There’s no hint of fatigue from Ju Xiaowen as she logs on promptly to our Zoom call, at 11pm New York time—her preferred timing for our chat. She greets me effusively in Mandarin, as if we are lifelong friends, and tells me she has just finished a yoga session at home. Stripped of heavy make-up and the lavish clothes she’s used to wearing, Ju is no less striking on screen. She is lounging on her couch in a white sleeveless tank top, her skin beautifully translucent and hair in a casual topknot.
Our banter is lighthearted and girly, peppered occasionally with squeals and giggles. Speaking in Mandarin—even if I’m fumbling through my words—helps with that natural intimacy. I sense an immediate warmth and vibrant energy about her as we skip past the niceties and chat about her late sleeping habits. Ju is a night owl who goes to bed at 4am, if she doesn’t have work the next day, and gets up at midday.
Being nocturnal suits her just fine. After all, she has been conditioned as one of the world’s top supermodels, where long hours and fluid work schedules are de rigueur. However, Ju acknowledges that her current life as a model in New York is a far cry from what she imagined her adult life to be when she was a little girl. Born in Xi’an, China, she describes herself as a carefree, mischievous and happy-go-lucky child who didn’t know how a girl should act.
“My understanding of modelling as a profession was so limited,” the 31-year-old says, pushing her metal-rimmed glasses up her nose. “I only knew about catwalks and photo shoots. I didn’t see it as a ‘job’ in the traditional sense, much less a livelihood.”
Ju was a fresh-faced 18-year-old when she was approached by a model scout in Xi’an while out shopping with her mother. That encounter led Ju’s mother to enroll her only child into modelling school, with the intent of helping her develop a certain poise and temperament. “Little by little, I found my way into the industry—taking classes, making friends and joining competitions,”
“I realised modelling was simply another language, where I could express and relay thoughts and emotions to an audience—not unlike the way a writer uses words”
It was one particular competition that led her agency, IMG Models, to take her under its wing in 2010. It found her picture on the Internet and asked if she wanted to model at New York Fashion Week. The rest might be history, but the judicious Chinese beauty never stopped learning and questioning her purpose in an industry that some might tout as shallow.
“A turning point came when I had the privilege of working with a very talented photographer. After the session, I had an epiphany about the role and purpose of a model. I realised modelling was simply another language, where I could express and relay thoughts and emotions to an audience—not unlike the way a writer uses words. From that moment, I had a deeper understanding of the work I was doing,” Ju explains, gesticulating with her dainty hands.
This revelation is pivotal to Ju’s scintillating modelling career. After moving to New York with IMG Models eight years ago, she has since graced the catwalks of every fashion brand you can think of, including Louis Vuitton, Fendi and Hermès. Her alluring beauty has led renowned photographers such as Mario Testino, Tim Walker and Nick Knight to shoot her, while publishing houses worldwide clamoured to get her on magazine covers.
But it was Marc Jacobs who offered Ju her significant break, by putting her on an advertisement for the brand—the first campaign model of Chinese descent in the brand’s 25-year history.
“I felt incredibly lucky and I was so nervous,” she says with a short laugh. “To be part of a huge campaign helmed by such immensely talented individuals like Marc Jacobs and Juergen Teller, and to be chosen by them when I was still finding my way in the industry. That was a life-changing stamp of approval. I was thrust in the spotlight and it basically ignited my career.”
While Ju might display a seasoned professionalism on camera and a child-like ebullience off camera, the expressive model opens up about her personal challenges on the job. “I find it difficult to master my moods and emotions. As a model, you must present yourself perfectly in front of the lens. But many factors can directly or physically affect you, such as jet lag or extreme weather conditions. You must be able to overcome anything that tries to influence you, even when it’s out of your control. At this stage, I work even harder to anticipate and prepare myself.”
New York is Ju’s second home. It’s a city she adores wholeheartedly and where she came into her own in her 20s. “As a young 20-something, you’re naturally at your most curious, wild and imaginative. What New York gave me was the freedom to find myself,” she says pensively. “It was a whole new life I built on my own here. New York has a tolerance and acceptance of people from all walks of life and all corners of the world that makes it a beautiful place for anyone seeking themselves.”
Her life in the sprawling metropolis is surprisingly low-key, shying away from the glamorous parties and events associated with the job. Ju is a self-confessed homebody and finds comfort in curling up on the couch watching a movie or taking a nap. She attributes cycling or heading out to a restaurant—her favourite Xi’an Famous Foods included—as her biggest achievement on weekends.
“I’m like an octogenarian,” she throws her head back, laughing, as I catch a glimpse of her unique brand of humour. “I just like life at a slow pace, my own pace. If I’m meeting someone, the moment where I actually step out of the door is victory.”
While Ju might lean towards being a closet introvert, she certainly doesn’t appear that way in front of the camera. There’s a video of her speaking English on Vogue.com that has made its rounds on the Internet, where she takes viewers through her religious night-time skincare ritual. She appears self-assured and jubilant, whether she’s wiping off make-up or using a gua sha tool to improve the blood circulation on her face.
“I just like life at a slow pace, my own pace. If I’m meeting someone, the moment where I actually step out of the door is victory”
When I compliment Ju on her English, honed during her time in the US, her face scrunches up in disbelief. “No way! If I speak good English, we would be conducting this interview in English. But everyone has been extremely kind to me and thinks my accent is quite cute,” she says with a laugh. She pauses for a moment, before attempting to converse in English. “I have too many Chinese friends. We are so lazy together to only speak Chinese.”
The good-natured Ju recalls an embarrassing moment during her first day reporting for work at IMG Models. “They asked me, ‘How is the weather outside?’ At that point, I only knew what I learnt from my textbooks. I was convinced their first question was going to be, ‘How are you?’ so I answered, ‘I’m fine, thank you’.” She grins as she continues: “It was snowing outside. At that point, they probably knew I couldn’t speak English.”
Ju stops for a drink of water and crosses her legs on the couch. I’m impressed by her sincerity in trying to make things work for her and doggedness to make New York her own, especially when her family has never once visited her. “Before COVID-19, I flew back to China often and was always on the move. But now, my parents will call daily and ask when I’m coming back. All they see are the [COVID-19 cases] numbers increasing and they are quite concerned,” she says, adding that she is looking to spend time with her family in China for the autumn and winter seasons.
Naturally, I turn to the topic of her future in New York and whether she ever thinks about returning to China. Ju shakes her head as she says: “No, I don’t plan to. I go wherever the jobs are. In this case, my company in New York has chosen me. I have no idea what lies ahead and I generally let things happen naturally.”
Her eyes are glinting as she leans in conspiratorially. “The only time I think of leaving New York is when my body, or rather my stomach, rebels. I attempted to try more Western cuisine so I could better absorb the American culture, but it didn’t last. I must have my Chinese food,” she says, sticking out her tongue.
A global supermodel’s life is intrinsically tied to the capricious fashion industry and its obsession with tall, slender girls. While some are slowly opening up to the idea of plus-sized models, it still has a long way to go before bigger women on catwalks become a norm, rather than an exception.
Ju might be blessed with long limbs and a willowy frame, but she believes that beauty is best expressed diversely. “I was very moved by Adele’s Instagram post, where she had enough people discussing her body, diet and exercise habits. She stated that she’s proud of her own body and others should simply keep quiet and focus on themselves instead,” she says with an affirming nod. “That expression of self-love is inspiring. I think if we have different people in the world, it follows that we should have different notions of beauty.”
“I think if we have different people in the world, it follows that we should have different notions of beauty”
Ju, the face of L’Oréal Paris in 2016, adopts an unexpectedly pared-back self-care routine. She has a cup of honey and fresh lemon water when she wakes up in the morning (or in some cases, the afternoon)—a practice she has dutifully kept to for the past two years to keep her in the pink of health. In addition, she takes biotin daily and has recently started online yoga sessions.
Her Instagram account (@jujujuxiaowen) is a bold display of boxy outerwear, chunky sneakers and sprinklings of menswear. A quick scroll and it’s evident that she’s well-loved and seen as a fashion icon, praised for her effortlessly on point outfits and flawless selfies. However, while Jū loves fashion, she admits she doesn’t have a personal style. “I dress according to how I feel on the day. I might be inspired by a recent movie I saw. I’ll rummage through my wardrobe to find something that speaks to that feeling,” she says.
“I was so enamoured by the Martin Margiela documentary, with that sense of balance in his design process… I admire the amount of thought that goes into producing something so considered yet original. I’ll mix and match my clothes to see if I could better understand that thought process. I did think of becoming a stylist, to bring together distinct yet beautiful items to create new meaning,” Ju continues, citing Margiela and Kate Moss as her sources of inspiration. “It’s easy to get whiffs of brilliance from these individuals. Movies, too, are a rich source. I try to extract creative oxygen from all places—it’s very abundant in my surroundings.”
This has been a year of life-changing events. It started off with the bush fires in Australia, followed by the social unrest in the US after the killing of African American George Floyd by a white police officer. Most recently, we were rocked by the blast in Beirut, which killed at least 181 people, and the deadly coronavirus the world is still trying to navigate.
Ju sighs despondently as we move into chatting about prevailing events. “With all that’s happened this year, it feels like we’ve ripped off the wallpaper, only to find it’s infested with roaches. It’s utterly out of your control. You can be walking down the street with your mask on and a stranger shouts, ‘F***ing yellow bitch. Go back to your country’,” she reveals, with a hint of defeat. “It’s like you’ve hung a neon sign around your neck for hunters to target you. It hurts seeing how cruel society can be. How can we have all this chaos when there are so many healthcare and frontline workers putting their lives on the line? It’s senseless.”
Here is one of the world’s most recognisable faces, grappling with racism in a city she has spent the majority of her 20s in. There’s a trace of disbelief as she ponders the situation and what she wants next for herself, revealing a quiet sceptic underneath her zany exterior.
She speaks of her long-term boyfriend in small doses and I learn that he does most of the cooking at home in New York. When it comes to children, Ju is on the fence. “I’ve considered it before as I do like kids. But are there too many people in this world. Personally, I feel that as humans, we should and that’s what we are designed to do—to leave our legacy to the next generation. As for myself, I still don’t know,” she says, the uncertainty evident in her voice.
“I just want peace for everyone. After the year we’ve had, you realise how blissful life was before the pandemic”
While she isn’t committed to a religion, she trusts that there is someone up there looking down on her. Her voice turns serious for a moment. “Whatever you do, you need to be accountable to yourself and others—so don’t do anything bad.”
Ju is in no rush to leave our call—which has been an enriching two-way conversation—even though it is approaching midnight in New York. There were times when I felt I could have confided in Ju about the fashion industry and family (we are both an only child) and she would fully understand. We agree that life as we know it at the moment calls for a hard reset on everybody’s part. Before we log off, I ask her about her hopes for the rest of the year.
“I just want peace for everyone. After the year we’ve had, you realise how blissful life was before the pandemic,” she says. “You could go or travel anywhere and do what you want. I hope the world quickly comes together as one. No wars. Let’s treat animals better. Let’s help people in Third World conditions. Let’s be kind to each other.”
Ju clasps her hands together and a wistful smile appears on her delicate face. “There’ve been times this year when it feels like the world is about to explode. You grasp how insignificant human beings are in the grand scheme of things. And yet, we’d rather fight each other than come together. It’s tragic.”
Photographer: Gregory Harris
Stylist: Daniela Paudice
Hair: Adlena/Bryant Artists
Make-up: Benjamin Puckey
Production: Alana Goldmann
Director: Zexi Qi/NEER
Cinematography: Zexi Qi and Anton Melekh/Snakk Studio
Post Production/Editing: Snakk Studio
Art collages: @acidtopser
Music: Curtis Cole
Translation for Ju Xiaowen’s quotes: RJ Gao
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