To get a single model to front the cover as well as every fashion editorial of an issue that celebrates passionate and driven next-gen creatives focused on raising the bar for themselves as well as their industry-of-choice could either be a very good or very bad idea. With Nicole Liew being that main character, we’d like to think that the results lean towards the former.

Ahead of this month’s Spring Summer 2024 Fashion Week season where she again hopes to make Singapore proud on the international runways, the hardworking and effortlessly poised 25-year-old reminds us of how beauty is only one part of the equation to a model’s success.

You’ve been modelling since you were 19, when you were discovered and signed by the local agency Basic Models Management. What have been the highlights of your career so far?

“I’ve walked for Dolce & Gabbana thrice as well as Palm Angels, which has always been a favourite brand of mine; Vivetta; Hui Milano; Budapest Select; and Simona Corselleni. I’ve done campaigns for Dolce & Gabbana Eyewear, Sephora, Happy Socks and most recently, three different advertising shoots in a row for Raffles City. As for magazine work, I’ve done over 50 editorials to date. I started counting these from 2020 because before that, I was mostly an e-comm girl and never got booked by magazines until Covid hit and I decided to get bangs, and that changed my life so much. I’ve been on the covers of five magazines including FEMALE (in Oct 2020), and the one for this issue would be my sixth and mark the second time that I’m a FEMALE cover girl.”

READ MORE: Meet The Woman Putting Singapore Models On The Runways Of Gucci, Rodarte & More

What’s the life of a full-time model like and is it possible to make a dependable living out of it here?

“I’d say that on an average week, I’d have two to three shoots – usually for e-commerce sites or magazines – and the rest of the time, I’d be resting. Looking after your well-being is very important for a model: You need to rest your body especially after long hours on set. My skin also needs to rest as it’s very sensitive… In all, this has become a sustainable career for me because Bonita (Ma, the founder and head booker of Basic) pushes me lots for modelling jobs and social media engagements for which I’ve to come up with content for clients. There are definitely periods of ups and downs though so saving money is very important – and so is being grateful for the support of clients who regularly give you work.”

What’s your idea of “making it” in the modelling industry?

“I determine ‘making it’ as hitting the goals that I’ve personally set for myself as a model and these goals keep me passionate about the job and working hard. When I started modelling full-time, my only goal was to walk at Fashion Week and I have. Now I am trying to aim bigger and, for example, walk for a big brand at New York Fashion Week or Paris Fashion Week, where I’ve been told I’m not tall enough to do so. I’m slowly building my experience in the European modelling market and I’ve got some way to go, but baby steps!”

singapore model
Credit:Phyllicia Wang

Nicole Liew was discovered as a model at the age of 19. Six years on, the Singapore model is a regular face in the pages of Singapore fashion magazines and has walked for international brands such as Dolce & Gabbana and Palm Angels during Fashion Week.

How important is it to be signed to a modelling agency? 

“It is very important especially if you plan to do Fashion Week. One must be represented by an agency in order to be allowed to walk for the runways. And it’s important to me because a mother agency handles many things for you: It builds your portfolio; finds you an overseas agency; liaises with these agencies as well as clients; chases for payments; stands firm for you; and takes care of you. You must do your research before signing with one to make sure that the vibes sit right with you: Know what the agency has been up to and the clients that it has. You’ll want to sign to the one that is most aligned with you and your goals.”

And how important are overseas placements for a model?

“I’ve had overseas placements in 2018, 2021, 2022 and 2023 – mostly in Milan and also in London. The experience helps to build your career and expand work opportunities – the industry in Singapore is ultimately small. It also teaches you what is needed to be a good model. In Singapore, I’m always very comfortable with my mother agent and clients, but working overseas has made me realise that I have to be able to adapt very quickly during jobs, and to be both smart and brave.” 

READ MORE: A Fall/Winter 2023 Curtain Raiser With 11 New Model Faces In Singapore

Besides size, how is the Singapore modelling industry different from that of fashion capitals such as Milan and Paris?

“Modelling overseas is definitely more stressful than working in Singapore. The scene in Europe is way more cutthroat. If you’ve watched Basic’s Making Of a Model Youtube series and found Bonita fierce and mean on it, that’s actually just a small taste of what the industry is like… And while Singapore’s fashion industry is small compared to that of the fashion capitals, I feel that it is good, and updated and on-trend. A fashion editorial or campaign that I do here might not be seen as a huge achievement or get recognised in these big fashion cities, but getting local support still plays a big role in the career of a model here.”

What are the basic skills and attributes that a model should have today?

“Having diligence, patience and kindness will help bring you far. Hard work is very important for aspiring models who are just starting out – it takes a long time to build your portfolio and for clients to know you. The different fashion seasons and trends mean that the model look that’s in-demand also changes and it might not be your time, but you need to stay determined and not give up. Lastly when on a job, it always helps to be considerate towards the other people on set and easy to work with. There are so many things that go into a shoot or a runway show – it really takes a whole team so a model needs to be a good teamplayer.”

Is a model born or made?

“I’d say a model is mostly made because a model faces so much rejection that there will be many times when you feel like giving up. The most successful models today are the ones who have pushed through these tough times.”

singapore model
Credit:Stefan Khoo

Nicole Liew fronting FEMALE‘s Sept 2023 Make It Work! Edition – this marks her second time on the cover of the magazine. She also appears in all of the fashion editorials in the book

How do you keep yourself in model form?

“I don’t scrimp on skincare products that have proven to work for me and I try to be diligent about my nightly beauty regime. Sometimes beauty brands are interested in sponsoring products, but I’ve had to turn these down as I cannot afford to try new products and risk getting a breakout. Fitness-wise, I recently picked up pilates and have been addicted to it. It clears my mind and keeps me toned. I don’t go on diets because food makes me happy and I don’t want my career to make me feel restricted and awful. I did try some diets before, but found myself mentally drained. As much as modelling is my passion, I’ve grown to realise that my mental health should be put first.”

Digital retouching – yay or nay?

“I think that digital retouching has made the fashion industry go a little backwards. A lot of models have tried to speak up for body positivity: Let’s not fat shame and instead be comfortable in our own skin and celebrate models who are plus-sized or have pimples and stretch marks. These are all things that make us human and they shouldn’t be retouched away. They’re part of who we are and clients who book us should accept us whole. A little bit of retouching when necessary – such as removing some blemishes for a beauty campaign – is acceptable, but not when it’s used to make a model skinnier or change a model’s features completely. Fashion should be a safe space.”

The line between being a model and being an influencer has blurred. Is there one of the two that you prefer being associated with more than the other?

“I would prefer to be known as a model because that’s what I do for a career. I’m thankful towards the brands that think I’ve some sort of influence and want to work with me because of that, but being a model is a big part of me and I’ve worked hard to get to where I am today. On this note though, I want to say that I wish brands would treat models the same way they treat influencers. The modelling industry here is small and not that known beyond those who work in fashion, but there are so many talented models here who deserve to be recognised.”

READ MORE: 5 Gen Z Singapore Models On How They’re Living Now

What’s been the hardest lesson you’ve learnt as a model?

“Getting rejected – I used to be very hard on myself when this happened because I always want to do well in the things that I do and make the people around me proud. In recent times though, I’ve realised that I’ve no control over whether a client picks me for a job so the only thing I can do is to work hard, try my best, and be patient and try to understand why some jobs work out and some don’t.”

What do you wish was different about the Singapore modelling and fashion industries?

“I wish that these industries would be more recognised among Singaporeans. There are so many talented models who have had amazing achievements, but are not credited enough… I also wish that  people would start seeing modelling as a real job.”

What do you want aspiring models to really know about this career? 

“That hard work does pay off eventually and to never give up. I remember that the first few years of my career were filled with rejection and it took me this long to get to where I am – and even having reached this point, I just want to go further. Stay determined and strong, and just enjoy the process. Every little step counts as a win.”

Photography Phyllicia Wang Art Direction Jonathan Chia, assisted by Danessa Tong Styling Assistant Kalyse Hoo Hair Karol Soh Palette Inc, using Keune Makeup Keith Bryant Lee, using MAC Cosmetics

This article first appeared in the Sept 2023 Make It Work! Edition of FEMALE