NETWORK OF ENTERTAINING ASIAN AMERICAN TALENT
LADY OF THE LEGS
The body that was once a source of embarrassment has earned Debra Lin a place in the world’s top modeling agency.
|“Everyone wore slippers and shorts and tee-shirts to school and we went to the beach after class.”|
he shows up for the photo session looking like a student in an Asian junior high school, freshly scrubbed and without makeup–the condition known in the trade as clean-clean. To inexperienced eyes she looks like just another gangly, pie-faced teen with a pasty complexion and an incipient slouch. Her reedy frame is likely to incite in the average adult male a touch of concern, laced with pity, for the state of her health. Somehow she creates the impression, as she strides to the makeup room, that her knees and elbows precede her by a couple of feet.
The transformation takes almost exactly one hour. The creature that emerges makes the wait worthwhile. Here, now, is Debra Lin, the ace Asian for Elite, the world’s top model agency–languorously slender, impossibly chic, shockingly beautiful. She now wears, at the business end of her swan neck, the kind of face that inspires strong men to found empires and ordinary men to daydream about heroic deeds. Yes, at 5-9, 120 pounds and age 25, Debra Lin is at the top of her form. She has begun getting the kind of modeling jobs once reserved for supermodel Angela Harry. In fact, Debra Lin is likely to become, during the next year or so, the next Angela Harry. Of all Asian models now working, Lin has the best chance to smash the barrier that once separated Asian models from the Paulinas, the Claudias, the Cindys. For sheer physical proportions and style, Linis equal in every respect to the white models regularly gracing the covers of Vogue and Harper’s. If anything, Lin’s legs and neck seem longer, her buttocks shapelier. Her eyes are every bit as romantic and her skin, certainly, is creamier, more ethereal.
Her well-received debut on a cover of Face presaged an explosion of impressive new assignments, proving that the casting directors of the world’s top brands are no longer blind to the pulling power of Asian beauty. On the eve of our interview Lin was picked to show off her legs for the next batch of L’eggs commercials. She has already shot commercials to appear this fall for London Fog and Vidal Sassoon’s Asian campaign. Her nude, tattooed body forms the centerpiece of a recent Janet Jackson video. When Hollywood movies like Rising Sun and Clean Slate need the hottest Asian babes to spice up party scenes, Debra Lin is on the A list.
The momentum that has been building in her modeling career may be expected to turn Lin’s head a bit. One can’t help picking up a jaded note in her friendly-smokey-bored prom-queen voice. After a few minutes, however, one realizes that this is simply a natural defense mechanism that has built up in the course of her career; it drops off as the conversation progresses. She turns out to be surprisingly polite, respectful, even obliging. Some say this niceness is merely the trademark of top Elite models. Lin, on the other hand, claims that’s how she has always been, since long before she won the 1988 Miss Asian World title that launched her as a professional beauty.
Q: Are you living with another model?
A: No. My roommate works in interior design.
Q: How did you come to room with her?
A: We met in college here.
Q: Where did you go to college?
A: I went in Hawaii for two years and came out here for two years.
Q: Where did you go to college in Hawaii?
A: Kapiolani Community College.
Q: How did you like college there?
A: I loved it. It was a little laid back though. Everyone wore slippers and shorts and tee-shirts to school and we went to the beach after class.
Q: Ala Moana Beach?
A: Mm hmm, or go shopping at Ala Moana Shopping Center.
Q: Were you born and raised in the islands?
A: Yeah. I go back like twice a year
Q: You got your height from your mom Ruth. Do you look like your mom?
A: Exactly. When she was younger, she used to model.
Q: Are you close to her?
A: Yeah, very.
Q: Do you have sisters and brothers?
A: I have one brother. He’s 28.
Q: When were you first recognized as a beauty?
A: [Long pause.] I guess when I entered my first pageant in 1987.
Q: You were 19?
A: Yeah, the year after high school.
Q: So in high school you weren’t someone everyone wanted to date?
A: I was but I wasn’t like the hottest girl in school. I was on the prom court.
Q: So you were already recognized as attractive before that pageant.
A: But I wasn’t queen. I was only a princess.
Q: Did you date the football heroes and other BMOCs?
A: I never dated in high school. I treated the guys like my brothers
Q: What did you do after graduating from high school?
A: I went to KCC my first year out of high school [in 1986]. Then I took the year off because of the [Miss Asia World pageant in 1988]. Before that I was in the Miss American Train pageant in 1987. It was this goodwill ambassador kind of thing that went to Japan. They were going to display all these different products. So they had a big pageant in Hawaii. There were two girls from each state. This other girl from Maui and myself represented Hawaii.
Q: What gave you the idea that you could be a beauty queen?
A: I was tall, one of the tallest girls in my class.
Q: When did you hit the 5-9 mark?
A: Ninth, tenth grade.
Q: Were you 120 pounds back then?
A: No, I was 110, 105. I was like a beanpole.
Q: You entered just because you were tall enough?
A: I think a friend of my mother’s knew the people who were putting the pageant on. It wasn’t like me going in there and saying, Hey, I want to do this.
Q: When she said, Debra, why don’t you do this?, what did you say?
A: Sure. I mean, ’cause you’re at that age you’re willing to try anything.
Q: You were confident enough that you didn’t have any problems standing up there in a swimsuit?
A: Well, I went through a little bit of training and whatnot. I had a coach before and at that time. I was totally not polished. I had to do this with my hands, and that, you know
Q: What did you think you would get out of it?
A: It was more of a challenge. Just to see how far I could get. And I wanted to go to Japan and be on the Train.
Q: How did you get to be one of the two girls?
A: They had interviews. The pageant director for Hawaii met with several girls and she picked two of us.
Q: Then they sent you to
A: No, the pageant was in Honolulu. All the girls flew in from different states to Hawaii. They had the final contest in Hawaii, so we were there and everyone else came to us. Out of 102 girls they picked one winner
Q: How did you do?
A: I didn’t place. That was my first pageant and I was really inexperienced. I guess I wasn’t answering the questions very well.
Q: Was it based more on interviews or on the looks?
A: More on the interviews. They had like six people going to Japan.
Q: Was this a big event?
A: It was at one of the hotel ballrooms and there were a couple of hundred people there. I think the advertisements weren’t done very well.
Q: What did you do after that?
A: I started working part time.
Q: Doing what?
A: Sales at a gift shop in Ala Moana Shopping Center.
Q: Wearing a muumu?
A: No, no, no! We sold gifts and whatnot to tourists.
Q: How long did you do that?
A: About a year. I was going to school and working.
Q: How were you as a student at KCC?
A: I was good. I got As and Bs.
Q: Were you considered one of the smarter kids in high school or more of a partier?
A: I wasn’t a partiers. I wasn’t valedectorian, but I was never in detention.
Q: You weren’t one of those kids hanging out under the banyans sipping gin which everyone else was in class?
Q: When did you get involved with Miss Asian World?
A: In the summer of ’88.
Q: How did that come about?
A: My mom came home one day and said there’s a pageant going on. And they were going to have it in Taiwan. I said okay. I remember my mom saying, “Why don’t you join just for the fun of it? Maybe you’ll get to travel.” The previous one they had it in the states. That was the first year they were going to have it outside the U.S.
Q: So this was all-Asian or part-Asian contestants?
A: Yeah. There were like 10 girls from Hawaii who went over with me. There were 42 girls all together.
Q: You were representing
A: I was representing Miss U.S. Chinese.
Q: Did you have to go through something first?
A: Yeah, it was like a preliminary or whatnot and they chose like 10 girls.
Q: How did you do?
A: I won. So I ended up staying there for about two months.
Q: What months?
A: October and November.
Q: Around 10/10 when all the Chinese Americans go back.
A: Yeah, we were there for that.
Q: Where was it held?
A: At the sports arena and on China TV.
Q: What did you win?
A: I got a car.
Q: Wht kind?
A: I don’t remember because they took it away from me as soon as I got it.
A: They gave me cash instead.
Q: Just a promotional stunt?
A: Yeah. He’s in there like, Okay, take pictures!
Q: How’d you like the pageant?
A: I don’t think I’ll ever go through another beauty pageant again because this one was quite long. We stayed there four weeks before the pageant. Every day we were going on excursions to different parts of Taipei to orphanages, old folks homes. It was so sad. I felt so grateful growing up in America because these people had nothing, you know, and these little kids in the orphanage–you fall in love with them.
Q: What did the promoters get out of having you parade through all those places?
A: Just coverage of the pageant. Every day we went to a different town. It got kind of tiring
Q: What did you get in cash after they took away the car?
A: Thirty thousand U.S. dollars.
Q: Not bad.
A: The total was supposed to be worth like over a hundred thousand. They gave me a fur coat, diamond ring, diamond necklace, pearls, a real tiara with jade and diamonds and emeralds in it, cosmetics, luggage. But I got it in payments and I didn’t get the last payment for some reason.
Q: How much do they owe you?
A: About $8,000.
Q: What did you do after the pageant?
A: I decided to move to the mainland just to go to school at American Applied Arts.
Q: Where’s that?
A: My roommate’s laughing.
A: [Shouts a question to her roommate. Her roommate shouts back an answer.] Oh, the American College of Applied Arts!
Q: I can see you were a top student there.
A: [Laughs] It was a private college.
Q: What were you doing there?
A: Business administration.
Q: How did you do there?
A: Really well. I got on the Dean’s List. I graduated.
Q: After winning Miss Asian World did you try your hand at modeling?
A: I was already modeling in Hawaii when I was entering those pageants.
Q: When did you start?
A: When I entered my first pageant, Miss American Train. The directors represented a lot of models. They got me several jobs. I used to work at Kahala Hilton and Hilton Hawaiian Village modeling jewelry with Miss Hawaii and Miss Teen Hawaii. We’d walk around the pool showing off things like $30,000 necklaces.
Q: So you were doing mostly live modeling rather than print work..
A: Then I did a few shows
Q: Were you making a living from your modeling?
A: No. I was still in school then and I still had my sales job. It was on the side.
Q: So when you started here at American college were you modeling?
A: No, I decided to stop. When I left Hawaii, I had no intention of modeling. I wanted to go to school and get my degree and get into business.
Q: Why didn’t you want to model any more?
A: I didn’t think I was different from anyone else because in Hawaii everyone’s Asian. So I came out here to finish my schooling basically.
Q: You didn’t model the whole time you were at American College?
A: Well, the first year… I did. I think it was that summer or…
Q: You came out in early ’89?
A: I moved out in January of ’89.
Q: When did you start modeling here?
A: About five months into school. A girlfriend in one of my classes was taking a design class and they were going a fashion show. It was this girl from London. She asked if I wanted to be in the fashion show. I said it sounds like fun. She said all the models were meeting down in the John Casablancas modeling center. I went down there and they were doing a runway class. There were about 15 or 20 of us there.
The director saw me and said, “Who are you?” At that time the center was like a charm school. He says, “I don’t want to sell you any classes because you don’t need it. I totally am being honest with you. I want to take you to Elite.” He used to scout for Elite. So I thought, Oh my god. I went there. They looked at me. I just had a few snapshots. And this one girl–I don’t want to mention names because I get along with everyone there–she said, Hmmm, I don’t think so. You may not do too good with us.” Four months later, the director [at John Casablancas] Kevin Bradley called me again. He says, “They’re having an open casting and I want you to come.” I thought, If they didn’t like me then, they’re not going to like me now. He convinced me to go. I went there and saw this other lady. She liked me and called me in the next day and said, “Come in, I want to send you out to some clients.”
Q: That wasn’t until the fall of ’89?
A: Actually that August, I think.
Q: What kind of work did you start getting?
A: At first I didn’t get that much because my hair was long, down to a little above my waist. I had bangs and just not too fashionable.
Q: When did you cut it?
A: More than two years ago. It wasn’t as short as now. It was a little below my shoulders.
Q: What was your first really good job?
A: I modeled for the Amway company for two years. They launched a campaign for cosmetics out of the country. One year they flew me to Michigan to shoot a video for them. Then last year they were out here in Malibu and shot cosmetics to take overseas.
Q: How much did you make?
A: It was basically rate, $2,500 per day. I do a lot of fashion shows and stuff.
Q: So runway work is your bread and butter?
A: Right. The last year and a half I’ve been going out on a lot of commercial calls and got me a few commercials.
Q: What kind?
A: I got a Vidal Sassoon commercial. I think it’s for the Japan market. This fall a London Fog commercial is coming out. Yesterday I found out I got a L’eggs commercial.
Q: Who are your main competitors?
A: There’s about a handful of us and we all know each other. I don’t really have a chance to compare and see who’s working and not working, but I do see a few Asians here and there. The market is so small for us, but I think that’s changing, ’cause it used to be just Whites and Blacks. In shows there are always basically Caucasian and Blacks and they’ll throw in an Asian here and there. Now I think it’s our turn.
Q: Are there castings where they don’t necessarily have in mind that it’s going to be a black girl or what girl, where it’s kind of a free-for-all?
A: That’s what I do good in. Like this L’eggs commercial, for instance. It was a huge casting, all types
Q: How many girls did they look at?
A: A couple of hundred.
Q: How many were ther with you that day?
Q: Did they see you one at a time or just line you up?.
A: One at a time. For a commercial call you go into a room and they can ask you to wear a swimsuit and they can ask you to wear heels and they can tell you what to do and you’re on camera. You give your name, your profile. Basically you do what they want you to do. It depends on what the commercial is. Sometimes they make you drink ice tea or act goofy. For the L’eggs one they just [have you] show off your legsQ: How do you feel at one of those castings?
A: It’s how they say it, a cattle call. I feel like, Mooo, next!
Q: I imagine most of the girls there are White and Black. How do you feel as an Asian?
A: I used to feel like, Oh my god, you know. It was like really strange when I got the commercial because I thought, Wow, they’re using an Asian and there are all these beautiful caucasian and black girls.
Q: Do you feel more confident now?
A: Yeah, I do. I really don’t think about it because you have to like psyche yourself out because with every audition you go on, you can’t get every one. Your self-esteem goes down when you keep missing for a while. It’s only natural for you to think to yourself, Oh my god, what’s wrong with me? Am I fat? They don’t like my hair? When you go into these things, you can’t think about it. When I walk out, I don’t think about it at all.
Q: How does your work break down between runway, print, commercials, and of course, movies like Rising Sun and Clean Slate?
A: I think it would be like 30, 30, 30.
Q: And 10% for movies?
A: Yeah. Clean Slate, they hired about ten of us models and we’re doing a fashion show on stage.
Q: Do you have acting ambitions?
A: I don’t think so. I wasn’t born with it, I don’t have that drive you should have. I don’t have that want in me to be an actress.
Q: Do you have a desire to be anything in particular right now?
A: Successful in… I don’t know what!
Q: What about being a top model?
A: That’s what I’m striving for right now. It it doesn’t work out, I don’t think I want to go back and do it all over again [as an actress]. Modeling is hard as it is, but I think acting is even tougher because in modeling you’re basically relying on your looks, whereas acting you have to have the right look plus acting ability.
Q: What do you think made you as successful as you are? Is it purely your looks?
A: I think my attitude too.
Q: What about your attitude?
A: I’m professional, I show up on time, I get along with the clients and people–the staff, makeup artist, stylist. I know a lot of girls–the people [who] work with [them]–the photographers and what–say they are really hard to work with.
Q: Is that like the kiss of death, when word gets around that you’re hard to work with?
A: I don’t have an attitude, you know, like a model attitude, like, I’m hot shit and, you know, I’m this, I don’t want you to do this with me and treat me like this and get me this. I don’t ever do that. Everyone’s treated equal, I believe.
Q: If there’s a model whose success you’d like to emulate?
A: My model has always been Christie Turlington.
A: I always think she’s really beautiful.
Q: But you can’t be like her, can you? Whose career path do you look at and say that’s the path I want to follow?
A: Angela Harry. I’ve worked with her on several jobs. She’s very professional. I would like to get to her level of success.
Q: What commercial would you really like to do? Something you’d be perfect for?
A: [long pause] Cosmetics.
Q: Do you have a beauty regimen?
A: Not really. I do what everyone else does, put on face cream, stay out of the sun. I drink lots of water.
Q: How many glasses a day?
A: Seven. You always see an Evian bottle in my car.
Q: Do you have a serious boyfriend?
Q: Who are you close to?
A: My roommate. She’s a little blondie. Actually, she’s quite tall. She lived in the Orient for a while and loves my cooking. I like to cook. I’ve lived with her four year.
Q: Is she the significant other in your life?
A: Yeah, but we’re not lesbians or anything like that.
Q:Then you have plans for marriage?
A: I want to get married when I’m about 35 and have two kids, a boy and a girl.