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Slice of Life: An Inside Look at Being a Chinese Model

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It’s a rainy Wednesday evening in Shanghai, and a man holds up his phone to take a call on Zoom. A woman shouts, “energy! energy!” through the speaker, presumably speaking to the 34 Chinese models decked out in street-style winter clothes lining up and patiently waiting behind the man.

In a moment, French sportswear giant Lacoste’s biggest-ever fashion show in China will begin.

Among the models is the emerging Chinese model Liu Chunjie. We caught up with Liu to get insight into her prep work for the big show and get a taste of a day in the life of a model.

8:20 AM 

Liu wakes up just after 8 AM. The first thing she does is check her phone, and she sees a message telling her that she needs to arrive at CSSC Pavilion (short for China State Shipbuilding Corporation Pavilion) before 12:45 PM this afternoon.

“We went to the pavilion to do the fitting last night, but they didn’t give me any details about the time and the look of today’s show.” 

She sets an alarm to notify her when she needs to leave to start preparations for the show. 

Her breakfast is a cup of black coffee. As a model, she has to be careful with her body, telling us, “I have to keep fit.”

Liu hails from Henan province, and she began her modeling career in 2017. Before she joined her current agency, China Bentley, she was a university student.

She was initially discovered at an event by a man from a model training agency in Xi’an, who suggested that she go to Beijing to participate in a modeling competition.

12:45 PM

Liu arrives at the show venue at CSSC Pavilion, a vast space that was formerly a pavilion during the Shanghai Expo in 2010.

She wears a pair of Uniqlo jeans, Alexander McQueen boots, and a jacket that she borrowed from a friend. “I don’t have much time to pick clothes, and this jacket is kind of heavy, so it keeps me warm,” she tells us.

Liu Chunjie

Liu Chunjie getting her make-up done. Image by Wang Junjie

When she arrives, she immediately makes her way to the make-up station. She still has no idea what she will be wearing during the show. She has to wait and see. 

After her make-up is done, she notices a whiteboard in front of the dressing room. From the whiteboard, she sees that she will be wearing the first look, which means she will be the first model to walk on the stage.

She is shocked that she will be the opening model for the show. 

Model Whiteboard

A whiteboard showing all the models and looks. Image by Wang Junjie

Uncertainty — this is a word that Liu says a lot when describing her job. “Basically, you have to wait until the day of the show, and then you’ll know whether you will be in the show and which look you’re going to wear,” she continues, “sometimes they say ‘see you tomorrow,‘ but there’s no tomorrow.”

“One time, one of my fellow models was let go right before the show, as they suddenly felt the look that the model was wearing was not good,” Liu says.

3 PM 

Liu dresses up and squeezes into line. A long rehearsal for the show is about to begin. There will be three rounds of trials, with each round taking 30 minutes.

“We only have one minute and 17 seconds for each model to walk on the stage,” Liu explains. On the wall, we see the whiteboard that shows every look that models will be wearing.

Liu wears the first look: a navy coat, a red shirt, oversized sunglasses, and a large navy hat. The stage on the other side of a large wall looks familiar but also different from any other runway the models have seen — it’s a tennis court.

Lacoste Arena

Lacoste’s show stage is set up like a tennis court. Image by Wang Junjie

While waiting around, Liu recalls her incredible experience in New York when she was brought there to model for Alexander Wang. “They wanted to find Chinese models for the show,” she says. It was November 2018 and her first time in New York.

“I was there as a fitting model. I knew I didn’t have the chance to walk on the runway,” she says. During these four short days, she went to Alexander Wang’s studio daily from 9 AM to 5 PM to try out different looks and styles and to “just walk around the whole day as a reference for them.”

Just like this time with Lacoste, she got the message on the day of the Alexander Wang show that she would be the first-ever Chinese model to open a showcase by Alexander Wang.

Liu Chunjie

Liu Chunjie opens the show for Alexander Wang in 2018. Image courtesy of Liu Chunjie

“I was only a fitting model; I never thought that I would be on the runway, but Alex made me the opening model, such a surprise,” she laughs. 

5 PM 

Liu has three hours before the show starts. She’ll spend half an hour doing make-up and the other two and a half hours will be hers for dinner and relaxation.

Backstage, there are 18 make-up tables. On each mirror, small lights surround the frame, which makes the space brighter. In front of the mirrors, models sip hot drinks while focusing on their phone screens.

Models wait in line and stylists check their looks. Image by Wang Junjie

Make-up artists and hairstylists are doing the models’ hair and make-up. Image by Wang Junjie

“I was going to work in a design company after graduation,” she says as she sits down in front of the make-up table, telling us the story of her modeling career. “That was until I joined a modeling competition in my sophomore year at college in 2017, then everything changed.”

She didn’t come from a modeling or fashion background; in fact, her major was environmental art design back in college. The reason she attended the competition was that she thought it would be a good time, “because it was held in Sanya.”

8:30 PM 

According to the timetable, there are 30 minutes left before the show and models are beginning to queue up. 

Liu moves to the front of the line, calmly complaining about the large Lacoste bag she has been holding for almost 40 minutes.

Models wait in line and stylists check their looks. Image by Wang Junjie

Models wait in line and stylists check their looks. Image by Wang Junjie

About 10 minutes later, a man starts to check the models to ensure that they are wearing exactly what they should be and that no hand tattoos are visible.

Behind Liu, there are instructions written on the wall. “Walk through the black carpet, walk diagonally to the stage, walk fast when the show is ending.”

9:00 PM

The music starts, and the show begins with a tennis video game shown on a giant screen. The lights backstage don’t reach Liu, who’s standing at the entrance to the stage.

Around 12 minutes later, after the video game finishes, the real show begins.

“Go!” a man shouts. He is wearing a winter jacket and headphones and looking at a screen, which shows what is happening on stage. “Go faster,” he screams at Liu before she disappears.

The catwalk show is short — nine minutes later, the lights go dark.

9:21 PM

After the show, we meet Liu for a quick conversation. She says she doesn’t have any plans to stay for the afterparty, as she just wants to go home.

Liu quickly confides to us the worst part about being a model. “We have to follow the rules, as we don’t have any choice and little freedom to speak out,” she tells us. “It’s kind of cruel, a lot of brands, they like you for no reason and dislike you for no reason.”

“So it’s better just to be yourself,” she finishes, before heading home at 9:27 PM.

Cover image via Wang Junjie

Wang Junjie
    Wang Junjie is a Shanghai-based writer and storyteller who originally hails from South-Central China’s Hunan province. He covers fashion, culture and society.
    china.wav LA

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