How a small-town girl became China’s first supermodel

Story highlights

Liu Wen is regarded by many in the fashion world as China's first supermodel

At the age of 23, she has already worked for most of the world's major fashion houses

Wen is also the first Asian model to be named as a spokesperson for Estee Lauder

China is expected to become a major market for global fashion brands in years to come

New York CNN  — 

Backstage at the Michael Kors show, a strange air of calm hangs over the make-up area. Although security is predictably tight, there is no screaming or high drama.

It’s 7.30 a.m., hours before the show, and the machine is just beginning to mobilize. Liu Wen is an early arrival, quietly sitting in a chair listening to her iPod as a make-up artist begins to apply foundation.

Her cup of coffee and bottle of green tea reveal that even the women dubbed “China’s first supermodel” finds early starts challenging. But there is no trace of fatigue: Her face looks flawless with little make up, and her skin luminous.

“Today I have five shows, so we’ll be running around.” she says smiling. “Yesterday I was really happy because my agent sent me the schedule. I was so excited. I still love it because I love walking the runway.”

At the age of 23, Liu has worked for most of the world’s prestigious fashion houses, and recently ascended into the top tier of models who are recognizable enough to command major fees.

She has also broken molds, becoming the first Asian model named as a global spokesperson for Estee Lauder. With some two million followers on a Mandarin-language version of Twitter, her ability to sell products to the prized Chinese consumer is obvious.

“When we met her in person, we were so impressed with her warmth, beauty and enthusiasm,” says Aerin Lauder, the firm’s Style and Image Director. “It’s amazing to see how consumers respond to Liu Wen – she has so many fans, not only in China, but around the world as well.”

Some of those fans gathered for an Estee Lauder event at the start of New York Fashion week, where CNN first met her. Amid the flashbulbs and relentless dance music, Wen cheerfully signed autographs and posed for photos, seemingly enjoying the spectacle.

A few days later, CNN caught up with her as she shuttled between assignments in a chauffeured people carrier. She emerged fresh from a Rodarte show, wearing the kind of intense eye shadow that would stop a polar bear in its tracks.

“Yesterday I had a fitting that was very late,” she explains. “So I went back home at almost one o’clock. And this morning I woke up late … my call time was seven but I woke up at 7:30. Just brushed my teeth before rush rush rush. So I didn’t pick up my make up remover.”

For a public figure whose image is key, Liu remains surprisingly open and accessible. She laughs frequently, is impeccably polite and even offers to help us with our camera equipment as we arrive at her agency. While the image of a five-foot-ten supermodel carrying a tripod is almost irresistible, CNN declines.

At the stylish Manhattan offices of Marilyn Agency, Wen catches up with staff and removes her war paint. The agency has managed her since she arrived in New York and is focused on maintaining relations with top-end brands, while exploiting opportunities with appropriate Chinese firms.

“She has already achieved historic success as a model,” says agency president Chris Gay. “China’s influence in the fashion world will be tremendous both from a stand point of every Western fashion brand wanting to establish their presence there, as well as Chinese brands, designers, and models having more of a global impact.”

Wen was brought up in Hunan Province and began her modeling career in 2005 after entering a competition, which promised a computer as first prize.

“I was a very young girl, I think I was 18,” she recalls. “I just wanted to win the computer. Before I didn’t really understand what modeling was because I grew up in a very small town, no fashion.”

Soon, she moved to Beijing, abandoning her plans to work as a tour guide. Photo shoots followed, which led to a trip to Milan in 2008, where she was cast for her first runway show for UK fashion label Burberry.

“I didn’t understand anything because I couldn’t understand English. I just listened to the music and followed my feelings.”

Despite the genuinely long days of fashion weeks, her drive is evident. Wen power naps in the car between appointments, but approaches each casting and show with enthusiasm. The one moment of disappointment we witnessed was in a restaurant when her agent suggested she avoided spicy chicken noodles for lunch. She greeted the news stoically and ordered regular chicken noodle soup, which she ate up.

Quieter moments like these are fleeting during the whirl of the fashion weeks and soon Liu returns to the drumbeat of shows and fittings which go on all afternoon and into the evening.

At Michael Kors the following day, CNN leaves her backstage, heading through the main entrance to film the show. CNN had spent days navigating the complex hierarchy of New York Fashion Week’s accreditation and guest lists, often being excluded from both in this rarefied world.

But this time, CNN was appraised by a headset-wearing, clipboard-wielding PR, who muttered to security: “These guys are okay.” It was the most ringing endorsement of our lives.

CNN took our place in “The Pit,” ahead of the deluge of other crews and watched as the room began to fill with socialites, industry movers and shakers and celebrities, like Michael Douglas. Eventually the hum of low-level gossiping died down, guests took their seats and the runway’s cover was elegantly peeled away.

The collection had a vague safari theme and Liu Wen appeared, transformed again, pounding down the catwalk with a steely faraway glare.

In a few months, Liu will unveil her own line of clothes in collaboration with a Chinese company and her agency is expecting film offers. But she dismisses the idea of herself as an ambassador for China and any accompanying pressure.

“It has been an honor to represent my country as a model, but I don’t think I’ve ever thought of myself as an ambassador, just someone trying to do her job as best as she can – so there isn’t that much pressure at all! If what I’ve done so far can inspire others in China, then of course it is a great thing.”