With a regal air, Vietnamese-American supermodel Navia, who once graced the pages of the famed Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, brightens up the black-sand beaches of Bali in this exclusive shoot.
Photographs: Mitchell Nguyen McCormack and Eric Silverberg
Styling and interview: Peter Zewet
For those who followed the fashion industry in the 1990s, the name Navia Nguyen will be quite familiar.
The beautiful American girl of Vietnamese descent was part of the elite group of supermodels who ruled the fashion world at the time. Navia worked in the modeling business when the standard of beauty was based mostly on Caucasian features, but Navia carved a niche for herself in the industry by being the first Asian model to appear in the Pirelli calendar.
That was 1996. Then she made the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue in 1997 and was selected by People magazine as one of the “50 Most Beautiful People” in the world.
“When I started modeling 25 years ago, there were not a lot of Asian models in the international scene. To be hailed as the first Asian supermodel, sounds really good on paper, but it’s a strange place to be when the whole industry’s ideal of beauty is blonde and blue eyes,” Navia recalls.
“Growing up, I never thought of myself as beautiful. In my mind, beautiful is not ‘Asian,’ because that’s what I saw. I went into the industry at very young age, and being an Asian model was a very different experience then, so yeah, there were a lot of insecurities,” she remembers, while adding that she thought there was a big distinction based on skin color. But, she says, “I’m not complaining because that has changed a lot.”
A fateful photo in NYC
Not only did she have to deal with general stereotypes in the business, she also had to convince her parents about having a career in fashion. “My parents didn’t understand what I was doing. They simply couldn’t understand. I couldn’t believe it. It was like a strange, strange thing.” Navia explains. “I never wanted to be a model. I was walking down the street one day [while living in New York] when someone asked to take my picture. Then, I ended up on the cover of a magazine.”
And how did she end up in New York for that fateful picture on the street? “I was born on an island off the coast of Vietnam and moved to New York when I was four. It was at the end of the Vietnam War and my parents went to America as immigrants. They worked really hard and my father was very successful, but he taught us to work,” Navia continues.
As a model, Navia has worked with numerous renowned fashion houses, which include Chanel, Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs, John Galliano, Fendi, Christian Dior, GAP and Tommy Hilfiger.
“It is a privilege,” states Navia, “there’s no time when it is appropriate for an attractive girl to complain that she has the opportunity to model and live all over the world. I shuttled between New York and Paris for a really long time, I lived in Italy, I traveled all over the world, I speak several languages and I have had a great life.”
However, that life did not come without some struggles. “There are things that come up … that you have to deal with. You learn from them,” she reminisces. “But it is like everything else; a girl who works in a rice paddy has problems too. But she doesn’t get to wear Manolo Blahnik shoes and party at the Palais in Paris. I’ve been very lucky!”
At the age of 26, Navia began to get into acting and modeling less. “I was doing an acting course on Shakespeare, and was offered a part in a movie called The Quiet American with Michael Caine and Brendan Fraser, directed by Philip Noyce, which was shot in Vietnam. I had a small part in the film and I ended up working in the production as Philip’s assistant. When I first auditioned for the role, I was told that I couldn’t be given the leading part since there was nothing ‘Asian’ about me. I had never lived in an Asian country and I grew up on hip-hop in New York City!” laughs Navia who later ended up living in Vietnam for a year, learning to speak the language and getting in touch with her roots.
“When I went back to New York, I was going to start modeling again, but then I got another movie role—Hitch with Will Smith and Eva Mendes. I did that and then I did Memoirs of a Geisha and a couple cameos on TV shows, such as Sex and the City. When I returned to America, I was 30. And having started making movies, I didn’t really want to go back to modeling. I started working on the production of films, I got married to an Englishman, then I worked on my first film as a producer, Powder Blue with Jessica Biel and Ray Liotta, and then I got pregnant,” she says.
Her new life as a mom changed her outlook on some things. “When I got pregnant with my daughter, I didn’t want to live ‘the lifestyle’ with her. I wanted to take time for her. So I came to Indonesia when she was two and half months old, and I got into the spa business.”
Having been based in Bali for three years now, Navia oversees the operations at Amo spa. “I love Bali … it has a very beautiful energy, a special energy. And I think the Balinese are very relaxed. It’s a really a nice place to raise a child. I like how pretty all the ceremonies are and the Balinese believe that everything has to be done in a beautiful way on the outside and the inside, so that’s a really nice thing that I want my daughter to grow up with,” she says with a contented smile.
When it comes to men, Navia confesses that she thinks “integrity is sexy in a man. That and chest hair. My favorite word is ‘manimal’—half-man, half animal. These days, with more stylish fashion and grooming products, there are a lot more boys. I’m not interested in boys and it’s not about age; you don’t need to be older to be a man. You either are a man or you are not!”
Born in 1971, Navia has always been content and comfortable with herself. “I’ve never lied about my age. I would rather someone say, ‘wow, you are 39, but you look younger’ than the other way around,” she laughs heartily, and when told she does look so much younger than her age, she says, “I think it’s the genes more than anything, and honestly, I think it’s because I’m just really happy. I’m a happy person and that’s makes a big difference.”
To see the full feature with more full-size images, click here for the DA MAN October/November 2010 back issue.