Liu Wen is a woman of many firsts. She’s the first East Asian model to work for Victoria’s Secret, first Chinese woman to grace American Vogue’s cover, and first Asian to ever make Forbes’ list of highest-paid supermodels.
While Liu success can be attributed to the fashion industry’s growing focus on Chinese consumers, she also works insanely hard for it.
The model, now based between New York and Beijing, told Business Insider how she did it. Scroll on to learn more.
Meet Liu Wen: The first East Asian model to walk the Victoria’s Secret runway, first Chinese model to grace American Vogue’s cover, and first Asian model to ever make Forbes’ annual list of highest-paid models.
She was born in Yongzhou, a city in southern China. At 5-foot-10, she towered over her classmates while growing up. “I developed a habit of bending down when speaking to others, as if my back was permanently hunched,” she said in 2014.
She never planned on being a model — her first foray into the industry was when she won a modelling contest in 2008, aged around 17, to win a new computer. “I didn’t have a clear goal [at the time] — I just wanted something that would allow me to travel around the world,” she told Business Insider.
Her parents also encouraged her to join. “They thought it would help my confidence (and posture!),” she told BI.
Her friends were “all surprised” when she won the modelling competition, she said. She wrote in 2014: “People in my hometown seldom called me piao liang [beautiful], because my smaller eyes were a far cry from the wide irises of the most beloved television actresses.”
She moved to Beijing to pursue a modelling career shortly after. That same year, she was scouted for her first international fashion show — for Burberry at Milan Fashion Week in 2008. “I didn’t understand anything because I couldn’t understand English,” she told CNN. “I just listened to the music and followed my feelings.” Watch her in the video below.
A year later, she became the first Asian model to ever grace the Victoria’s Secret runway, where she walked alongside Miranda Kerr, Heidi Klum, and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley.
At the company’s show in Shanghai last November, she was one of seven Chinese Victoria’s Secret models walking the runway. Here she is with three of them.
In 2017, she became the first Chinese model to grace the cover of American Vogue — alongside other models including Kendall Jenner, Gigi Hadid, and Ashley Graham.
The first Chinese model to grace a Vogue cover, however, was Fei Fei Sun, who appeared on Vogue Italia in January 2013.
In January 2013, Fei Fei Sun became the first Asian model ever on the cover of Vogue Italia magazine. pic.twitter.com/FR2ETBx1PP
— MichiganFashionHouse (@MI_FASHIONHOUSE) June 12, 2016
Liu was named one of Forbes’ highest-paid models of the year in 2013, when she earned $US4.3 million (£2.75 million at the time). She is the first Asian model to appear on this list.
Liu has stayed on the annual list ever since. She was the eighth highest-paid model in the world last year, when she earned $US6.5 million (£4.7 million) — $US500,000 (£360,000) more than Bella Hadid.
Liu’s popularity came as more Western fashion brands hope to gain a footing in China. She told BI: “My success owes a lot to how the entire world has become a lot ‘smaller’ in recent years, which has allowed for more people around the globe to appreciate not only my look, but also my culture.”
As an international model, Liu’s travels have taken her around the world, from Cannes to New York to Milan.
Some of her assignments have also taken her back to China, like this Chanel campaign in Chengdu.
She’s become such a seasoned traveller that she came up with a hashtag playing on her name, Wen, to showcase her photos taken from planes — #WenInFlight. Here’s one of them.
“Most of the time, I am on a flight because of a job somewhere,” Liu told BI. “Only when the work is finished can I spend a little time to explore the local area.” She added that she only started taking personal trips in between assignments last year.
Another one of her hashtags, #WenIEat, showcases photos of her meals.
Liu has friends in high places, like fellow models Lily Aldridge, Karlie Kloss, and Kendall Jenner…
… Tennis star Roger Federer …
… and Wendi Deng Murdoch, the ex-wife of Rupert Murdoch. They even celebrated Chinese New Year together.
That post with Deng Murdoch angered some of her Chinese fans, though. In the original caption of the post, she wished her followers a “Happy Lunar New Year,” rather than “Chinese New Year” — a term used to include other Asian cultures that celebrate the festival, but is rarely used in China.