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Chinese Supermodel He Sui recalls her rise to stardom

By Hillary Kang

 
 

He Sui’s career is one marked with many industry firsts: She’s the first Asian model to ever open for Ralph Lauren’s runway show as well as the first Asian model to ever clinch a lucrative contract with cosmetics giant Shiseido. For a woman who has walked the runway for Chanel, Dior and Hermès among many others, and who is largely credited for being one of the pioneering East Asian faces in fashion, the supermodel remains humble about her achievements. She still sees herself as the girl from the coastal Chinese city of Wenzhou.

“I was originally nobody — I had nothing,” says the 31-year-old. As He describes it, her ascent to stardom happened through a series of serendipitous events: A modelling competition at the age of 17 where she won first place; a chance encounter with a Milanese modelling agency the day she wanted to quit modelling to focus on her studies; the same encounter that would send her to her first Milan fashion week, where she would go on to walk in 12 shows at a time where rejection for non-white models was the norm, and that proved to be the eventual springboard for her international career. Things happened so fast for He that, in fact, she says she barely had time to consider the pressures of being one of the few East Asian models of the time — though it was a fact that she was keenly aware of, both then and now.

“In retrospect, it seems like I didn’t really have the chance to feel or digest how I felt at the time,” she says. “It feels like I forgot to feel the pressure. Maybe I was too occupied with work to feel it — I was a nobody back then, so rather than feeling pressure, I was feeling grateful — grateful for every job that I got.” She would go on to garner a loyal fanbase, quantified now in her 1.5 million followers on Instagram and some 10 million followers on Weibo, where she calls herself “a lucky ordinary person” in her profile. 

“All of the recognition and affirmation I received gave me more confidence, and strength, to keep going,” says He. It is that support and encouragement that has fuelled He through much of her whirlwind career — that, and her chipper attitude towards life in general.

He is unpretentious about the work that goes into her modelling career. Having dabbled in acting (she had minor roles in several movies, like 2019’s “Pegasus” and 2015’s “You Are My Sunshine”), He says that acting requires a more involved skill set than modelling. “It requires a more direct expression of language and emotion to portray a tangible character, whereas for modelling, it’s a relatively static presentation,” she says. “You have to use body language to present the clothes, or to create an image.”

“Modelling is a relatively passive profession,” she adds. “I often say that the clothes wear me, instead of me wearing the clothes.”

 

But He’s modesty belies the harsh realities of being a jet-setting supermodel. She says the most arduous part of modelling isn’t the actual show or shoot, but rather the Herculean amount of effort that goes into preparing for that one moment — and the stamina to keep that momentum going for months on end. “Honestly, the most difficult part of the job... is the preparation process for fashion week, or peak season,” she says. “We have to keep an energetic state for months. It’s very likely you will encounter a schedule like this: Shooting in New York today, then catch a flight right after to Paris, going directly to a shoot instead of a hotel once you land. What if I got sick, what if my flight got cancelled, what if a project failed or wasn’t going well because of me? I was worried and afraid. I had to gear myself to work under high pressure and always be ready for the next call time.” Or, as He herself once said: “It feels as if it costs a life to do one season.”

When asked about her most memorable jobs, He has several: Fendi’s landmark Spring/Summer 2007 show — the first ever fashion show done atop The Great Wall of China itself, an underwater photoshoot with noted Chinese photographer Liu Zongyuan, and the annual Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show (of which He has been a mainstay since her 2011 debut). The one thing that all three have in common is how punishing each one was.

On Fendi’s show at The Great Wall of China, He says: “Every model was wearing a pair of 20-cm high-heeled shoes — the runway was very long, with some stairs and steep slopes... the ground was not neatly paved, and we couldn’t see the road in front of us, so every step at the time was unpredictable.” The show was staged at the tail end of autumn — when temperatures can dip as low as 8 degrees — and this meant that He, draped in the brand’s offerings for balmy summers and springs, was freezing during each step of the long walk. “I felt like every model who completed that show was like Superman,” she says.

Her 2019 shoot with Liu Zongyuan for his “Transparency” exhibition was photographed entirely underwater. And though He — a former competitive swimmer in her youth — took to the water easily, the repeated takes threatened to wear her down. “I spent nearly 15 to 16 hours in the water,” she says. “The most difficult part of the shoot was the uncontrollability of clothes in water — there’s no way to adjust the clothes, every moment was very random, so we had to keep trying. We even broke a couture dress. That shoot tested both my physical and mental endurance.”

Then there were the Victoria’s Secret shows. The show — which was cancelled in 2019, in the wake of the #MeToo movement and after mounting scrutiny on its anachronistic lack of body diversity — was infamous for fostering a culture of unhealthy eating and what some critics termed as “obsessive” workouts. “So many models will prepare for this day several months in advance, including fitness, diet, lifestyle, body management, and so on,” says He. 

“The purpose of these efforts was to present a good show, but it wasn’t just for the show,” says He of her Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show appearances. “All these trainings and experiences have also influenced my lifestyle and my concept of health later in life. It helped me train myself to be better.”

 

While it seems only natural that He would remember the most onerous jobs in her career, she has long learned to take hardships in her stride. She credits this to her time spent doing drills as a competitive swimmer in her youth. “Because of my poor health, my parents hoped that I could be stronger — so I learned to swim for the purpose of exercising,” she says. He has few good memories of her time as a swimmer: In a previous interview, she called her training “physical and mental torture”. But He isn’t bitter about her experience — rather, she credits the time for fostering a resilience in her that she tapped on when she became an international model. “Having experienced that endless daily training as a child cultivated my perseverance and persistence,” she says. “It did have a far-reaching impact on my future work.”

Today, He is content with being out of the spotlight. Her last major public appearance was for this year’s annual Spring Festival Gala held by CCTV, an event that some observers have termed “China’s own Superbowl Halftime show”, He modelled a look inspired by traditional Chinese elements, with an ornate golden headdress bearing a phoenix-like motif, and a striking red dress adorned with intricate, feather-like patterns. But splashy appearances like that are uncommon for He these days: She confesses that in her personal life she is often dressed down, and is fond of staying home with her two “cute cats”, who she says bring her “lots of fun and comfort.”

“Cats are such soft and gentle animals — you’ll also become soft and peaceful when being with them,” she laughs. “I enjoy staying at home very much — just reading a book, watching a movie or even doing nothing but having a lazy afternoon.”

It’s a side of the supermodel that she rarely reveals to the public. But, as He herself says, it’s the truest reflection of herself. “I go for comfort and minimal style when I’m away from the spotlight,” she says. “During work, the clothes wear me, but on normal days, I wear the clothes. I am very aware that I am just doing a job — that when I take off the fancy dress and high heels, I will still be myself.”

 

Photographs by Nick Yang

Fashion Editor: Jenine Oh

Styled by White Fan

Hair: Wen Zhi

Make Up: Yooyo Keong Ming