3．Subverting the definition of beauty
--When you were scouted, did you ever imagine that you would rise all the way to top model?
Well, early on I was scouted to do music videos, not modeling. Here's what really happened. One day when I was out riding my motorcycle, and when I checked my messages I had a voice mail from a casting director saying "Go to the Hollywood Bowl right now. Calvin Klein is there and you need to meet him. He's been scouting through all of LA!" It was five o'clock, which meant the casting had already finished, but I drove over there, parked my bike and looked around. I went up to the Hollywood Bowl but I didn't see anyone. After turning a corner, I see this huge wooden table about 20 feet long. There were around 30 people surrounding the table and they're all beautiful. They were obviously working for Calvin Klein, but he wasn't there. Then I hear footsteps as someone comes up behind me. It's Calvin Klein and he says, "Did you just ride that motorcycle?" He started taking pictures of me that day. And the next day they said, "We're taking you for Calvin Klein. We're taking you to New York - you'll be working in New York." I figured it sounded okay, so I packed a little bag for one week. Three and a half years later and I'd never left. It was great. What an amazing experience!
--Do you know if the scout had chosen that club knowing what kind of place it was? Or do you think she just was there by chance?
She went there intentionally. They were looking to find "different" people...to find different-looking people, that is.
--By the way, what was the first music video you were in?
An En Vogue video, I think.
※Boyish and Asian - neither very common to the modeling world.
--In the United States today, there are a lot of out lesbians visible to the public eye, but this was not true in the early 1990's. At the time there were almost none. I often hear how much you inspired a lot of butch women in Japan. Even now, they talk about how amazing it was for them to see this tough and boldly queer-looking Asian woman dominating the mainstream press. How did it feel for you to be covered in this way? Were you conscious of your image in your work?
You know, I've always felt natural the way I am. I'm a mechanic. That's normal. Tattooed. Gay. All these things were a part of me being true to myself. But it became very difficult for me when I went to New York. I had to work with the most feminine and the most beautiful women in the world and that deeply affected me. In a way, I had almost felt like I developed two different lives.
--What was difficult for you?
I felt like I was selling out. Like I wasn't still the same Jenny who rode bikes. I didn't know how to handle the gap I felt between my world and theirs. I mean, I thought that they liked me because of how I was different. But at the same time that made me angry because I knew that if I weren't pretty, they probably would have never even spoken to someone like me - a lesbian mechanic who rode motorcycles. It bothered me that it was so shallow because that's the job - it's based strictly on your face. But now that I'm older I can see that, even though it was only a job, I was taking it personally and it made me miserable. Now, when I look back I think, "Wow, that was such a great opportunity."
--So you weren't happy? You didn't like it?
Well, I didn't feel like I was beautiful. I would wonder, "Why are people hiring me?" I was born here in California and where I grew up there weren't very many Japanese women. That means there weren't a lot of role models to convey the message that "You're beautiful." Instead, beauty was always the blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl. Never did I think that I would ever be a model, or even be considered good-looking. And still, I was embraced by New York. It seemed to be saying, "Welcome Jenny!" I had no idea what to do with myself. Also, I wasn't very savvy.
--What do you mean?
For example, some of these models know how to travel to Paris, party with princes, and stay up all night. But I had never had a passport and the only reason I did was because my agent began sending me all over for modeling. I'd never been to another country before, so I didn't know what to do. All the other models seemed so cultured, cosmopolitan, and international.
(c) Ellen Von Unwerth
--You never thought about quitting?
No, because I knew that my being there as a Japanese dyke and an out lesbian was significant. I had to do it. It was like I was invited to a private club and I thought, "I don't care if I'm afraid, I'm just going to do this because I have to."
--Yes, it was very important. You really made an impact on the lives of many gay and Asian women.
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