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China’s First Supermodel on Changing Standards of Beauty

Liu Wen.
Liu Wen. Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

Out of the 1.3 billion people in China, Liu Wen is the first supermodel. She got her start by submitting photos to an online model-casting call in hopes of winning a computer, the grand prize. But she wound up with a lot more than a computer: She became the first model of Asian descent to walk in a Victoria’s Secret show, and has graced international beauty ads as the first Asian global spokesmodel for Estée Lauder. In town to promote the brand’s new Advanced Night Repair Concentrated Recovery PowerFoil Mask, she talked to the Cut about  how she’s not perceived as traditionally beautiful in China, how she’s seen the perception of Asian beauty change, and how her skin-care routine is “not easy at all.” 

It’s been six years since Estée Lauder named you an Asian spokesperson. How do you feel like your relationship to beauty and the Asian perception of beauty has changed?
Before I modeled, I never thought I was beautiful. Even right now, I don’t think I’m beautiful. I think it’s my personality that makes my beauty different and unique. If you look in the past, Chinese people have always considered things like big eyes, pointy nose, or big lips beautiful. I had the same thoughts as a child watching movies.

But as you grow up, you understand more about what beauty is. It’s not just about the outside. Your look changes depending on your confidence, and then your beauty changes. When I first came to New York all the people were saying “You look so Asian, because you have a different eye shape.” They didn’t really understand because they didn’t really see that many Asian models.

But now, there are more and more Asian models and opportunities to understand Asian beauty. For example, before, people would put me in red lips because they thought it looked Chinese. But now, they put a lot of red lipstick on Asian models because our skin tone is different than the Caucasian one and they see that it suits us. Asia isn’t just about red.

You say that you don’t see yourself as beautiful. But I find that curious because as a model, you’re celebrated for your beauty.
I don’t think I’m beautiful. People probably think I’m cute because I have dimples and am friendly and always smiling. But beauty is different. In Chinese, people say I have chi ze, which means aura or a strong sense of presentation. It’s not about my look. It’s about confidence. I think this is what people see.

For example, I was in China doing a TV show for Chinese New Year. Normally, actresses wear a dress onstage. But I was wearing a Dolce & Gabbana pink suit. People thought I would be wearing a dress, because it’s a very traditional event. In the comments, people said, “Oh, she looks beautiful but it’s not just the face, it’s everything.” I don’t know what my look is, but I think my personality is stronger than my face. Also, my face is not traditional. I have small eyes, and I don’t have a double eyelid. But this is natural. I have to appreciate this.

What about with your own beauty routine? What’s your morning or nighttime beauty routine like?
As a model, I travel and work like crazy. Actually, I just landed a few hours ago. I took a quick shower and put on a face mask. For my beauty routine, it’s kind of complicated. It’s not easy at all. I like being natural, but natural is not really natural. To be natural, you need to have really good skin. This is really important.

Every day, I deep-cleanse my face — that’s the first step. Then use a toner, a serum, and an eye cream. Then sometimes a day cream for the morning, and sunblock. At night, I will change to night cream. I use face masks probably five times a week. I love them — they’re my favorite part of my beauty routine.

When I was ten years younger than I am right now, I didn’t really have to take care of myself. I could eat whatever I wanted and not have to work out. Seriously. But now that I’m getting older, I have to be careful, work out a little bit, and take care of my skin.

Is there anything about your skin-care routine or beauty routine that is Asian-inspired?
There aren’t that many differences between an Asian- and non-Asian-inspired beauty routine, but I do think our skin-care process is more gentle and detail-oriented. It’s small steps, not everything all at once together. My mom always told told me to try and eat different soups. We have some Asian traditional soup, with pigs’ feet and that has collagen, which is good for your skin.

My mom also talks about circulation. I don’t really drink cold things, like I never drink cold water. When I go into restaurants in America, they always give me cold water. I always ask if I can have a hot water or tea, and they’re like, Are you okay?

What about for jet lag?
I just landed here a few hours ago, and I don’t feel like I have jet lag because I’m awake, talking with people, and having fun. If I have jet lag, the best thing is to wake up early, go to the gym, and go running a little bit. Maybe also doing a little bit of SoulCycle, getting sweaty, and taking a hot bath or hot shower. When you’re traveling, don’t eat too much heavy food. Try to eat light food for your body.

In an earlier piece for Vogue, you talked about how you hoped you shed the stereotype that Asian women are seen as very docile and subservient. What do you hope is next for Asian women?
I hope that when people see Asian women, they realize we are all different. A lot of time with Caucasian people, they just group us together as Asian. But even within the different cities in China, people have different personalities. Likewise, if you’re from Korea or Japan. You’re talking to me right now, your family is from Taiwan, or someone else is from Chicago, and I’m from China. We look Asian, but we still look different. We don’t look the same.

As a global beauty spokesperson, do you feel like the way Asians perceive beauty within their own race has changed?
The more you see something, the more you’re like, Oh, okay. For example, going back to double eyelids. Maybe before, double eyelids weren’t as common. I think before, people didn’t know how to treat it or make it up, so the beauty of it was judged unfairly. Now, people are learning to present single eyelids in a way that is like, Oh, that’s what this is.

Actually, few Chinese girls have a double eyelid. I don’t think Estée Lauder chose me because I don’t have double eyelids. It just happened. But I have gotten comments when people have seen pictures of me and have said, “Oh, a single eyelid is beautiful.” I’m really happy I didn’t do any surgery. The girls who had single eyelids may have thought before that beauty only had one type of eye shape. But now they see more and more types, so there will be a change.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

China’s First Supermodel on Asian Beauty