59-Year-Old Ethel Fong Proves Why She Is One Of Singapore’s OG Supermodels

by jeffrey yan  /   April 18, 2022

She opens up about her highs and lows, her rejections and reinventions, and her thoughts on ageing gracefully and fighting fiercely.

Thirty-three years after she hung up her modelling boots, Ethel Fong is back in front of the lens—working it as though no time has passed at all. As she nails shot after shot, outfit after outfit—be it power suits and Le Smoking tuxes, or cropped, jewelled jackets and sequinned hot pants—the 59-year-old proves why she is one of Singapore’s OG supermodels; one who broke through barriers geographical and racial to grace countless magazine covers both here and abroad, walk the runways of the world’s fashion capitals, and even land a global Armani campaign. What one doesn’t expect is that supermodels get stage fright too. “I must admit, I was nervous [doing this shoot] because times have changed,” she reveals. “You don’t want to look like a has-been, or like you’re out of touch. What if people go, ‘Hey, it’s the 21st century—why is she posing like it’s the 1980s?’”

Ethel Fong
Blazer, matching trousers; choker, all by Alexander McQueen (Photo: Wee Khim)

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But then again, what people say has never been a deterrent for Fong. Her path to the top of the modelling industry was paved with rejections and put-downs. “I’m not what you would call a classic beauty; you know, the kind with the small face and the small lips. I have strong features—my big lips, my cheekbones, my jawline; I guess they are, in some way, quite imposing,” she says. “When I went for castings with magazines, they called me weird-looking, unattractive, ugly.” A lesser model might have given up, but not Fong. “In the beginning, I didn’t know how to use makeup to enhance my features,” she shares. “Then I started playing [around with it]. I looked at those Japanese beauty brands where the look is all about a lot of makeup, very angular faces, no smiling. I told myself that the industry can’t just be about one look, so I learned to reinvent myself. I don’t have a beautiful smile, so I won’t smile; if something isn’t great, don’t use it—use something else. So I guess I kind of created that look—thick lips, unsmiling, with an attitude—that later became something like a trademark.”

Ethel Fong
Blazer, by CELINE HOMME. Sunglasses, by Emporio Armani. (Photo: Wee Khim)

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Even after she made it onto the international stage, it wasn’t always smooth-sailing. This was the ’80s, when diversity wasn’t very high on the priority list of most designers. “In Europe, you don’t encounter it as much, but in the US, I’d just fall into the category of ‘the Asian’ and in every show, there can only be one Asian model, never two,” she says. “That was my big frustration. Whether I’m Asian or white or Black, I’m just as good. Why do I have to be categorised? Why are we allowed only one slot? It felt good if you were chosen, but on the flip side, there’s huge pressure—you have to make sure you remain on top.”

Ethel Fong
Jacket; bangles; stockings; slingbacks, all by Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello. Shorts, by Chanel. (Photo: Wee Khim)

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Fong was nothing if not driven. “I guess I wanted to prove all those people wrong,” she says. “The more people rejected me, the more I wanted to succeed. I was so young; only 16 then. I don’t know where that resilience or fighting spirit came from, but I’m glad I had it. I feel that sometimes, people fall too easily into victim mode. If somebody doesn’t want you for a job, or says something bad about you, you can’t just turn into a victim and stay in that mode. Looking back right now, I’m proud that I didn’t allow that to happen—I didn’t allow myself to be rejected.”

Ethel Fong
Jacket; matching skirt; briefs; belt; socks, all by Miu Miu. Heeled sandals, by CELINE (Photo: Wee Khim)

That she certainly didn’t. Fong climbed all the way to the highest echelon of the industry. At the top of her game and a full decade after she started, she stepped away from it all. She got married (“My husband saw my Armani campaign, tore out the picture, and said, ‘I’m going to marry this girl.’ We met six months later,” she shares) and raised two children, now 31 and 28. She committed herself to philanthropy, working through the Deltec Initiatives Foundation by Bahamas-based private bank Deltec Bank & Trust, where her husband is chairman. Her next chapter? Welcoming the big six-zero. “I’d like to grow old gracefully,” she says. “Before this, I never exercised; I didn’t have a beauty routine. But I know I’ve reached the stage where I need to start doing something. I’ve picked up yoga and tennis.” She is also putting her brain to work. Her rationale: “I think it’s important to keep your mind active, to feed that intellectual part.” Her big project at the moment is the construction of her house in the Bahamas. “The name of the house is Chapter,” she shares, “because life is a book of many chapters and this is the start of another one. I spent the last 30 years raising kids, so now it’s time to turn the page.”

Ethel Fong
Blazer; matching trousers; top, all by CELINE HOMME. (Photo: Wee Khim)

The massive undertaking of conceptualising and creating the house taught Fong a lesson she found extremely important. “[Everything is] about perspective,” she says. “We use that word so often, sometimes very lightly, but I realise it actually means so much. Because perspective can be so different: One person sees something one way, you see it another way—who is right and who is wrong? In the past, being right was so important to me. Now, I try to understand people’s perspectives and I’ve learned that it’s not always that important to be right.” The idea of learning is something that has always excited Fong (her charity work mostly revolves around education and children’s welfare). “I never want to stop learning. I’m glad that I’ve always kept an open mind. I’ve been given a lot of opportunities in my life and I took them, and I grew as a person. Even now, at 59, I don’t feel like I know it all; I think I still have a lot to learn. Even coming onto this set and meeting the younger people on the team, there are things to learn,” she admits. With all she has seen and done and been—and with new chapters forthcoming in her story—Ethel Fong also has a few things to teach us.

Photographed by Wee Khim
Styled by Jeffrey Yan
Makeup: Clarence Lee
Hair: Colin Yeo
Photographer’s assistant: Alwin Oh
Stylist’s assistant: Brandon Chia