“My mom is South Korean and my dad is British, but I was born and raised in Hong Kong. Growing up I was into dance, and when I was 13 years old, my dance teacher suggested I try out modeling. I booked my first job three days later. I had no idea what I was doing—I just sat in front of the camera, and I felt like it was everyone else’s job to make it look good. It was also weird because up until that point I was considered overweight—when I was 13 I nearly halved my weight, and I did it by not eating. I didn’t know any better, and then the modeling started. All of a sudden I was on billboards everywhere and the boys who were bullying me started asking me out. You could say I figured out how superficial people are at a very young age. I finished school at 17, and then I took on modeling contracts all over the world. Eventually I signed with an agency in London, and then I stayed to do my education. I got a degree in finance and a master’s degree in financial law. After that, I retired from modeling and got a job as a commodities trader, and then I did derivatives consultancy. At that point I was like, ‘Well, this kind of sucks,’ so I moved back to Hong Kong. I picked up modeling again and shortly afterwards I moved to New York. The first job I booked was the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, which is kind of insane.
By the time I was 27 I had a complete breakdown. I had been living with eating disorders, insecurity, and anxiety for so long that I didn’t realize how sick I was. My breaking point was when I was asked to go on a liquids-only diet for 10 days so I could shrink down—unfortunately that’s normal in our industry, and I’d done that many times before. This time, for some reason, I was an emotional wreck. I decided I needed some time off. I went to Thailand for a 10-day vacation and ended up moving into a Thai fight camp for nine months. In the beginning it was a physical thing—it’s the best workout I’ve ever done. And then I became obsessed with the technique, and I started training every day, twice a day. I gave up all my material possessions. I forgot about this apartment, I forgot about, you know, needing the newest Gucci bag—I forgot about all of it. Leaving Thailand was terrifying, especially because I had this whole new body. But I was so comfortable with myself, it was weird—I just went forth with confidence. I came back to the industry with the intention of changing it. I feel like it’s my responsibility. If people don’t listen, at least I gave it my all.
When I got back Sports Illustrated called again, and they were so supportive. They made me feel that what was most important was the woman that I am, and not what I looked like. Not many people get to really be themselves and be in the public like that. There are still two different industries—Plus is a whole separate industry. I’m bang in the middle [right now]—I’m like a size 8 or 10, so I get told all the time, ‘You need to either gain or lose weight.’ Why? Exactly. This is my whole point. No one’s ‘too’ anything. Diversity doesn’t just mean having five size 0 girls and then one size 14 girl on the cover of a magazine—that’s not diversity.
HEALTH AND FITNESS
In terms of taking care of myself, I only recently started taking supplements because of fighting. You push yourself to physical extremes, so you need a little help. I take a multivitamin and I take probiotics because I need help with my digestive system after years of eating disorders. And I take kelp, which has iodine. Asians—Japanese people in particular—consume a lot of iodine, and they have the highest life expectancy in the world. It comes from seaweed. There are amazing health benefits and studies—my brother is such a dork and he always sends me papers to read. I still fight as much as I can—whether it’s 30 minutes or 3 hours, it’s my happy place. I love Church Street Boxing on Park Place—it’s this old-school gym with pictures of fighters all over. It has a Rocky vibe. All the trainers are these old dudes who have trained boxers for 50 years, but it’s so non-intimidating. That’s the other thing—I judge gyms off of the welcoming vibe. It’s a male-dominated sport—there’s so much testosterone, it’s very intimidating. Actually, I canceled my first boxing appointment because of that. I was like, ‘Come on, get it together.’
I’m obsessed with sheet masks—it’s probably the Korean inside of me. I do them at least once a day, and I’ll do them anywhere and everywhere. I love the Dr. Jart ones with the big pills on them, which makes it feel like they’re medical and doing good things for you. [Laughs] It’s science! The frothy ones kind of scare me, I’m not going to lie. There’s this cool company called FaceTory and you can try different ones. You don’t have to buy a pack—they just send you an assortment, and you see which ones you like. Outside of masks, I keep it very simple. I don’t wash my face—I don’t need it. I wipe with wipes that have oil in them—the blue Neutrogena ones are my go-to—and I’ll tone with an alcohol-free toner. Any one, I’m not really picky, a Neutrogena one does the trick. And then I moisturize, and that’s it. I am really obsessed with Weleda Skin Food. It’s cheap—you can use it for anything. One tube lasts an insane amount of time. Even under your makeup it gives you that glow. That is the only cream I use on my face. Before I discovered Skin Food, when I needed intense moisture I would throw on Vaseline or Aquaphor. I think it’s because I’m used to Asian humidity. People say New York’s humid, but for me this is dry. When you’re used to 98% humidity, there’s a constant dew on your face. Maybe that’s why I’m also obsessed with face mists—I mist all the time, whenever I can, on planes, everywhere, like 15 times a day. I try all different kinds. I love the Caudalie Beauty Elixir because it also has this minty thing so it kind of wakes you up. I just ordered a new one that I’m waiting to try from Herbivore—it's coconut water and rose. I’m really into coconut—it’s so good for everything! Swirl it around your mouth it and cleans your teeth, put it in your hair... it also works as an after-sun. It’s not for everyone—it depends on your skin type.
Now I’m really tan, but I can also be really, really white. It’s written into modeling contracts [in Asia] that your skin tone can’t change. Every vacation that I took, my agents would be calling me saying, ‘Stay out of the sun!’ And I love being tanned. A girlfriend of mine booked a shoot for a whitening cream and they said she was too dark for the shoot. So, the night before, they covered her entire body in whitening sheet masks. It’s a real class thing out there—tan people are poor, pale people are rich. I think the younger generation is changing a little bit, but still, it’s really ingrained. Now I wear SPF, but I’m really bad with it. Always on my face—I do 30 or above. On my body, I’m like, eh—I use like SPF 4, which is basically nothing. I like being tan—it makes me feel like I don’t need to wear makeup.
I always change my makeup—I think it’s from doing photoshoots all the time. You’re constantly exposed to new products, so then you’re like, ‘Ooh, I should get this.’ Also my makeup changes depending on my confidence levels. Some days I will wear no makeup, just a moisturizer, some highlight, lip gloss, and call it a day. Other days I want to get more dolled up, and I’ll do the whole thing with foundation and concealer. It depends. There’s a Laura Mercier concealer duo, and the reason I love it is because you can take a yellow base and a pink base and mix them together—I use SC5. My foundation is always changing. I select it based on how well the color matches, I don’t care so much about the brand. At the moment I’m using a Givenchy one in Elegant Ginger. I use a mattifying powder from Nars—Translucent Crystal Light Reflecting Setting Powder—and it has this ever-so-slight pearly shine. I carry that with me everywhere with a brush, and I won’t even look [when I apply it]. Something I’m really obsessed with is the Fenty Highlighter—it’s called Hu$tla Baby. I put that on all the time. I love highlighter—I prefer cream ones, but the Fenty one is so fine that it doesn’t feel like a powder. I also love a good contour. There’s this Kevyn Aucoin stick that you pump, and it’s so convenient for traveling. You don’t need a brush, you’re not going to mess up your fingers or whatever. Another thing I have is this blush from Nudestix. On one side there’s a little brush, on the other side it’s a stick creamy blush thing. I use it for my lips, cheeks, and eyes. I’m also obsessed with Shade and Illuminate from Tom Ford—who isn’t? It’s expensive, but worth it.
I wear mascara, but not a lot, and I don’t curl my lashes. Right now I use Tracy Murphy Lash Star because I love the two sides. There’s a small brush for the lower lashes and then a larger curved brush for the top lashes—she really kind of nailed the science on that. Chanel makes this lash primer, and it is a game changer. You apply the primer first, and then you put on the mascara, and it makes the biggest difference in the world. It almost looks like false eyelashes. When it comes to lipsticks, I love the nude ones. Bobbi Brown kills it—there are so many nudes to play with and their creamy sticks are so creamy. Right now I’m wearing the Fenty gloss. How the hell do you only make one color and it looks good on everybody? The tiny glitter in it makes such a difference. My day-to-day eyeshadow is just a nude. Again, Bobbi Brown has really awesome nude shades. I like the one called the Nude on Nude eye palette—they’re subtle colors. I just do one shade all over. I don’t really do anything to my eyebrows—I get strays, and I just pluck those, and I have like a $4 or $5 eyebrow gel from the drugstore. Even if I don’t fill them in at all, I will gel them.
My hair is naturally curly—I’ve spent my whole life straightening it to look more “Asian” for shoots. You could also say my hair doesn’t make sense—the under bit is fro-like, the top bit is almost straight, and the middle bit is curly. I’ve only just started to wear my hair in its natural state. There’s this new brand called Monat that I just tried and it’s amazing. The shampoo makes you feel so clean. The conditioner is great, too, and a dime-size goes a long way. They’ve also got a split end recovery serum. I use the Oribe Texturizing Spray in the black bottle—it smells unbelievable, and you just want to spray it in your hair every day.
I don’t wear fragrance daily. When I’m seeing someone special, or if it’s a date night or something like that, I definitely will. There’s the Chanel in the black bottle, Noir, that I wear, and then Coco Mademoiselle in the daytime. I just smelled a Tom Ford men’s fragrance that was so sexy and unbelievable that I would wear that. It’s a black bottle, and it just smelled like sex.”
—as told to ITG
Mia Kang photographed by Tom Newton in New York on July 16, 2018.