With her dainty features and porcelain skin, she is a cover girl, cosmetics ambassador, international runway model and the face of countless magazine and TV promotions. Yet Singapore’s top model, Sheila Sim, never set out to be a catwalk queen.
She started modelling 11 years ago and is now at the peak of her career. But behind her success lies tragedy.
When she was nine, she lost her only brother Cedear, aged 14, to leukaemia. It was a big blow for her and her parents – mum Chng Poh Lay, 52, who works at a Chinese medical hall, and dad Frank Sim, 57, a taxi driver – but it probably also changed the course of her life.
“Maybe if he were here, I might not even be a model,” says Sim, 28, who has done the catwalk for Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Valentino.
She also tried her hand at acting in indie film Autumn In March, playing a mysterious heiress, and is considering another role soon.
The home-grown fashion darling, whose family lived in a one-room HDB flat till she was 12, adds: “I’d just be doing something very conventional so it’s interesting how life all works out.”
Her decidedly unconventional life has seen her front campaigns for Poh Heng Jewellery and home-grown designer Ashley Isham. This year, she was named Singapore’s first brand ambassador for Japanese skincare brand SK-II.
She commands about $2,000 for a runway show overseas. A model here can earn about $350 a show, which usually involves 1½ day of fittings, rehearsals, hair and make-up and the actual show.
She says her brother’s death probably led to her parents – who divorced when she was 12 – indulging her, their only daughter.
“They wanted too much and expected too much from my brother, so when he passed on, they felt a bit sorry that they didn’t let him have his fun while he was around. So they let me make more decisions for myself.”
One result was that, as she did not like studying, she often played truant from school and often spent weekday nights hanging out in Orchard Road.
Says her best friend Jo Chieng, 28, who has known her since they were at Radin Mas Primary school and who is now an accounts manager: “In primary school, we were very good, but in secondary school (St Theresa’s Convent), our group of seven was notorious. We would tease teachers and hang out at Takashimaya.”
Sim managed to complete her O levels and got into Nanyang Polytechnic.
But she had a life-changing encounter. She was “discovered” at 16 by a talent scout while attending the wedding of her aunt Ivy Chng, her mother’s sister, who was a runway model in the 1980s.
She springs a surprise: “I wasn’t a pretty kid. I was tall and awkward- looking, like your body doesn’t grow fast enough for your legs, that kind.”
So when the talent scout approached her, she was shocked. “I was like, ‘No, you’re kidding right? Me, a model?'”
Her interest piqued, she dropped out of Nanyang Polytechnic’s Multimedia & Infocomm Technology course after just three months to give modelling a go.
She feels her brother’s death forced her to become more independent.
“As a younger sister, you can rely on your older brother. But when I no longer had that figure, I had to stand up for myself.”
Just six months into modelling, she left Singapore to pursue her career in Hong Kong. Looking back, she says she is amazed by the gumption of her 17-year- old self.
She first lived with her aunt, Ms Chng, 48, who was based in Hong Kong, but found her own place and moved out after a month.
“It didn’t feel like a big deal then. It felt like so much freedom but now that I think about it, it is quite scary living in an apartment on my own at 17,” she says.
But all the models her age, she says, were doing the same thing – travelling solo and paying their own way. “If I had a kid and if my kid was doing this at 17, I would be freaking out,” she admits.
Her move to Hong Kong ended up being a four-year stint with Singapore- based modelling agency Carrie Models International, which has offices in China and Hong Kong.
Hong Kong was open to fresh new faces and the jobs kept coming, she says.
The first time she saw her face on the cover of a Hong Kong publication – Chinese magazine Feel3 – was a “very happy moment”.
“As an aspiring model, you think, ‘How come these models get to be on the cover and I don’t?’ Then that moment happens for you and, like, wow!”
However, while she stumbled into modelling, she has also done some stumbling in modelling – literally.
Although she is confident and poised on the runway, the 1.74m Sim constantly has to deal with an unlikely phobia – she is afraid of high heels.
“It’s my job but I’m just not good at wearing high heels,” she says. Indeed, she was in Dr Martens loafers for this interview at Salt Grill and Sky Bar on the 55th floor of Orchard Turn, at Ion Orchard.
To get extra practice, she used to walk around her Hong Kong apartment in 13 to 15cm heels to do her chores.
During a fashion show in Jakarta in 2004, she had to wear a pair of 17.8cm heels. She tripped on the runway and nearly fell off a short flight of stairs.
After the show, the producer asked her if she had been hurt, but she just crumpled to the floor crying. “After that, I got very paranoid,” she says.
She would find out the brands and how high the heels were before she agreed to a runway show. “If they were very high, I didn’t want to do the show.”
Till this day she often questions her ability to perform well on the runway: “At the back of my mind, I’m thinking ‘Should I not do this show?'”
But that has not stopped her from nailing jobs in fashion capitals such as Tokyo and Milan, and gracing the covers of major magazines and billboards.
In 2006, a poster of her was plastered over the landmark Hong Kong Sogo building in Causeway Bay and on double- decker buses, courtesy of a campaign for Canon cameras. “Every time I went to Sogo or saw the bus, my heart would skip. It’s a very good feeling. It’s not so much fame, it’s a small achievement,” says Sim, who has had four boyfriends but is currently single.
Although she made it big in Hong Kong, she was never arrogant or difficult to work with when she returned to Singapore, say fashion industry insiders here.
Local fashion designer Keith Png, 35, says he designed a dress for her for a Poh Heng Jewellery advertisement and found her extremely down to earth. “At the time, she was already a top model in Singapore, but she had no airs.”
He added: “She was very professional and had no complaints. Some models would complain that they don’t look good in a dress, but she gives 100 per cent to what she wears.”
That professionalism and dedication is one of the striking things about Sim. Her down-to-earth demeanour during this interview shows a person conscious not to let the glitz and glamour of the fashion industry go to her head.
“I don’t like how there can be a false sense of reality in the modelling industry,” Sim says. “People get so addicted to living the luxurious life.”
It was her grandmother Kng Soon Moi, 72, who instilled the right values in her from an early age, she says. “A lot of my values are from her and a lot of my beliefs and who I am today come from her.”
She says her grandmother always told her to save for a rainy day. While she now lives with her father in a three-room flat, she is saving up for her own place, “but it’s getting more and more expensive. I feel I can never achieve my dream”.
She credits her humble background with making it “much easier to see the real things” instead of getting caught up in the material world of modelling.
“I feel like a lot of people are from well-to-do families, therefore they don’t see the difficulties that not so well-to-do families have to face,” she says.
Instead of spending money on a luxurious lifestyle – she proudly told Life! that the pants she was wearing cost 250 baht (S$10) from Bangkok – she feels money could go to better use, by giving to charity.
She recently made time for a trip to Myanmar with her best friend Ms Chieng to visit orphans suffering from HIV.
“I guess since my brother passed away, I have always had a thing for kids with diseases,” she says.
During her schooldays, she did charity work with the Rotary Club, her chosen co-curricular activity, which focused on community and charity work. “Of course back then, I was forced to do it. When I first went to an old folks’ home, it was like, no choice I had to go, but eventually, I was happy to be able to help and do something for the needy or the elderly.
“It all started in school so it’s wonderful what school can do for us. It really moulds you into someone in the future.”
While she was not focused on studies then, things have changed. She completed a diploma in sales and marketing from the Marketing Institute of Singapore when she was 25 and is now doing a degree in advertising and marketing at Curtin Singapore university on a part- time basis.
She says studying now makes sense to her because she can apply what she learns to her fashion label, Sceneplicity.
Her ready-to-wear pieces are stocked at Hide & Seek, a boutique in Bussorah Street, local designer Alfie Leong’s Mu boutique at Bugis Junction and retail store W.E Workshop Element at Wisma Atria, which stocks clothes and accessories by local designers.
But Sim’s modelling days are not yet behind her. At 28, she knows she is up against fresher faces such as New Paper New Face winner Vivien Ong.
“The modelling industry can be very cruel sometimes. When you are old, that’s it for you. But because of that, I work even harder,” she says.
“I work out more often, I watch what I eat, I take care of my skin and health.”
She tries to hit the gym three times a week, running for about 1½ hours each time. And if she is not in the gym, she’ll be jogging, cycling or rollerblading.
She also maintains her weight – 50kg – by watching her diet. “I love soupy things,” she says, admitting to having steamboat every day for a month when she first went to Hong Kong.
She does not starve herself and is keen to set a good example for other young girls and models.
“There are a lot of young girls who look up to models. They want to dress like them and look like them, so they stop eating. I’d never agree with that,” she says, polishing off her plate of potato gnocchi with vegetables and tucking into some extra truffle fries on the side.
She says she uses social media such as Twitter to put across the message that exercising and maintaining a healthy lifestyle are important.
“People who follow me must be interested in what I do and what I say. It’s an easy way to tell them, ‘Look, I’m eating, I’m not starving myself just to have this look’.”
She is also firm about not posing nude for the sake of fashion or her career.
“If it’s for a good cause and if it’s for a photographer that I feel comfortable with, maybe,” she says.
“But I won’t do it for money. I won’t do it because I want to be more popular or famous. It’s not worth it.” – ST PHOTO: DESMOND LIM
This story was first published on Oct 29, 2012 on StraitsTimes.com. To read more: http://sph.straitstimes.com/archive/monday/premium/life/story/me-model-20121029.
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