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Chinese modeling pioneer Du Juan on #MeToo in China and her career moves

Chinese modeling pioneer Du Juan on #MeToo in China and her career moves
Du Juan was the first major Chinese model to strike it big on the international fashion scene. (Julian Mackler / BFA / REX / Shutterstock)

After a hiatus of seven years, Du Juan made her return to the runway at Chinese lingerie brand Neiwai’s art and fashion show in Shanghai last month. Hailed as China’s first international supermodel, Shanghai-born Du Juan burst onto the scene in 2005 and broke through barriers, appearing that same year on the cover of French Vogue as the first Asian cover-model.

Her career would go on to contain many other “firsts” and “onlys.” She walked the runway for brands such as Chanel, Valentino, and Jean-Paul Gaultier, fronting ad campaigns for Louis Vuitton, Gap and Yves Saint Laurent, and frequently featured in fashion editorials for publications across the globe.

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The modeling very nearly didn’t happen. Du’s first love was classical ballet and she trained at Shanghai Theatre Academy. But after spending almost a decade pursuing it, she became too tall to find a dance partner and made the switch to modeling full-time.

Considering Du’s global success, she keeps a surprisingly low profile, shunning the use of social media and instead choosing to live a quiet, elusive life. This has not dampened her star power, however, and since 2013 she has plunged herself into a new career in the movie industry. Du made her acting debut in “American Dreams in China,” directed by Peter Chan, which won her nominations at the 33rd Hong Kong Film Awards for best supporting actress and best new performer. This year, she seems to have hit her acting stride: she has three feature films coming out within the next six months.

That’s not to say Du will stop modeling. On the eve of her runway return, WWD spoke with her to get her take on the industry, including sexual harassment, advice for aspiring young models and an update on her life.

Calm and collected, Du Juan prefers to stay off of social media and away from the limelight.
Calm and collected, Du Juan prefers to stay off of social media and away from the limelight. (Vincent Yu / AP / REX / Shutterstock)

Backstage before the Neiwai show, the mood was electric, with actors from Shanghai’s Sleep No More theater production, who were performing, boisterously laughing and shouting in their dressing rooms next door. It was clear that the noise made Du, who stressed her preference for peace and quiet throughout the interview, uncomfortable and distracted, and one of her aids quickly dashed out to silence the actors after a subtle nod from the model.

Du’s demeanor skews to the calm and collected. During the interview she only became more animated when responding to questions about the #MeToo movement, repeating the phrase in English herself, before switching back to Mandarin. Due to the time pressure of the looming show, Du was only able to answer a selection of questions on the night, but followed up with the rest of her answers later.

Tonight’s show is set across six rooms based on the quote from Franz Kafka, “Everyone carries a room about inside them.” Can you tell us about your room — what is it that people don’t know or understand about you?

In real life, I am someone who likes quiet and doesn’t like to be bothered by the outside world. I have sort of my own inner world, my own little place in my mind that I like to keep for myself.

Why did you step away from modeling and how are you filling your time now? Can you tell us a bit more about your film career?

I’ve never left the modeling industry nor have I stopped modeling. I don’t go to the fashion weeks anymore and people don’t see me as much on the runway. I don’t like to repeat the same work over and over again. Sometimes I feel the need to try something new, such as when I decided to go into acting. My career path includes modeling and acting; I participate on the basis that I’m interested, and I like the project.

What have been your most memorable shoots, and who have been your favorite editors, stylists or photographers to work with over the years?

Jeff Lee is a Chinese stylist who I’ve worked with very frequently these few years. He’s sharp. Our chemistry and end result is everything you could wish for.

Although you made it to very elite runways, you cut your teeth on the catwalk in the days when it wasn’t necessary to also become a public personality. Is this why you still don’t have social media accounts? Do you plan to stay as elusive in your acting career?

I don’t like to over-promote myself. People have seen a lot of my work already. My work and private life belong to me and myself only. Whatever arises from my work belongs to the public, I prefer a quiet life. I hope everyone understands.

What do you think about the next crop of girls coming up in the modeling industry and the new pressures they are under? Do you feel the need to nurture them or have any advice for them?

Modeling is a very tough career to go through with, it requires good looks, self-motivation, persistence and stamina! I wish all of them good luck in their future careers.

Du Juan at a Chanel show.
Du Juan at a Chanel show. (Shannon Fagan / REX / Shutterstock)

What do you think about China’s fledgling #MeToo movement? How do you think it will play out in the country and what different obstacles does it face in a more traditional society?

I think sexual harassment is one of the biggest disrespects to women these days and of course it exists in real life, but as a responsible person living in society, I think all of us have a responsibility to try and eliminate this sort of phenomenon in our society. To try and stand up when the opportunity arises.

What about in the modeling industry in particular, especially after Grace Han accused Eric Tsang of making unwanted sexual advances on women in the entertainment industry. Is this something that is prevalent and is it something you have experienced as well in the industry?

In my experience, I haven’t.

Are you worried for new, younger girls starting in the industry?

Good luck, this industry isn’t easy to be in. For myself, and models around me, I haven’t really heard of any stories. Of course, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but we are trying to raise the issue, we are trying to point it out and trying to eliminate this issue. But within my inner circle, no one has shared this.

Is that because China is a more traditional society compared to America?

Maybe people don’t stand up because we are a very culturally conservative society, so to speak. Some industries are safer, but none are immune to this issue. It’s not just the modeling industry, all industries in China, even the finance sector, the entertainment sector, it’s all the same. Sexual harassment is everywhere, it’s not just within the modeling industry and it is something that more people should speak up about. People are speaking up more, but it’s not as open as in the U.S. or U.K.

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What do you think about the notion that some women in China have to choose a “career line bra” [Chinese slang for showing cleavage] in order to succeed in a male dominated industry? Do you think that this attitude is starting to change in the country?

From my experience, I learned ballet at a very young age. I started living in boarding school and became a model and an actor. The women that I have met throughout my career have always been very strong. They have their own perception. They have their own thoughts and these will become the main power stream of society in the future. Regardless of gender, people should be in harmony. Not just gender equality, but everybody should be equal with everybody else regardless of their gender or career background.

What was it like being a rare Chinese face at fashion week? Do you think racial diversity has improved since? Could it improve faster?

It was 2005 when I went to the international fashion weeks. At the time, only a very few Asian faces would be picked up by the big brands to walk the runway, most of them from Korea and Japan, Chinese models were only beginning to get noticed. The shows that used Asian models would only pick one to walk the runway. There were very few opportunities and it was a very hard time. Being alone overseas was a hard time. The language barriers, the food, the roads were all strange to me. On top of that, I had to go to several interviews every day. I was lonely, but the good thing is that time is behind me and I’ve strived through it. Nowadays it’s a totally different era. The international fashion circle has noticed and certainly taken a liking toward Chinese models and the Chinese market. As long as you have what it takes to be a model, you’ll have a chance. There are many opportunities now.

Du Juan at a Ralph Lauren event.
Du Juan at a Ralph Lauren event. (Jacques Brinon /AP/ REX / Shutterstock)

Can you tell us more about the films you’re in and how that got started?

Recently, I’ve been working on my modeling career. I haven’t been doing any film work lately because there aren’t any roles recently that have really moved me. It takes a lot to build up a character. I don’t want to waste my emotions easily. I have two movies coming up over the next few months, “Lost in Love” and “Europe Raiders.” There is also “Theory of Ambitions” with director Philip Yung Chi-kwong, which I’m very excited about.

What kind of actor do you want to be and why? Is there anybody you look up to in particular?

Acting enables you to become one with the spirit of the character, to experience another person’s life. I aspire to become such an actor, it will be a treat. In terms of actresses I look up to, it’s Maggie Cheung. She can act so well, but also stop and live her own life.

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What kind of goals do you set for your acting?

I became an actor by chance, so I didn’t really set any goals for myself. I hope that the characters I act as have a story that happened around them, that way I have space to act. Being an actor is not my entire career, I hope to find a role that I like for me to be able to act.

What kind of films and television do you watch usually?

I don’t watch a lot of TV. In terms of films, I like realistic films that have moving stories.

Du Juan on a promotional tour with Hong Kong actor Tony Leung for the 2016 movie “See You Tomorrow.”
Du Juan on a promotional tour with Hong Kong actor Tony Leung for the 2016 movie “See You Tomorrow.” (Andy Wong / AP / REX / Shutterstock)

Do you still dance for fun? What else do you like to do on your own personal time?

I love ballet, but I don’t dance anymore. When I have free time, I like to be alone at home, make some tea, listen to music, swim and watch movies.

Dancing, modeling, acting. If you had to pick one, which would be your favorite?

Dancing, modeling and acting, I’ve experienced them all. If I were to choose, I would choose what I am now, a model and actress.

This interview was translated and edited for clarity.

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