the 59-year-old shows why she is one of Singapore’s first supermodels, one who broke through barriers geographical and racial to grace countless magazine covers here and abroad, walk the runways of the world’s fashion capitals, and even land a global Armani campaign.

What one does not expect is that supermodels get stage fright too.

“I must admit, I was nervous (doing this shoot) because times have changed,” she says.

“You don’t want to look like a has-been or like you’re out of touch. What if people go, ‘Hey, it’s the 21st century – why is she posing like it’s the 1980s?'”

But then again, what people say has never been a deterrent for Fong.

Her rise to the top of the modelling industry was paved with rejections and put-downs.

“I’m not what you would call a classic beauty; you know, the kind with the small face and small lips. I have strong features – my big lips, my cheekbones, my jawline; I guess they are, in some way, quite imposing,” she says.

“When I went for castings with magazines, they called me weird-looking, unattractive, ugly.”

A lesser model might have given up, but not Fong.

“In the beginning, I didn’t know how to use make-up to enhance my features,” she says. “Then I started playing (around with it). I looked at those Japanese beauty brands where the look is all about a lot of make-up, very angular faces, no smiling.

“I told myself that the industry can’t just be about one look, so I learnt to reinvent myself. I don’t have a beautiful smile, so I won’t smile; if something isn’t great, don’t use it – use something else. So I guess I kind of created that look – thick lips, unsmiling, with an attitude – that later became something like a trademark.”

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