Professional and easy to work with, Ling Tan is sought after by top designers and photographers.
LING Tan had laughingly admonished me for refusing to eat. “You’re Malaysian and we’re in Malaysia and you want to diet? Who’s ever heard of people in Malaysia dieting?” she teased, alluding to the scrumptious spread that we have all year round.
The Kuala Lumpur-born 35-year-old supermodel was back in town for the Malaysian Official Designers Association (MODA) 20th Anniversary Tribute Gala. Ling certainly did not believe in dieting while in Malaysia. She ate with gusto, though she admitted she was more careful with her diet back in New York where she is based.
By the time the gala had ended and she had removed her make-up, it was way past midnight.
“We (which included fellow New York-based Malaysian uber fashion designer Zang Toi) headed to a restaurant in Jalan Imbi for supper. When we got back to the hotel, I had to answer so many business e-mails. By then it was close to 4am,” revealed Ling, who despite the lack of sleep looked radiant when she turned up for the interview the day after the gala.
She was apologetic about the “bump” in her tummy when we were doing the photo shoot earlier, though my colleague, photographer Raymond Ooi, and I did not notice any signs of it. I jokingly told her that perhaps we should put a note on her midriff saying, “sponsored by nasi lemak.”
Tan Mang Ling (her real name) had earlier enjoyed a good helping of nasi lemak at the Zang Toi cafe in Pavilion KL where this interview was held. Though she occasionally indulges in her passion for food, it never shows on her amazingly slim 178cm tall frame.
In a previous interview six years ago, Ling told me she kept fit by running from airport to airport because her work took her around the world. Ling is not one to opt for limos and chauffeured rides; she actually uses the local subways wherever she is.
On top of all that walking and running, Ling is now into swimming.
“I swim about one hour, very slowly. I only learnt to swim four years ago. I can tread water for one minute and have learnt how to dive a little. It’s so much fun because we also play some games in the pool,” she enthused.
It is easy to see why Ling is so highly sought after by top fashion designers and fashion photographers around the world. She is very professional and easy to work with, and there’s not a trace of diva attitude. She hits the mark every time and is open to suggestions.
Ooi was in photographer’s heaven, working with a model who has been on the international scene for 16 years!
It’s hard to find any celebrated designer who has not got her to walk the runway, done a fashion campaign or endorsed some of their labels or products. Armani, Balenciaga, Chanel, Chloe, Dior, Escada, Ferragamo, Fendi, Gucci, Gaultier, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent are just some of the A to Z of labels.
Steven Meisel, Annie Leibovitz, Peter Lindbergh, Mario Testino, Ellen Von Unwerth, Gilles Bensimon, Patrick Demarchelier, Jean Baptiste-Mondino, Michelangelo di Battista, Matthew Rolston and the legendary Richard Avedon (who photographed her for the Pirelli calendar) are but a few of the famous shutterbugs who captured her through their lens.
“There have been thousands of shots of me so it’s hard for me to choose some personal favourites. Probably the ones done by Lindbergh for the Neiman Marcus campaign in 2005 and by di Battista. The shoot for Battista was very slow, it was literally one picture a day. He used a special camera and it took that long to ‘cook’. I just napped while waiting,” said Ling with a loud laugh.
“Irving Penn (one the most influential photographers of the 20th century) shot me for American Vogue and for Issey Miyake’s book which was published in 1999. He passed away last year, at 92,” Ling added.
Pick up a magazine like Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Conde Nast Traveler, Marie Claire, Elle, Allure, Amica, Visionaire and W, and there would have been a cover or pages that featured her.
Despite being surrounded by famous designers, fellow models and celebrities all her professional life, Ling said she was overwhelmed by the crowd that turned up for MODA’s gala.
“It was great to see so many people whom I admire but have never seen or met. Then I met old friends like Hannah (Toolseram, Malaysia’s top model in the 80s and former house-model for the House of Versace), (Tengku) Azura, (a “veteran” and still one of our best models), Eric Choong (designer), Michael Ong (designer) and Cilla Foong, who taught me how to walk the runaway, and she looked amazing. I really enjoyed the show; I enjoyed meeting so many young and aspiring designers and models,” said Ling in pretty good English.
She has come a long way indeed. Back in the early days, Ling spoke no English.
After featuring in a Tiger Beer ad in Malaysia in the early 90s, the American producer of the commercial saw her potential. Ling barely spoke a word of English then and it helped that the producer spoke Mandarin.
After clinching the runner-up spot in the Asian Model Search in 1994, Ling was whisked off to New York. It was kismet that one of the judges at the competition was Zang Toi. He fitted her into his spring/summer 2005 show in New York and the rest is supermodel history.
While Ling has not walked for Zang for some time, they are bosom buddies who meet up often and attend many events together in New York.
“It was great flying in together with Zang for the MODA show and walking with him down the runway. And then we were off to Penang for a few days and sampled the food there.”
Ling leaves us with some food for thought indeed. She has opened the door for a slew of Asian models, the likes of Chinese girls Emma Pei, Shu Pei, Du Juan and current It girl Liu Wen, who are now making waves on international runways.
Like Ling, these new girls have an issue with the English Language.
“Shu Pei asked me for help with her English and I recommended the teacher who coached Ein (Ling’s younger sister and fellow model).”
Ein, a highly successful model, teaches Mandarin in between bookings. She also gives piano lessons to young children. Both sisters love to spend time at museums and galleries during their downtime. Ling’s favourite subject is contemporary paintings.
The siblings have been photographed by the famed Leibovitz. They did their sister act for the covers of Harper’s Bazaar Malaysia and Singapore May issue this year.
Told that they bear a strong resemblance to each other, Ling brushes it off. “Not really, I look like my mum and Ein looks like my dad. Personality-wise, Ein is like my mum, they both like to do things at a fast pace. My Chinese name Mang means slow in Chinese.”
Ling’s mum joined us during the later part of the interview, and it is true that Ling resembles her!
Ling was down in Malaysia last December and stayed on till March. It was the first time she spent Chinese New Year with the family since she made New York her base.
Ling who loves travelling managed to visit Miri, the Mulu Caves and Kuching with her mother and some friends during that recent work break.
“I love going to new places and I love to take as many pictures as I can,” said Ling.
She had earlier shown us her vacation pictures and was particularly pleased with some shots she took in a market in Kuching as “their fruits are bigger than normal”.
Ling has more time for travelling these days as her commitments are more for brand campaigns and editorial shoots.
After a long hiatus from the runway, Ling was back with a bang last March when she walked for the Givenchy Fall/Winter 2010 show in Paris.
Her last project was a video for Polo Ralph Lauren for the Fall 2010 campaign.
It is a fulfilling life indeed, but is it enough for Ling? Does she look forward to settling down and starting a family?
“I love children but I’m still busy with my travels,” said Ling.
After Ling, Malaysia has not had more international models to boast of. Any success on the modelling front is regional at best.
Current MODA president Gillian Hung fondly remembers Ling’s first catwalk show in KL which was for Isetan.
“That’s what I wanted for the Gala – to highlight great designers and models like her. We had Maggie Loo (70s beauty queen who first started a modelling agency) and then Cilla after that. So I knew Ling from way back then. It’s about time we find the next Ling!” she said.