A Conversation with Chervil Tan
How did you first enter the modelling industry?
I’ve been modelling for nearly eleven years now—I started when I was fifteen years old. At first, family and friends would tell me that I should be a model. Being an Asian girl in an Asian family, I was told not to listen to this— and it never occurred to me that maybe I could. It really hit home when I got approached by a couple of agencies in Singapore. It really sparked an interest. So while I was in Melbourne, I asked my mum if I could be a model—as little girls do.
My mum said that if I wanted to be a model, I had to do the research and make the phone call to figure out what this industry is like, and then get back to her. I was very lucky that I met a model at a clothing store, and she gave me some contacts, including three agencies I should contact. I emailed the top agency in Melbourne and they replied saying I was too young, but I should go to Vivien’s Models. I sent the same email to Vivien’s and they replied, asking me to come in and bring my mum along to have a chat! It was during that meeting that they signed me.
Do you have a favourite shoot?
The shoot I did for Frankie magazine was really good! I got a call saying someone wanted to shoot me for a possible front cover shoot and I was so excited. At the time, I was reading a lot of Frankie and was a subscriber. When I got there, there was another model. Frankie used to get two models and take the photos. We get to use the photos afterwards, but they pick one person from the shoot to be on the cover. We both got paid equally which was really great, because at the time, Frankie was still independent so there wasn’t a lot of money involved. I didn’t know I was on the front cover until I got the magazine in the mail!
I remember receiving that copy! It was so, so exciting to have someone that I knew, and someone who looked something like me, on the cover. A revelation, for a seventeen-year-old. As an Asian-Australian, do you feel anomalous in the modelling industry?
The thing about modelling is that it’s always about trends. Thankfully, because Melbourne is quite multicultural, there is always a place for an Asian model but that’s where the problem is—there is only a place for one.
So—if someone was doing a campaign and trying to show diversity, there would be a blonde and a brunette Caucasian, one dark-skinned model and an Asian model. There’s always just one.
I remember when I was nineteen or twenty, there were a lot of emerging Asian models and news about Asian models coming up and ‘taking over’. There was a trend and we were very much ‘in’. But then after that, the next ‘in-fashion’ thing was the redhead. Now, the trend is to have an African-American… but the underlying trend is always to have a White model and then an alternating minority.
On that topic—do you have any tips on how to deal with our political climate? In the last year it’s been particularly brutal, it feels so inescapable.
To be honest, I have never been a very politically-inclined person. I’m not an Australian citizen – I’m a permanent resident, but a Singaporean citizen. So I’ve never had to vote and therefore I feel slightly removed. Though—I’ve lived here for more than half my life now, moving here when I was twelve, so I feel like I’ve grown up here and did most of my important adolescence here. So I consider myself more Australian than Singaporean.
In my experience, people in general are quite accepting and Melbourne is a diverse city. Yes, there is going to be racism everywhere, but it’s just how you deal with it. For me, it depends on the situation. If someone really does annoy me, I tend to be quite stubborn and outspoken. If something really offends me or says something completely racist, I will turn around and speak up.
I’ve been so lucky that with my Masters program, ninety percent of the students have been international students and out of that, seventy percent are from China. We all hang out together and embrace each others’ cultures—and maybe it is because we’re all studying tourism but we are so similar in our love for exploring the world and other cultures. I think because I surround myself with this environment, I don’t see racism as often.
As a model, do you ever feel a distance between your internal and external self? Is there a necessary gulf?
When I came into modelling, I was very lucky because I had my mum to ground me. I did modelling part time throughout these eleven years while also studying and going to University. I always considered it to be something I did on the side. If someone had come up to me and said, ‘would you pursue modelling if it means not going to school’, I would have definitely said no. I would have stayed in school. Doing it part-time helps keep you grounded and gives you a good mindset.
You have to feel secure in who you are because it is a difficult industry—you get rejected every day based on your look. You have to have a really thick skin. There’s a resilience that people don’t realise about models. We have to deal with that face-to-face judgement about something you can’t really change. So you just have to be who you are. It’s also not as glamourous as everyone things—everyone works really hard on their body image, their social media and being at the right place at the right time.
For me, it’s my other mask. I put on my modelling mask—this is who I am when I’m modelling, who I am when I’m at home. It’s kind of a different person. I think that’s important to step in and out of. They are all parts of me and make me who I am, rather than modelling being who I am entirely.
You were one of the main actors in A gURL’s wURLd, alongside one of our other interviewees, Charlotte Nicdao—are you still acting?
I don’t! I was about to start Year 12 when I got offered the main role, which involved a whole year of filming in Singapore, Sydney and Germany. That meant I would have to do all my studies via correspondence over two years. I didn’t want to do that—I was in my last year of school, which is meant to be the best year of your high school year with your friends! After I rejected the offer, I realised how ridiculous I was. For once, I was trying to put my education in front of a hobby without realising that this hobby would be my career. So that was hard. But I was so lucky that they offered me a secondary role which was only three months of filming in Singapore.
In terms of proper acting, I haven’t done anything since. Just a bunch of TV commercials for overseas clients. I did a Cobs Popcorn ad—that was pretty fun and really cute! I was also an extra in Neighbours—I didn’t say anything but I was credited anyway which was really good. But I haven’t actually gone back into full time acting.
Do you have any current projects?
I’ve just finished my Masters of Tourism— I did an exchange in Estonia for my last semester. My research project is done on behalf of the Estonian Tourism Board, so the data is actually vital!
How did you find existing as an Asian-Australian in Estonia?
We were definitely a minority! It was good because everyone in Estonia is very open-minded. They look at you and are interested in who you are—so I got a lot of attention on the street and being approached by random guys. You know how in Australia if you’re approached by a random guy, you want them to get away from you? In Estonia, you get approached by guys and they literally just want to talk to you because you’re different.
Did you have the chance to do any modelling while you were there?
Yeah, I was very lucky! I was part of Tallinn Fashion Week while I was there and got to do a shoot for an up-and-coming company for sleeping masks. They are quite popular there. I also got to work with my dream designer! When I found out I was going to Tallinn, I met with the International Students officer at my school there. We caught up and talked about modelling. Tallinn is a really small world so everyone knows everyone, so she basically introduced me to this famous designer called Iris Janvier—she makes gowns and also everyday wear— and I ended up doing a photoshoot for her. For Tallinn Fashion Week, I also worked with a big designer called Thea Pilvet. She was also super lovely and she was so excited to have me because her collection was Asia-based—so why not end the show with an Asian model wearing Asian-inspired clothing.
I’ve always been the kind of person who doesn’t like just doing one thing. I always have many things on my plate and doing things at the same time. So it was good to not just go to Estonia to study and live there, but also to work there as a model and travel as a bonus.
What are you up to this year?
I started 2018 by working in Bangkok! I landed a modelling contract with an agency for three months. I was offered the contract in November 2017, and it was a hard decision I had to make. I wasn’t sure if it was something I wanted to do but in the end with much self-contemplation I decided to accept the offer. One week into the biz and I was already handed my first job—so I’m pretty happy about that!
What are you currently listening to?
Currently listening to lots of Spanish music and Australian artists. In love with chilled-out sounds from Jose James and Hindi Zahra. Also getting into more RnB and hip hop like Post Malone. I’ve got a playlist going with my friends and we’re listening to music by Alt-J to LCD Soundsystem to Ed Sheeran. Basically it’s a playlist of songs we think we might enjoy. It’s a great way to get to know new artist and explore new music.
Do you have any advice for emerging models?
My advice to emerging models would be to just be yourself and stay true yourself. It’s probably easier said than done. It takes a lot of self-preservation and time to learn to be stay true to oneself. The rest will come with learning and experience.
Who are you inspired by?
I am inspired by my mum the most. Her strength and her tenacity. My mum is my idol and she has gone through so much for us to be where we are today. And I am grateful for that.
What are you currently reading?
I am currently reading Saroo Brierley's Lion. Next on my list is Glamorama by Bret Easton Ellis.
How do you practice self-care?
I’m always trying to practice self-care. I look after myself by allowing myself to do the things I love. In particular, I allow myself the simple pleasures in life. I eat what I want, I go to Pilates, I have days where I don’t move from the couch and other days when I’ve gone for a walk from St. Kilda to Brighton Beach. Most of all, I try to remind myself to be kind to myself. It’s a good practise to have, especially in a society where we live in our phones and the pressures of social media.
What does being Asian-Australian mean to you?
While I have Singaporean citizenship, Australia has been my home for more than half of my life and therefore I consider myself more Australian than ever. I’ve never forgotten my roots but I’ll always call Australia home. I would like to think of myself as a global citizen, having travelled the world and had the opportunity to live in different places. Being Asian-Australian is part of my identity and I don’t think that will ever change. It’s part of me and my history so far. I hope for it to continue being part of my life in the future as well.
Liminal is a proud recipient of the Victorian Government’s 2017 VicArts grants program.
This interview was supported by Creative Victoria.