Wool jacket; wool pants; leather pumps; Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane. Lace bra (worn throughout), stylist's own
Wool jacket; wool pants; leather pumps; Saint Laurent by Hedi Slimane. Lace bra (worn throughout), stylist’s own

Ayu Gani is perched on a black leather chair like a bird of paradise in her roost. There’s an awkwardness to her that draws you in for a second look: Gani’s almond-shaped, bright eyes dart about the room inquisitively. Her hair frames the angular sides of her face like jet-black curtains, while her slender limbs hang gawkily from her lithe frame.

Indonesia-born Gani is the newly crowned champion from the third installment of Asia’s Next Top Model. The Asian offshoot of Tyra Bank’s wildly successful model search programme has previously launched the modelling careers of Thailand’s Jessica Amornkuldilok and Malaysia’s Sheena Liam. Gani is the latest inductee to the franchise’s Hall of Fame, walking away with a coveted title that a million girls can only aspire to.

As part of her winning loot, Gani is gathered with the Harper’s BAZAAR team for a cover shoot. We’re still weeks away before the airing of the series’ finale which explains why the photo shoot with Gani is shrouded in secrecy. Like the rest of the contestants on the show, the 24-year-old’s bound by strict contractual terms to keep the result secret until then. Coming from such a monumental win, surely she’s bursting from trying to keep it all in?

“It hasn’t sunk in yet,” Gani trills in a melodious Indonesian lilt. “I still can’t believe I won.” But today, Gani breaks her silence about her rise to prominence and how, despite the setbacks she’s encountered, she believes in paying it forward with kindness.

Silk blouse; wool skirt, Chloe
Silk blouse; wool skirt, Chloe

What was your childhood like?

I was bullied in junior high school; everyone mocked me and called me a cockroach. Whenever I walked down the hallways of my school, my school mates would cover their noses and say, “Cockroach is passing by!” I had no friends, so that was really hard. I became quiet and I kept telling myself that whatever others say wasn’t true. Despite all that happened, I think I was happy. I’d never have imagined that I’d be a model. I still feel awkward now, even though things changed when I went to college and university. I made a lot of friends and they supported me. It’s weird sometimes; I don’t know how to react when people compliment me.

What do you have to say to those bullies now?

I’ll tell them never to bully someone else again. I don’t want revenge. I [just] want them to know that nothing in life is certain, so don’t judge and underestimate people. You never know what’s going to happen.

When did you feel embraced for who you are?

It happened when I went to a performing arts school in America. America’s really different from Asia. I lived in a small city in Ohio. There weren’t a lot of Asians, and the people on campus went: “Oh my God, you’re so pretty!” And since it was an art school, diversity was celebrated. Everyone wore really weird stuff. That’s how my interest in fashion started.

Is that what led to your interest in modelling?

Flipping the magazines made me wish that I could be in one. When I went back to Indonesia, my mother urged me to sign up for a modelling competition. The first one I went for was organised by a famous Indonesian magazine. I didn’t win in the end, but I made it to the top 20 and that opened a lot of doors for me. My mother supported me a lot. She was also the one who encouraged me to join Asia’s Next Top Model. Her ultimatum to me was: “If you don’t do it, then you’re not my daughter.”

How much on TV is the real you?

I think only half of what was shown represents the real me. The show made me out to be some cocky and overconfident girl. It’s not like that. There were times when I cried and told the judges that I don’t look pretty while everyone else is. So far, what I’ve seen is a lot of hate on the show, such as this contestant hating that contestant. Well, there are 14 girls in the house. There’s bound to be some drama, though it’s usually because of a small misunderstanding. We actually get along well with each other. We cook, eat, joke and laugh together.

Grab a copy of the July issue to see the exclusive full interview!