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?'”
When I went for castings with magazines, they called me weird-looking, unattractive, ugly.Ethel Fong
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.”
Even after she made it onto the international stage, it was not always smooth-sailing. It was the 1980s, when diversity was not high on the priority list of most designers.
“In Europe, you don’t encounter it as much, but in the United States, I’d just fall into the category of ‘the Asian’ and, in every show, there can only be one Asian model, never two,” she says. “That was my big frustration. Whether I’m Asian or white or black, I’m just as good. Why do I have to be categorised? Why are we allowed only one slot?
I guess I wanted to prove all those people wrong. The more people rejected me, the more I wanted to succeed.Ethel Fong
“It felt good if you were chosen, but on the flip side, there’s huge pressure — you have to make sure you remain on top.”
Fong was nothing if not driven. “I guess I wanted to prove all those people wrong,” she says. “The more people rejected me, the more I wanted to succeed. I was so young; only 16 then. “I don’t know where that resilience or fighting spirit came from, but I’m glad I had it. I feel that, sometimes, people fall too easily into victim mode. If somebody doesn’t want you for a job or says something bad about you, you can’t just turn into a victim and stay in that mode. Looking back right now, I’m proud I didn’t allow that to happen — I didn’t allow myself to be rejected.”
That she certainly did not.
Fong climbed all the way to the highest echelon of the industry. At the top of her game and a full decade after she started, she stepped away from it all. She got married (“My husband saw my Armani campaign, tore out the picture and said, ‘I’m going to marry this girl.’ We met six months later,” she says) and raised two children, now aged 31 and 28.
She has since dedicated herself to philanthropy, working through the Deltec Initiatives Foundation by Bahamas-based private bank Deltec Bank & Trust, where her husband is chairman.
Her next chapter? Welcoming the big six-zero.
“I’d like to grow old gracefully,” she says. “Before this, I never exercised; I didn’t have a beauty routine. But I know I’ve reached the stage where I need to start doing something. I’ve picked up yoga and tennis.” She is also putting her brain to work. Her rationale: “I think it’s important to keep your mind active, to feed that intellectual part.”
Her big project at the moment is the construction of her house in the Bahamas. “The name of the house is Chapter,” she says, “because life is a book of many chapters and this is the start of another one. I spent the last 30 years raising kids, so now it’s time to turn the page.”
The massive undertaking of conceptualising and creating the house taught Fong a lesson she found extremely important.
Even now, at 59, I don’t feel like I know it all. I think I still have a lot to learnEthel Fong
“(Everything is) about perspective,” she says. “We use that word so often, sometimes very lightly, but I realise it actually means so much. Because perspective can be so different: One person sees something one way, you see it another way — who is right and who is wrong?
“In the past, being right was so important to me. Now, I try to understand people’s perspectives and I’ve learnt that it’s not always that important to be right.”
The idea of learning is something that has always excited Fong — her charity work mostly revolves around education and children’s welfare. “I never want to stop learning. I’m glad I’ve always kept an open mind. I’ve been given a lot of opportunities in my life and I took them, and I grew as a person.
“Even now, at 59, I don’t feel like I know it all. I think I still have a lot to learn. Even coming onto this set and meeting the younger people on the team, there are things to learn,” she says.
With all she has seen and done and been — and with new chapters forthcoming in her story – Fong also has a few things to teach us.
A version of this article was published on Harper’s Bazaar Singapore.