If looks could kill, Ling Tan –who has been modelling since 1994 – would probably qualify as a professional assassin.
After all, she is acknowledged as the first international supermodel from Malaysia; she has done hundreds of runway shows in New York, London, Milan, Rome, and Paris. She has even appeared in George Michael’s music video Fast Love, as well as an episode of HBO’s Sex And The City.
According to website fashionmodeldirectory.com, Tan clocked in over 30 shows in 1997 and 1998. Louis Vuitton, Alexander McQueen, Chanel, Gucci, Hermes, Oscar de la Renta, Tom Ford, Stella McCartney, Valentino and Vera Wang are just some of the designers she has worked with. She even walked for the very last Yves Saint Laurent show in Paris’ Georges Pompidou Centre in 2002.
For our interview at a cafe in Suria KLCC, Tan shows up looking extremely poised. Her modern batik outfit is simple but colourful. Her silky long jet-black hair is worn loose, while a tinge of lipstick with rouge cheeks and foundation is all the make-up she wore.
Tan, 41, was in Kuala Lumpur last month for Chinese New Year; she has not been back in Malaysia for over two years. She has no airs when she speaks – no boasting, no name-dropping. It felt like a chat with a friend who is sharing her stories. And what a great story indeed.
Born Tan Mang Ling and raised in KL, this 178cm-tall model was no stranger to fashion growing up.
“My mother was a seamstress, and I’ve been exposed to fashion ever since I was young. I helped her with the sewing and measuring.” Tan later enrolled herself in a vocational school to study fashion.
Her big break came when she was spotted by an advertising executive while waiting for a friend at a hotel’s high tea fashion show. Tan then appeared in a beer commercial shown in cinemas all over South-East Asia (though she confesses she doesn’t drink alcohol until today).
Soon she became the hottest modelling sensation in Malaysia. And it wasn’t long before European and American designers showing their collections in Malaysia were so impressed with Tan that they encouraged her to move to New York City.
“I used my friends’ miles points for the flight ticket,” she recalls with a laugh. It was in 1994 and New York’s fashion week was held during Halloween. “I was really shocked seeing New Yorkers in costumes as I thought this was how they dressed everyday!”
One of her first runway shows was for Malaysian couturier Datuk Zang Toi. The initial plan to stay two weeks in NYC turned into two decades.
Since then, Tan has appeared on covers and editorial pages of top fashion magazines including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, Elle and New York Times Magazine.
Her small screen exposure include television commercials for Emporio Armani fragrances, Ford car and Pantene Hair Colour. Her appearance on the HBO hit series Sex And The City was truly an unforgettable experience.
“Sarah Jessica Parker (who played lead character Carrie Bradshaw) had to fall 60 times for the catwalk scene I was involved in. After that, I had the highest respect for actors.” The scene had Tan walking the runway, followed by Carrie who fell due to her heels.
“Models are always given shoes that are too big or too small; that’s one of the constant challenges of being a model,” says Tan, who wears size 39.5. She always ensures that she gets enough practice in her shoes before each show.
“My show at the Spanish Steps in Rome was really terrifying. It is a huge live event held every year. And imagine, models had to walk down 135 steps in super high heels and long flowing dresses.”
Her most challenging photo shoot was for La Perla, held on an island near South Africa. The beach was known for its warm volcanic sands and posing sexy took much more effort.
So how does a person with all this success remain humble and “normal”?
“I have normal friends. I hang out with normal people.”
As a matter of fact, Tan came to the interview from a dog lovers’ gathering; it was organised by people she met for the first time through Instagram.
Tan is a true animal lover. She doesn’t own any pets in her New York apartment, as she travels constantly and thinks it’s unfair to leave them for long periods of time.
Her family home in KL has been known as “the animal orphanage”. Boxes of kittens or puppies are normally left at their front gate, so Tan’s parents have no choice but to feed them and send them off to SPCA.
“Malaysians must be educated on the importance of neutering,” muses Tan. “Imagine the tourists who come here to find all these stray cats and dogs roaming around. It’s not a good sight and not a good image of the country.”
She is an avid supporter of promoting Malaysia’s tourism to the world, and thinks more must be done – especially on social media. Next on her agenda, Tan is keen to visit Sabah for a close encounter with the Sepilok Orangutan.
If you follow Tan on Instagram (@lingtan_), you’d notice that she is a huge fan of photography. Her pictures comprise her travels, cute animals and friends at gatherings and events – all taken and edited by her.
“I’d love to do this professionally like Tyra Banks, but I’m really bad at deadlines and I doubt I would shoot something I have no interest in.”
As for the local modelling scene, Tan hopes that Malaysian faces will be given more opportunities compared to foreign models.
“The young girls I met in New York keep telling me their agencies ask them to venture into the industry by starting in KL or Hong Kong.”
What is Tan’s advice for wannabe models? “Be alert. Just like other professions, modelling has its good and bad sides. Don’t let anyone take advantage of you.
“The moment you smell something suspicious, run for your life!” she concludes with a laugh.