What does it mean to be Singaporean? For models Diya Prabhakar, Nargis Musawwir and Noelle Woon—who are as Singaporean as local entertainers such as Dick Lee, Steph Sun and JJ Lin—the time is now to turn the concept of beauty on its head and raise new discourses about our multi-ethnic and diverse culture. These beautiful faces, who got their head start in modelling after being crowned winner of The New Paper New Face competition in 2014, 2006 and 2013 respectively, represent a new crop of Singapore models who are changing the face of the fashion scene—both locally and internationally—despite its many challenges.
For starters, breaking into Singapore’s modelling industry as young models of colour was no easy feat. For decades, the industry favoured models of a certain look and classic appeal. “There was little demand for a model of my profile—I hardly had any jobs, compared to other models I knew here at the time,” recalls Nargis, who is of African-American and Pakistani descent.
The 32-year-old model turned full-time when she was 20. With a burning desire to pursue her dreams and gain international exposure, Nargis put her education on hold and ventured overseas after contacting an international agency on her own. “Being out there was a total game-changer. Of course, it had its fair share of struggles, but I was working a lot and it was a great feeling to finally be noticed,” she reminisces. To date, Nargis, currently represented by Singapore modelling agency Mannequin, has fronted countless editorials locally and internationally, as well as TV commercials for Sony, Singapore Tourism Board and CCC Shoes, among many others. Outside of her modelling work, the striking beauty is a proud supporter of children and women empowerment, loves making jewellery, and hopes to be a business owner one day.
Noelle, who turns 24 this year, struggled with her body image and self-esteem in her early years of modelling. “Being so young and trying to find my identity… My look changed all the time, sometimes to the point of making me lose jobs. Then I realised that to be in this industry you have to understand it’s not about you—it’s about helping someone portray their version of you according to their artistic vision. I learned to appreciate my features and find my place in the industry,” she shares.
The vivacious Nigerian-Chinese made a splash in the world of fashion with her spunky personality when she joined Mannequin full-time in 2019. Having landed magazine covers and worked with brands including Chanel, Longchamp, Coach and Sephora, Noelle is just getting started. She is also an aspiring artist who flexes her creative muscle with tongue-in-cheek illustrations and comics that make you think, and is passionate about the representation of people of colour and support of the LGBTQ community.
Diya, 22, whose parents came from India, got an even earlier start. At the tender age of 14, she was discovered by a model scout in India at a fashion show. “I was still in school so I did not have much time to really dedicate to modelling, but whatever little I did really helped groom my skills. It allowed me to become more confident and sure of myself.” The 1.82m-tall stunner decided to model full-time right after completing her A-Levels—she did that for three years—and has quietly built her career since.
Besides Looque in Singapore, Diya has also signed on to modelling agencies across the globe, including The Industry in New York and Los Angeles, as well as Elite Models in London. With her eyes set on the global fashion stage, she made her Paris Fashion Week debut at the age of 20 and has worked with the likes of Alexander Wang, Prabal Gurung, Marine Serre, M.A.C Cosmetics, and Sephora. The business student at Baruch College in New York (the pandemic has moved her home and lessons online) is committed to juggling the demands of school and modelling, and volunteers at homeless shelters in her free time.
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While the fashion industry has made considerable strides in recent years when it comes to addressing issues like diversity, inclusion and sustainability, there’s still lots to be done. We chat with these bright modelling stars about what being Singaporean means to them, the future of fashion, their career goals and aspirations, and more.
How was it like growing up in Singapore?
Diya: I loved it. It was very interesting being a part of a multicultural society and learning so many new, different things.
Nargis: I’m Muslim and grew up practicing my mother’s culture—my mom is Pakistani with Afghanistan roots. Growing up here in Singapore had its challenges as I didn’t look like the kids here. I was often bullied in school and would come home crying to my parents, telling them that I hated my features.
Noelle: Growing up, I was much more involved with the Chinese side of my family—Chinese food, celebrating Chinese New Year in traditional Chinese costumes, and so on—though the main spoken language in my household was English and Hokkien; no Mandarin at all. It was a good experience as racial harmony is encouraged here, and I guess you could say that people saw me as “cool” or “niche” due to my race. Growing up as a mixed girl was seen more as a privilege than an oddity; I got praised more than outcasted for my differences. However, internally, it did take a toll on my confidence as I looked so different from other girls who were petite and pretty. I’m tall and have inherited stronger features I did not know how to appreciate at the time.
What does being Singaporean mean to you? What do you love about Singapore?
Diya: I get a sense of pride when I tell people I’m from Singapore. I love the security and comfort I feel when I’m back home.
Nargis: Being Singaporean to me, is being together as ONE, living in harmony, regardless of our language, race and religion. I have a very big family here in Singapore, and many of my family have interracial marriages—I’ve got family members that look Malay, Chinese and Indian. What I love about Singapore is that we get to see the various races celebrating one another’s tradition. Singapore is very much safer than the countries I have lived in; women are able to walk around freely at any time of the day. Essentials like education and healthcare are provided to everyone, and we also have a good transport system in place.
Noelle: It means being open to new and diverse cultures from all over the world. I love Singapore because I feel like everyone has a place to stay when they come here, to feel safe and make a home out of this country.
What have been your career highs?
Diya: Walking for Alexander Wang was one of my career highs that I’m really proud of. But other than that, some of my favourite brands I’ve worked for are Prabal Gurung, Area, Oscar De La Renta and Philip Lim.
Nargis: I modelled for Beyonce‘s clothing line and was on set with her mom. I also got to meet celebs like Jay-Z, Denzel Washington and Chris Brown, to name a few. Another highlight of my career was sailing a boat for a TV commercial.
Noelle: I don’t think I’ve pursued modelling long enough to have notable career highs yet, but I’d say landing a couple of magazine covers were happy moments for me.
What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learnt in your career?
Diya: To be patient.
Nargis: To always be respectful to everyone no matter their position. To not compare ourselves with others—when you are happy for someone else’s success, you will also pave success for yourself.
Noelle: Composure is key. Be kind, be nice, and be flexible, because everyone just wants to get things done too.
What are some causes you’re passionate about?
Diya: I love to help out in general. There’s this app in New York called DEED, that allows you to volunteer at homeless shelters or help underprivileged kids. Whenever I have the time, I try to sign up for an activity and help out. My favourite was doing a runway show for autistic kids.
Nargis: I believe children should have the rights to proper education, as well as a happy, loving and safe home. I’d love to start a school for children in less privileged countries. I would also love to be able to adopt a child or two one day. I know I cannot change the world for every child out there, but I can do so for one or two. Plus, I am deeply passionate about financial independence and support for women. Women should be able to have the power and confidence to walk out of an unhappy relationship and live her life to the fullest.
Noelle: The support of the LGBTQ community, as well as respect towards, and the representation of, people of colour.
What are your thoughts on diversity and inclusivity in the fashion industry?
Diya: I think diversity is very important. The industry has constantly been changing and evolving, and now I see a real trend towards diversity and inclusivity. People have become more inclusive when it comes to skin colour and body types.
Nargis: More models of colour, plus-sized and hijabi models are in the modelling scene now and it’s so empowering. It’s beautiful and powerful when we have diversity. There is no one “perfect” definition of beauty—everyone is beautiful in their own way. Everyone has got their strengths.
Noelle: Beauty is very diverse in the fashion industry. What’s beautiful to one designer might not be to another, so there’s really no specific mould here. I think diversity and inclusivity can always do better in these times. I still look around and only see White, Pan-Asian or Chinese representation mostly—maybe it’s just in Singapore, because in other countries people of colour are being seen as more than just a “token individual.”
If you could make one change in the fashion industry, what would it be?
Diya: Hopefully, the idea of a sample size gets bigger. I think sample size as of now is a very unrealistic body image for many girls. Many models go to unhealthy ways to get to this size.
Nargis: The international market has opened up to plus-size modelling; Asia is not quite there yet. I hope to see this change in Asia. Body measurements shouldn’t matter as long as we feel healthy and beautiful.
Noelle: Honestly, I don’t know. There’s so many aspects to the industry that make it what it is.
Do you think the future of fashion is sustainable, and why?
Diya: Many fast fashion brands have pivoted to greener options and provide us with sustainable options. Many of my friends are also searching for brands that focus on sustainability. Thrift shopping has become increasingly popular.
Nargis: Some fashion brands have taken a more sustainable approach to waste. However, many more are not and there is a lot of waste and pollution created by fashion. I’m convinced it needs to innovate itself fully through recycling and repurposing textiles for other uses.
Noelle: I think people are now more aware of the implications of waste, fast fashion and more. As a result, designers are catering to the ever-changing market by finding better ways to create environmentally friendly products.
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What do you think power means in the age of social media?
Diya: Today, power is the ability to generate hype and influence. If you have a lot of followers who look up to you, I believe you have a lot of power.
Nargis: Power is diversity and inclusivity. Nowadays though, it seems so easy for anyone to be labelled a “model” and gain a mass following, with the use of filters and editing tools. This is then rewarded by brands, which kills the modelling market.
Noelle: Power in fashion is being able to be authentic and original while catering to the many demands of other people. It is also how much people “like” you, in this environment.
How would you describe your style? What are your favourite labels and places to shop?
Diya: I don’t have a particular style. I just buy pieces that I like and think reflect my personality. I don’t really follow fashion trends. My style reflects my mood for the day. If I feel like dressing up, I tend to go more fashion; sometimes I just like to be laid back. At this point I’m still guilty of shopping in fast fashion and tend to shop at these brands because they are accessible and affordable. However, I try my best to use them for as long as possible or upcycle them. Whenever possible, I try to buy from locally-owned business or thrift stores. I also don’t really buy new outfits; I use what is given to me or buy the pieces my friends sell.
Nargis: It really depends on my mood. Some days I dress really girly and other days I dress like a rockstar. I don’t have any favourite labels. I usually get what I need and what attracts my attention depending on how much I want to spend. I love thrifting! I enjoy finding surprises while thrifting. It’s an economical and sustainable approach where fashion goods are recycled and resold for much cheaper. Plus, you get to save money too!
Noelle: Comfortable and basic—tiny tops and oversized bottoms with a lot of gold jewellery and beads. I like Uniqlo and ASOS.
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How do you stay physically and mentally healthy given the demands of modeling?
Diya: I learn to take breaks and take time to decompress. I realise now that it’s okay to say no to jobs if you are not ready for it. Juggling school and modelling has actually become a lot easier during the pandemic since classes are online. When I went in-person, I had to run from shoots to class which was really difficult, and I didn’t have any time to take off.
Nargis: I work out to stay physically and mentally healthy. I also share my concerns and talk about it with my loved ones. Overall, a good support system is very important, whether it is family or friends.
Noelle: Staying physically healthy is all about diet and eating what fuels your body best, like fruits, veggies, lean proteins and low sugar. That helps me stay mentally healthy as well. If I don’t eat well, my mind goes to a really dark place and I feel like I can’t function. I don’t exercise much these days because it bulks me up but I try to meet my friends and explore new places.
What inspires you? Do you have any role models?
Diya: To be able to inspire others. I generally look up to people who have strong work ethic, are humble and giving.
Nargis: My mother is my one and only role model. She is a single parent who raised me by herself since I was a teenager. It was not easy for her at all; she wanted a good life for me and she managed to make it happen. If not for my mother, I’d never be where I am at in life today.
Noelle: People who dare to be the better version of themselves. I mostly look up to the women in my family because they stay so strong no matter what situations present themselves. I also have some new role models, like Henry Rollins and Bo Burnam, who are crazy extraordinary individuals.
What are your career goals and aspirations?
Diya: I want to see how far I can take my modelling career. I’m still trying to explore my full potential and would like to stay in this industry for as long as possible. I wish to walk for Jacquemus and YSL sometime soon. I also hope I could be part of a big beauty or hair campaign.
Nargis: One thing’s for sure, I want to continue modelling for as long as I can. I want to keep paving the way for girls like me. My ultimate career goal is to be a owner of multiple businesses. Right now, I hope have a successful jewellery business—sitting at my workbench making jewellery is my ultimate happy place. I would also like to get my Gemological Institute Of America (GIA) qualification. I had the opportunity to learn from a master jeweller for a year and a half while I was overseas, but had to put it on hold as I was not able to keep up with it—I was constant travelling. Next for me in my private life? Well, my boyfriend proposed to me (oops, the cat is out of the bag) and it looks like a wedding is on the cards!
Noelle: To keep modelling, keep drawing, and hopefully one day inspire people. Besides modelling, I would love to be an artist; create illustrations and draw comics—I hope to do graffiti as well! I like working on surreal art, things that look like they’re from another dimension. I also like to do art or comics that make people uncomfortable or make people laugh.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.