BALI BELLE. 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
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.