All around the world: Gwen Lu

Clove, The Star, Sunday 5 August 2012

All around the world
Gwen Lu’s androgynous look is taking her places

By Sophia Goh

Gwen Lu is a little nervous, and perhaps understandably so. She’s done castings over Skype before, and admits to being stressed out by those, but our chat – her first cyber-interview – is something else entirely. For someone who’s used to letting her photos speak for themselves, this is new territory.

The model, who stands at 175cm tall, is Penang born and raised, and currently in New York, a place she calls “pretty much my second home”, but she won’t stay put for long. Come August, she’s heading to Tokyo for what she hopes will be a fruitful two-month stint, and after that, perhaps London. Even though she’s based in the Big Apple – this is her fifth year there – Gwen often travels for work.

She tells me about the first time she lived abroad – in Athens, Greece. She was only 22 then. “It was a good training ground for me to learn to get used to a foreign place and a completely different culture,” she says.

“Since then, no matter where I go, it somehow doesn’t seem as tough as my first trip, especially when I’m in New York or London, where everybody speaks English. Greece is not a big market but the experience is what matters.”

She may seem a little shy, but you get the feeling that Gwen is a girl who isn’t afraid to go after what she wants. Even though her parents, whom she describes as conservative and traditional, initially didn’t approve of her modeling, she held her ground.

These days, she reckons that deep inside their hearts, they are proud of what she’s achieved and they’re happy for her.

But, she adds, “Now they have a different reason why I should stop modeling. Before, it was the instability of the job and they were worried about me being by myself. Nowadays, they ask me when I’m going to go back to Malaysia and settle down, and when I’m going to get married.”

The good news for her parents is Gwen is dating someone, a guy she first met when she was in Athens. Unfortunately for Mr. and Mrs. Lu, the couple, who have been together for three years, don’t have any plans to wed just yet.

She’s hinted at her relationship to her parents, telling them not to worry, and so they’ve stopped asking too many questions. But her parents don’t know who her boyfriend is, and for now, Gwen is happy to keep it that way. “I’m very secretive,” she says with a laugh.

Looking at her, it’s easy to envy the international magazine covers and high-profile advertising campaigns – Aveda, Uniqlo, L’Oreal Professionnel, Redken, Shiseido and Benetton Accessories among them. After all, there are so many struggling models out there, many of who would give an arm and a leg (if they didn’t need them) for the same success.

Luck definitely plays a part, as Gwen will be the first to tell you. Assuming you have all the physical qualities, you also have to be in the right place at the right time to meet the right people. After that, it’s about hard work, patience and just keeping on trying.

To be honest, there was a time when she almost gave up. When she first started modeling in Malaysia, things were tough. She had quit her job to focus on becoming a model, but found herself living on credit.

“I almost thought I should go back to a full-time job. Then it got better the following month so I decided to continue,” she reveals. It turned around for her just in time.

I ask her if she had any misconceptions about the industry going in. “I’d heard rumours about how sleazy it can be sometimes, but I’ve learned that you just have to be careful, and if something’s wrong, you can always call the agency.

“When it comes to nudity, that’s a matter of choice. There are top models who won’t work with certain photographers because they can’t accept the way the photographers work. At the end of the day, it’s your decision. I tried modeling nude once, and I didn’t feel so comfortable about it so I don’t do it anymore.”

Gwen, who names Ai Tominaga as her favourite model, loves the learning experiences and the travelling that her job affords her, but there are, of course, downsides to her profession as well.

“I don’t like how everything is so last-minute,” she confesses. “Sometimes you only know about a job the night before. I have to wait at home all night to see if the client books me so I can plan the next day.”

Then there’s the moving. Because she never knows for sure where she’s going and for how long, she’s reluctant to sign a long-term apartment lease or buy furniture. So she’s been renting sublets, usually for two to three months at a time. That can be a pain – figuratively and literally – when the apartments you live in are usually walk-up.

“With all the things that I have, it’s quite a headache. I’m used to it, but when I pack, I have this obsession where I need everything to be arranged perfectly, so I always end up spending a lot of time when I have to move.

“Although New York is my base now, I still travel to London, Paris and sometimes back to Asia for work, so it’s a good thing I don’t have my own place. I don’t have to worry about subletting it out or paying rent for nothing.”

The other plus point about living out of suitcases, according to Gwen, is the opportunity to experience different neighbourhoods. She used to live in Manhattan, but recently moved across the river to Brooklyn, and she’s liking it very much there.

Going back to the topic of her settling down, has she ever thought about quitting? The answer is yes. “I think about retirement sometimes,” she says. “But I’d still want to live abroad somewhere. I don’t know where my destination will be yet.

“The first thing I’d like to do when I stop modeling is some charity work. Then I’d like to pick up some proper cooking skills. I’d want to be a chef if I weren’t a model.”

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