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Eyes of the beholder
( 2003-11-13 11:25) (eastday.com)

At the Elite Model Look 2003 in Singapore, Nordic blonde beauties dominated again. Although the world's catwalks need more Asian faces, it's still a tough climb for Chinese models to reach the top.

Chinese-Singaporean Zhang Manlu is one of the only two Asian models among the 16 finalists at the Elite Model Look contest.
In the modeling industry, appearance is all that matters. If you've got a sexy round face, a voluptuous figure and stunning black hair, but the fashion industry wants skinny blondes with high cheekbones this year, well, too bad, there's little that can be done.

Last Saturday's Elite Model Look 2003 in Singapore provides adequate proof. Slovakian winner Denisa Dvoncova, 15, is blonde. As is the first runner-up Pernilla Lindner, 14, from Sweden, and second runner-up Christel Winther Petersen, 16, from Denmark.

Is it a conspiracy? Not at all, just this year's trend. ``She has the most popular look for now -- the icy look,'' says one of the judges and famous Hong Kong model Qiqi.

``That's the problem with the judge panel,'' says Rowena Foo, a well-known Singaporean model booker after the announcement of the three winners. ``There's all this cloning going on, blonde hair and long legs. That black model looks confident and sexy and the Chinese model walks best, sashays with attitude and style, but ...''

While the winners rejoice, it leaves the brunettes wondering why there's so little diversity in the modeling contest. And it's not that the judges lack variety -- 65 leggy contestants from 53 countries and regions around the world entered.

Calvin Cheng has a theory. The head of Elite Model Management for Asia-Pacific believes it's a money issue.

``The prevailing perception of beauty always belongs to the stronger economic power,'' he says. ``At the moment, the Western economy is still holding sway. Therefore, their culture and values are being imposed on us. As the East grows stronger economically, more of our value and culture will be exported to the West. I believe there will be a reversal of trend.''

Other viewers spoke of the unfairness in dressing models in different clothes during the fashion parade of the 16 finalists. While some models were strutting down the runway in glorious Jean Paul Gaultier evening gowns or Kenzo flouncy skirts, Beijing's Jia Nini, 21 -- one of the two Asian faces along with Chinese-Singaporean Zhang Manlu, 14, in the final 16 -- was striding about in a pencil-straight nondescript business pantsuit.

Jia admits there's little chance for Asian models but she was happy to be one of the representatives to make her modeling debut at the Elite search.

``I keep my fingers crossed and hope a miracle will happen,'' she says cheerfully. At least she walks away with a promising future. Jia, like the other 15 finalists, will get a two-year contract with the New York-based Elite agency.

Lu Yan, the widely-accepted 'China Face' among westerners.
The top three winners strutted away with guaranteed remuneration of US$325,000, as well as the chance to become celebrities like Cindy Crawford and Gisele Bundchen, both products of the same event in 1983 and 1994 respectively.

In an era of globalization, the concept of beauty still varies greatly around the world.

Cheng says that most of the Oriental girls Westerners find attractive tend to have small eyes, dark skin and high cheek-bones while Chinese people still prefer porcelain skin, big eyes, and long black hair. Similarly in India, the beauty pageant queens usually have big hips and large breasts but they are not favored for international catwalks. Girls in the modeling biz are supposed to be impossibly slim.

The rise of Chinese model Lu Yan as Europe's most sought-after Asian model has raised eyebrows among both the domestic fashion industry and the public. Her looks run counter to the Chinese perception of beauty but the brash 1.78-meter Jiangxi Province native, who works the runways of Paris, has graced the cover of Elle magazine.

Just as philosopher Francis Bacon noted 400 years ago, ``There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion,'' Asian models pump zest into the world's catwalks with a splash of exoticism.

Elite President Gerald Marie, also on the Elite judge panel in Singapore, says that the notions of cultural difference and exoticism are inter-related when referring to beauty.

``We tend to think of beauty as unusual, extraordinary and out of the commonplace,'' he says. ``So in our appreciation of the beautiful there is always room for an element of strangeness, the shock of discovery, or the pleasure of surprise. We may be ready to acknowledge that something strange and exotic is constituent of the very concept of beauty. Asia is emerging, there's always a chance. International modeling agencies can no longer ignore the use of Asian girls.''

With its regional headquarters based in Singapore, Elite has established a broad Asian network.

Alain Attia, executive president of Elite, says it's the moment to promote Asian beauties and the agency plans to hold a model contest in China in 2005. The safe money says more than two Asian models will be in the final 16 of that event.

Zhang Jian, art director of Elite Galaxy Model Shanghai, says that the modeling business in China is still a growing industry, with great potential to develop. ``We need to adopt more international practices and recognize the validity of contracts and deal in a professional manner,'' he says.

The mission of the Shanghai office is to bring more Chinese models to the world through Elite's network and bring more foreign models into China.

``In the long run, Asian faces will no longer be a problem. Language will be a problem,'' Zhang says. ``They have to go international and have an international outlook.'' Jia Nini sports an outfit from Gucci. The 21-year-old is the one of the two Asian models among the 16 finalists at the Elite Model Look contest.

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