From The Straits Times    |

A national footballer was among the top three winners of Miss Universe Singapore last year, which few would have expected. Add to that, second runner-up Lila Tan was a pageant rookie, and at the age of 18, was one of the youngest finalists in the competition.

It was Lila’s uncle who encouraged her to take part in the pageant. “I’m a very messy person. I’m very all over the place,” confesses Lila, a final-year student at international school Hillside World Academy. “The competition didn’t feel like it was something I would fit in, but I thought I’d just give it a try. I had to come face-to-face with my anxiety at times, learn to speak my mind, and overcome my stage fright.”

The past two years have been a whirlwind for Lila, during which she was spotted by her current modelling agency Misc. Management via her Instagram (@lilaatan) – she currently has over 15K followers and regularly posts photos of herself in Y2K-inspired outfits. On the sports front, Lila was called up for trials with the national Under-19 women’s soccer team in 2020. She was later selected for the squad going to the Asian Football Confederation Women’s Asian Cup Qualifiers last September in Tajikistan. By the end of 2021, she was part of the national team.

The 19-year-old, who can speak fluent French and Mandarin, spent 14 years of her childhood in Shanghai, where her French mother and Singaporean father were working as a corporate general manager and a business consultant respectively. The family were back for their annual holiday in 2020 when international borders were shut, and they decided to stay in Singapore permanently.

For this pre-cover shoot interview, Lila is fresh-faced with minimal makeup on. Her hair is in braids, and she pulls off a simple black corset top with baggy slacks and sneakers with girl-next-door vibes, notwithstanding several discreet face piercings and tooth gems. There are times where she passionately expresses her thoughts with a maturity that belies her age, yet there are moments when you are reminded that she has just turned 19 and has a world of possibilities before her.

One thing’s for sure: Her eyes automatically light up whenever the topic of sports is mentioned. “My favourite subject in school was physical education, I love sports!” she gushes. I tell her that I have a teenage daughter who plays basketball, is in mixed martial arts, and has recently swapped out her bed for a mattress so she would have space to install a punching bag. Immediately, she exclaims: “Woah, I love that!” Then you realise how much is in that statement: Encountering enthusiasm about females in sports has not been the norm for this athletic 1.72m-tall beauty.

Printed lycra swimsuit and nylon tracksuit pants, Michael Michael Kors x Ellesse. Velvet flatforms, Burberry
Silk dress and straw bucket hat, Prada. All jewellery (worn throughout), Lila’s own

The beautiful game

Beaded tweed jacket, knit snood, knit top, knit arm warmers, and leather minaudiere, Chanel

Lila took up football at 11, after seeing how much her three younger brothers, now aged between seven and 16, enjoyed it. She shares: “It’s the rush and the adrenaline I get from playing it. You know, the feeling of scoring and playing in a team, I definitely enjoy it very much, and I was exhilarated when I got into the national team.”

Playing the sport has also made her an advocate for gender equality and inclusivity. While her parents have always been supportive, to the point of her going professional, she has met sceptics who have riled her with the perspective that girls should not play contact sports like football.

“There’s a lot of stigma around girls involved in sports, that girls aren’t supposed to fit in the category of sports like football where it’s rough, dirty and aggressive. That is a huge misconception that needs to be abolished. We girls should be allowed to do what we want to do,” says Lila, who counts Canadian Jordyn Huitema, who plays for French football club Paris Saint-Germain, and American soccer activist and captain of the US women’s team Megan Rapinoe as her role models.

Nylon jacket and embroidered skirt, Gucci x Adidas

Lila’s sporty lifestyle is matched with an equal passion for fashion and photography, which led her to several freelance modelling gigs in the past one-and-a-half years. But she soon found herself in the dark space of comparing her “thick waist and thighs” against the conventional willowy model frame.

“My body image has been something I’ve had to deal with when growing up. It became more prominent when I started modelling,” she shares. Initially, when she started freelancing as a model, she was advised to lose weight around her waist until it was 24 inches to increase her possibilities of landing assignments.
“I said ‘no’. It’s not something I’m very fond of, losing weight just to fit in,” Lila declares firmly. “I think I’ve been successful in doing what I want to do, and I don’t need people to tell me what to do with my body or what it should look like.”

There’s a lot of stigma around girls involved in sports…like football where it’s rough, dirty and aggressive.

When asked if girls should be told more often that it is more important to be healthy than skinny, she replies unhesitatingly: “OH, YES. Especially in our generation right now with social media, I think that needs to be said more often. I don’t want to blame social media, but its content does affect a lot of young women, their body image and confidence.”

While she believes that “everyone should be free to post whatever they want to post” on their social media accounts, she feels that it should be an expression of one’s creativity rather than a validation of self-worth. She would temporarily suspend her Instagram account whenever she feels the content is affecting her negatively.

I think I’ve been successful in doing what I want to do, and I don’t need people to tell me what to do with my body or what it should look like.

A (rising) star is born

The word “messy” comes up again as Lila describes her family as being a spontaneous bunch that “does impromptu things on the fly”. How do her brothers feel about their eldest sister being in the limelight?

“No, no, I’m not a celebrity,” she laughs. “They tease me sometimes or mock me when I’m taking pictures, but it’s all good. We’re messy, but close.” Unsurprisingly, their bonding is often over football or board games with her siblings.

Now that she has completed her final International Baccalaureate exams, Lila will be focusing on her football training, which occurs four times a week. She plans to take a gap year to further her football ambitions, develop more content for her social media accounts such as fitness and lifestyle videos on Youtube, as well as apply for a scholarship to a university in the United States that would allow her to play football semi-professionally alongside her studies.

She has also launched her own fashion collection online named Aiheartyou with her own savings and support from her parents. She describes it as a label that is eco-friendly with “very inclusive sizing from XXS to XXL”. “It would be something that’s very my style – out there, very fun and sexy. I don’t want it to be conventional, so it might not be for everyone, but I’m okay with that,” she adds.

Wool dress, Sportmax
Knit crop top and knit pleated skirt, Gucci x Adidas

Lila sees her journey of confidence as an on-going one, as she learns to apply positive thinking daily, especially when she feels anxious about her looks and starts doubting her self-worth. “If you tell yourself you can’t do something, you’ll fall into a negative spiral. My mum taught me to talk to myself in a positive manner, that I can do this and that. And always be kind to yourself,” she says.

If you tell yourself you can’t do something, you’ll fall into a negative spiral.

PHOTOGRAPHY Wee Khim, assisted by Alwin Oh
STYLING Lena Kamarudin
HAIR Sean Ang
MAKEUP Lolent Lee, using Cle de Peau Beaute