Former supermodels throw light on life beyond the glitz
Former Chinese supermodels such as Ma Yanli, Qu Ying, Tong Chenjie, and Chun Xiao recently reunited on the Shine Her Light Forum in a nostalgic reunion to reflect on their legendary careers and discuss their lives off the runway.
In an exclusive conversation, these fashion icons, who have graced the covers of top international publications and walked the runways of prominent fashion houses, revealed their experiences, challenges, and plans for the future.
They say that age is just a number, and Qu epitomizes this adage with her victorious comeback to the runway during Shanghai Fashion Week after an absence of two decades. At 52, she recently walked for the fashion brand Lu Yan with tanned skin and well-defined muscles. The former supermodel is now a designer.
Qu's 33-year career has included everything from theater to modeling, acting, music, and even TV hosting. "Life is a journey of constant transformation. It's not about where you start; it's about the paths you choose to take," she said.
Born into an artistic family in Hunan Province, she began her theater journey at the age of 15. Three years later, she joined the Hunan Provincial Drama Troupe, where she formally began her career as a theater actress.
But life had different ideas for her. Six months later, she was presented with her first life decision: to act on stage or walk the catwalk, after being spotted on TV by the Beijing Fashion Performance Team.
"Becoming a model was an unexpected but thrilling twist in my life. It widened my perspectives and laid the groundwork for future transformations," Qu stated.
Her journey into the world of fashion was surprisingly easy. In her second year, she was named one of China's top 10 models in a national modeling competition.
Her career took off with her dazzling runways, decorating calendars, appearing in publications, starring in advertising, appearing in movies and TV shows, and even establishing her music career with record releases.
Her life was a whirlwind of opportunities, and her days were filled with work. But during her heyday, she decided to shift her focus toward acting and singing, gradually stepping away from the modeling world.
"I'm drawn to uncertainties, changes, and challenges. Each transition in my life has been driven by a deep curiosity to explore the unknown," Qu said.
Transitions that were unanticipated and unplanned have characterized her life. Her insatiable curiosity to explore various facets of life and self-discovery was what drove these transitions rather than a strategic plan. From acting to modeling, from singing to becoming a television host, her life is a testament to the power of curiosity and the allure of the unknown.
A familiar face in the fashion industry and entertainment world, Tong, 42, has embarked on a new journey that has captivated hearts and fostered an intimate connection with her listeners. The runway superstar, known for her impeccable grace, has transitioned into a different spotlight: that of a podcast host, where she shares stories, wisdom, and reflections on life.
Her podcast, "Tong Chenjie's Normal Life," made its debut on the Xiaoyuzhou platform two years ago.
Tong's initial foray into podcasting was filled with uncertainties. "What should I talk about? Who should I invite as guests? Who would want to listen to me? These questions lingered," she recalled.
Tong's podcast featured conversations with friends from her circle and the fashion industry, but soon the organic growth of content began to resonate with listeners. What followed was truly remarkable: Listeners began to share their thoughts, experiences, and stories, effectively transforming Tong's podcast into a hub of heartfelt exchanges.
"I realized that I could do more than just walk the runway or act in movies. I could touch people's lives in a more personal and profound way through storytelling," she said.
The statistics about her audience paint an intriguing portrait. A striking 85 percent of her listeners are female. Delving deeper, the majority, around 60 percent, are under 30 years old, and when the age range is extended to below 35, that figure rises to approximately 85 percent. Furthermore, over 60 percent of her audience hails from first-tier cities.
These numbers illustrate that Tong has become the voice of choice for urban young women. Her listeners affectionately call her "my big sister," a title she proudly embraces, as she genuinely feels connected to her listeners, just like sisters sharing life stories.
"I believe my podcast's appeal lies in the authenticity of the conversations and the depth of the stories we share. It's a space where young women can feel understood and heard," Tong said.
Her episodes frequently run beyond 40 minutes, allowing for in-depth and meaningful conversations. This long-form engagement sets her apart, offering a genuine connection and meaningful discussions that can be challenging to achieve on other platforms.
The comment section tells a story of its own. Listeners often leave extensive comments, as long as essays.
"The comments and messages I receive are like a window into the hearts of my listeners. It's a privilege to be trusted with their stories," she said.
Tong's podcast has developed into a safe haven for listeners to confide in, providing a forum for discussing difficult or highly personal issues. They listen to the podcast in an effort to gain wisdom, empathy, and understanding.
"It encourages women to express their true feelings, breaking the societal mold they have been bound by from a young age," she said. "With my podcast, I want to create a space where everyone's light, no matter how small, can shine, like a swarm of uninhibited fireflies."
From the spotlight to the director's chair, Chang Chunxiao, 38, finds her niche after walking down the runway. Her career spanned a variety of artistic endeavors, from appearing in commercials to acting in plays and movies, and finally transitioning into the realm of modeling.
Her fame, particularly as a runway model, was a product of the media's burgeoning interest in the Chinese fashion industry. This was an era when fashion magazines became a part of people's daily reads, and China was growing to be a fashion scene, with domestic designers and models gaining global recognition.
"During that time, people began recognizing that there were models for magazines, for advertisements, and for runways," she recalled.
Chang quickly rose to her stardom as a fashion darling with her round, expressive eyes, bangs framing her face, and a petite, heart-shaped visage.
"People bought fashion magazines to know about the latest trends and where we (Chinese models) walked runways," she said.
Her unusual transformation from a celebrated model to a film director defined her dance in the world of the arts. She started being a director with music videos a decade ago.
"When I listened to music, I envisioned a logical sequence of images in my mind," she said.
"The first positive feedback I received was at a short film festival from the executive producer. He found my work fascinating and suggested that I should keep going."
After years of shooting short films and music videos, she only started shooting feature-length stories this year. According to Chang, "telling the story of the underprivileged deeply resonated with me."
Since she was 20, she has devoted herself to numerous philanthropic projects, including orphanages and autism awareness, which has ingrained in her a feeling of responsibility and empathy. She feels an intense urge to make movies about the stories she has heard and seen.
She discusses her most recent project, a full-length feature film that follows the tale of a young woman from Yunnan Province who encounters a number of life-altering circumstances and enters the field of humanitarian work.
"It's my first attempt at narrative storytelling," Chang said. "I'll never leave the worlds of art and fashion; I'm just dancing between the worlds, whether it's under the spotlight, in the director's chair, on stage, or behind the scenes."