Lauren Tsai’s manager and the rest of the crew were eating lunch in the studio when I got on set to meet her for the first time. On the other hand, Tsai was left alone in the changing room. No need to tell me the unwritten rule; the crew’s glance at the closed door was all I needed to know — Tsai was not to be bothered.
On the other hand, Tsai emerged from the dressing room just five minutes after my arrival for a restroom break. She seems a lot younger in person than she does in the photos she’s been seen in. Unlike the “model” Tsai, who emanates calm beauty and moves with deliberate ease, the “actual” Tsai is uncomfortable, bashful, and eager to impress as a 19-year-old. As we shook hands, her hair was slicked back in a ponytail, and she was everything from the aloof “It” girl we’d seen on social media.
Massachusetts-born Tsai received her first taste of modeling in elementary school when her older sister was signed by IMG, and she went to New York with her to watch her sister’s audition. This prompted her to pursue modeling, but it wasn’t until years later, when she went on a six-week exchange to Hiroshima, Japan, as a teenager, that she followed it.
After discovering Japanese fashion magazines, “many of my friends said, ‘You should try modeling here in Japan!’ so I applied to an agency online,” she remembers openly. After taking a few “embarrassing” and “very horrible fuzzy images” with the Photo Booth application on her laptop, she received a call from a Tokyo modeling agency. So she decided to travel to Japan the following summer to work as a model.
Tsai argues that Japan is a better market for her to operate in because she’s not 5’10” (179 cm) and “not like a really chopsticks-looking person” like the standard in New York or Europe.
“It seemed that a model in Japan was more of a personality while I was reading the Japanese mags. For example, they would discuss their weekend plans or their favorite fashions. It struck me as odd that so many people knew one other’s identities because, in the United States, no one but Victoria’s Secret models is well-known.”
Tsai had little trouble being signed as a model in Japan, but finding work proved to be more difficult. While there is a large market in Japan for white models, “I was the only half Asian girl in my circle of models,” she explains. The customers that came into my agency were seeking white models. Thus, it was difficult for me to get work.” The most common complaints from clients were that she was “too Asian” or “too short.” After that, it stayed like that for two years.
To put it simply, Tsai had grown tired of modeling by the time she entered her final year of high school. She had always desired to be an artist from a young age in her mind. It wasn’t until she graduated from high school that she genuinely wanted to go to art school. It wasn’t until then that she realized how much she missed it.
She claims that it took her less than a month to put together her complete portfolio. “I figured there was no way I was going to get into an art school because I knew everyone else had been working on their portfolios since sophomore year.” Even though she was hesitant, she was accepted to numerous art schools.
A new realization dawned on her: “I just don’t feel like going to college right now.” “As a result, I decided to take a year off from school. For now, I’m going to take a year off and do what I want before returning to college.
Tsai chose to cash in all her chips and move to Tokyo to pursue a career as a full-time model during her gap year. It was on Facebook that she saw an audition form for a new reality TV series that was searching for “happy, easy-going, talented and unmarried individuals, ranging between the ages of 18 and 30,” she adds. “Well, I’m a one-person household. That is why I applied.”
It was “the scariest thing ever” for her to go through with the first round of auditions, despite the audition form not revealing anything at all about the show’s plot. Asked to tell them about myself, I found myself in a large white room with only one chair.
In the end, the project was “Terrace House: Aloha State,” the second season of Netflix’s cooperation with the Japanese “Terrace House” franchise, which was set in Hawaii. Three young men and three young ladies live together in a lovely mansion, similar to “Big Brother” in the UK. However, each contact is entirely unplanned. The audience is a fly on the wall, watching as the six roommates build connections and alliances naturally while they go about their everyday lives and jobs.
In Tsai’s opinion, being on a reality TV program is “the exact opposite of the thing that someone like me would do. Due to the insane and dramatic nature of American reality television, plus the fact that I’m not like that. Then I remembered that it was my gap year, and I was looking for a crazy adventure. What I’m really planning to do is go on a reality program.”
For a self-described introvert, this is exceptionally outlandish. According to her, the most challenging part was to not overthink the reactions of everyone around her and to simply be herself. To land commercial or high-fashion modeling gigs, models must strive to embody several different personas at once. On the other hand, reality television necessitates your presence simply because you are who you are. As a model, you’re more likely to be criticized for your looks, but you’re being blamed for who you are as a person on reality television. “Oh, they thought I was too ugly.””
First-time viewers might recognize Tsai, but Tsai’s first encounter with the home was incredibly upsetting. As she describes it, “the way the program works, you don’t know if you’re going to be the first one there, or the last one,” she adds. ‘Oh my God, I am the first one in the door,’ I thought when I came in.” ‘What should I do?’ Many photographers were around, so I attempted to maintain a relaxed demeanor. “It’s really embarrassing!”
“Isolated,” “nervous,” and “standoffish” are just some of the words viewers have used to characterize her appearance on the show. It also made her famous among other introverts, as Tsai discovered. Her lack of a conventional reality star demeanor, she believes, is why people could identify with her and relate to her. “The internet is full of worried individuals. That includes me,” she says.
Tsai’s appearance on the show was a good thing for her. As soon as she stepped out of the home, modeling assignments that had previously eluded her began to stream in. On top of that, she’s been in ads for Dolce & Gabbana, Uniqlo and Adidas and is the face of an exciting new multi-brand concept in Singapore called Lumine. Tsai is also known for her work with Nylon and her appearance in a video on Hypebae.com.
In response to question about whether she had ever thought her multi-cultural heritage impacted her profession, Tsai became quite solemn. “Growing up in Massachusetts, I felt like I couldn’t establish my identity for such a long time,” she adds. “I have an Asian appearance, and I was the Chinese child with my sister while we were growing up. My parents and the society I grew up in made it such that I never felt the need to hide my ethnicity. Thus, I never felt the need to be self-conscious about my heritage. As a result of the diverse population of Hawaii, I quickly felt at ease. While working in Japan, I’ve never wanted to feel like my ethnicity was a factor, but I also don’t want to deny who I am.”
In my life, I’ve had moments where I’ve felt like an outsider or pondered who I am. I remind myself that it’s alright that I’m neither Chinese-Chinese nor white-white; you don’t have to be either.
“You can be who you are.”