Singapore modelling maven Mimi Tan dies at 76, fashion insiders pay tribute

Former model Mimi Tan, managing director of Mimi Tan's Mannequins, with some of her mannequins. - THE BUSINESS TIMES

SINGAPORE (The Straits Times/Asia News Network): Local fashion personality Hermina Adriana “Mimi” Tan died on Monday (Dec 26) at age 76.

She is best remembered as one of Singapore’s top models in the 1970s, and later, the managing director of the country’s oldest modelling agency, Mannequin Studio.

She had been ill for a while, and succumbed to lung cancer on Boxing Day, her close friend and former journalist Cynthia Wee-Hoefer, 71, tells The Straits Times. Tan is survived by her nieces and grandnephews.

Born in Penang to an Indonesian father and Malaysian mother, Tan was the second of four children. She started her career working in the family’s car business in Hong Kong. Then came stints in banking and as an air stewardess at Cathay Pacific.

After leaving the airline, she came to Singapore and found work as a model with Mannequin Studio, which was opened by Ruth Warner in 1972. Warner later asked Tan to help train new models, then take over as director when she retired to the United Kingdom.

At the time, modelling agencies were mostly owned and managed by foreign women such as Warner and Joan Booty, recalls Wee-Hoefer, who met Tan in her role as a journalist at Singapore’s Fanfare and Her World magazines.

“Mimi bought over the shares from another partner to become sole owner of Mannequin Studio in 1974, with an office in the then Hilton Hotel.”

The local fashion scene was exploding then, with boutiques for both imported and local fashion mushrooming across the island.

Fashion shows and shoots were in high demand. Tan recruited models in unlikely places – from supermarkets to discos, and via scouting on the streets.

There were other local modelling agencies – including Carrie Models and Elsa Yeo Model Centre – but Tan “stood out for her dedication to her models and business associates, many of whom remained close friends”, says Wee-Hoefer.

The two crossed paths again in 1978 at the first Young Designer Fashion Award organised by Her World, where Wee-Hoefer was the fashion coordinator.

“We were searching for someone to fill in the last slot for a model, but couldn’t find a suitable candidate. Mimi stepped in and offered to participate. She was the principal of an agency and it would have raised eyebrows, but she was unfettered by criticisms. She saved the day.”

Under Tan’s leadership, Mannequin represented Singaporean models such as Elaine Tan and Marion Nicole Teo (both Miss Universe Singapore winners), as well as models-turned-actresses Jazreel Low and Yvonne Tan.

After Mimi Tan retired from the modelling business in 1991, she went into business with a different type of mannequin. She opened Mimi Tan’s Mannequins, importing and supplying dress figures to stores in South-East Asia, including Tangs.

Her impact was felt in the fashion industry. In a 2021 interview with VintageRadio.Sg, Tan said she worked to dispel stigma around modelling in the 1970s, which many associated with social escorts.

Recalling her fondly, fashion show producer Daniel Boey says Tan was the first person who spotted his potential. He met her when he was a university student.

“Our paths crossed in 1986 when she judged the National University of Singapore Arts Ball beauty pageant and I produced the fashion show. She told me I had talent and I should pursue it, and offered me a job,” says the 57-year-old, who is nicknamed the godfather of Singapore fashion.

He passed on the offer as it meant dropping out of school – but ended up getting part-time work with her agency, which led to him pursuing fashion as a full-time career upon graduation.

“I last saw her in November 2014 at the launch of my autobiography. I texted her earlier this year to ask her about modelling for me, but didn’t get a reply. I think she was very ill by then,” adds Boey, who recently staged a few fashion shows featuring models aged 50 and above.

Wee-Hoefer, who holidayed with Tan in places such as Alaska, says: “She was a globetrotter and had lived in parts of Central Africa and Denmark. She loved travelling and would not hesitate to tag along with friends on trips abroad or jump onto cruises. Mimi was married to a Dane. Twice, she would declare. And to an Englishman, which ended in divorce.

“She always obliged when friends requested her signature Penang laksa or monster platter of Lunar New Year yusheng and oysters. Such was her generous spirit that she would donate quietly to charity and support friends in business.”

Above all, Tan was a role model among friends, she adds.

Tan’s wake will be held until 10pm today (Dec 29) at Singapore Funeral Parlour, Level 2A Daisy, 91 Tampines Link.

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Singapore , model , Mimi Tan , death


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