Response to "Rise of the Asian Male Supermodel"


Last month, published a photo article done by photographers Idris & Tony entitled “Rise of the Asian Male Supermodel.” With the intent to shine the light on a gender and a race that is significantly underrepresented in the modeling industry, the photographers did a photo shoot with the likes of Sung Jin Park, Phillip Huang, JaeYoo and Daisuke Ueda.

Once I saw the headline, I immediately clicked the link. Firstly, “Rise of the Asian Male Supermodel” are not words you usually see in the same line. Secondly, I guess it hit a little close to home for me and I was intrigued.

I think by Pilipino standards, I look “mixed,” - thanks to my parents for those genes, I suppose. I have a fairer complexion, a bit mestizo-looking despite being full Pilipino. Ever since I can remember, most Pilipino adults that I encountered have told me to “just be a model or an artista.” It’s okay - you can roll your eyes at this part. At family parties, my mom would introduce me to friends and I was programmed to say “Thank you po” every time I’d hear “Ay ang guapo mo iho!” Later on, when asked what I planned on studying, no one really wanted to listen to my responses about being a journalist (which is what I originally pursued in college); they would jokingly tell me to go back home and just be a model or a celebrity... in the Philippines. 

Never have I ever heard someone say “You should be a model here in the States.” Not that I think my 5’6” stature or my lack of a six pack would really work to my advantage if I did pursue something like that here, but I do find it interesting that a Pilipino guy like me could only be deemed “marketable” among fellow Pilipinos and not on a world stage.

So when I scrolled down through the photo article and reached the bottom of the page, I was a bit bummed that out of 15 supermodels featured, not a single one was Pilipino. The text of the interview with Idris & Tony mentioned that they had also wanted to shoot Paolo Roldan, a Pilipino-Canadian supermodel who has been featured in Vogue, but weren’t able to do so in this series. But otherwise, where were the Pilipinos? Where were the guys that look like me? Where were the guys whose titos and titas told them they should be models? Where were the guys to serve as role models for young Pinoy men trying to break into the industry? 

Perhaps there just aren't any. And that’s a shame.

Another thing I found interesting in the article was that a lot of the models featured are mixed, mostly Eurasian. So yes, there is a rise of the Asian Male Supermodel, yet how authentic is that headline? I get it though -- “The Sort-Of-But-Not-Really Rise of the Asian Male Supermodel” takes up way too many characters to be easily tweeted.

I do appreciate the spirit of the photo article and the dialogue that Idris & Tony aim to spark within the fashion community. They can’t be faulted for not including a Pilipino male supermodel if there simply is none.

However, I think this absence of Pinoy supermodels in the international scene might be perpetrated by how Pilipinos view their own. Look up a BENCH runway show and you’ll see quite a few quality guys. If they’re good enough for home, they’re certainly good enough for the rest of the world. And it all starts with believing that might actually be true.

Photo Credit:

Pilipino Connection


One day on a family trip to an apple orchard in Pennsylvania, my mom saw an Asian lady, who she assumed was a Pilipina. After exchanging a few words in English, my mom switched to Tagalog. She immediately flushed with embarrassment when she realized that the woman she thought she had a connection with was Cambodian instead. The conversation dwindled down with some awkward small talk before my mom caught up with the rest of the family, who was giggling at her understandable fumble. I am my mother’s daughter, and I repeat the same mistakes. My college, like my hometown, has very small minority population, so when I see someone who resembles a Pilipino, I go through all the emotions—shock, happiness, anxiety, etc. My Pilipino radar is usually spot-on, making the likelihood of the birth of a new friendship even higher. Even if we come from different spectrums of life, we still have our Pilipino background as common ground.

Just being under the impression that there’s a Pilipino nearby -- even for just a few seconds and even if the person doesn’t turn out to be Pilipino -- makes me feel at home. The Pilipino community is unlike any other. The knowing look that one gives to a stranger who is possibly Pilipino is one that we take with pride. Even if the assumption is wrong, in those moments prior to complete embarrassment on my mom’s part, she felt connected to a complete stranger.

It is not limited to just Pilipinos. At my university, most of my friends are Asian American. There’s nary an Asian that I do not know, but it’s not because I am exclusive. I feel like it’s easier to bond with them because there’s already a commonality among our cultures. Being a minority is something that makes you stand out, and seeing that little spot of color in a minority-less community makes you feel a little more grounded.

I am currently studying abroad in Taiwan, and when I see a foreigner, Pilipino or not, I automatically try to maintain eye contact with them in the hopes that they will see me and understand. One day, at Raohe Night Market, I saw a fried Oreos booth. As I passed by, I said something in English to one of my friends, and as I looked up, I locked eyes with the American running the booth. He looked at me, and I swear in that second, we were connected. All that was exchanged between us was a "hey." But we had this unspoken understanding that actually said, “I know what you’re going through.”

In that apple orchard in Pennsylvania, I think my mom craved some familiarity in those moments before she found out the woman she struck up conversation with was actually Cambodian. It is exhilarating when you find someone who you can relate with, even the smallest connection. It feels like home. Like my mom and the American gentleman running the fried Oreos booth, I’m craving a piece of home.

Photo Credit: Taiwanease

The Words That Bind Us

I sometimes wonder about the words that come into people’s minds when they look in the mirror. As a former student of literature and journalism, words affect me deeply - words are never just words to me. They create boundaries and definitions. Words are capable of shattering and undoing, but also of rebuilding and morphing. And perhaps it’s this preoccupation with semantics that troubles me when it comes to selecting the words I use to define me. When I look into the mirror, I don’t see an Asian, and never have, despite the fact that this is might be the first thing most people first see about me. I feel uncomfortable marking in Asian for anything that asks for my race. To me, Asian is just as loaded a label as “Oriental.” “Asian Pride” is something I’ve never felt close to. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told things like “You’re Asian, right? So you must be good at math.” Or, “So you’re studying to be a nurse?” a question that has long irritated me with its double assumptions: Asian girls study nursing, Asian boys study engineering. All of these absurd presumptions that I couldn’t relate to have made me resistant to adopting the word “Asian” as part of my identity.

What baffles me the most is when these presumptions come from the Asian community. If I announce that I don’t identify as an Asian, it has sometimes been taken as derogatory or offensive. I understand the lens by which I view the term has been shaped by stereotypes imposed by society, and that doesn’t necessarily make it the correct definition of the word. But that raises the question of whether or not labels HAVE to be defined by stereotypes in order to relate to them.

I am more intrigued than I am disturbed that I don’t see an Asian in the mirror. I would rather be confused by the name, space and place that I take up in the world, than be bound to the limits of race and origin that others may impose on me. I write this with absolutely no answers, only questions. I’m not trying to say anyone who does identify with the term "Asian" is wrong or fitting of any stereotypes by virtue of simply using a word to define themselves. The problems of defining oneself are ongoing, fluid and changeable, and highly unique to an individual.

I am always curious to know what others identify with, or reject. I’m beginning to understand the value of questions, because that opens up a dialogue. So, I ask: will we ever be able to disassociate words with their stereotypes? Can the label "Asian" ever hold within it, the complex identities of all the individuals it qualifies?