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Models Aimee Cheng-Bradshaw, Nadia Rahmat, and more weigh in on Singapore's modelling industry

Models Aimee Cheng-Bradshaw, Nadia Rahmat, and more weigh in on Singapore's modelling industry

Model behaviour

Text: Ryan Sng


Image: Instagram

Singapore, it goes without saying, is neither Paris nor New York. Nevertheless, some hot-button issues are global, such as the fashion industry's long overdue awakening to model welfare. Modeling is an industry full of young (and by consequence, vulnerable) workers who may experience racial discrimination, body-shaming, and sexual harassment during their careers. To find out more about what it's like to model in Singapore, we asked some of the Little Red Dot's finest faces — and one of their bookers — to shed light on the realities of the job.

Aimee Cheng-Bradshaw (@aimeechengbradshaw), model

How did you start modeling?
Aimee Cheng-Bradshaw (ACB):
I was 13, and got scouted while walking around Plaza Singapura after a piano lesson.

As you’ve grown, has your impression of the industry and your early career shifted?
ACB:
I used to be so intimidated by how cut-throat the industry is, especially when it came to high fashion. Don’t get me wrong, the industry is still just as cut-throat as ever, if not more so these days. But now I’ve learned to take rejection with a pinch of salt, instead of beating myself up about it.

What is your favourite memory so far of your modeling career?
ACB:
Ah, there’s so many. Taking part in Asia’s Next Top Model was a turning point for me in my career, it opened the doors to a much larger audience and bigger projects. I’m so grateful to have had that opportunity.

What do you imagine your life without a modeling career would have looked like? 
ACB: To be honest, I have no clue. Ever since my first modeling gig, I’ve known that this is what I wanted to pursue! I might venture into psychology one day, but for now, this is where my passion lies.

Who are your career mentors/guardian figures?
ACB:
Without a doubt, my booker Bonita. I met her at the start of my career and have worked with her ever since. She’s seen me through my best and worst moments, and when I need career advice, she’s the first and only person I go to.

Looking back, did you feel sufficiently looked after by these mentors/guardian figures?
ACB:
100%. When I first started travelling alone I was 17, and it was super scary. But I kept in close contact with Bonita, who checked in regularly to make sure I was doing fine. I’ve had some less than pleasant experiences working overseas, but no matter what, Bonita always helped me find a way to deal with it. And she does this all remotely, which is all the more impressive.

What do you wish you had known when you began modeling?
ACB:
I wish I knew that rejection isn’t a reliable indicator of lack of ability. Nobody can be the perfect candidate for every job, client, and market. Rather than take rejection as a punch to the ego, it’s important to know when to brush it off, and to use it as a learning opportunity.

With so many international models’ stories of emotional and physical abuse finally coming to light, how do you think agencies and clients should better support them? 
ACB: Agencies need to establish a safe and trusting relationship between bookers and models. Models need to feel like the agencies genuinely have their best interests at heart, and that any concerns brought to them are dealt with seriously! It breaks my heart to hear so many stories of models whose agencies willingly send girls on jobs with known sexual predators. How they’re ok with having that on their consciences blows my mind. If you want a model to perform well, they need to be cared for.

Were you ever made to feel uncomfortable or disrespected at work?
ACB:
No. All of my working relationships have been professional. I want to say that I was lucky, never having been made to feel uncomfortable, but feeling safe on set should be the norm, and not the exception! If I ever feel like things are getting unprofessional, I pause, distance myself from that situation, and contact my booker.

Describe the modeling industry in one word.
ACB:
Eye-opening.

 

Nadia Rahmat (@skinnykatwoman), model

How did you start modeling, and how old were you at the time?
Nadia Rahmat (NR):
I started at the age of 20, which means I've been doing it for 8 years now! My first ever shoot was for an online vintage store; I’d contacted the owner of the store when I heard they were scouting for models.

As you’ve grown more experienced, how has your impression of the industry and your early career shifted?
NR:
It's funny how in the beginning you see modeling as this glamorous world, but its totally not. You really have to hustle all the time, and it helps to be represented by an agency so people take you more seriously, and don't try to underpay you.

What is your favourite memory so far of your modeling career?
NR:
I know some people might expect me to say the Marc Jacobs campaign I shot; I'm not gonna lie, that was an unbelievable gig! But my favourite memory so far involved a shoot for Lux in Cape Town. It was lovely to be work with such a spot-on production team, and the city was so invigorating. The unobstructed view of Lion's Head wherever you drove made for a very picturesque experience.

What do you imagine your life without a modeling career would have looked like? 
NR: It would still have been a colourful adventure, because I'm just the type of person who likes being creative and multitasking!

Who are your career mentors/guardian figures?
NR:
To be honest, I didn't really have any, and had to pick up tips and tricks from different people along the way.

Looking back, did you feel sufficiently looked after by these mentors/guardian figures?
NR:
Everyone I've ever received advice from was very helpful, so I do feel like I had adequate support.

What do you wish you had known when you began modeling?
NR
: That models come in many shapes and sizes. There is no 'golden standard'. I'm grateful to book jobs on a regular-enough basis, even though I've always been based in Singapore and never overseas!

With so many international models’ stories of emotional and physical abuse finally coming to light, how do you think agencies and clients should better support them? 
NR: Agencies can be more proactive with advice for models, whether that’s through casual gatherings or sharing sessions between models and agents. On the clients' part, there really is no excuse for mistreating models. They have to remember that models are people too, and are hustling as hard as everyone else. At the end of the day, mutual respect will only make the working environment a more positive and fulfilling one.

Were you ever made to feel uncomfortable or disrespected at work?
NR
: I can't remember a time when I've felt uncomfortable or disrespected, so thank goodness for that! I got lucky, I guess.

Describe the modeling industry in one word.
NR:
Fluid? [laughs]

 

Layla Ong (@laylaong), model

How did you start modeling, and how old were you at the time?
Layla Ong (LO):
When I was 19, I had just completed my diploma and was free to try everything I wanted to try, which included modeling.

As you’ve grown more experienced, how has your impression of the industry and your early career shifted?
LO:
It’s a far less exploitative and seedy world than I initially thought it would be. I’ve learned to work smarter, and am quicker at deciding what projects I should and shouldn’t do.

What is your favourite memory so far of your modeling career?
LO:
I’ve too many favourites, and don’t think I can pick just one!

What do you imagine your life without a modeling career would have looked like? 
LO: I would have graduated from university by now, and been working a full-time, desk-bound job.

Who are your career mentors/guardian figures?
LO:
My booker Bonita, of course, who’s practically my second mother. She’s tirelessly cared for me through both my work-related and personal lows, and shaped my modeling career.

Looking back, did you feel sufficiently looked after by these mentors/guardian figures?
LO:
That would be an emphatic "yes"!

What do you wish you had known when you began modeling?
LO:
I wish I had known how to socialise better [laughs].

With so many international models’ stories of emotional and physical abuse finally coming to light, how do you think agencies and clients should better support them? 
LO: Agencies should communicate transparently with models, and prioritise them over clients. Clients ought to have more empathy for models. We’re not just mannequins, but someone’s child, too.

Were you ever made to feel uncomfortable or disrespected at work? If so, how did you respond? And would you react differently now?
LO:
Back then, I stayed quiet and pretended that everything was fine. I know now that it would be foolish of me not to speak up when something makes me uneasy. I don’t hesitate to say no now.

Describe the modeling industry in one word.
LO:
(Still very) intriguing!

 

Kaci Beh (@kacibeh), model

How did you start modeling, and how old were you at the time?
Kaci Beh (KB):
I was 18 years old and chanced upon Basic Models’s open casting call. I wanted to step out of my comfort zone and decided to just go for it. Since then, I haven’t looked back as my modeling journey has taken me overseas and allowed me to walk for brands I could only have dreamed of otherwise.

As you’ve grown more experienced, how has your impression of the industry and your early career shifted?
KB:
The industry is so competitive, and always has been. In fact, it’s getting more and more cut-throat. My early career was tough as I had to figure out my strengths to build my image.

What is your favourite memory so far of your modeling career?
KB:
It’s got to be the daily grind of fashion week in Europe. Rushing for dozens of castings and the sense of anticipation before walking shows were experiences I’ll never forget.

What do you imagine your life without a modeling career would have looked like?
KB:
One thing’s for sure, I wouldn’t have been able to travel to so many countries. If I wasn’t modeling, I’d probably have furthered my education or pursued my dream of becoming an air stewardess.

Who are your career mentors/guardian figures? 
KB: My parents, naturally, who have been pillars of support throughout my entire career. My booker Bonita, who always pushes me out of my comfort zone, too. Also, I’ve met so many models while working overseas, who’ve encouraged me along the way.

Looking back, did you feel sufficiently looked after by these mentors/guardian figures?
KB:
Definitely! I’m very well taken of, and whenever I need help, my support system is always there.

What do you wish you had known when you began modeling?
KB:
I wish that I had been more resilient in the face of rejection. At the start of my career, I would feel demoralised when I didn’t book a job. I’ve since learnt that rejection is just part of the job, and shouldn’t be taken personally. Just keep your chin up, and try your best! What’s meant to be will be.

With so many international models’ stories of emotional and physical abuse finally coming to light, how do you think agencies and clients should better support them? 
KB: I think agencies and clients can start by establishing clear rules of consent for their models. Boundaries for shoots should be clearly laid out beforehand. I don’t think a model should ever be made to do anything they don’t feel 100% comfortable with.

Were you ever made to feel uncomfortable or disrespected at work?
KB:
Honestly, never. I was asked to do a nude shoot once, but I’m comfortable with my body and the photographer was someone I knew personally and had worked with before. Other than that, I never felt disrespected. I naturally defend myself and say no.

Describe the modeling industry in one word.
KB:
Unpredictable.

 

Bonita Ma (@mysbon), Basic Models director

How did you start booking, and what had your career been like up to that point?
Bonita Ma (BM):
I was running a small fashion business and simultaneously worked a couple of other odd jobs. I was trying to decide on a new career path, and my key concern was not having to wear office attire [laughs]. I then stumbled on a project coordinator vacancy at a talent agency; up to that point, I had never heard of a ‘booker’.

As you’ve grown more experienced, how has your impression of the modeling industry shifted?
BM:
I started out when the stereotypical image of a Singaporean model was ‘car show girl’. Clients would mostly book the international models, especially white and Eurasian girls. As demand for Asian models in Europe grew, agencies in Singapore began grooming more local Asian girls. The industry is definitely more receptive to diversity now.

What surprising information would you not have known about modeling had you never become a booker?
BM:
That you can never trust ‘before’ and ‘after’ photos from advertisements [laughs].

What do most people underestimate/misunderstand about the industry? 
BM: That modeling is an easy job. It isn't. It takes hours to produce just one decent campaign image. A model may need to pose in a single stance or repeat the same gesture for a whole day. One model I worked with washed her face repeatedly over six hours for a facewash commercial.

Can you describe an incident in which you played a guardian/mentor figure to a model? How did that feel?
BM:
There’ve been countless of them! Usually, it’s the models that travel who need more emotional support. I've had girls calling me in the middle of the night from Europe, crying about homesickness, or to vent about all the rejections they’d endured at fashion week. Years ago, I placed a girl with a Taiwanese agency on a three-month contract. It was common practice for Taiwanese agencies to make the models weigh in every week. While my girl’s measurements were consistent, she was gaining muscle mass from working out regularly. The agency couldn’t wrap their heads around it, and kept pressuring her to lose weight. It was getting toxic. When they wouldn’t drop the issue even after I stepped in, I immediately booked my girl a flight home.

What should be bookers and agents’ basic responsibilities towards a model? 
BM: They should educate models about the realities of the industry. Bookers need to tell models what’s expected of them and, in turn, what they should expect from the people they work with.

With so many international models’ stories of emotional and physical abuse finally coming to light, how do you think agencies and clients should better support them?
BM:
As a mother agency (i.e. an agency that scouts and grooms new models for the international stage), we put newcomers through four industry knowledge training sessions. They learn that if anything feels wrong during a casting or on a job, they should alert us immediately so we can step in. It's extremely important for models to know they can depend on their bookers. That trusting relationship is crucial.

Describe the modeling industry in one word.
BM:
Cut-throat.

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